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Our Gussie

…Sharing the Life and Lessons of Gus Fanelli, Father Extraordinaire

Remembering Gussie

 

  On June 11, 1933, Augustine, “Gus” Fanelli (known as Gussie by those who loved him), arrived into the world in South Philadelphia to Lena and Joseph. On September 12, 2015, God decided Gussie should be released from his suffering after bravely battling Parkinson’s Disease, bladder cancer and an infection resulting as a complication from Parkinson’s Disease. To say that those who love him miss him terribly is a gross understatement.  His kindness, his understanding and his sense of humor are just A few tiny pieces of what made him such a wonderful human being. It is no wonder the Lord wanted him with Him.

Knowing that he is with the Lord does not make it easier for those who are still on Earth, left to wonder how life will be without his presence, his smile, his words of wisdom.  It will prove to be an arduous undertaking, especially by me and my sister, to whom he has been a rock, a best friend, a moral compass, and a parent whose fairness and genuine goodness are the bar to which we can only aspire to reach as parents ourselves.

In attempting to deal with my father’s inevitable death this summer, I couldn’t help but think of a lesson I teach to my high school Spanish classes every year, the Mexican and Latin American tradition of the day of the dead (el Día de los muertos). To those who celebrate this day (ironically on my birthday, or All Saints’ Day), death is part of life. It is not to be feared.  Each November 1, the loved ones of the departed gather to remember those who have gone to the Lord and celebrate their lives through stories, symbolic offerings, photos and parties.  I think the tradition is beautiful but not one that most Americans easily embrace, especially me. I don’t cope well with death, and to be honest, I pictured my father as invincible, so although he was ailing and 82, I still thought he would beat the odds as he had done in the past. Therefore, his death is still a shock to me.

While thinking of the Day of the Dead, I thought, why not celebrate my father’s life all the time, whenever I feel like it? And why just limit to me and my family?  So, having spent the last 9 years as a blogger, I decided to do what I do best- start a blog to commemorate the life of my dear father to help me and my family cope with our loss, but also to open it up to extended family and friends to share memories, funny stories and photos with everyone else. I would love for everyone who sees this to subscribe to it and comment regularly with a contribution, or email me a photo to share with everyone.  It won’t help us miss my dear father any less, but it will help us all to remember the impact he made on the life of every person with whom he came in contact, be it in the family, in the South Philly and Springfield neighborhoods, the police force, the army, the town watch, his colleagues, the Men of Malvern, the Knights of Columbus, the Sons of Italy, his hunting crew, his friends and so many other people with whom he came in contact. He even charmed the staff at the nursing home where he convalesced in the spring.

So please, comment on posts, email me photos (just snap a picture of it on your phone or scan it if you have a scanner), share a story.  You will be helping me and my sister and our four daughters learn things about our Gussie that we may not know, and hopefully bring a smile to the faces of others who loved him as well.

For now I leave you with my two favorite photos of me and my father- one of him with me when I was a screaming new born (he called me chicken legs, as you can see) and one with him from 2001. I hope you will share your memories as well.

–Claudia

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cropped-img_2329.jpg  Dad and me

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My Journey to Blood Donation

I remember when I was about 9 or 10 years old my father coming home late for dinner one day.  He had his sleeve rolled up and a big bandage on his arm. I asked him what happened and he said a little boy from the neighborhood where he worked had leukemia and he donated bone marrow to him to help him get better.  Sadly, I already knew what leukemia was: one of my cousins had died from it when I was in 3rd grade when she just four years old.  The last time I had seen her she had recently had her little head shaved and was wearing some type of shower cap.  She was running around and playing that day so when my mom told me she had died about a year later, I clearly remember locking myself in the upstairs bathroom of our house and crying.

So my reaction to the news that my dad had donated bone marrow was to ask “Is he going to die like Lisa?” My dad, who was used to some difficult questions from me (my favorite: “Do flies get married by fly priests?”) told me he would get better.  I don’t remember if the little boy got better or not.  And I don’t even know if he didn’t get better if my father would have told me because he didn’t want to upset me.  But what I held onto from that day was that my dad tried to save someone’s life.  When I was a little older, my mom’s aunt was sick in the hospital and needed blood and my father was her blood type.  He went in and donated to her.  In fact, she needed it a few more times and eventually she told him that he had become her actual nephew because she had so much of his blood in her body.  From then on he got called frequently to donate blood.  I would see the messages my mom took for him on the fridge that it was time to donate.  I asked him why he did it so much.  Couldn’t someone else give their blood? I was afraid they would take too much and he would get sick. He said, and I remember his exact words, “Maybe my blood will save someone’s life this time, you never know.” I thought my dad was so brave to get blood removed from his body and give it to someone.  I had no idea how the process worked. My dad said they put a tube in his arm and the blood went into the tube. He never said it hurt but I somehow thought it was terribly painful to remove the blood and put it into another person.  I envisioned him lying on a table with a giant hose pulling blood from his body and getting slurped out and pumped right into the person on the other bed who was waiting for it.  I pictured him squeezing his face tight from the pain and the other person smiling as his body filled up with the nice, new blood.  And I didn’t want any part of it.

