In my late forties my career was taking off and with my last child in high school life was delicious. There were few problems to dwell on and Monday mornings were an exciting, joyful experience. I had been blessed. My three older children were busy with their marriages and bourgeoning families. I was a proud grandmother of six beautiful grandchildren by then. A year earlier my daughter had lost twin boys at birth, her second pregnancy and a difficult one that had required her to be hospitalized to prevent an early delivery. It was heartbreaking for her and her husband. I ached for her loss and began thinking how fortunate I had been all these years. This was the first funeral I had been to in almost a half century of living. I had been blessed.
My baby brother Billy had died when I was six years old, but I never attended his funeral. I was devastated but my mother chose to keep my sister and I away from the normal process of life and death and we were not allowed to attend. All I remember was my father, a usually stoic, undemonstrative man, sitting on the sofa, in our tiny apartment in Naval base housing, head in hands, weeping. The smell of lilies, sickeningly sweet and pungent, permeating the air of our tiny home turned my stomach. My younger sister was two and oblivious to the change in our lives but I had come home from school each day and run in to see my baby brother and sing the little songs I’d learned to him. He laughed and cooed his delight. It filled my heart with overwhelming joy. His leaving had left a huge emptiness is my life and had taken the joy away from my childhood. There was a plaintive record my mother played over and over at that time with a refrain “Marquita I love you, I’m always thinking of you…” in such achingly sad tones that it allowed me to sit sobbing while listening. The tone resonated with my loss and pain that I had no outlet for. All through my childhood and teens I would think of Billy from time to time and I allowed myself to grieve alone in my room, wallowing in the melancholy of my first love, lost love.
Although my daughter’s babies were my first funeral it wasn’t my first introduction to loss or my second either. One dark cold February night in Roslindale, Massachusetts, I was visited by two Naval officers who would forever change my life. When I answered the door and saw them standing their steamy breath streaming from their mouths and nostrils, I couldn’t imagine who they were and why they were there.
” Mrs. Donato?” they queried.
“We’re from the Providence Naval installation. May we come in?”
“OK,” I said hesitantly.
I pointed into the parlor and after being seated they introduced themselves. To this day their names have escaped me. They had come to tell me that my husband’s plane had be shot down by enemy ground fire in Southeast Asia. Paul and I had been married seven years when he had been sent to Thailand to assist with the Vietnam conflict. It was 1968. My life was changed forever. My loss and grief was to be delayed for 24 years before the Navy was able to do an excavation of the crash site of the plane. I had never lost hope in all those years that he would be found alive.
I’d had friends who had lost parents, other friends and relatives. Never anyone close enough for me to be involved in the grieving process or attend a funeral until now. Although my heart ached for my daughter, I couldn’t grieve grandsons I’d never known. I focused my emotional energy on her and supporting her little family. When my grandparents had died I felt a loss but it felt “normal”. They had been in a nursing home for several years and their physical health had been poor for sometime. I had made a trip to to visit with all the kids and felt it was more important to have seen them while they were living and could enjoy our time together so decided not to travel the 1500 miles to attend their funerals.
It wasn’t until just shy of my 60th year that I was hit with my first devastating loss as an adult. My oldest son Nick’s second son drowned in the family pool while they were living in Costa Rica. Again my focus was on Nick and supporting him through this terrible loss. I loved Marc but the loss was primarily Nick’s.
Seven years later while I was busy getting my classroom ready for a day of middle school students, I got a call from Nick’s wife, Lana. She had just had a visit from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s department to notify her that Nick and been killed in a single car crash while he was working out of town in Iowa. I told her I would be there as soon as I could to help. I thought about Nick and all he had accomplished in the last decade of his life. He was a recovering cocaine addict, had diabetes and hepatitis C and had been on disability. He hated it and worked hard to get his diseases under control and be able to go back to work. Three years earlier he and Lana had been able to buy their first home. He had recovered from the loss of his son Marc and his faith was strong. He and Lana had spent a couple of years in Costa Rica doing mission work with street children. All of this made it possible for me to focus on Lana and her loss. Nick was almost 50 when he died and although I couldn’t imagine life without his boisterous, booming voice and huge hugs, I was able to deliver his eulogy and believed that his life was a life well lived. He had reached all the goals he had dreamed of for himself and had seen his first three grandsons born. His satisfaction and joy in life assuaged my pain and grief.
