Seeing someone die – the actual moment of his last breath – changes a person. My ensuing transformation is in progress. But ever since I was with my grandpa when he passed in March, I have been trying to make sense of it all – life, death, love, and even work. To tell the truth, I’m more confused than ever. Although I long to be the eternal optimist, I never quite get there. It’s just not me. Sadness – with a dash of disillusionment and disappointment – is still washing over me on a regular basis. I’ve actually found comfort in it.
Over the summer, I was in my grandpa’s hometown in Italy, and I spent a lot of time purposefully distracting myself with life’s joys – a walk on the beach and the feel of the sand between my toes, the beauty in every word my nearly 4-year-old son utters, hugs and kisses from the ones I love, the ability to savor delicious food, relishing silence, and making memories on which I can dwell when the tears strike. I’m grateful for all of it, but none of it removed the aching for those who have left us, and the memories we’ll never make with them again. In fact, often these pleasures make what’s missing all the more obvious. My yearning and nostalgia has become about not only my grandfather but the ugly degradation of our family tree with its far more empty branches on both sides.
Then, I returned to my United States. As soon as we entered the driveway, I noticed the miracle growing out of the pavement in our driveway. A tomato plant had sprung up as if out of the blacktop. An employee of my father’s D&D Landscaping decided to nurture the plant, rather than pull it like a weed as many would have done. He gave it soil, so the plant could take root, added a protective wall with brick scraps, and began watering it each morning and evening. So far, his work has paid off. The plant is thriving. More than that, it’s inspiring me.
I can’t help but think that my grandfather planted the seed for these tomatoes. I need to believe that he is telling me life goes on, that he is with us in spirit, and that we all need to nurture and grow until our dying day – no matter the circumstances or challenges thrown in our way. I am certain I’m reading too much into this. But if tomatoes growing out of cement don’t signal hope, I don’t know what will.
What makes a life? In the end, we will not be measured by the weight of gold we’ve stashed under the mattress or even our career or lack thereof. Rather, we will be judged by the number of people whose lives we’ve touched, the love we’ve shared, the family we’ve built, and the memories we’ve made.
Few people have achieved as much life success in that way as my grandpa, Rocco Di Costanzo. But it was not without risk or obstacle. When he traveled with me to his native Ischia in 2004 – the last trip he ever made home – we walked the old road to Maronti, which is today the largest and most popular beach on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. Back when Grandpa lived there it was all beaches and mountains, sites for the natives to work the land and keep a simple life and not the tourist trap it is now. So, we walked the old road to Maronti, one of the last vestiges of the island’s past, to honor the fact that Grandpa had made that same journey everyday as a boy when he had to till soil and tend to a family garden. My grandparents were in their 70s at the time, and I was a 20-something just getting over bronchitis and there was rocky terrain, dirt roads, enormous cobblestone staircases, rolling hills, and uphill challenges that I feared would kill us. Although it may have contributed to a massive knee injury one day later (mine, not my grandparents, thank God), I’ve never regretted that walk. Not ever.
All the way, Grandpa remembered his youth out loud – planting tomatoes on their property, sneaking cigarettes, the feel of the sand, running with his brothers on the beach, his parents, and all the rest. Indeed, when you look closely at the pictures of him on that walk with me – in his “I’m an old, Italian man” hat – you can see both the boy and the man.
Grandpa gave me – gave us – so many memories like that one. He bestowed upon us a love of the Yankees and trips to the stadium, an utter devotion to family, and a desire to see both our relatives, many of whom live abroad, and the world. He shared with me: Ischia (twice), Paris, Washington, D.C., and Canada. In fact, my cousin Morgan and I still have the Labatt Bleue can marks stamped on our bottoms (from sitting on cases of the beer) to remember our trip with him to Montreal. If I recall correctly my brother’s seat was a giant piece of unsliced prosciutto.
Grandpa gave us other stuff, too – narrow-angle glaucoma, baldness, our loud mouths and an uncanny ability to insert a foot in them, and a weakness for cigarettes and whiskey. Some or all of these qualities may apply to you. But that was just the well-worth-it price you paid to be Rocco Di Costanzo’s relative.
Ultimately, like any immigrant, Grandpa gave us the greatest gift of all: the opportunity to dream and actually chase it. When he was a young man coming to the United States for the first time, he was making sacrifices few people would make for the children he hadn’t had yet and the grandchildren and great grandchildren he couldn’t yet fathom. Would you marry a stranger to get access to a foreign land? Would you leave your parents and siblings virtually forever? Would you move to a place with a completely different cuisine, history, culture, and language?
