coping

Heart Unending

Death is not convenient.  There are always so many “I should’ves” and “Why didn’ts.”  My aunt, who had been vigilant and by my grandmother’s side at all times during her final couple days, hadn’t been gone ten minutes on a quick trip to the store when it happened.  And it seems that nobody answers their phones when it matters most.

Death is not romantic.  There was no point during my grandma’s final moments at which she gazed at me or my mother.  No point at which she offered wise, comforting parting words.  There were no meaningful words for me to utter, either.  There was no fade-to-black, no curtain call, no thunderous applause.  Only tears from my mother – and speechlessness from me, her son, a man of twenty-three years who had never witnessed death and lacked the savvy to cope with it as it occurred before his very eyes.  Effectively a child, I struggled with processing this event, all the while not knowing how to console my weeping mother and trying to pacify my sister’s whimpering and trembling small dog, whom I was holding.

Several hours later, I watched as two strangers from the funeral home hauled the corpse that once housed my grandmother onto a wheeled contraption and strapped it down.  They pushed it outside and loaded the cold, lifeless body into their van as everyday luggage.

Death is awkward.  Death is matter-of-fact.  It cares not where you happen to be or what you happen to be doing at the time.  And it does not wait till you’re good and ready to face it.


My grandmother was born Elena Ceci (pronounced “CHEH-chee” or “CHAY-chee”) the tenth of August, 1933 in Rome, NY to first-generation Italian-Americans.  Like her siblings, her name was Anglicised, hence “Helen.”  (My Uncle Alex was born “Alessandro,” my Uncle Vinny “Vincenzo,” Louis “Luigi” and Angelo – well, “Angelo.”)  She and her brothers represent the last generation on my mother’s side whose first language was not English.

Through my many conversations with her, I can say with great confidence that there is at least partial truth to the popular Central New York axiom that, in those days, all the Italian-American families in the area knew each other and were likely at least distantly related to each other.

Helen did nothing to subvert the stereotypical notion of an Italian-American grandmother, with her unrelenting enquiries about our states of hunger as well as her unbeatable family recipes, which included meatballs and a seemingly infinite repertoire of baked treats, but also her warm heart that never stopped caring about the welfare of those around her.

She always seemed to put others before herself.

I remember numerous sick days off school passed at her former residence on Bedford Street.  My stepfather would drop me off there on his way to Rome Free Academy because both he and my mother were working full-time, and I couldn’t be left home alone.  On such days, I would either watch cartoons or play a dice game with my grandma – a game our family calls simply “Dice.”  But never Monopoly.

Fast forward to May 2014.  My mother, my brother and I were living together in a section of a Utica house, but we were splitting up.  My mom had decided to move in with her then-boyfriend in Oswego, and my brother was moving in with his father.  I still had an Associate’s degree to finish at Mohawk Valley Community College, so my only real option was to move in with my grandmother in my birthplace, Rome.  And she welcomed me with open arms.

This was when I feel I really started to connect with my grandmother.  By then, I had reached my early twenties.  I had matured a bit.  I was no longer encumbered with the brattishness of childhood and was past the hormonal deluge of adolescence.  In essence, I was finally able to sit and converse with her.  Instead of itching to return to my video games and get to the next level or worrying about impressing women wherever I go, I learnt to enjoy her company and become her friend.

It was not uncommon, especially in my first year of living with her, for me to join my grandma in the living room for dinner in front of the TV.  Whenever I was around in the evening, I made sure to warm up a couple chicken patties and pour a glass of milk or juice in time for Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, followed immediately by Jeopardy!  It was a pretty nice routine.  And emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, grabbing things just out of her reach, occasionally helping her prepare food and running errands for her was a measly price to pay for living so comfortably.

I count myself fortunate and honoured to have lived with her these past two and a half years, being her helper and friend.  I loved hearing her stories of how suave and funny and diligent my grandfather was – or of their travels to Spain and how they used Italian to converse with the locals through limited mutual intelligibility – or how she was ridiculed in school for not being able to remember the word doorknob and having to substitute the Italian word for it.

In the summer of 2015, during my first season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival, my mother and I received terrible news that my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer in the mouth.  She had survived breast cancer roughly fifteen years prior, but doctors weren’t so optimistic this time.  It had spread so much that a goodly portion of her tongue would need to be removed and surgically replaced – and her first medical consultant told her that she could not survive such an operation.  She ended up going through with it, but at the cost of her speech and feeding faculties.  Her new, makeshift tongue lacked muscles, making swallowing and the formation of certain consonants nigh impossible for her.  My mother would return from Oswego to live with us in Rome and tirelessly play nurse for Grandma over the next year.

