Sunday, August 3, 2014
For the last week, my life has been steeped in old photographs, Italian food and the rituals of death. My father’s health had been on the decline for nearly a decade. We always joked that he seemed to have 9 lives, as modern medicine would continually prop him up, seemingly against all odds. But, on July 23rd, he closed his eyes for the last time. We are so grateful that it was a peaceful passing. During that day, my mom and dad where up in the country where we have a country house. Upstate for New Yorkers usually means anything north of the Bronx, but our country house is really upstate – the Catskills: rural, quiet, green. My mother and father went to an art show of my sister’s, went out to lunch, had ice cream. Back at the house, they entertained the neighbors around 7:30pm. Around 8, my father got up to go to the bathroom. When he didn’t return, my mother got up and went looking for him. She found him in a comfortable chair, looking like he was sleeping. When he wouldn’t rouse, deep in her heart of hearts, my mother knew he was gone. She called the EMT neighbor back to the house, she called 911, but she knew he was already gone.
He really did just look like he was sleeping. My mom thinks that he just sat down for the last time and his heart stopped. I believe it. My Dad was so strong-willed that, I think, he powered through his last day even though he was having trouble breathing. He felt comfortable and safe with only my mom there. I know that if any of his kids (or forget his grandkids) were there, he would have put up a fight, such was his love and dedication to us. But, it was his time and he was ready. So, with just my mom, he went peacefully, without fear or a struggle. He simply sat down and ended his day for the last time. At his wake, I kept telling people that he got his money’s worth out of Wednesday.
My Dad was a character— an old, Italian man who was born in the house that he lived in all his life. His family settled a small corner of Rye, NY, as immigrant laborers in the early 1900s. I grew up knowing the stories of my grandmother’s tomato gardens, and how they used to make tomato paste by drying tomato halves in the sun on a piece of plywood. My father would come along as a kid and run his finger through the sun-dried paste. Whenever my Dad would tell me that story, he would lift his finger up and I could tell that he could almost taste the fresh tomatoes on his tongue.
My Dad was a musician. His brother, Sonny, played the accordion and his mother would sing old, Italian songs when they had backyard barbecues for the whole neighborhood. My father learned to play the bass when he was around 14 so that he could go out with his brother on gigs to the Rye country clubs and make extra money. He loved the bass his whole life and played in a performance 2 weeks before he died.
My Dad was an amazing father. I was his favorite of the 4 siblings. But, the funny thing is, we each were his favorite— my brother because he is the firstborn and his namesake; my sister, LuAnn, because she is creative and sensitive, always trying to get out from her older sister’s shadow (that’s me, of course); my youngest sister, Laura, had to do double duty to compete with me for the coveted position of “My Father’s Favorite.” She trumped me when she moved 2 houses down and gave him 4 beautiful grandsons. Each pregnancy kept my father alive for 9 more months. He had the capacity to make us all feel special, as if we were the only one, as if we were the favorite (but really — I am!)
I know I am the favorite because when I was born, I weighed only 4 pounds 10 ounces. In those days, if you were under 5 and a half pounds, you needed to stay in an incubator. Thus, I was in the hospital for 2 weeks, behind the glass of the 1963 nursery. Like clockwork, my father came to visit me every day. And when I finally was allowed to leave, my father gave all the babies in the nursery with me a pair of knitted booties that his mother had made while I was there.
My father loved that I am a midwife, such an old-school profession that he could really relate to. He would always ask me how many births I had attended. I would try to keep track of the numbers so that I could answer him accurately. I can still hear his voice bragging to his friends (or anyone he would meet, for that matter) that I had been to over a 1000 births. I became the daughter from California who has been to 1000 births. At his wake, countless people, as they would make their way to me on the receiving line, would brighten with recognition when I would introduce myself as his eldest daughter. “Oh! You’re the one from California! You’re the midwife!”
My father’s wake (Monday the 28th) was attended by hundreds of neighbors, friends and musicians. It was a ritual that blanketed my loss in the richness of community, tradition and culture. I, having only attended one other open casket event when I was 11, was impressed with how everyone knew the drill. The community that my father created arrived in droves. The line wrapped around the funeral home and out the door for hours. Paying respects is a well-worn groove in the Italian pattern of life. People waited patiently to speak with my mother and each one of my siblings and myself. We laughed and told stories about my father; I introduced myself a million times. You see, my father was also a jokester. He always made people laugh and I heard this over and over again as his friends introduced themselves to me. My father had shtick — slapstick, embarrass-your-children shtick. Like his oversized, circus clown sunglasses or his sunglasses that had just one lens — that was for days that were partly sunny. Over and over again. And people loved him for it. His children would just cringe. But on Monday, it was a way to remember him, to celebrate his life with laughter instead of tears. Even the Mayor of Rye (if you’ve never heard of Rye, think Pawnee) stood on line for an hour to pay his last respects. My father would have LOVED that!
The pomp and circumstance around his funeral included a Catholic mass, his 5 oldest grandchildren were his pall bearers (this included Tyler and Viola), a 9-motorcycle, police escort from the church to the cemetery, a local fire truck parked in front of the church while a kilted cop played the bag pipes, and a Navy color guard at the grave site. My father-in-law, Walter, says that all of this is highly unusual. Knowing my father, he would have loved it all. We loved it because it reminded us of him. Through it all, trays of meatballs and pasta would arrive at the door just when we were getting hungry.
Through this rich and powerful sorrow, I have mostly felt gratitude. Of course, I was shocked in the beginning, but as the story of his death developed into a story to share, it all made sense. My father and mother had a good day, all his children were “home,” even his credit cards were paid off. He had completed a wonderful life.
On the day that my father died, my mother and father saw more animals up in the country than they had seen in years. Two wild turkeys with 12 chicks wandered around the backyard, a deer with her twin fawns nursed about 20 yards off our back porch. While they were driving home, a black bear crossed the road.
I believe that these animals carried the spirits of my father’s ancestors on their backs. They appeared to him to comfort him, to let him know that the time was near, to be ready. I believe that, at the end of July 23rd, they returned to him in his eternal sleep and escorted him to a better place. A place where he inhabits his younger body. A place where he can visit his parents and siblings. If there is a heaven, my father is there, having a ball, telling everyone there how proud he is of me.
Gratitude for a life well lived, gratitude for a perfect ending. Gratitude for a community guiding us through this time, and for my father’s wisdom to show me how to build community for myself. But most of all, gratitude for the gift of knowing that I. Was. His. Favorite.