It’s taken me a few days to absorb this past weekend and I hope I won’t forget too much along the way. Go grab a cup of coffee and a snack and join me on a journey of hope, happiness and incomprehensible struggle.
It started Thursday, before I had even left, really. The day my husband was flying home from Miami, a young local woman of 23 passed away of cancer. We all knew it was coming but it hit like a bomb. Allison was too young, too involved and just too wonderful to have had this happen to her, yet it did. As my family tried to get more information about her passing, I was packing.
Then, while I slept that night, Japan would experience an earthquake of immense magnitude and that would be what I would listen to in my car on my journey to my first stop, Virginia. I took the least traveled route, 78 to 81 and met the bored sighs of truckers as they passed me continuously on a very lonely stream of roadway. I went from am station to am station to keep up with the news of Japan, our local flooding and a song here and there. I thought of my Aunt Pat, the middle child and older sister of my father. I saw a road sign that would be my mantra for this trip:
To tell you briefly about her, she was married to my favorite uncle while growing up in the world, Uncle Al. I think I liked him the most growing up because he had the greatest sense of humor I could imagine. It was because of him that I told my first really dirty joke, at the Thanksgiving table, with all the adults looking on. I was 12. He laughed hysterically. My mother probably slapped me and my Aunt Pat chuckled and said, “I bet I know where she gets that from.” She smoked something fierce and loved her children and family just as hard. Her wit almost outmatched uncle Al’s, which is why they were such a great team. She was born on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day and therefore named Patricia. Her children are my cousins and share both of their wit and snappy charm. Uncle Al died of brain cancer in 1998 and Aunt Pat was now dying of cancer of her own. I just had to see her. I lived too far away when I was growing up to see her often and knew it was time for a second chance to tell her I loved her.
I spent Friday night and most of Saturday visiting with her and I have the greatest memories. First, she was just really glad I came and even though she looked weak and different, she was still my saucy and awesome Aunt Pat.
I snuck her in sweet tea and trash magazines and she told me all about my father when he was young. I heard about how her and dad sat up giggling all night while their oldest sister, my Aunt Mary was very sick with Scarlet fever. She told me she could never remember why they were laughing, only that they would always team up and get into trouble. Mary was the old soul, the caregiver in the trio and Frankie (my dad) was the baby and now always teased them about their age. He did that this very day when he called and said, remember your birthday is coming up and you are still my older sister.
I learned I had a new cousin, 12 months old and that another cousin that is almost 7 years old is Autistic and gorgeous and looks like his grandpa, Al. Guess what his name is: Alan.
We laughed and cried and sometimes just sat there watching the television when an update came about Japan. I showed her my family and she boasted about two grandchildren “to be” that my cousin Mary Sina is adopting from Haiti.
In the end, I met that great young Alan and connected with his dad, my cousin Frank and his wife, Helen. I found out Frank went to law school where my son might go to med school. I also found out Frank lives about ten minutes from one of my nieces near Washington, D.C. I found out how much I had missed over the years and how great her laugh is. She is scared stiff about the next coming months and I am too. When I left, I did it quickly and kissed her and hugged her carefully.
I think I missed kissing Helen goodbye because I don’t think I could have stayed in her room a minute longer. I left and walked to my car with cousin Frank, who encouraged me to come back and call often.
The second part of my journey started with a five-hour jaunt back up the beltway to Philadelphia to see two more of my family, both suffering, both I’ve missed. This drive was so much harder than the first because I had a crushing knot in my stomach from missing Aunt Pat so dearly already and wanting desperately to turn back my car. I didn’t I drove and drove until 8:00 pm Saturday night.
My history here is easy. My dads home town and the place of my birth and the very best summer I have ever had, had been here. So much of my dads family still lives here and it is about two hours from my home in New York. Since moving to New York, we have seen them about every two years or so. I’ve come to an understanding that visiting just that much just really isn’t going to cut it to really be “family”. I don’t want to be distant family. I want to be a part of their family. They are Italian and I am jealous of the tremendous strength and closeness that they share with each other.
My Uncle Ed is married to my dads oldest sister, Mary. He received a liver transplant 17 years ago and has struggled with his health ever since. The past three years have really taken its toll on him and I knew it was time I visited him too. When I was growing up, he was larger than life. Tall, muscular and a quiet giant in the family. He adores his children, my cousins and multiply that by a hundred for his grandchildren is as close as I can get to how he feels about them.