Alas, as we all know, cancer is never fully eradicated from the body.  Just a couple days shy of Halloween 2016, she needed to be rushed to the hospital.  The cancer re-emerged and had made it to her lungs.  She was discharged after a week, but this time with an expiration date.  She received hospice care throughout November and into her final days before checking out at 11:13 yesterday morning, the sixth of December.

If nothing else, my grandmother was astonishingly physically resilient.  That’s for sure.  And I might add that, had she given up on life a year ago (a fair choice that was absolutely on the table), she would have missed all my accomplishments.  In buying one more year of life, she saw me graduate from community college, she saw me depart for the summer to live my acting dream at Sterling and she saw me land a steady, gratifying job this fall.  I’m glad she was able to live long enough to see some closure to my efforts these past few years.  She passed with the knowledge that I found some success in my life.  For her, joy came from perceiving others as happy, so I know that she was content when her time came.

Helen was a devout Catholic.  I may not be a Christian myself, but I need to respect her resolve.  Even past the age of eighty, she was making efforts to attend mass at St. John’s and frequently made donations to the church.  I do not know what happens after death – or whether the “soul” lives on – but I do know that she drew her last breath with the sincere belief that she would be reunited with her husband – my grandfather – who died nearly twenty-five years ago.  And that is an oddly comforting thought.

In my life, I have been fairly shielded from the deaths of loved ones.  My aforementioned grandfather (and namesake) passed mere months before my conception.  I’m not acquainted with my father’s side of the family, so any deaths thereof are meaningless to me as well.  None of my friends from school and elsewhere has died.  The worst I ever experienced were the losses of pets and distant relatives.  But this one, the death of my grandmother – it hits, and it hits hard.  I have, through the years, observed helplessly as so many of my friends suffered terrible losses and commenced periods of mourning and grief.  All those things had always been foreign concepts to me.  But I no longer need to imagine what they’re like.

I’m not asking for your sympathies or your condolences.  I’m simply honouring my grandmother’s memory.  There aren’t many things I believe in, but I do believe in respecting the dead and their wishes.  The departed have no voice, but we can ensure that they’re not condemned to oblivion by reminding others of their existence – by talking about them and sharing stories about them.  The ancient Egyptians had the notion of a “second death” – approximately seventy years after your corporeal death – when the world forgets you ever were.  This blog post is but one small effort of mine toward this end of allowing my grandmother to live on.

Normally, I wouldn’t share a loss like this on Facebook.  Like, ever.  I know all too well what happens.  I’ve seen it too many times to count.  Somebody makes a heartfelt post about how “the world has lost a beautiful person” and that the person “had such a positive effect on me,” blah, blah, blah.  Invariably, the post receives a slew of likes (or other reactions).  Most people will see the post pop up in their news feeds, think, “Oh, that’s so sad,” and resume scrolling and view some funny videos and memes that their other friends shared that day.  Maybe they’ll leave a comment with their regards.  But most of them are the brief, shallow, unoriginal cookie-cutter reliables like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or, “My prayers are with you and your family.”  As if they are trying to express concern in the most efficient manner possible so that they can escape the guilt of not having said anything and still quickly get on with their own lives.  I don’t mean to sound cold, but don’t waste your time or mine with them.  Such condolences are about as mindless as the knee-jerk reaction of telling an armed forces veteran, “Thank you for your service,” and chances are that I will respond to your comment with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as you took to type it.

Yes, I am sad this week.  But hark!  I, Joseph Scott, the bereaved, hereby absolve you of any imagined obligation you may have to wish me your sympathies and/or condolences.

If I truly were looking for attention, you’d know.  Trust me.  After spending an entire summer pretending to be an impoverished, hungry beggar, I think I know a little about the art of making people feel sorry for me.

But I’m not.  Because I’m not doing this for me.  I’m doing this for my grandmother.

Huh.  I recall a conversation I had with her some time ago regarding old age.  I brought up that many older folks are just young people wondering what the hell happened.  They’re trapped inside bodies that weaken every day, and they wish they could reclaim the physical capabilities and attractiveness of their youth.  I asked for her opinion on the matter.

Her response?

She proclaimed, in the proudest, most indignant and resolute tone of voice, “I earned these wrinkles.”

What a champ.

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Pandora’s Box

Upon waking and leaving my bed at the quiet, early hour of 12:05 in the afternoon, I headed downstairs for a healthful, balanced breakfast consisting of a bowl of what was left of our Fruity Pebbles and some other nutritious, sugar-loaded fruity cereal.  I chatted with my brother for some time about the capabilities and shortcomings of various smartphones before rinsing my bowl and setting off on my day’s mission.

I grabbed our brand-spanking-new house broom and opened the door in our kitchen, which leads to the very bowels of my grandmother’s abode, otherwise known the basement.  I flipped on the stairway light and trod down some sketchy steps.  The light was enough to illuminate my area of operations.  After a brief search, I located my target.

