The most rewarding experience of my life was taking care of my parents in their elder years. I would not be who I am today if not for my Mom, Frances Turri ("St. Frances of Turri") and Dad, Herbie P. ("St. Pompeii"). As we enter Fall - and ready for the coming Holiday Season, I invite you to read these previous blog tributes to my parents, which I repost here today.
With good thoughts in appreciation for all,
THE TRIBUTE TO MY DAD (who passed into spirit on April 5, 1995)
My dad was always the first one in my family who remembered to play a joke on April Fool's Day. Only on his last celebration of the holiday in 1995, a mere five days before he died of lung cancer, did I find out why.
On April 1, 1924, when my father was just a boy, he lost his mother when she was 35-years-old. As her eldest child, he and my grandma Rose were quite close. I don't think he ever got over loosing her. He must have thought it was a bad joke that a twelve-year-old boy would lose his mother on April Fool's Day. It's like he made some kind of promise to himself that he would always be the first one to do a funny every year. It was probably the only way that he knew how to deal with the pain he must have felt every year on what should have been a very humorous day. Inside, I don't think he ever stopped asking where his mother was. From the day she passed away, there was no one there to comfort when he fell, so he fought. There was no there to guide him through school, to encourage him to get a formal education, so he quit.
He was on his own.
Still, when push came to shove, my father did remarkably well in this world. He always managed to enjoy himself in our hometown of Rochester, New York, and during his time in the service (World War II), which allowed him to travel to California and to the Philippines. He married at 40, and the good times continued with my mom, my sister and myself. In the fall of 1977, after years in the inner-city, we moved to a beautiful suburban townhome that we rented, and he loved it there. We all loved it there, from the moment we first went to inspect what would be our home for the next 18 years. Even after taking the long way, down the wrong road, on a rainy day, we somehow managed to end up at the right place.
After a time, however, my father grew bitter, thinking he had made the wrong decision by paying rent all those years and not purchasing a home. I tried to tell him again and again, that in life, no one really owns anything, that the life we all shared was good, even if we argued nearly every day, that a person's true success is measured by the quality time he has with others, not the quantity of material gifts he or she is able to gather in this world.
But he didn't want to hear about it. Then, when he got sick, he really didn't want to hear about it. And I didn't blame him.
Along with my father's physical ailments, his emotional state deteriorated. I prayed for his soul because I believed that he would not. At least, I thought he would not.
Then, one day, shortly before he passed away, I was trying to arrange the huge family rosary upon the holy mantel we had in our home. I couldn't find the right position. I gave up, and huffed away upstairs. About one half-hour later, I started back down the steps, and noticed my father situating the rosary in the most perfect way. At that moment, I knew that so simple and graceful a move had somehow cleared his path to heaven. All the times when he chose not to pray, all the moments when he could not find the strength to forgive himself for not going to school, finding the right job, paying into the right pension, winning the lottery, or losing at OTB; all the bitterness and anger that was eating away at him, was wiped clean. His heart was replenished. My father had faith, after all. But like so many of his other emotional truths, he concealed it.
Though, I had underestimated his integrity before.
While in fourth grade, I wanted to go to the circus.
"Get a good report card," he told me, "and I'll get you tickets."
I began to worry. I was a horrible student in the fourth grade. And when my report card arrived, as I had feared, I received all Ds and a great big F. After stalling for an hour or so in my room, I called him upstairs and showed him the card. He took it down into the living room. About 20 minutes later, he returned it to me. Inside were the tickets he had purchased weeks before. He granted me those tickets, when I thought he would punish me. But I punished myself by not comprehending the scope of my father's love.
Where was my faith?
Where was my faith when I worried how I would get to college, in a family of three drivers and one car? When my father showed up with a brand new car for me with which to commute to a local college, I was embarrassed. Once again, I had miscalculated the magnitude of his love, and the generosity of his spirit.