A year later I lost my dad. He and I spent most of my previous 58 years at odds with each other and many times not communicating at all. But the past seven years had been a blessing and we wiped away all the past hurts and animosity and spent at least one afternoon a week sharing thoughts on the world, politics, religion, and people in general over drinks and snacks consisting of Wisconsin cheeses, cashews and my dads favorite crackers, Wheat Thins and our favorite cocktails. His was Gin and I had my Canadian Mist. As I sat in the hospital while he drew his last breath, I was so grateful that we had that time together to know and cherish each other. His death was a loss but a blessing at the same time after years of breathing problems and pain.
From 2006-2012 My mom came to live with me suffering from Dementia and macular degeneration. She was, in her own words, a melancholy, private person and although she loved to play bridge with her buddies at the bridge club and senior center, she didn’t make friends easily and never would entertain the idea of a housemate as her needs became more apparent. I decided she would be devastated living in an assisted living facility. My siblings and I sat down with her over dinner one evening and gave her the choice of assisted living, getting a live in caregiver or moving in with me. It was a very difficult choice for her since we had never had congenial personalities but I was the lesser of the evils and in the summer of 2006 we got a house together and spent the last years of her life there. One morning when she hadn’t come to the kitchen for her usual breakfast of Grapenuts, half and half and orange juice, I went down the hall to check on her. I could hear her snoring as if in a deep sleep and decided to wait before waking her. It was still early. A while later it suddenly got quiet so I went in to check on her progress getting dressed and found she had left this realm. I was relieved. Mom had been tortured with the confusion of her mind and the limitations of not being able to see for several years. This was a blessing and a release from her suffering.
Four weeks ago I suffered a truly devastating loss. After ten years of providing a home for my second son Tony who was suffering from mental illness and addiction I found him dead. During those ten years Tony struggled mightily to overcome his demons. He took classes and got certified to update his job skills and religiously looked for jobs. Whenever he’d get an interview, he’d be hired. He was a talented highly skilled IT systems admin before his disease kicked in and still had the knowledge and abilities required to be successful. I prayed mightily and daily that he would overcome this evil that possessed him. He was a loving and devoted father and grandfather but was unable to maintain those relationships because of his illness. His children lost the benefit of his love and nurturing nature. He was never able to hold a job for more than a few weeks before being unable to go in to work. We talked at length and he saw therapist but he never could tell me why he couldn’t maintain his equilibrium. It seemed to plague him as much as it did me. I was grateful when three years ago I told him I thought it might help if he went to church with me. My spiritual base has always seen me through life’s challenges. I told him, no commitments, just give it a try and see if it helped. I was delighted when he took me up on it and then continued to attend mass every week except when the depression overwhelmed him and then he always expressed regret of being unable to go, for himself not for me. When I found Tony my heart broke. Such a beautiful man, so much talent, so much love to give, so kind and generous. This was my greatest loss. I felt so helpless and unable to do anything. I’m grateful again that his suffering is over but it breaks my heart that he couldn’t experience the joy and delight life has to offer. There are so many people we know who are suffering. Can’t we do something to make their life a little more tolerable? Can’t we be more forgiving, understanding and patient with those who suffer. Family members from across the country attended Tony’s funeral mass. Everyone who knew him told me they’d never known a kinder more generous man with so much talent who worked so hard. Being together and sharing his life was healing. Everyday I experience a reminder of him in the things he did and said, his hugs of peace in mass and his “Love you, Mom”. Good bye baby. I love you and wish you peace and joy.