Under a tote bag filled with unused basketballs deflated to Tom Brady regulations lay a relatively well-kept cardboard box in an abyss of otherwise dusty, cobwebby and decrepit storage containers, among other nigh-junk.

I snagged the box and brought it closer to the light from the stairway so that I could take a peek inside and confirm that I had the right one.  I gave it a probably unneeded sweep-down with the broom to allay any arachnophobic thoughts and decided that it was ready to return to the surface.

After nonchalantly carrying the box through the living room where my grandmother was sitting and bringing it up to my bedroom, I opened it and dissected its contents.

This box contained any clothing and other mementos that reminded me of my ex-girlfriend.

Yes, this is one of those blog posts.  I hope this doesn’t discourage further reading.  I’ll do my best to refrain from being overly-emotional – or worse – trite.

For the purposes of this post, I am keeping anonymous the identity of my ex.  Some of you reading likely know her, and I would like to keep her name a secret to those of you who don’t.  Plus, since this blog is technically public – anybody with internet access can, in theory, view anything I write here – I feel an obligation to protect her identity from any potential strangers who happen upon this post that I am loosing onto the cyber frontier.

Finally, for the ease of writing, I have come up with a replacement name for her.  A kind of pseudonym, if you will.  I made sure to adopt a name that is not shared by any of my friends – on Facebook or in real life.  From here on out, I shall refer to my ex-girlfriend as Penny.

Anyway, back to the box, or rather, what was in the box.

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The first thing I pulled out was the only tie-dye shirt I ever owned.  It was one of my favourite t-shirts to wear.  I’ve had it since my junior year of high school.  In March of 2010, I and the rest of Holland Patent’s vocal ensemble were amidst rehearsals for our spring cabaret (too poor for musicals), and one of our numbers was “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from Hair.  Naturally, we wore makeshift bell-bottom jeans and fashioned some tie-dye shirts.  Penny’s mother was responsible for the tie-dyeing.  Further cognitive association developed because Penny and I started dating about a week after that particular cabaret.  I used to wear it all the time, but, after our breakup, I couldn’t throw it on without remembering its origin.

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Below the tie-dye were some other tees as well as some pairs of flannel pajama bottoms.  All these clothes, at one point, were borrowed by Penny and had accumulated at her house.  After the breakup (the permanent one), she continued to hold on to them for a week or two before making a personal delivery at my house one June day in 2011.  Fortunately for us both, I was away and unavailable for the hand-off, and my brother took them on my behalf.

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Next in the box was a Universal Studios t-shirt that Penny had bought for me as a souvenir from her trip to Orlando in May 2011.  To this day, I have not ever worn the shirt; also on said trip was one of her coworkers – the same man for whom she left me later that spring.

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Each article of clothing that was in the box was fairly rank from being stored in my grandmother’s basement the past two years.  They’re still in decent condition, though, and I wish to restore them to my wardrobe.  But, while some people may enjoy the smell of cellar musk, I think I’ll opt for a different scent.  I plan on washing them and donning them once again – with the exception of the Universal shirt.

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At the base of the box lay miscellaneous pieces of memorabilia.  I’ll discuss each item clockwise, starting from top left.  First, we have a set of photo frames that would have been used to house the junior prom pictures of me and Penny.

Next are two glowsticks bound together to form a bracelet.  Some of Penny’s friends and I sported these while celebrating her seventeenth birthday at her house.

I believe that the pink plastic petal to the right was part of Penny’s ensemble for my stepsister’s wedding in June 2010.  Could be wrong, though.

Top right is a coloured-in picture of Ariel that she gave to me.  On the back was a handwritten note.  I won’t include the text here, but she apparently wrote it whilst talking to me over the phone.  She wrote that she loved me and that I knew how much she hates speaking over the phone.  I thought it was a sweet gesture – that Penny cared for me so much that she would sacrifice some comfort to make me happy.  I still remember lying in my bed late at night, on the brink of slumber, with neither of us saying much – and listening to her report on the progress of her colouring project for me and vocally deciding which hues to use.  It was odd, but nice, to hear her voice instead of reading a cold, emotionless text message.

Bottom right is a collection of notes that Penny would surreptitiously toss or place into my locker between classes during senior year of high school.  I was less discreet when I forwarded my notes to her.  Also in this pile, below our billets-doux, I found a half sheet of paper with lovely floral drawings pencilled by her.  Under that was our prom photograph – plus a couple wallet-sized copies of some of her senior pictures.

To the left is a heap of various ticket stubs, plus a receipt of hers (I honestly don’t know why that’s in there).  On top is from when we saw Whitesboro high school’s production of Beauty and the Beast.  The movie theatre stubs are from when we saw Vampires Suck in August of 2010, followed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 that December, followed by The King’s Speech in February 2011.  I think it’s safe to say that our taste in cinema improved with each outing.