 

Fast forward to 2008.  I had never donated bone marrow, or blood for that matter. I had had enough blood drawn when I was pregnant to know that I never wanted to have a pint of blood taken from me. One nurse had collapsed my vein, another one had missed a vein, it hurt, and because I was pregnant,  the drama was magnified each time.  Nope.  No blood donation for me. I still had the image I had conjured up in my brain from childhood about how blood donation worked.

But in 2008 the Eagles were at training camp at Lehigh University and they were sponsoring a blood drive. They needed 1,200 donors. Anyone who donated got FREE EAGLES GEAR and could get VIP passes to get on the field that day. As soon as I found out, I went on line and signed up. I didn’t think about being afraid or squeamish. And I didn’t give it a second thought until that day.  I just wanted the gear and to get on the field. I got the family on board, dressed in our Eagles gear, and we set off.  I had hydrated, eaten my leafy greens and was so nervous I was shaking.  My daughters, then 7 and 12, stayed with me while I was on the table and held my hand. The older one was fascinated by the process. The younger one distracted me with her chatter.  I couldn’t look at the tube or the bag, I knew I would get sick if I did. But ten minutes after the needle went in, I was finished.  I had done it.  I was so proud of myself.  At the snack area, three people around us fainted within minutes of each other.  My kids were scared, and I was hoping I wasn’t next.  I made out without passing out- SUCCESS! I was so wrapped up in the blood donating that I never got over to the field. I called my dad when I got home and told him I had donated blood. I hadn’t said anything before in case I chickened out. He  congratulated me and said he was shocked but very happy, even if my reasons weren’t purely humanitarian.

I donated a few times since then when there was a special need or there was a local blood drive, but not with any regularity.  But in June the position of Red Cross Club advisor at my school became available. When I read the email I heard a voice inside my head (not one of my usual ones) and it just said “Do it.” I don’t know if it was my conscience, or my father, or the voice from my habit of biting off more than I can chew, but I typed “I’ll do it.” and hit SEND within seconds of reading the email.  I am no stranger to organizing community service events and it is very rewarding to work with students who believe in helping out people in need.  So, I was looking forward to it.

The club’s two biggest events are blood drives. Our first one was yesterday. We had a goal set for us to sign up 74 people.  Sign ups were slow. I started to worry.  Previous years’ turnouts were great so I didn’t want to be the advisor whose club’s drive didn’t get enough sign-ups and let the Red Cross down- that blood was crucial to the local blood supply. The hospitals were down to 4 days’ worth on the shelves. Death and destruction from the three hurricanes motivated people to donate in September and the supplies increased a bit. Then the horrific shootings in Las Vegas happened and adults who I had previously tried to encourage to donate but were too scared now decided to sign up.  Our numbers climbed, and in the midst of this, news that our local Red Cross had rushed 400 pints of blood to Las Vegas suddenly made the tragedy more personal. The images of people lying in blood were everywhere and the students couldn’t escape them. That tragedy and news of the 6 to 8 hour long lines to donate blood in Vegas touched a lot of our students.

By yesterday morning we had to turn students away who walked in to donate. The turnout was beyond my expectations. Our new principal was the first one on the table, cementing her new title of “leader.” I had signed up but was afraid if I donated and something happened to me I wouldn’t be able to supervise.  But how could I recruit all of these people and then not put my money where my mouth is? Or my tourniquet where my arm is.  I’m no hypocrite. Anyway… I donated without incident before the crowd showed up.  Seven more teachers and staff took time out of their jam-packed schedules to donate. Twenty of my own students had signed up and I felt so proud. A number of students had to be deferred (iron levels, medications, piercings, etc) so not everyone who signed up was able to give blood, but what touched me was the bravery of the kids who did it. They just stuck their arm out and filled the bag while they Snap Chatted with the other arm. Like it was nothing. My teenage self, with a father who had a frequent bleeder card (as I called it) and set that wonderful example for me to emulate, would have never done that.  Right then I wish I could have smacked my teenage self in the head.

blood drive

When I asked some of the students why they decided to do it, most of them just said “It’s a good thing to do.” Just like that. It made me think of Gussie. Just matter of fact, no overthinking, just something he needed to do. Someone needs blood?  He had some.  Bone marrow- here you go.  I got goosebumps several times yesterday watching 16 and 17 year olds do something so grown-up and selfless, but the most goosebump-inducing moment came during the last minutes of the drive.  A student who I didn’t know had just successfully donated.  He was eating his snacks and suddenly grabbed a trashcan and got violently sick. I called the EMT over and he tended to him until he felt better. He had broken out in a sweat and the color drained from his face. I thought “well, that’s a heck of a way to associate your first blood donation.” I surely wouldn’t do it again if I knew I had to publicly and violently vomit afterwards. But a few minutes later I went back over to check on him. Still pale as a ghost, he said he was fine and asked me when the next blood drive was.

