I cannot remember ever hearing a bad story or derogatory remark about Pat. Hardworking businessman, trustworthy friend, devoted family man, loving husband and doting father are some of the titles that he held.
Two months after moving into the dream home that he built for his wife and family, at age 50, Pat was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Three gruesome but mercifully short months later Pat was gone. Physically removed but leaving behind his love presence in the lives of so many.
Forty years ago today
It was my uncle Vic's birthday, February 1, 1970 and he and his wife had taken me to a dog show to get me out of the house where my father lay so pathetically ill. I was ten years old and although I knew he had cancer and was getting worse, no one had explained exactly how ill. How much should you burden a young child with?
I saw my uncle talking with a state trooper but I was distracted by the dogs being paraded everywhere I looked. When the trooper left my uncle explained to me that my father had been taken to the hospital. He offered me the choice of going home or staying at the dog show and I remember vividly saying that I didn't think they would let me in to see my father because I was only 10 years old. In those days rules were different and for some reason I was aware of them. I chose to continue my day out.
When we returned to their house my uncle and aunt were noticeably upset. Vic sat me down in the bedroom for what must have been the most difficult task of his 40 years. How do you tell a 10 year old that his father, the center of his world, had died?
Although I hadn't seen him, the trooper had returned to the dog show to give my uncle the bad news. Now it was his charge to tell me. For a few minutes the world stopped and when it restarted it had changed forever. We returned to my house which was filled with family and friends. I have a vague memory of the sorrow but mostly I remember the awkwardness with which I was treated. People just stared at me, whispered to each other and cried.
My father had been the warmer of my two parents. Although my mother was caring, my earliest memories are those of sitting on my father's lap, he fresh from the shower, wrapped in his red flannel robe and smelling of Old Spice, and him kissing me and singing to me in Italian.
The only thing I wanted was the comfort of my mother, sister and brother. It was so important to know that I wasn't alone. I still had my immediate family and we were going to be OK
Now I am the age that my father was when he died. I have sense memories of my father but most of my knowledge of him has come from others. I know my father through folklore. I have had the luxury of having my memories of him fixed in time. We never had to go through the difficult years that my friends and their fathers had. My parents' relationship was solid and frozen for eternity.
There are important lessons to be learned about dealing with a child's loss and grief. First and foremost is the assurance of stability, safety and love. A few words might be necessary but demonstrable normalcy is the key. The extended family was always together. Personally, for a long time after the loss of my father, I had the constant awareness that I was one parent away from being an orphan.
Second important element to healing is distraction. There was a family friend who made a special point of taking me out one evening a week to shoot a bucket of golf balls at a driving range. I spent a lot of time with my friends. My brother and his wife took me to their house for an occasional sleepover. My mother introduced me to travel.
Third is the amazing resilience of children. Never underestimate a child's ability to comprehend and cope. Time is a skillful healer.