Friday night I spent the time with my cousin Ed, jr. and his daughter, Denise. This was an especially nice treat because Denise is a super brain and probably the most tender person her age that I’ve met in recent years. I watched as she sat there with her grandfather going through her Nuclear Physics book (she is a Junior in college and going to be a Nuclear Engineer) and the two of them are engaged in conversation that only they are really privy too. Every once in a while, Ed would look up, smile at Aunt Mary and then go back to his “reading”. Their relationship was easy and special and it was sometimes as if it was just the two of them in the room. Ed, jr. and I talked about our families, college, our businesses and then even Nuclear power plants, when Denise would chirp in with a wealth of knowledge that made me just put my hand to my chin and close my mouth shut. I closed my eyes at about 11:30 pm that night and I was the first to go to bed. My aunt and uncle followed about an hour later. Those kids.
Sunday would bring a morning of something I will never forget. No cousins or family around, it was just the three of us with our coffee, tea and bagels and oatmeal. We talked about health issues for all of us. My issues, Marys’s and Ed’s. We talked about my cousins breast cancer, colitis and her daughters Alopecia. We had eye-opening conversations about medications, health insurance, unions who saved my uncles benefits and Denise’s braces on her legs when she was little. We did all of this as we listened to Frank Sinatra on a radio that still had an antenna that was sitting on the table in between all of us. It crackled, but the soft music was perfect and I was told it was what they listened to every Sunday morning while eating breakfast and preparing the weekly med trays. My eyebrow lifted as the plates were cleared and the bins of meds were layed out on this same small table.
I sat back, amazed at how they could talk and fill trays of six per day, seven days long. 42 boxes of pills to take each week. These were just Uncle Eds. Marys were next. As Uncle Ed chuckled with his screw driver and razor blade to cut some of his meds in half, I burst into laughter and told them that any minute this house would surely be raided. They most certainly had the most concentrated amount of medicine in a five block radius! We all got a good laugh and we all needed it very much.
My aunt told me that morning that if she didn’t have her faith, she would have nothing at all. We talked about my amazing cousin Gina and her family who were coming over for dinner later and out the door we went to see my Great Aunt Floss and Great Uncle Walt. Floss is in her late 80’s and struggling herself. She was my third visit in as many days and this was tougher than I would have ever thought.
Why? Well, let’s get this over with first…Ive called them Aunt Walt and Uncle Floss my whole life, still do…it actually felt strange writing it wrong in the last paragraph. I don’t really know why I do, but it rolls of my tongue easier. Maybe it was just easier as a child. I still address my Christmas cards that way too. When Floss was younger and so was my brother, he described her as having hair of brillo and her tongue can be the same, let me tell you. She isn’t afraid to tell you what she is thinking and you can see what she is thinking with her eyes. Uncle Walt was a big softie and the opposite of Floss. We saw him first at their house on Sunday afternoon. That same musty smell was there as I remembered from so many years ago and his smile was just as large as always.
He was physically half the size in stature but whole in heart and love. He was ecstatic to see me, showed off his “clan” and when his son came to visit they told me the story of “Natalie” his newest great granddaughter. Without boring you to tears, I will simply say that she was adopted. Since you don’t know the day you are getting your child, it can come as a surprise. So my second cousin received his new baby and came to my cousin Joe’s house (Joe is a 30 year police officer) and placed a baby carrier on his stoop and did a ring and run. Joe looked out the door and saw this baby in a basket and thinking like a cop, he opened the door to rescue the infant and saw a note. It read, “Will you be my grandpa”.
Joe looked up and saw his son (also a detective) with his wife in the clearing. Joe picked up his new granddaughter, turned and took her inside, closing the door behind him, laughing the entire time. What a story. I sat on this 40-year-old couch in this musty older home and cried tears of joy for my cousin, the new grandpa and his son, the new father. My Great Uncle Walt, the great grandfather in this story, just sat there and beamed of it’s retelling. Our visit there also brought a wife of another cousin, a second cousin, her son that I never knew I had and so much information about families that my head was spinning with names when I left to go see Aunt Floss.
