This past Christmas was a good one. Not in a â€œtraditional, snow-filled, joyous, funâ€ way I imagine most peopleâ€™s â€œgood Christmasesâ€ are, but more of a â€œI guess this is the last time weâ€™re going to see each otherâ€ sort of way.
While my mother is doing better, and is getting good marks from her doctors, the last few months have obviously been hard on her. It was in this spirit that my grandparents, along with my great-grandmother, and my aunt and her new husband (my new uncle, if Iâ€™m going to be accurate, I suppose) and I all came together.
My great-grandmotherâ€™s name is Theresa Longobardi. Sheâ€™s 102 years old. And sheâ€™s way more mentally alert and conscious of whatâ€™s going on in the world than you are. Sheâ€™ll kick your ass at large-size crossword puzzles, and can tell you the offensive line of the â€™83 Redskins. My great-grandfather died when I was 7. He was not a very nice man.
They had both come to America through Ellis Island as children, 95 years ago. He never did learn English, or at least he never spoke it. I remember being a little scared of him as a child, and it turned out I had good reason. Despite my great-grandmotherâ€™s accomplishments of growing up to own her own business and provide at least half the income for her family, she was still beaten on a regular basis by her husband. Quite savagely, and quite regularly, for many, many years. But she loved him very much. Thatâ€™s what you did back then.
They had two children â€“ my grandmother, Nancy, and her little brother, Vincent. Vincent never married, I think mostly because he didnâ€™t want to leave his mother alone with his father. My grandmother ran off with my dashing grandfather when she was seventeen, and almost immediately had my mom â€“ it was the baby boom after all, and itâ€™s hard to resist a man in uniform.
When I was an older child, and as a young teenager, Vincent and I became quite close, as he never had any children of his own. He was a kind, gentle man, with a huge heart, who loved his mother and his family very much. But there was also a sadness about him. When I was in college, his poor health collided in a perfect storm of diabetes, pancreatic cancer and heart disease. I held his hand as he cried, and begged God to take him, and as his nurse administered the last bit of morphine that would finally take all his pain away. Thatâ€™s what we do these days. Theresa never really got over burying her son.
My great-grandmother and my grandparents lived together after my great-grandfather died. I donâ€™t think they thought it would last very long. It lasted 30 years. 30 years of living with your mother-in-law. 30 years of living in your daughterâ€™s house. 30 years of having your mom looking over your shoulder. And all the drama that goes with those three relationships. Combined with getting as old as hell. Itâ€™s quite something.
My grandfather served in the Pacific in WWII. Raymond was the kind of hero Tom Brokaw was writing about, except Ray did it in 103-degree heat, and was fighting an enemy that conventional wisdom said was literally part-demon. Those pussies in Europe were just fighting Nazis.
When he came home, he married a pretty little Italian girl and started a family. Through the years, he did a lot of interesting things â€“ he owned a restaurant, he managed the kitchen at the National Press Club, he ran a yacht club in Caracas, he sold tile â€“ and he taught me a lot, more than I can even begin to remember now. But he was always the strongest man I knew, and he always loved the hell out of me.
The day after this picture was taken, two days after Christmas, he got up in the middle of the night to take a leak. As he was in an unfamiliar guest room, he stubbed his toe and fell over, no doubt cursing like the sailor he was, and broke his hip.
At 87, his heart just isnâ€™t what it once was. There was some concern about surgery at his age, and the complications from the blood thinners he was on, but they did the surgery anyway. It tuned out to be a success, and the doctors were quite impressed with his bones, whatever that means. He got a big fat pin in his hip, and the bionic grandpa was born. But two days later, lying there in the hospital bed, he had what doctors call a micro stroke, and he just never really recovered. He couldnâ€™t eat, and he couldnâ€™t really move. And his heart just wasnâ€™t in it anymore.
So last Thursday, after 10 weeks in the hospital, as Nancy held his hand, and after a conversation about his rose bushes and the wiener dog theyâ€™d had to put down right before the holidays, Ray closed his eyes and died. As he would say, â€œComes the revolution.â€ Theyâ€™d had 65 years together. And theyâ€™d have loved to have had 65 more.
So it wasnâ€™t the Christmas we expected. It turned out to be a last Christmas, but it was a good one, and one that Iâ€™ll remember for the rest of my life. Theresa has outlived another son, Nancy has lost the love of her life, and my mother has lost her daddy. But we were together for a little while, and we all knew we were loved.