I wrote a story here a few weeks ago about friendships and relationships. How I’m trying to learn to be a giver and not just a taker. I have many examples of givers in my life to learn from. My wife and my mother to name two.
I finished that story while in Boston on assignment and spent the next day and a half driving home, complete with a few detours to meet friends Seshu Badrinath at his home in Connecticut and Ken Carfagno for pizza outside of Albany along the way.
I arrived home utterly exhausted from four days of less than adequate sleep. The night before, at a relatively empty motel in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, I drew the short straw of being in the room below a man singing “Everybody Hurts” by REM over and over and over. Everybody hurt-including me- when I couldn’t get back to sleep.
Before I left, I called my wife, sent out a few emails, and took a few minutes to scroll through my Facebook feed. My cousin Diane posted that her son Cooper was sick. I noticed that my Aunt Kathy had commented, hoping that little Coop was feeling better. My Aunt had sent us a check and a card for Christmas, I remembered, and I needed to thank her for it when I got home.
I made it home in time to meet Elizabeth for lunch. My droopy eyes caused Elizabeth to give me that pity look. I’m fine, I said, for the 100th time. I was ready for bed long before the sun went down.
I awoke after my first good night sleep in almost a week to a series of texts and phone calls from my mom from the night before. I could tell something was wrong before I heard her voice. Everything pops into your head as the phone rings. Who died? Something wrong with my dad? My brother? My Uncle Richie, who is battling Leukemia? I hate those phone calls.
“I have really bad news for you,” my mom prepared me. “Your Aunt Kathy passed away last night.”
That cold, startled feeling that swept through my body is unmistakable.
Those phone calls happen for everyone of us throughout life. Elizabeth lost her dad when she was fourteen and she has been forced to think differently about death than I have. I’m forty three and I’ve lost grandparents and friends, but the closest to me have still been with me. That’s probably odd for someone my age and the odds get worse with each passing day. But it’s been a fortunate blessing.
Being Italian, people assume that we come from a large family but that isn’t the case with us. I have two parents, one brother, two aunts, two uncles, and less than then seven cousins on my side.
My childhood was intertwined with my aunt, uncle and cousin. So many memories race back from the family gatherings at their home on 267th Street in Queens. We’ve never been as close as we were back then and my moving out of New York in 1998 ensured that.
I seemed to always know that I wouldn’t live in New York once I grew up. I always loved geography and travel and it just seemed natural for me that I would eventually move. But there is guilt inside me that comes out and my lack of loyalty to the New York metropolitan area. All of my family is there. Every family member I mentioned lives within a few hours drive. Pittsburgh is the closest I’ve lived since I moved, and that’s still and eight hour drive back home.
My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Richie were both always my allies within my extended family. When I fought with my father during my most defiant years, it was their house where I took refuge. It was their number that I called. When I started interning at Newsday as a photographer, my aunt switched loyalties from the Daily News to create a scrapbook of all of my published photographs.
I used to joke with her because she was afraid to drive on any highways. She would find any combinations of side roads to make it to see my cousin Diane without driving a moment on the Long Island Expressway or the Grand Central Parkway. One of my favorite stories came when Elizabeth and I were married in 2002.
Aunt Kathy had a fear of flying that trumped her fear of highways. With our wedding taking place in Cleveland, the nine hour drive from Queens was out of the question. So they bought the plane tickets and she did the uncomfortable. As the plane lifted off from Laguardia Airport, there was smoke on the plane. The flight had to be aborted and turned back to the airport. Amazingly, she pushed all of her fears aside and got onto the next plane and was there for our wedding.
At the reception, with a mixture of laughter and fright, my Uncle relayed the story to me. She rushed over and took hold of my arm with power that I didn’t know she possessed. Through a nervous smile that made me laugh, she said the words that confirmed the love that she had always expressed through her actions.
“Only for you, Vincent!,” she let me know. “Only for you!”
Only it wasn’t only for me. I knew she would have done that for everyone in her life, but she certainly knew how to make me feel special. She spent her days caring for her mother, where everyday she would bring her meals and her favorite newspaper every day at the same time. She would care for my uncle, who has battled leukemia for five years now. If anyone s going to beat the nasty disease it will be him. He handles pain unlike anyone I’ve met in my life. That strength is going to be needed now more than ever.
It’s hard not to feel guilty for not doing more no matter how great a relationship was. I hadn’t seen her since the summer at the beach. We went with the kids down to the water and they had to get home before we got back. I never got to say goodbye in person. If an unemotional me was talking to present emotional me, I would make sure I knew that those things happen. It’s just hard when it’s what goes through your head.
When my uncle was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, it was always in the back of my head that she was going to have to learn how to live without him. It never crossed my mind that he was going to have to live without her.
Shortly after returning from Boston, I was on the road for New York for my aunts funeral. I can find a silver lining in just about anything but some parts of life seem to make that difficult. The night that she passed, she was suffering from a tremendous headache and within an hour of telling my uncle, she was gone.
And at her funeral, I realized that even though I knew my aunt since I was born, I didn’t really know much about her. She always made it about me. Or my Uncle. Or Diane, her mom or her grandkids. It was never about her, almost to a fault.
Her favorite singer was Rod Stewart, but I never heard her play his music. My uncle told a fabulous story the following day that really summed up who she was. One of the few times that she got angry at him, she picked up a box and instead of throwing the shoes, she threw the paper that separated the shoes. The paper went about a foot before fluttering to the ground.
“I’m so angry at you,” she yelled, “but I didn’t want to hurt you.”
They both burst out in laughter.
And the first thing that crossed my mind when she passed, and what is still in my mind today, is that I never called to thank her for the Christmas gift. Knowing her, she didn’t think twice that she hadn’t heard from me. She was doing so many things for so many people, how could she even keep track of the thanks that were owed to her?
I tell myself that I can’t worry about the guilt. I’m positive that if I were to buy the farm today, I wouldn’t be thinking about being thanked for something I did. But I still regret not calling. And maybe there is no silver lining, but there is the opportunity to learn from the pain. And I learned that it’s the calls that you don’t make that can be the hardest to live with.