 

Want to save a life? Find a donation center near you HERE.

Crying Over Goldfish and Other Lessons

Have you ever stopped to think about what your father has taught you? Something so small like how to hold the club the right way at miniature golf to something as significant as how to get through adversity with my head held high are part of the huge gamut of lessons I learned from my dad, including those he didn’t set out specifically to teach me.

The list, I believe, is infinite.  From my earliest lesson that it’s okay to cry when your pet goldfish dies, to the last lesson he inadvertently taught me, to not live with regrets, I sometimes wonder if I have taught anything significant to my children, besides how to tie their shoes and cut their food.  The task of parenting is undoubtedly the single-most important one that anyone can have.  It’s at times thankless, rewarding, heart-breaking and joyful-and all of those can be on one day.  It’s the proverbial “box of chocolates.”  One minute I can be enjoying a chocolate peanut butter candy and the next it might be one of those gooey unidentifiable flavors you took a chance on because it looked good. But my father handled parenting as if he was put on earth to do it- and I believe he was. There are many things I can do because of his tutelage and his example. His humility was his greatest virtue, and if he could see this list I know he would shake his head and probably tear up. But regardless, I know what I know, and I know why I know it.  And this is not to say that I haven’t learned an equally infinite number of lessons from my mom, (Can something even be equally infinite? I digress.) these are just SOME of the lessons I learned from my dad.

Because of my father, I can:

  • appreciate the outdoors
  • be a humanitarian
  • drive a car
  • take photos
  • speak more than one language
  • throw a decent punch
  • understand my heritage and defend it
  • watch a football game and know (most of) what’s going on
  • shoot a gun
  • not be afraid to delete toxic people from my life
  • have faith in God, even when I think I can’t
  • forgive my children easily
  • show affection to my children (even when they think it’s not cool)
  • appreciate the arts
  • show unconditional love
  • convey my anger without screaming (usually)
  • hold my children to high standards
  • bowl
  • value dinner time with my family
  • fly a kite
  • get back up after a setback
  • dream.

Today, when I began to think of specific things I can do because of my dad, I was both happy and sad.  Sad because he is not here to teach me something new or reinforce something I already know. Then happy because I often realize that I know something because of him but had I had never thought about before.  And that’s like a brand new lesson that he has taught me, and for that I am grateful.

Blame it On the Brain yeah, yeah

 

Has there ever been someone in your life who would (or does) frequently give you advice? In most cases it’s a parent whose duty it is to offer advice- solicited or unsolicited, or maybe a revered grandparent whose sage advice you trust because of his or her age. Sometimes it’s an older sibling who doesn’t want to see you make the same mistakes he just recently made. Regardless of who gives you the advice you didn’t ask for, most teenagers and young adults, I would venture to say, don’t heed this advice. It’s not that they flat out reject it, they just absorb the advice and then do their own thing. At that age, people are headstrong, know more than everyone else (or so they think) and are convinced that things won’t turn out “that” way for them. I attribute it to the fact that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25. (source: Mental Health Daily) Until that point (and for some people even longer), teens and young adults have issues with impulse behavior, making decisions, and are still susceptible to peer pressure.  It appears normal, then, for parents and grandparents to step in and give advice to us at that age because they are being protective of us and want to fill in the gaps for us while our prefrontal cortex is finishing its development.

 

For me, that purveyor of advice was my father. If you’ve been reading my posts since 2015, you already know that my dad lived several lifetimes within the one he was given. He saw more heartache in 82 years than anyone else I know.  And as a result he had somewhat of a gift to almost predict what was going to happen in his children’s lives.  When he was doling out this advice to me, I didn’t appreciate it.  I didn’t even want it sometimes, and I rarely, if ever, followed it.  It’s not that I did not think my dad was smart-because he was the smartest man I knew.  It’s not that I didn’t trust him-there was nobody on earth I trusted more. And it’s not because I doubted where his heart was-I knew he wanted me to avoid mistakes he had made.  It was simply because I thought I knew all the answers.

When I was in my twenties, I told my parents I wanted to get married- to someone from another country.  My mom didn’t oppose it very much but my father did.  He ticked off a list of reasons the marriage wouldn’t work, stating, “Marriage is hard enough when you have similar backgrounds, but when you try to merge two totally different cultures, you are asking for problems.”  I respected his opinion but I got married anyway. And accurate to the last detail of what he had foreseen as problems in an intercultural marriage, my dad’s advice was spot on.  Yet, I had ignored it.  When I made my decision to get a divorce, it was telling my dad that I dreaded the most.  He was not happy about it- and I waited for him to tell me “I told you so.”  But he never did.  Instead, I told him I was sorry for not having followed his advice. And in discussing this with him, in my mind a slide show of sorts played, of every big piece of good advice he gave me-and I ignored. Advice, that, had I followed it, would have spared me a lot of heartache and emotional upheaval and wasted time with friends I should never have let get close to me, with certain career choices I made or didn’t make, and with relationships with guys he said weren’t right for me.  But I had to find out the hard way, because I never took that advice and never appreciated it until after the situations blew up in my face.