My grandparents didn’t even know each other when they wed more than 60 years ago, so Grandpa could legally come to the United States. At 19 and 20, they were mere babies by today’s standards. For Grandpa, it meant leaving behind everything he ever knew. Together, my grandparents raised six kids, five of them boys. Having one boy myself – who looks and acts like my uncles – I marvel at that fact everyday. I can barely handle the one. My grandparents worked hard to feed and shelter these kids. They sent them to school to receive an education my grandfather could never have imagined in his native Ischia.
They did it all, so we could make marks with pens and not shovels in our work, start our own businesses, breed birds, pilot a plane, work for a hockey team, marry our soul mates whom we dated before marrying, serve as leaders and not followers, and be bona-fide Americans, replete with passports and New York (or New Jersey or Michigan) accents. Sure, Grandpa helped build the lunar module as a soldier for Grumman and successfully brought back slave labor when “hiring” his sons to work for him when running a small landscaping business. And he may or may not have caused a few fires and a couple of serious injuries when doing housework that still have us both laughing and crying. Yet, he managed to keep all his fingers. “Miracolo,” as they say in the old country.
Still, his kind heart and unmatched generosity – just ask all his neighbors about his good deeds, such as blowing their leaves for free and bringing over fruits and veggies straight from his garden – are what we’ll miss most. For goodness sake, the man lost his leg nearly a decade ago, and he was still doing yard work, trying to clean up snow, and cooking for Uncle Gino – and anyone else who was around – until very recently. In the last six weeks of his life, Grandpa became someone else, someone he never wanted to be – a dependent, a burden even. When he understood what was happening, he was praying for God to take him. But in his moments of clarity, he sent loud and clear messages to us. On his last truly lucid day in the hospital, I asked him if he knew who I was. “If I didn’t know you, Francesca, I wouldn’t know myself,” he told me. He had to repeat it because we weren’t sure if that was what he said the first time. He wasn’t just talking to me. I was just the one in front of him. He was telling all of us with those words that we’re apart of him. And that can never change.
When I arrived at his house with my mom, his only daughter, and my cousin Morgan on March 28, he was still alive. We could hear him moaning in pain when my uncle and grandmother lifted him, and we waited on the bottom of the stairs for them to change and dress him. We heard him say yes and then no when Uncle Gino asked him to sit up. And then we came up the stairs and we each kissed him and felt his last breaths on our faces. My grandmother held his head and tried to get him to talk to her. Two minutes later – just like that – he left our world for another more beautiful one. He waited for the elder women of the family because we women are the uniters of family, the givers of life. With those last three kisses – one for each of us – and those final breaths he was saying hello and good-bye to us all. It’s my honor and privilege to remind you that he is living on inside each of us, his family – and not just the people in the United States but the nieces, nephews, brother, and in-laws he has around the world in Italy, France, Australia, Argentina, Canada.
There’s no question that his greatest legacy is this family. He would not want us to cry over him. Instead, he would want us to love hard and raise a glass, or shot, in his honor – together – as often as possible. “I’ll drink to that.”
I kicked off the new year a few weeks ago with my parents and grandparents, and to celebrate we played bowling, ping pong, and sword dueling on the Wii. (To join the rockin’ party, visit the “New Year’s Eve 2011” photo album.) We have to turn my rug around to make an alley for my father to get a running start. He has to bowl as though he actually has the ball in his hands, as opposed to the Wii remote, and he took a major spill on my hard wood floors the first time he played on Christmas. The traction from the rug helps, but he jumps so hard at the end of each run that the house shakes. Still, he usually wins. But on New Year’s Eve, Grandma was the big winner of the night. She was pretty great at bowling strikes and popping the ping pong ball to win points. I, however, earned the title of sword dueling champion. I credit all my pent-up anger for those wins. I just pretend the avatar I’m facing is one of the many enemies I collected like bottle tops in 2010. (Shut up, you all know who you are!) All those enemies sunk into the virtual ocean, baby, and it felt oh so good. Although we were all sore the next day, we had so much fun that I’ve been continuing to Wii with my husband Antonio. I can be a sore loser, however, so I sometimes get a time out. Still, a good time is generally had by all, and my time is better when I win.