gratitude-a-thon day 365: grateful for Louie

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This is Uncle Louie’s truck. A long time ago, he used to use it to sell fruits and vegetables on the back roads of Connecticut. His son Paul brought it up and parked it outside the house as we mourned.

It’s been a week since I last posted. Death will do that to you. Especially if it’s someone you love very, very VERY much and you will be helping to make the funeral happen. And that was the case. Yes, I know that at 91, you have gotten a longer run than most, but still, this death shook me like a martini at Harry’s Bar. I felt raw and numb, and disoriented and grateful and like I wanted to cry about everything bad that’s ever happened to me since kindergarten, all at the same time.

The thing is, the experience of losing Louie, had some moments where gratitude was monster big. Beautiful flowers and cards, meaningful and supportive words from friends, all felt like a warm blanket on a 2014 winter night (or March day, for that matter–it’s 16 out there this morning, people). It’s sort of amazing what a few words will do for a person when they’re in pain. If you ever think, “I should send a card,I should call” but then you get busy and forget, get unbusy and do it. You might just have an overall impact on someone’s shitty experience that will make a profound difference.

Two of my oldest friends, one from fourth grade, and one from freshman year of high school came to the wake and surprised me. Seeing Linda and Steph really soothed me. It was an effort for them to come, but it was a game changer for me and really helped me through an unspeakably painful night.

Being with my extended family, who came from all over the place to mourn the loss of our family’s patriarch, was perhaps what I am most grateful for. Because it reminded me where and what I come from. I am made up of aunts and uncles and cousins, and drop in visits, and picnics and days at the beach and weddings and babies and holidays and shared happiness and sadness. I grew up in the belly of an Italian family who nurtured me and gave me security to be the person I am on this day. I carry that family with me in my heart whether I’m grocery shopping or using my favorite swear word (say it with me, “fuck”). They give me strength when I feel like a 95 pound weakling. Although the first generation all lived in the same town, we’re  now all spread out in California, New York, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Now we don’t see each other unless there’s a funeral. And that, is maybe sadder than the funeral itself.

Anyway, I am back to the blog I’m so grateful to and the readers who I appreciate enormously for making me laugh and cry and continue to remember to be grateful every damn day. And while I didn’t think this was what I’d write about to celebrate my 365th post, I guess that’s what makes life interesting. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” But maybe it’s a good way to celebrate the gratitude-a-thon’s year anniversary, being grateful to a man who gave me a dad when I didn’t have one, and modeled a really beautiful way to live: in the present, doing what you love to do.

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This was what we called “Big Lou’s garden.” He loved to grow things. His is one of my most favorite backyards.

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gratitude-a-thon day 363: a guy called lou

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Uncle Louie, a.k.a, Lou Lou, Big Lou, Buster. This was the last time I saw him.

The thing about life that is so not great, is the death part. I want to accept and embrace it because I know that it’s the mandatory ying and yang, but it’s so deeply painful that I want to kill it like I want to kill this goddamn winter (and then death would be dead, ha!)

Death seems to get more copy, seems to be showier and more painful than any of the joyful parts of life. But really it’s not. If you think about the first time you fell in love, or you achieved something that seemed utterly unachievable, that inaugural moment when your eyes laid themselves upon the kind of blue ocean that can only be described as magical, the split second when you learn you’re having a baby, and then a little later when that baby comes tumbling into the world from seemingly thin air. A big belly laugh with friends, a cuddle with your furry family member, an exceptionally fine meal (or for that matter, a really greasy one). Maybe it’s only when you’re in the middle of the pain of loss that it seems to weigh so much more than happy does.

My Uncle Louie died Tuesday night after having what appears to have been a massive stroke. He was 91. That’s old. He had a full, great, and long life. He was the child of immigrant Italians from Calabria. He was a guy who sought joy, worked from the time he could walk, sold vegetables on a truck on the country roads of Connecticut, served in the Navy, was in the seminary, went to Fairfield University, taught history to loads of adoring students. In the summer, he bought houses, rehabbed them and sold them. He was a master gardener, and made his backyard into a magical bunch of flowers and food that would make Martha Stewart drool. He became a realtor when he retired from teaching. He was a school council member. He loved to cook, and even more to eat. He and my dad would have contests to see who could get chicken for the least amount of money a pound (God knows what they spent in gas doing this). He could build stuff, he could make things, he could fix whatever you had that was broken. He loved the beach the way I do. And nobody could pinch a cheek like Uncle Louie. He was in perpetual motion, not a guy who hung around to rest. He was a husband for 63 years and a dad to three amazing boys. And in my head, to me, too.

My mother has been gone for 22 years, my dad for 12. My aunt and uncle’s house was the place I visited and stayed when I went home. They were like parents to me, and like grandparents to my children. We spent every Thanksgiving at their house, last year being the first time we ate turkey without them (because of our trip to see Jake in Barcelona). This is a tradition that fills me up when I am down. We vacationed with them on the Vineyard and in Italy. We laughed. A lot. And we ate even more.