 

And so, on the day I told my dad I was getting a divorce and admitted to him that the issues he foresaw were the very ones that drove my ex-husband and me apart,  I also told him that I was sorry I had dismissed all of his other advice that he tried to give me. He said he wasn’t offended, and that kids always think they know more than parents.  I assured him that wasn’t the reason, but that I just thought I could make the result different if I did it myself.  “How did that turn out for you?” he said.  “Well, of about 8 pieces of major advice you gave me over the years, that I did not follow, you were correct on 8 of them.”  My dad didn’t think he had a record that good, so I read off a list of these 8 items and how he was right and I was wrong.  He smiled at me and said “I always tell you what I feel is best for you.  You have the option not to follow  what I advise. That’s part of growing up.” “Yeah, but Daddy,” I remember saying, “you’re batting 1000.  I’ll never go against your advice again. Who gets it right that many times?”  He thought about it for a second and said “Someone who has messed up that many times and more because HE thought he could change the result his own way.”

A cycle of messing up? A generation or two of stubborn Italians? Or a daughter who just didn’t appreciate the prescience of her father’s words and chose to fumble her way through adulthood?  Call it what you will, but I never rejected a piece of advice my father gave me after that.  Now  that my own child is in that young adult phase, I find her balking at  my advice and I wish I could have her see into the future, or at least be able to watch the past and see what I did wrong so she can choose avoid the same pain if she wants to.  In lieu of all of that, maybe a this photo of a girl’s brain- blue representing areas that are mature- teens still have a way to go and even at 20 it’s not completely mature.

brains

The option, of course, would be to just follow Harry S. Truman’s advice: “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

 

 

What I Learned in My First Year Without My Father

Dad and Claudia 1968
Gussie and his screaming, first-born child- ME.

365 days ago today, well, 366 with leap year, my life was forever changed, and not for the better.

My best friend, my rock, my biggest fan…my father, was taken from me after a very long, painful and dignity-robbing struggle from complications of Parkinson’s Disease.  He deserved a better and more dignified end to his life and I spent a good 6 of the past 12 months very angry about that.

dad-allie-1998
My dad (here with Alessandra in 1998) played a huge part in my daughter’s upbringing- he was a doting grandfather just as he was a doting father. My loss is multiplied seeing it through her eyes.

So for me, it has been a long, difficult year to adjust to life without him. There have been a lot of things to learn.

  • I have had to learn to not pick up the phone every night out of habit to say good night to him.  Sometimes I still reach for it.
  • I have had to learn how to not expect to see him at his house when I visit my mother.  Sometimes I think I feel him there.
  • I have had to learn to acknowledge strange and inexplicable noises and occurrences in my home and say “hi Dad!”
  • I have had to adjust to not seeking out his advice when dealing with my two new stepsons- my dad was a stepson and his advice was always spot on and from the other point of view.
joey-and-dad
My dad’s parents divorced when he was very young and he saw his father on weekends.  He understood being a child of divorce.
  • I have had to learn how to indulge my daughters through their sadness while struggling with my own when they ask me questions about my dad, or look at photos and videos. I have had to learn to put their sadness before mine when they want to remember something about my father and to enjoy the memories instead of cry. I have had to allow them to look through the old photos and admire how handsome he was and remember how present he always was in their lives, even though we didn’t live around the corner from him anymore.
  • I have had to take consolation in little things like wearing his flannel hunting shirts and his Eagles jacket and his ever-present Italian horn to keep him close to me.
  • I have had to learn to talk to him out loud to make sure he can hear me and ask him for a sign to show me that he heard.  I have always gotten one.  You don’t believe? You don’t need to.  I do.
  • I have had to learn to open my mind in order to rely on a fantastic medium who allows me to communicate with my father through her gift. Each time I’ve talked to her, I felt more at peace knowing that he is exactly where he wants to be, surrounded by his family and his loyal dog- often on his boat.  The advice he gives me is always specific, and through her mediumship, he comforts me as if he were here.
  • I have had to learn that I need to be like a duck when people tell me their unsolicited opinion on the amount of weeks, months, etc. that are sufficient to end my grief. In reality, the sadness never goes away. The number of people offering advice on how long this process should take has been really mind-boggling. Grief abides by its own timetable. I would never be so presumptuous as to dictate someone’s mourning based on how long it takes me. So, instead of getting upset, I don’t talk about my awesome dad to these people- they don’t care anyway. I have learned to do what my father would always tell me- make like a duck and let it roll off my back.
  • I have had to learn to be stronger for my daughters, who, in short order, lost three grandparents, just two months apart each, and remind them that it’s ok to miss them and that it’s ok to cry when they need to.
  • I have had to learn to rely on my husband for emotional strength, something I don’t do well.  Having been through his own loss years ago and not having ever fully recovered from it, he helped me work through the stages of pain and reminds me all that time that one never gets “past” this loss, that my reality will simply change to to one without my father.
  •  I have had to learn to reach out to and reconnect with family members I have not seen in a while for no other reason than because life gets in the way.
  • I have had to mend some fences strictly because my father believed in not being on the outs with people close to you and I wanted to do right by what he taught me.
  • But most of all I have had to learn to be my father’s daughter.  The one he always told me he was proud of, the one he believed could do anything I set my mind to, the one he believed “gets stuff done,” the one brave enough to make changes in my life when change is due.  This is what he instilled in me.  This is what he counted on me to do. This is what he knew I could do, even when I didn’t know myself. Nobody believed in me as much as my dad, although my mom now carries that torch for him.  I promised him several things right before he passed away, and making improvements in my life the best I could was one of these things.

