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Our Gussie

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

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Gus Fanelli

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?

 

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Individual Grief- Not For Anyone to Rush

I’ve been learning a few things about offering “helpful advice” to people who recently lost a loved one. My advice is DON’T. All you need to say is “I’m sorry for your loss.”  You don’t know how the other person feels so don’t say you do- my dad wasn’t your dad, your husband, your brother.  You know how you felt when your father died but don’t purport to know how I feel now that my father died.
Don’t compare the ages of two people who died. Don’t assume that an elderly person lived a “good, long, life.” That is of no comfort to those left behind unless they felt burdened by the elderly person, maybe. But you don’t know the deceased’s story. You don’t know that maybe of someone’s whole crappy 90 years on earth if they were filled with abuse or they had one parent in jail or lived in abject poverty or suffered professional failures or marital strife and maybe they only had 10 good years before getting sick for the next 9 years. Or all of the above. You. Don’t. Know. Nobody needs to be preached to. That’s what houses of worship are for. Remember, the only person who can pontificate is the Pontiff himself.

And above all, do not tell someone to move on. We all move on when we are good and ready. Children miss what they could have had when a parent dies and the children are young. I miss what I did have. I had 46 years with my dad. I need to mourn him maybe 46 more. My life won’t stop while I’m grieving because I have two children, a husband and an ailing mother to care for- and who I live for- plus a career, but if I want to talk about the greatest man I ever knew, indulge me, please. I guarantee I would do the same for you. And I’m sure if you’ve endured a loss, lots of people indulged you when it was fresh.

Someone who has been grieving the loss of her own father for 30 years sent this to me to explain that grief doesn’t ever end. I love this and so does my husband- who also lost his father when he was a 19 year-old kid, unprepared for a loss of this magnitude. Yet he agreed with every part of this because his grief is still very real- yes, 31 years later. He is well within his right to grieve, as is my mother who lost her father weeks after I was born, 46 years ago.

So before you offer some well-meaning but unsolicited advice to someone who is hurting from the depths of his or her soul, read this.

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No Tiara For Me…

My birthday recently passed and I knew it would not be a good one so I kind of chose to spend it alone as much as possible. My oldest daughter took me out for IMG_3395lunch, the boys had a soccer game that my husband had to take them to and my youngest was visiting her sick grandmother. It was perfectly low key. But the tone had already been set by my mother’s card which arrived the day before and was signed “All my Love, Mom.” The absence of my father’s name was jarring. For 46 years his name was on my card. “Mom & Dad” were one word. You didn’t separate them. It was inconceivable to me that one day I’d see just half of that one name. But this year I did. And it stung and I cried. It was concrete proof that my father was gone, as if I needed any more evidence.

It was my first birthday without my dad singing happy birthday to me. As he became sicker and Parkinson’s stole his voice, his booming baritone became smaller on the other side of the phone or in person when he serenaded me each year. As far as birthdays go, I’m not into the pomp and circumstance all that much but I realized this year that I really loved hearing him sing to me.

This birthday with my father made me reflect on my birthdays in general, and specifically, the day I was born. Gussie had high hopes for me from that day forward. On the door of my bedroom he put a sign that said “Miss America, 1988” and left it there for some time. It was a gutsy move considering I was a scrawny 5+ pounds with a shock of black mohawk sticking straight up and what they all referred to as “chicken legs.” He saw beauty and potential in me even then, and through my childhood when I never saw it myself.  I never took that sign seriously because it always seemed like a joke, but looking back, in 1968 that was a pretty lofty title for a girl to have and my dad, believing me to be the most beautiful baby in the world because he created me, must have just assumed I was worthy of it.
As I evolved into the anti-Miss America contender and I clearly wasn’t going to be pageant material, his dreams for me changed. Studying art in college in order to be a commercial artist, I had his support as I created my portfolio.

While changing my major to Spanish did not fit into his idea of using my talents to the best of my abilities, he soon found I had another ability- languages- and he gave me his support to be a teacher, which took me a few years to decide to do. He encouraged me, slowly, cheered me on, until finally I returned to school to get my teaching certificate. That made him prouder than a Miss America title or a job as a translator, my original intention. He had always wanted to go to West Chester to become a teacher but with no money, guidance, cheerleaders and nobody able to pay his way, he joined the army. I went to West Chester’s rival to become a teacher, but the outcome was the same.

So while I’d like to think that a Miss America title (never before given to a chubby girl with a big perm and no talent) COULD have been mine and would have made my father deliriously happy, I think he was prouder that it was my brains that got me to where I am today. It was the place he had wanted to be and I carried that out for him.

So I never got a crown but I did get chalk, a pointer, and some 4,000 kids over my 24 year career- some of whom were just incredible and reinforced why I do what I do. I love my career and I think that even though I don’t have the tiara, my father is still beaming with pride.