In the last weeks of my father's life, I did all I could to beautify his physical surroundings. Colors of creme, beige and eggshell filled each room. I wanted to make his transition to heaven real smooth. The new sofas and rugs were great, and I knew their staying power was weak. But they were strength-inducing for my dad. He walked around the house, looking at the new mini-blinds and kitchen floor, and said things like, "Well, it looks like we're going to be here at least a couple more years."
The rent began to matter less to him.
My sister, my mother and myself decided not to verbally inform him of the severity of his illness. And we're glad we did not. Every case is different, and had we acknowledged to my father how sick he was, he would have left us at least seven months earlier.
The bottom line? My dad knew in his heart how sick he was (how could he not?). We gave him all the proper medications, helped him to eat all the right food, etc. Telling my father (who viewed himself a failure all his life) that now, at 83 years old, he didn't have long to live, somehow just didn't mesh. So we all pretended he would get better, and, as a result, his last days were happier.
All the while, I would ask God to grant my father more time. And God complied.
I later prayed, "If it is your will to take my father, then grant us the strength to deal with the loss."
And God complied again.
We retained the strength, and I don't know how people with no faith deal with any loss.
Strangely, before my dad became sick, I asked God to show me what really matters in life.
Shortly thereafter, I went to get my hair cut. I was complaining about how it doesn't grow tall anymore, just long. The stylist put down his shears and told me this story:
"A little boy with thick curly, red hair came in one day, and I commented on how full his hair was. The little boy came back with a startling revelation. 'Well, you know,' he said, 'I have leukemia, and I'd trade in a second, my healthy hair for a healthy body.'"
Then, one night, I was watching Unsolved Mysteries on TV. There was a beautiful little girl, dying of cancer, and talking about how she spoke with the angels. How, for her, heaven was a place with colored clouds that taste like different kinds of ice cream; a place where the angels wonder what our favorite ice cream flavor is. She said "Chocolate Chocolate Chip." And then suddenly, one huge white cloud became one huge scoop of Chocolate Chocolate Chip.
In light of this happy thought, I pray today that my father's dairy dessert-flavored cloud is "Heavenly Hash," which he so enjoyed with my Mom many times on Earth. And if his sole (soul) mission in life was to bring the reader and the writer together now, with this communication in celebration of his life, then he completed his journey with flying colors -a term of which also may have its origins in those ice-cream flavored flying clouds.
THE TRIBUTE TO MY MOM (who passed into spirit on May 5, 2008)
My Mom was a great person, parent, sister, daughter, cousin, niece, friend and employee. She worked at Kodak for 17 years, just shy of earning a pension that would have “set her up for life.” But she left Kodak – to have me. Years later, after we moved from Erie Street to Greenleaf Meadows, she started working in the lunch room at Number 7 School.
My Dad used to take her to work, go to OTB, and then pick her up a few hours later. They’d go on to McDonalds, then Wegmans supermarket, and back to Greenleaf. After my nephew Sammy was born, they’d pick him up at daycare, and bring HIM back to Greenleaf. And that was their simple HAPPY life – every day – for years.
When I tried to move on with MY life after my father died, I made the attempt to bring my Mom to California. And that was pretty much a disaster. So, we brought her back here, and subsequently moved her to the South Village Apartments at the Shire in Irondequoit.
Meanwhile, I stayed in LA – and did a few shows – but my heart wasn't in it. I missed my Mom. I missed Rochester. So I came back and moved into the NORTH Village Apartments at the Shire, where I named myself the Volunteer Director of Activities. I wanted to create the sense of family that we had for years on Erie Street and at Greenleaf. So, I started throwing parties and picnics - big parties, little parties, pizza parties, Thanksgiving Day Parties, Christmas parties, New Years Eve parties, Easter parties, Tax Day Parties, and of course, the real big parties for my Mom’s 80th and 85th birthdays – the latter of which was the mother of ALL the parties.
People said, "Oh, Herbie J - you gave up your life for your Mother." But I never looked at it like that. I did those parties because I wanted to – and I enjoyed them. I'd see movies and TV shows about a small town boy who moved to the big city and made it big. He then realizes that the big city ain’t all that.