His passing has renewed my focus, and although I miss his advice terribly: the sound of his voice on the phone, his hugs and kisses and his corny jokes, his tempered silliness that always made me laugh and, of course, his antipasto at holiday dinners, I have used all that he wanted for me to push myself to try to become that person that would not disappoint him. So this year has been so hard to live without him, but also eye-opening for that very reason.

I hope I am making Gussie proud because it has turned into my priority- to become a better person for my husband, my children and my family, and a better teacher for my students.

 

graduation
Me and Gussie at my college graduation, 1990- the hair is outrageous, I know.

I love my father and I miss him every single day of my life. I know he knew I adored him and that he was my hero.  I have no regrets because I made sure he knew this was how I felt, even though he didn’t think that highly of himself. To me, there was no kinder, smarter, funnier man. He was the gold standard of dads.

Happy Birthday to Gussie

Today is Gussie’s birthday. He would be 83 this year. I have dreaded this day all year, worrying about how sad this day would be. But as it got closer, I started to try to convince myself to do the opposite-to celebrate his life, not dwell on his death. Those who know me know that it’s not a easy feat for me, for as much as his life and lessons have shaped my life, his death has forever changed it.

dad bday copy
Gussie’s 73rd birthday- he always asked his granddaughters for “help” blowing out the candles.  Note: This is not an Italian cream cake.

My family has a few traditions that my father was big on maintaining, either for the sake of family tradition or just out of habit and preference. One such tradition was the birthday cake we all were presented with every year- the Italian cream cake. Rum-soaked vanilla cake with a chocolate pudding-like cream in between layers and adorned with slivered almonds or chopped peanuts on the frosting, this cake was, to the best of my knowledge as a child, the only birthday cake in existence. I have to admit, I never liked it much. Once I was married and my birthday celebrations were not left up to my parents, I deviated from the traditional Italian cream cake but would occasionally get one for my father’s birthday. The last time we had one was 2010- this is it:

italian cream cake copy
Dad’s cake on his 77th birthday.

 

So, with June 11 looming, I decided I would not spend the day crying or lamenting my father’s passing. Instead, I was determined to find the resolve to think of the beautiful memories I have of him, and how happy and vibrant and pain-free he is in heaven today. So, I bought an Italian cream cake, some Rolling Rock (his favorite beer- read here) and drank one with lunch and then I sang “Happy Birthday” in my full Water Rinaldi voice (a bad version of a local opera buff who used to sing Happy Birthday at the Newtown Squire restaurant as if he were Pavarotti) which my father used to also do, but better, because my father also knew how to sing.   I imagined him there, closing his ears and shaking his head at my version, which is what he always did, pretending (?) he couldn’t wait until it was over, and that made me smile. My mother laughed and we all had some really good Italian cream cake. I have to say, after years of not appreciating it, I thought it was delicious today. My dad would have loved it.

dad cake ourgussie
Birthday cake in Gussie’s memory today.

Happy Birthday to my father. I hope this birthday was the best he ever had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 90 Minute Rule

My oldest daughter just graduated from college.  She did it in three years and they were the longest three years of my life.

I’m an old-fashioned, over-protective, Italian mamma, just like my mom and her mother before her.  I cried the day I dropped her off for her first day of college, leaving her in a tiny, cinder block room to live with a stranger, to eat meals I didn’t prepare, to have nobody there to take care of her if she got sick, 90 minutes away.  My family and friends called and texted me that day to see if I was ok- they all knew how difficult this was going to be for me. When I spoke to my mother, I asked her how she survived the day she left me at school. She told me (for the first time) how she cried the whole ride home when she and my father dropped me off at college in 1986, and for days after that. She said she knew I would be ok, and reminded me that I waved both of them away on my first day of kindergarten when she stood crying at the classroom door because I was anxious to get started, but she missed me terribly every day. In the days of expensive long distance calls before Skype and Face Time, cell phones and texting, I spoke to my parents only once a week and they each wrote me long letters that I anxiously awaited every Friday. I responded with pages of handwritten letters, trying not to let on how homesick I was, filling the pages instead with reports about my activities and new friends.

