Monday, August 27, 2012

Triumph of "The Boss"

She taught me how to live, how to love, and how to believe.

She gave me everything, she was my everything... and now – after 95 incredible years, capped by a long twilight struggle – she’s gone home, as she always said, to “walk with my King.”

As some have sensed, the quiet of these weeks has been due to exceptional, very personal circumstances.

At the end of July, my beloved maternal grandmother – known to veteran readers as “The Boss” – began hospice care. Ever the fighter, my greatest teacher, example and hero still tried to charge on, but we lost her just after noon on Friday, 17 August.

To say that my grandmother was the dominant force in my life only begins to describe the role she's played and her impact on me. Despite standing all of 4-foot-7, she was a force of nature. Even more, though, she was a force of faith, and her story – no lie, the stuff of legend – shines as proof of the power and richness that can only be born from a pure, committed love of God and the rest. As she always urged me in her inimitable immigrant’s “broke English,” yet with a pride that broke through any language barrier, “Rocky, you write my book. It be better than the Bible.”

Indeed, I have never known anyone who embraced the Cross like she did, and doubt I ever will. Gram’s life was full of them – from being raised in a Vincentian orphanage in Italy after her parents died before she was four, to coming to this country and being led under false pretenses into an arranged marriage to a man 23 years her senior, becoming a widow with seven kids before her 40th birthday, then working three jobs to raise the family on her own as her daughters slept three to a single bed. And these were merely the biggest hurdles among many others.

To put it mildly, her road was anything but easy, glamorous or comfortable. But the long, hard path of sacrifice would come to bear as great a reward in the family she always wanted: seven kids, 26 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandbaby. Add in the spouses, and we number well over 100. In other words, we’ve become a tribe unto ourselves.

Not bad for an orphan, by any stretch. Ask how she got over, though, and her answer was always the same: “I do my little part, and God did the rest.” And in thanksgiving and praise for the help she found from above, for as long as she could walk, Boss remained a daily communicant, faithfully trudging the half-mile to the parish plant and back for morning Mass practically everyday into her late 80s.

Sure, the clan she leaves behind is big, everybody knows the stories, and – formidable as she was even to the end – no shortage of her own feared her as much as they loved her. But I never did. Unlike the others, I never had any reason to, because all she ever showed me was the best of love – more than I ever could’ve asked for, so much more than I’ll ever deserve.

By seniority – an important thing in a group this size – this scribe formally ranks as Boss’ 21st grandchild. In reality, though, I was more like her eighth child. Part of that was by circumstance – as my parents lived with her for the first three years of their marriage, her house was my first home, and even after they moved out, she was with me every day, always maintaining (to my mother's fury) that "I raise him, you know."

Apart from college (albeit just across town), I’ve never lived more than a three-minute walk from her door. Yet even being a couple blocks away could only go so far; in personality and spirit, we were a perfect, truly providential fit with each other from the start. That bond only became stronger and deeper with the years, and both from her and others, I had little choice over time but to realize that she saw in me the "baby" who would bring her greatest dreams to their fulfillment.

No pressure, of course.

As a kid, my grandmother showed me the gift of love. Yet over these last years, she’s taught me the responsibility that comes with it. Accordingly, now it can be told that, aside from this work, I’ve spent the last three years as a supporting player to my Mom and five aunts as they formed an uncertified, but beyond-devoted family care team who would each spend part of every day taking turns with Gram in her nursing home, to help with her meals, fetch the phone, her beloved lollipops and whatever else she needed... but perhaps most of all, in the attempt to keep her from driving the staff crazy. (Per usual with her, the latter was much easier said than done.)

When you spend a good bit of your life on the “dementia floor” of a care facility and worship in a makeshift chapel quickly fashioned out of a dining room, you learn a lot of things – beautiful and difficult alike – that no Ivy League education could ever teach you. It's a lot less expensive, to boot, but all the more priceless. Most of the time, you can't help feel absolutely brokenhearted on encountering people whose loved ones only show up at Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving or some other holiday and – whether or not they remember their own – simply long for a smile or a “hello,” and just want someone to hear them when they say, as somebody would on any given day, “Help me.” In Gram’s case, meanwhile, much as she might never have lacked for company, the struggle came in having to give up the stubborn self-reliance that got her through everything else. Yet even as she accepted the crushing Cross of living without her prized mobility, her short-term memory and, eventually, her eyesight – none of which she would cop to, and despite all of which she demanded almost daily to go home “So I make dinner” – the most moving thing was how she immediately knew the lion's share of us just by voice.

I was anything but perfect at my little part, but this has been the most important and meaningful thing I’ve ever been blessed to do. If I had to do it over again, I would in a heartbeat... and if God had given us three or seven or ten more years with her, I would’ve been there without a second thought. To be completely honest, many years ago I made a deal with God – that, for as long as he’d keep my heart around for me, I would be by her side as best I could, just as she always was for us. Much as it’s often been tough – and, sure enough, not without its failures and temptations – I’ve kept these pages going above all in the hope of making good on that promise, while trying to be somewhat productive in the wider world. So at this turn in the road, those of you who’ve helped keep the bills paid and this shop afloat over time now know that the greatest gift you’ve made possible has been much more than Whispers, and I can never thank you enough for it.