And I loved those movies – for a few hours. Then I thought, "You know - instead of me feeling all warm and fuzzie for just a few hours and instead of me putting all my energy into maybe writing scripts similar to those movies, I'd rather LIVE the scripts of life – then write them."
It’s because of my Mom that I came to appreciate the simple treasures of life – as opposed to the glamour and glitter of Hollywood. In turn, she gave me a treasure trove of stories, which will now one day be turned into movies and TV shows – maybe even with a few of YOU in them.
One of my favorite memories of my Mom centers around a TV show: The Golden Girls, which I’d watch with her whenever I had the chance. One afternoon last year, while watching the show with her, I thought about the full and successful lives and careers of the older women on the series. I also thought about how my own life has been so full of aspirations, personal and professional. I then looked over at my Mom, turned off the TV and asked, "Mom - what did YOU want to be when you were young?"
"What do you mean?" she said.
"Well," I continued, "Did YOU ever have any dream job or dreams of how you wanted YOUR life to turn out?"
My Mom sat there for a moment, with these questions, and searched her memory, which had been gradually erased by dementia. Yet, she glanced back at me, determined to give me an answer, and replied, "I guess it was always my dream to one day go to a community center every day, where I would have a good meal, be with people, play cards and bingo. That was always my dream."
At first, I was startled and sad for her. Whatever aspirations she may have had as a child, a teen or an adult, were gone - lost in the deep sleep of her memory. But then, after a moment, I was happy for her. My Mom had convinced herself in the short NEW history of her life that going to the Senior Center (every day for the last twelve years) was the fulfillment of a LIFE-LONG dream – and she was content.
I felt God shining upon and THROUGH her that day.
And I felt that a LOT in her last few months – more so than usual. Everything and everyone was beautiful to her. Everyone's blouse was pretty – everyone's shirt was sharp. The trees were so green. The sky was so blue. She was ALREADY seeing Heaven.
On EARTH, my Mom left me, my sister and my nephew with NOTHING. And yet, she left us with EVERYTHING. Nothing of what this world calls secure. And everything of what this world holds dear. My Mom left no diamonds, no cars or homes, no stocks, bonds or annuities – but taught us to understand the true value of endless forgiveness. She left us no cold, hard cash, but encouraged us to invest in warm, soft unconditional Love. She may have left Kodak one year shy of earning a pension, but in the end, or at least what we CALL the end, she had a penchant, as in ENTHUSIASM, for life – and it was concealed in new beginnings:
She died in the Spring, the season of rebirth, shortly before Mother’s Day, on May 5th – Cinquo de Mayo – a joyful 24-hour period that kicked off the week-long festival of lilacs, which bloom in the many shades of lavender - her favorite color.
I loved my Mom - and my Dad - and it is through them that I came to love all of you, and if I learned anything in caring for my parents in these last few years, I learned this: we are ALL Mothers and Fathers to one another…we are each other's CHILDREN – EQUAL in the eyes of ETERNAL Father/Mother. Whether on Earth or in Heaven, Love is the only thing that survives in BOTH worlds.
On Earth, my Mom's Love was packaged and shaped in a body and a personality called Frances. And though we may not see her now, everything about her that was Love - lives on...her sense of humor, the echo of her singing voice, every hug she ever gave, every blessing she ever made with her rosary - all of it - survives. Everything else that was NOT Love...the dementia...the fear...the anxiety...the heart ailments...the stomach issues - all of THAT has been burned away in the Light of GOD'S Love.
In my view, our journey and final destination is like a rocket soaring into space. The pieces of us that we don’t need – fall off as we move closer to the Light of God's EMBRACE – until all that is left is the little capsule that holds our soul. My Mom's capsule - filled with every loving thought and every act of loving kindness that she ever displayed on Earth - is now not only bundled together, magnified, multiplied and showcased in Heaven – but it’s the personal, immeasurable, immortal - and priceless legacy that she left for me, my sister, my nephew - and each of us.