Finally, bottom left, we have a metal-cased spiral journal that I received from my second grade teacher upon leaving for the summer in 2001.  She also happened to be the last teacher I had while I was part of the Rome city school district – before I moved to Holland Patent.  For the next several years, I used the journal to record the addresses and home phone numbers of my closest friends.  This was before most people had cell phones and electronic contact lists.  Anyway, I almost dismissed this item as having no significance to Penny – until I checked the last page – where she left her mark.  She had written in her address and phone number and included a personal message about herself written by her, from my point of view.

There were other things in the box.  I refuse to show the rest of them because some are too personal for this blog, while others were so obscure that I could no longer identify their significance (which is probably not a bad thing).

So…why?  Why the box?  Why cloister all these seemingly innocuous items?  The answer is simple and unoriginal: I needed for these things – the shirts, the pajamas, the notes, everything – to be hidden from me for a long time, lest I see them and allow the pain to come back.

Some of my happiest memories are from my relationship with Penny.  And I knew that, should I see anything that could potentially trigger a memory, it would bring me only the sorrow of realising the joy that was taken away from me.  So I boxed up my mementos and got them out of sight.

I deliberately waited till this day, the 31st of May, 2016, to sift through the box.  Exactly five years after our final breakup.  The box was commissioned sometime after she dumped me, although I cannot give a specific date.  I, therefore, know not how long the box’s contents have been in storage, but I felt that the half-decade anniversary of the end of the relationship would prove more poignant, anyway.

But this post isn’t about the breakup – or the circumstances surrounding it.

I felt that enough time had passed before I could write publicly about my thoughts on our time together and about Penny as a person.

As I pulled each item from the box, I was given pause, just as I knew would happen.  I drank in the neatness and preservation of each note and picture.  I admired the beautiful simplicity of my personal collection – mostly tokens of the modesty and mundanity of my latter years of high school, anointed with stories romantic and dramatic.  But I didn’t feel sad.  I didn’t break down in tears.  And I didn’t fall into a fit of depression and lie prostrate on my bed and lose all motivation for my blog post.

The truth is that I didn’t suddenly have the urge to test my mettle and face my past today.  Today’s project was more of an end that I’ve been working toward for the past five years.  It’s been a process of meeting new people and creating new experiences to remember.  College helped with those things in profound measure.  I now understand that, as I age, the acquisition of new memories diminishes the percentage of memories devoted to Penny and my time with her.  In other words, the longer I live, the more abundant are unrelated memories, thereby decreasing the potency of Penny’s share.  Which is a rather clinical way of looking at it, I suppose.

It’s also true that, despite the passage of time and the addition of things to occupy my mind, not a day has gone by without, at the very least, some fleeting, almost insignificant – but nonetheless real – thought of her.

I’m still upset about what happened.  From time to time, I relive moments in my head, thinking that maybe they will play out differently – maybe, if I concentrate hard enough, I can transport myself back to 2011 and try again.  Maybe there’s something I could have said or done to influence the outcome in my favour.

I sometimes fantasise that, one day, she will message me with a “Just kidding!” and we’ll be together again.  Like all this time apart was just one big prank – or some cruel test, which I passed.

But…the reality is that I was not good for her.  Penny’s decision to leave me was objectively superior to staying with me, and I’ve accepted that fact.  It may have sucked subjectively (still does), but, if nothing else, I take solace in knowing that she is, in all likelihood, thriving without me.

Penny’s departure from my life, while necessary, caused me a great deal of pain and anguish.  The wound isn’t as sore as it once was, however.  And I certainly don’t harbour any resentment toward her; on the contrary – if you’ll pardon the cliché – part of me still loves her, and I believe it always will.  I wish her the best in whatever she aspires to.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to watch Doctor Who – a television programme I have avoided for the sole reason that Penny watched it religiously.  It, like the items from the box, reminded me of her.  Maybe someday.

I haven’t seen her or spoken to her since 2011.  This is probably for the best.  It’s also worth noting that I haven’t been in any significant relationships since Penny.  But that’s another story for another time, perhaps.  Actually, probably not.

Don’t worry – I’m not planning any more posts about my ex-girlfriend.  This was a special case.  I wanted to share on this blog a more human, more flawed side of me.  So far, all I’ve published here (besides the various page tabs) are more academic, almost robotic posts usually dealing with language and usually involving lists.  Plot twist!  I’m not an automaton!  I’m actually a mortal man!

The five-year of one of the worst days of my life also conveniently coincides with one of the most momentous weeks in my life, as, at the moment of typing this, in about forty-eight hours, I will be housed elsewhere, among other performers, living out my acting dream.

Opening up my important cardboard box today was a sort of celebration of my growth.  It marked the end of a rough period in my life.  I finally feel ready to move on.

Ah, whom am I kidding?  I just wanted my tie-dye shirt back.