In the same vein, the way these years have panned out has allowed for some really beautiful and moving moments that’ve done so much to give Boss the honor and respect she always sought, and earned even more. From her A-game turn in a memorable (yet sadly unaired) NPR interview, to a surprise PopeGift for her 90th birthday, to bringing her the cap and hood of a doctorate born of her lessons and witness, and most especially, the hundreds of prayers and Masses she’s been remembered in over time, most recently among some great and faithful friends over these last days... and, please God, over the ones to come.

To those of you who have offered these sweet blessings from so many places, literally across the globe, no words can express my heartfelt, eternal thanks and those of my family for all the love, generosity and goodness with which you’ve showered someone you never met, much as I wish you could’ve. Even from a distance, you can’t imagine how much you gave my grandmother, nor how much comfort and strength she found from hearing about the closeness in spirit. As she'd always say on learning of the prayers, "No wonder I feel better"... and in a word, that's the beauty of the faith she loved at its best; this is what makes us Church.

At the same time, hopefully all of you understand the need to have kept the events of these years and weeks private in the moment. Much as I had written about her often in earlier years, once Gram entered the nursing home in late 2009, for someone who had endured so much humiliation but always was driven to live in proud dignity, I came to the conclusion that to openly share updates on her decline and struggles was not appropriate in a public forum. Along the same lines, I have needed the last month to devote my time and energy completely to her, to my family, and to prepare myself for a blow I’ve dreaded for years. I still have yet to fully absorb it – the last month’s been more like running on autopilot than anything else – and now, the most important thing for me in the near-term is to help my Mom and the rest through these early stages, to try and recharge, and to start feeling my way along a very different road ahead.

I have no idea how long that will take, nor where it will lead. I just know I need the time, and I pray you will respect it.

Over her near-century on this earth, Lord knows how many times my grandmother was doubted, rejected, bitterly maligned and bruisingly tried. Yet for it all, she always walked on, she always trusted, she never stopped fighting... and in the end, just like the Lord she followed to the hilt, she won – like all the ones before, she carried her final Cross to its completion in God's time, and in an impeccably merited tribute to everything she was, gave, loved, believed in and stood for, a crowd of over 1,200 relatives, friends and neighbors thronged the old church to help us pray her home with love and thanks last Tuesday night.

Brutal as all this is, it was eerily fitting that only after setting the funeral dates was I reminded of how the next morning’s burial would take place on the feast of the Queenship of Mary. And at a moment like this, those kind of “coincidences”-that-aren’t are worth their weight in gold.

To say that Boss was devoted to Our Lady would be the height of understatement; her house had enough images and statues to fill a decent Marian shrine (or appear as if she had robbed its gift-shop). The key, however, is the story behind it; having lost her mother when she was two, through practically her whole life Gram saw the Madonna as the Mom who would never leave her. Yet never more was this the case than after my grandfather died.

Only over recent weeks did two of my aunts tell me the story of how, on returning home from her husband’s funeral (to which, due to their poverty, the family traveled by subway), my grandmother sat in a chair by her window and prayed aloud.

The younger kids were playing, but the older girls could hear her say, “Dear Blessed Mother, give me the courage to raise this family alone.”

Of course, the feast of 22 August celebrates our belief that – “a sword” having pierced her soul in this life as she loved, raised, believed in and sacrificed her Son – the Mother of God had won the crown in heaven which she so thoroughly earned on earth.

Now, by no means was Boss ever immaculate – hearing her talk for just ten seconds invariably proved that – but the sword would often come to pierce her own soul, too... and whenever it did over 95 years, all that ever flowed out was love: a love whose true measure, as she always taught us both in strong word and heroic witness, is only ever found in one thing: “sacrifice.” From Castorano to South Philly and everything in between, that word was the song of her life – ever a painful one, but one she sang with everything she had, in faith that she would rejoice in its yield and, above all, so her own would be all the richer for it.

As you’ve likely come to figure out over the years, our family’s exceptionally good at talking – like most Italians, it’s a means of survival for us – so I could go on, and on and on... but, really, I can’t. At least, not yet.

More than any other, the voice that made mine is stilled. Every day of my life, whether in person or over the phone, at home and on the road, it formed me, guided me, prayed with me, cheered me on, taught me the keys to life and banged them into my (duly inherited) hard head so I would never forget them. And without the passionate, brilliant, ever-faithful and all-loving heart behind those words, I just don’t know what I’m going to do.

Small as she was and for all the things she’d say to the rest, there was always a line she kept just for me: “Rocky, you gonna be somebody big one day.” Where it counts most, I’ll never be as “big” as she – nowhere close. Yet even if the expectation panned out, like everything else I’ll owe it to nothing more than the blessing of having been raised by the tiny giant who gave her life so I could have mine to the full.

For now, though, the only big thing I feel around is the hole in my heart and my days, and those of all the rest who tried to give back to Gram what she did for us. Still, even for this, God is good – in all the time we’ve had, in all the love she lavished us with... and admittedly, over these last few weeks, in letting us see and begin to grasp that we couldn’t have asked for anything more than all our devoted mother and truly fearless leader begged heaven and willed herself to give and do for us.

To say I'll miss her doesn’t begin to cut it. To say I love her is the key to my life. And to say that whatever’s good in me is her and everything she gave me is the absolute truth.... But now, dear Blessed Mother – both of you – give me the courage to live up to all of it.

Mamma, aiutame oggi e sempre.
Boss, I love you... pray for us!