I went home on holidays and around twice a semester otherwise.  My parents and grandparents would visit me every two or three weeks because my father couldn’t stand to “not see my face,” as he used to say. My mother was absolutely giddy to see me, and my grandfather squeezed my face so hard he sometimes left pinch marks.

My father said he didn’t send me to college to send me away, he sent me to learn, and expected to see me  more than during semester break. I had no issue with that. We were a tight-knit Italian family-my father valued time spent with his children and never believed that they should be kicked out at age 18. In fact, neither my sister nor I dared to contemplate not moving home after college.  Home was home until we had our own family- and not a second before.

My father and I spent a lot of time together, just as my daughter and I did.  My mother went to sleep early because she woke up at 4:00 am to go to work when I was in high school and by arriving early, she could be home by the time my sister and I got home from school.  Almost every weeknight I would keep my dad company in the family room watching detective shows, baseball or hockey games and talking.  During one of those talks when I was finishing up my junior year in high school, my father told me that he was having a hard time accepting that I was going to be going away to school the following year.  We had visited one school that was 90 minutes away and had a few others to check out.  He said given that the programs were all equal, he didn’t want me going further away than the 90 minute distance of the first school.  He didn’t put any rules on price, didn’t insist I live at home to commute or go to a religious school (after 12 years of Catholic education, he felt I had a good foundation already- whew!), just the distance. A 90 minute car ride.  No more.

The bond I had with my father was very strong. I respected him, I feared disappointing him and I never really questioned the rules he or my mom set out for me. He was my hero, my rock, and my moral compass.  He had a very sad childhood and did everything he could to make sure my sister and I didn’t have one like he did.  Like most parents, he made sacrifices- some of them tremendous- for me and my sister, so the least I could do was not give him a hassle about distance. And he was right, the programs were all equal.  He knew I wanted to be in a country setting so he shuttled me to my college visits to schools in rural Pennsylvania (this fascinated me, having spent so much time in the city and the suburbs) and made comments about turning left at the cow patch, etc., but as long as they fell within the 90 minute rule (which also happened to be the amount of time it took to get to his boat down the shore which I think is why he considered it reasonable), he was ok.

On the day my parents moved me into my dorm on August 26, 1986, my mother was appalled at the living conditions and I knew she wanted to pack up the car and take me back home. (“Does your roommate have a… TWANG?” she later asked me. No, Mom, she’s just from rural PA.) My father, having served in the Army and lived meagerly, just shook his head as he looked around my cinder block room. No, it wasn’t home, it was the complete opposite of home, and I wanted to pull at my dad’s shirt as he left like I did when I was a child so he wouldn’t leave. It was so far away from home. I didn’t know anyone. I had never had a problem making new friends, but I also had never lived away from home with nobody I knew around me. I found out much later that my parents were racked with guilt for leaving me in what they (and I) considered to be such dismal surroundings, surrounded by strangers, having to eat Pennsylvania Dutch food (shudder). But it was on that day that my dad gave me the advice that would serve me well those four years, and which I have tried to follow for the past 30: “Never forget who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.”  Who would have thought that 27 years later I would be giving that same sage advice to his granddaughter when I left her in her room before crying for 90 minutes, all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

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Can someone die of a broken heart?  This is a question I have thought about many times since 1986 when my paternal grandmother died.  I first heard it from my father, who tried to explain how his mother, who had suffered a stroke three years earlier, died at 69 in spite of having had stable health since her last stroke three years earlier.

“She died of a broken heart, sweetie.”

What?  You can die of that?  People just drop dead when their hearts are broken?  If that were the case, it would seem like a cause of death of thousands, if not millions of people who lose their spouses or children every year.  The explanation, at the time, seemed fairly preposterous.  But my father explained it to me, and when he finished, it seemed plausible.

My grandmother divorced my grandfather and remarried when my father was around ten years old. She had another son with her second husband. My grandmother was head over heels in love with her new husband.  A devastatingly handsome and decorated World War II veteran, my step-grandfather doted on her for a long time.  They worked as partners and really loved each other. This marriage, it appeared, was a drastic change from her previous one, which she entered into as a teenager.

As years went on, they were driven apart by a series of events that my grandmother could not control. That in and of itself was heart-breaking for my grandmother.  They separated, then she agreed to get back together; her heart belonged to him.   After a short time, they separated again, but didn’t divorce. In the early 80’s she suffered a stroke at 67. She lost her eyesight in one eye and some of her short-term memory but her long-term memory was still sharp.  She hadn’t seen her husband in a few years but in 1983 my uncle got married and she knew she would come face to face with him.  She was cordial to him, he was cordial to her.  I knew she was uncomfortable that day, even a little wistful, but when I asked her if she was ok seeing him, she said yes and she wasn’t going to let it ruin her night- she wasn’t going to cry over him or make a scene. I took it at face value that she had moved on.