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Me and Gussie, 1997

Cheesesteaks and Memories

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Forget Tony Luke, Pat’s and Geno’s.The best cheesesteaks I’ve ever had were those made by my father.

My father was old-school in that he believed the wife should do the cooking. He knew his way around the kitchen but preferred that my mother prepare the meals. It was ill-advised to critique my mother’s delicious food, something that never sunk in to my father’s head as he occasionally made “suggestions” to a particular dish my mother had cooked.
So it was always very novel to me when on the occasional Saturday night, my father would make us cheesesteaks and give my mom a break. I looked forward to it, partly because it was cool to see my father cook but mostly because his “samiches” were delicious.

Gussie started with the Italian steak rolls- not the mushy kind in a bag, but the crusty kind from the bakery department in Acme- he’d put them, split open, in a barely warm oven. Then he’d cook the steak- not from the butcher shop which would result in anarchy in my house, but Steak-Ums. He’d break them into pieces, cook them in a little oil until brown, drain the meat a little, then sprinkle his special ingredient, which I’ll share with you so you can try this at home. (G’head, it’s fantastic.)
While the steak absorbed the flavor from his special ingredient, he put slices of provolone on the warming rolls. After a minute or two, he’d heap the steak and secret ingredient mixture on top of the melting cheese in the roll. Often my mother had a pot of leftover broccoli di rabe from the night before warmed up and we’d eat that for our vegetable, or my father would throw a salad together. (My mother never served even pizza without soup and salad- meat, starch and greens were part of Every. Single. Meal.)
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I always preferred ketchup on my cheesesteak, sometimes I’d mix mayo and ketchup together and put that on it. But the real taste sensation was that special ingredient. It’s a common weapon in the Italian-American cook’s arsenal. It’s oregano. A sprinkle in the steaks while cooking then a quick dash when he loaded it into the roll.

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When Gussie died on September 12, my husband and I picked up my oldest daughter from college. I felt the only appropriate meal that night would be a cheesesteak. Believe it or not, in spite of being born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, my child had managed to never try a cheesesteak until a few weeks before. She called me that day, incredulous, asking how this had happened. The finicky eater had now decided she loved Philly cheesesteaks and was willing to try mine in honor of her grandfather. My husband, not a cheesesteak fan (New Yorkers, beh!) conceded that as far as steak sandwiches go, this one was pretty good.
So last night I made them again, and in spite of the lack of perfect rolls, the taste took me back to the 80’s, and I could picture my father standing at the stove and whistling and joking with me and my sister while he made those sandwiches. And even if I had the wrong rolls, dinner last night was still pretty damn good.

Honey, Lemon and Love

When I was a kid, certain care-taker roles in my house belonged to my father. I don’t know if one time he just stepped in or my mother was unsure of what to do, but there were a few that were definitely “Dad’s turf.”

One of these was sore throat care. Possibly because my father liked to sing (and did it well), he might have taken good care of his throat when he was sick himself. So when my sister or I were sick with a cold and sore throat, we counted on our Sicilian grandmother to slather us with Vicks- (read my story about her here: Nonna & the Vicks) and my dad to whip out the spoon. You see, the spoon was for a pile of honey, onto which he would then squirt lemon juice and pop into our mouths. Not my favorite but just as sure as I was that I would have a glass of orange juice for breakfast the next morning, I knew I was getting a spoon of honey and lemon when I got sick. It did make us feel better, but not as good as the cup of hot tea with honey and lemon he would make us before bedtime. Something about that tea when I was sick- even living there as an adult- comforted me.

It turns out my dad had the right idea all along. The Mayo Clinic published an article about the benefits of honey and lemon for sore throats and coughs, giving ME some backup now that I give it to my children. I think just knowing that Pop Pop used it should be enough, though. (Read: Mayo clinic.)


Another remedy my father insisted on was Chloraseptic throat spray. I HATED IT! Right down the throat but not fast enough to miss my tastebuds! I begged my father to let me skip that part but he would say “one quick spray” while I held my mouth open and he got two quick bursts in there instead of one. Duped! But on really bad throat days, that awful stuff numbed the heck out of my throat and allowed me to go to sleep. Father knows best.

So many nights as a kid I would be in bed, covered in Vicks and a flannel cloth courtesy of my grandmother, sipping tea and waiting for my shot of Chloraseptic so I could go to sleep. It was kind of an ordeal as well as a tradition. On days like today when I have a cold and sore throat, I wish my father were here to make me some tea or at least offer the advice as he had done for my adult life whenever I was sick: “Make yourself some tea with honey and lemon.”

This is my first cold where he hasn’t been here to give me that expected, yet sage advice. I’m an adult, I didn’t need him to tell me, but I was always glad he did. So, in his honor I had a spoonful of honey with lemon juice tonight.

I feel better already.

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