Because my mom died so long ago, sometimes I would stare at Louie because he looked like her. If I stared long enough, I could make his face into hers and pretend she was alive. I loved to share my kids with Louie because it felt like I was in some way sharing them with my mom, who never got to meet them and died a few weeks after I’d been told, “Your insides are a mess, you’ll never have a baby.” On her death bed, she told me I would indeed have a baby, and she was right.

When you get 91 years, and fill them up with good things the way Louie did, death shouldn’t be a time of sadness, but of celebration of a life well lived. I know it was time. It was probably time several years ago, as dementia had taken away his speech and most of what had made him, him. But I’m unspeakably sad. Sad in a way that goes deep, deep into the center of me. Sad in a way that makes me want to cry about everything awful that’s happened to me since kindgergarden.

You see, this is the last of the six siblings of my mom’s to die. This is it. I have nothing left of her.

But I’m grateful. Oh, I’m so grateful that I knew this man. He gave me so much, much more than he knew. The only thing that’s keeping me from crying all day is thinking about Louie, and my mom, his sister Louise at the all you can eat seafood and pasta bar in the sky. Buon appetito, guys. I love you.

gratitude-a-thon day 345: what you can’t imagine

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It’s funny how you can’t imagine some things. You give them some space in your mind every so often, to graze like cows on a farm, considering what they might be like. But not enough actual room to conjure up the real deal. This is the case with watching people you love get older and what happens to them, and how you don’t really think it will happen, even though you know it will, but there is such a gigantic leap across so many thousands of imaginary miles you have to take to believe it, that you ultimately just can’t until you’re in the actual situation. And even then, you feel like you’ve gone down the rabbit hole with Alice.

My uncle Louie has been in my life since I was born. A sturdy, funny, history teacher, master gardener, stellar  chef, superior eater, realtor, and really good cheek pincher. His three boys have always been like brothers to me. His wife, as close as a blood relative. And when my mother, Lou’s sister died, they became like parents to me, and then like grandparents to my children.

Uncle Louie has a form of dementia now that has stolen his ability to speak. This, for a born talker, is cruel. This for a doer and mover and shaker is mean. His strong body is still going as hard as ever, but his mind has had a “gone fishin'” sign for quite a while now. And so here we are. In that unimaginable place. And though we’re here, it’s still unimaginable. I miss that guy, although he’s still alive. It’s ridiculous and terrible not only for the person (although is it? Hard to know), but for those who are still here. It’s a bitter challenge to grieve someone who is walking around.

It would be a good thing to figure out how to die better. The end part of life can be so harsh, robbing everything a person is, infecting them with all sorts of maladies that make them into shadows. Should we be more like library books? Should we have return dates?  So grateful to have known him. My uncle. So lucky he once was mine.

gratitude-a-thon day 193: a summer weekend with lou and chris

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I brought Uncle Louie out to his garden to look at the tomatoes and basil and beans and flowers. This is land he has made into unspeakable beauty over the years.

This past weekend, we went to visit my Uncle Lou and Aunt Chris in Connecticut. Lou is my mother’s little brother, and the only remaining Uncle I have. Since my mother has been dead for 22 years and my dad for 12, Lou and Chris have acted much like parents to me, for which I will forever be grateful. By the time I had children, my mom had been gone for years and my dad wasn’t really in any kind of health to participate. Lou and Chris made a fuss. They visited and cooed, and sent gifts and made me feel like my children would have a little bit of the giant family I had when I was growing up.

Over the years, these two people have given me so much psychologically that it’s hard to quantify. One of the most beautiful things we’ve done together is to celebrate Thanksgiving at their house each year. It’s tradition. Sometimes there are loads of people, sometimes just my family, but always there is too much food, and a lot of laughs and enough love to package and send overseas to those less fortunate. We’ve been to the Vineyard together, and Italy, too.

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We took Aunt Chris out to dinner at her favorite restaurant. I missed Louie being there.

Louie has always been a whirlwind of activity. A vibrant firecracker of a guy. Never one to sit still, he was always building something, fixing what was broken, gardening, cooking, eating, or driving 20 miles out of his way for chicken that was 39 cents a pound instead of 59 cents a pound. A history teacher turned real estate agent, his passion for life was big as the gosh darn moon.

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Here’s Lou. He only sits for a minute, before he’s off to do the stairs again.

He is 91 now. And he has severe dimentia. He no longer has speech. Always a big guy, my Italian uncle has lost so much weight, even with my bad back, I could probably pick him up. He now has around the clock nurses in his home. He walks up and down the stairs upward of 100 times a day. Even the nurses can barely keep up. Even with more than nine decades tucked under his belt, you can’t keep this guy down.

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This is always how Lou and Chris have said goodbye to us when we leave. Chris came out to do it alone, but then Lou, surprisingly, came to the door and joined her on the porch.

It was terribly hard to see him this weekend. I know he has had a great life. And I know that we are nearing the end of it. My aunt, who has been with Lou since she was 17, is trying to let go, but with Lou in and out of her face 20 times a day, she is constantly reminded that she is losing her life partner, and she can’t quite catch up to it. Who could? How do you cope with life when it’s this real?

There’s so much more to say about endings and getting older, and accepting the way life rolls out. But I am sad today. I am sad, but I am grateful. But mostly, I am sad. And that’s the best I can do.