I was wrong. In 1986 my step-grandfather died.  It was agreed that my grandmother, still not at 100% from the stroke, should not find out so as not to shock her or upset her.  Three or four months had passed and everything with her health was status quo. She was living in her house with a nurse to care for her.  One day, an old friend of hers, a “pettrozine” or meddler, as we say in Italian, randomly decided to stop in and see her out of the blue.  She hadn’t come to see my grandmother in a very long time. She told my grandmother that her husband had died. My grandmother replied “Oh? that’s a shame.”  She asked my uncle later if it were true and he told her it was.  She didn’t get upset, she seemed to accept it.

A few weeks later my grandmother had another stroke and died.  While the stroke was the cause of death, my father refused to believe news of her husband’s death hadn’t hastened her departure.  “She wanted to be with him but didn’t want us to know.”

This topic came up a few days ago, when news of another sudden death hit me from left field.  Vince and Nancy, who were my in-laws, had been together since high school- married 57 years last year. They were each other’s first and only loves. They were inseparable since teenagers and had 5 children.  She was the peanut butter to his jelly.  The water to his ocean.  The cheese  to his macaroni.  They were each other’s everything.  They finished each other’s sentences and probably didn’t even have to communicate thoughts to one another because they were so in synch that it wasn’t necessary.

In November, Nancy died rather suddenly after a very recent diagnosis of cancer.  The family was stunned and devastated- in addition to being the peanut butter, the water and the cheese, she was also the glue that held the family together.  Her death was utterly shocking- everyone had thought she would recover.  No one was more shocked and devastated, however, than her beloved Vince. Simply put, he was lost without her.  She ran the house, cared for everyone- her husband, her children, her children’s children and even their children. He had just retired when she died. The void in Vince’s life was undeniable. The family kept him busy with visits and activities to attempt to keep him from feeling the loneliness and despair of not having the woman who was by his side since he was a teenager. However, it didn’t stop him from talking to her, about her, gazing at her photo or visiting her grave almost every day since she died.

So on Thursday morning, February 25, two months after she left this earth, Nancy called to her one and only in his sleep and he quietly and peacefully went to join her, to spend the rest of eternity with her, leaving his family both devastated yet again but also relieved that their parents had been reunited.

As soon as I heard the news all I could think of was that he died of a broken heart.  I am not the only one who feels this way- his family agrees. It’s not something made up for romance novels. It’s an actual medical syndrome- “Takosubo Cardiomyopathy,” also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome.”  This is what they call it when a widow or widower dies suddenly shortly after the spouse.  It’s most common with a sudden death like a stroke or heart attack, as opposed to Alzeihmer’s, Parkinson’s or a long battle with cancer where the spouse experiences what is called “anticipatory grief.” It causes chest pain and sudden heart failure and is thought to come on as a result of fight or flight hormones, which cause the left side of the heart to increase in size. The left side struggles to pump blood and the right side pumps even harder, causing strong contractions.  It appears to be a heart attack but there is no blockage or clogged arteries and almost always follows an emotional loss. NBCNews.com reported that the late Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, an internist who did extensive research on this topic, found that takosubo cardiomyopathy occurs in 18% of widowers and 16% of widows- research gathered from over 300,000 elderly couples. But the heart doesn’t have to just stop in order for the person to die of a broken heart, technically.  Although NBCNews.com reports that the number one cause of death of a bereaved spouse is heart disease and sudden death, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that among 4,000 couples, 30% are more likely to die- of any cause- soon after their spouses die. The risk period is 18 months after the spouse dies.

Last November, Doug Flutie’s father died of a heart attack and his mother’s heart stopped one hour later.  They were married for 56 years. Doug Flutie acknowledged that he believed heartbreak caused his mother’s death in his Facebook post that day. Johnny Cash died four months after his beloved June, who died suddenly after complications from heart valve surgery. Articles about couples who were married and then died close to each other make the case for dying of a broken heart.  Take for example D-Day war hero Bernard Jordan and his wife, or Alexander and Jeanette Tocsko, who were together since they were 8 years old, and married for 75 years, dying 24 hours apart.

It is both sad yet romantic to think that two hearts that once beat as one can’t bear to beat alone.  But one thing is certain, it happens. Do you know of someone who died of a broken heart?

 

Dad and Brandy

As I’ve mentioned before, my father was an avid hunter, into his 70’s.  He only hunted deer (bucks) and left for Potter County, PA for buck season the Friday after Thanksgiving and returned the following weekend. He never missed a season.  Before I was born he had a faithful companion that accompanied him and helped him get his buck.  Her name was Brandy.  Brandy was his hunting dog- a beautiful German, short-haired pointer and Gussie loved her.  As a child I heard many stories about Brandy, told with a wistful look in my father’s eye. He missed that dog a lot. When I was 6 and my parents bought our new house, there was German, Short-haired pointer in the yard that looked just like Brandy.  My father made them an offer on the house and asked if they would include the dog.  They said yes.  Imagine our disappointment when we moved in found out that the owners had reneged on the dog.