When we walked into her room at the nursing home, she pointed and said, “They said she was coming to see me today.” I saw in her eyes a small glint of anger that said, I should have been here years ago. I have not seen them in about 20 years if not more and she is right, it is only my fault. There really is no reason that I can name for not making the time to drive two hours to make a small visit her and there. Aunt Mary came with me and talked with Floss about her grand kids and Floss’s and they chatted for quite a while. I did show her pictures of my children and listened for the most part. She hated being in the hospital and made it clear that she wanted out.
When we got up to leave, Mary said it had been a long time and Floss said, eyes boring into mine, too long. I cried right there and told her I was sorry and I loved her and knelt to give her a soft strained kiss. She was mad at me and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I got it together and took one look at her room and the pictures of her three new great-grandchildren, three, four and five months old. My cousins were busy giving her reasons to live. They were beautiful. I left feeling sadder than I have in many years and not knowing how to make it right or better. I had gone from sheer joy just an hour before to utter sadness that I had been a terrible grand-niece and there was no time to make her change her feelings about me.
Pulling out of that parking lot to head back to dinner with Gina and her family, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I should have known that was stupid. They are the most incredible people on the planet. I walk in and there is laughter, yelling, chaos and smells of food and soups and craziness abounding. As Uncle Ed took to his bedroom to take a nap, the rest of us would engage in cousin to cousin banter, kid to adult cousin laughter and talk of prom and food network and Angels of Christmas. Bets would be made, lost and dishes to be washed later.
At 6:30 pm we would all sit down to eat together, Italian style. Now this was new to me, so when they said let’s go, lets eat…I passed the salad bowl, which was off to the side on a table by itself. A big NOoooOOOooOooo was shouted out and I was promptly told that salad was eaten last with a meatball only! So we filled our plates with bread and soup and then so much other foods….then salad! Then coffee and dessert…then dishes, by Tom, hah! We looked at photo albums of my aunt and uncles 50th anniversary that I couldn’t attend and saw Aunt Pat, Uncle Ed, and Aunt Floss only three years ago. They have gone through a lot. They have changed a lot. They have not changed at all.
I was shown pictures of my dad when he weighed about 1 pound and I saw a picture of my grandfather five days before he died of stomach cancer in 1969.
I saw my Uncle Al in his prime with that smile that would stop a train and that stoop that I sat on that one great summer in 1980. I learned that my cousin Gina has been giving kids Christmas for 17 years by way of Angels of Christmas, a foundation they started. It’s up to 65 Families a year now. Tom, her husband gives out 300 turkeys every Thanksgiving to families who need it. Their kids help in every way possible and my aunt and uncles house has a basement that constantly looks like Santa’s workshop. She does this because she wants to give back and help. Does that sound familiar? We both have colitis and share cancer and I so wish I was closer to her. Jealousy hits me when I see how she laughs with her family and I know how she will be there for her mom for years to come. It was by far the best night I’ve had with my family in a very long time.
But I had to go. I was 9 pm and I had to work on Monday, get kids to school, and I had a meeting with Forever Jordan Monday night and the State of the County address to go to on Tuesday. Life moves on.
Through every part of my drive there was one song that came on over and over. Bruno Mars and Grenade. Every part of those lyrics is true for my family down in Virginia and Philadelphia. They would do anything for each other and would without being asked and without ever needing anything in return. Their chemistry is remarkable and their love is a testament to how I wish my children will be with me when I am older. My father and my Aunt Pat both said that their sister, Mary has had to be the leader and caretaker for many years and I saw that first hand this weekend. She puts on a game face like no other and weeps silently when she can. She is full of faith and devotion to her church and family and forgives everyone.
I found out some really great stuff this weekend. My cousin Tim is insane and charming beyond his years and I hope he becomes a Chef. Dana is gorgeous and could run any division of Hyatt if you just gave her a chance. Denise will save the world and Michael, I know I didn’t see you this weekend, but I hope you do write policy and make it some really good stuff. Mary Sina, congratulations and I hope I can call you soon and just call you mom. Frankie, he is your dad, so are you and I miss you both. Fred, I want to see that new baby that Aunt Pat told me all about. For all of my cousins, family, struggling and not, thank you for loving me.
I’m coming back to sit on that stoop and sit and look at the stars with all of you. Are we allowed to play kick the can in our forties?