 

Here is a brown pointer in action:

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I recently went to a medium (don’t laugh until you’ve been to this woman, she solves police cases), and among other amazing things she told me was that she saw a black and white spotted dog with my father, and that my father had a beard and mustache (again, you’d have had to have read my previous post to understand the significance of this). This made me so happy- it meant my father had been reunited with his four-legged buddy and that he was enjoying his favorite time of year. And I don’t doubt what she said because that was too specific to have just randomly guessed when I had not told her anything- she didn’t even know my last name when I made the appointment.

So, this small piece of information is somewhat consoling to me in my grief, to know that my father found Brandy.  Here they are together in younger days.

My beautiful picture
Gussie was a huge dog lover
Happy hunting to both of them!

If you are interested in German short-haired pointers, here is a club in the Philadelphia area: Eastern German Shorthaired Pointer Club

And here is the link to the German Shorthaired Pointer Rescue Rescue.

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Photo from dogtime.com

 

Hopping off the Hamster Wheel of Life

Gussie was a true outdoorsman.  From when he spent every summer day at the beach as a teen, working in Atlantic City carrying beach cushions, to crabbing, fishing and hunting, he loved to be outdoors. Hunting and fishing were his favorite.  From the day after Thanksgiving, every year, when deer (buck) season started he would go to Potter County in Pennsylvania and spend a week hunting at his cabin in the mountains, which he owned with a group of his hunting buddies. He never missed the start of deer season in Potter County until claustrophobia crippled his ability to sleep in tight quarters and he reluctantly had to stop making the trip.

 

Success! Gussie nabbed a big one on this hunting trip.
Success! Gussie nabbed a big one on this hunting trip.

It was always an event when my father returned from his trip.  My sister and I hated that he was gone for a week; we missed him so much. We would count down the days until he arrived home and wait at the window until we saw his car pull up, then we’d race to the door to attack him with hugs. He always smelled like the mountains, his flannel shirt still musty from the cabin. His hiking boots were always a little more dinged-up. The best part of his return, though, was his unshaven face. Gussie never grew a beard until he went hunting; he always preferred to have a clean face, minus one or twice when he briefly grew a mustache.  He always came home with a week’s worth of beard, which he would rub against our cheeks to tickle us when he kissed us hello. An hour later, after his rifles were returned to his gun cabinet and my mother had started the washer to clean his hunting clothes, the beard would be gone, and our clean-shaven father was back. I always looked forward to Grizzly Gussie, who sometimes had a deer with him, and sometimes didn’t. Getting a deer meant gloves for us and a freezer-full of venison meat which only my father would cook and eat.

It was a sad day when my father returned early from his hunting trip in 2000. He couldn’t sleep in the bunk bed because he felt closed in and he felt trapped with so many people in the room.  His claustrophobia had become more and more of a problem in the past 5 or 6 years; he didn’t like to be in crowds at parades or festivals anymore. The first year he had decided not to go, I looked for local day trip hunting opportunities for him where I live but for one reason or another, they didn’t pan out. Gussie had resigned himself to a life without deer hunting.

My father had a very stressful life.  He knew the importance of pursuing a pastime that he loved so he could immerse himself, even for a short time, in something to distract him.  Hunting (and fishing, which will be another post), was his week to jump off the hamster wheel of life and go off the grid.  There was no telephone in the Potter County cabin, no tv; just a radio to check the weather conditions and kitchen appliances so their buddy, Billy, who loved to cook, could prepare meals for them. In the silence of the woods, my dad would watch for a deer to come into view and clear his mind.

My father’s devotion to his past-times taught me the importance of having activities that I am passionate about. My father was never bored.  In addition to his outdoorsman activities, he loved photography and had several cameras that he taught me how to use. A voracious reader,  he would immerse himself in material that fed his mind.  He had no time for vapid novels, but instead, he would devour history books; he had a special affinity for World War 2- he served in Germany after the war in the occupational troops. If he was watching tv, it was usually a biography or national geographic, with a sitcom here and there for some laughter- my father had a great sense of humor.

My father didn’t like the word “bored” when I was a child. When I was very young and told him I was bored, he would rattle off a litany of activities I could do- either alone or with my sister or one of my parents. I quickly learned that there was no reason to ever be bored with art supplies, books, cameras, bicycles, board games, balls, and other goodies that I had. There were no computers then, weekend tv shows for children ended at noon, and my parents didn’t believe in making weekends non-stop fun events for us on a regular basis just to keep us entertained. As a parent now, I realized I inherited this attitude from them.

As an adult I found photographing the outdoors to be my escape from the hamster wheel of life, if just for a little while.  I inherited that attitude from my father. The word bored isn’t heard in my home, and I can’t remember when one of my daughters even uttered it; they are both creative people who love to create, so bored isn’t in their vocabulary. When they were younger, they had sports. Now they feed their minds or create something from inspiration they get. Although nowadays technology plays a big role in most children’s lives, if by using it they are inspired to write or draw or paint or photograph something, then that’s something positive, and my father would be pleased that they are pursuing something that is their own and that makes them happy.

 

 

 

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