Chapter 15 of “A Life Worth Living” – Tragedy

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Chapter 15 – Tragedy

“Tragedy – when the feelin’s gone and you can’t go on, it’s tragedy.” The Bee Gee’s sang those lyrics back in 1979 but I never really understood them until 2004. I was at one of the high points of my life: Anne and I were engaged, Sassy was healthy and happy, I’d just secured a high paying, exciting new job, we were living in a beautiful new home, and everything was right with the world.

Naturally that’s when tragedy struck — my beloved grandmother Pauline died the day before I was to start my new job!

Now truth be told, my gram had had numerous medical problems during the last twenty or so years of her life – including multiple hip surgeries, high cholesterol which led to heart disease, diabetes, and more. And in the years between 2000 and 2004 she had been having issues with fluid in the lungs leading to congestive heart failure, so she’d been in and out of the hospital a number of times — but she’d always pulled through.

Only this time was different — this time she would not be going home.

It was Easter Sunday, 2004 and things turned so bad so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to get back to Williamsport in time to be by her side. All I could manage to do was  talk with her over the phone on that fateful day — telling her how much I loved her and how she had changed my life in so many ways, while getting just a whisper of a reply of her love in return. It wasn’t enough — for either of us. And I could feel that the separation broke both our hearts. Those raspy whispers of grandmotherly love from so far away still haunt me to this day.

Why was I so affected? Because my gram was one of the driving forces that had helped to turn me into the man I became, she was one of the few people in the world who I KNEW loved me for me no matter what, and she was the foundation of my entire family. I foolishly felt that she would always be around for me — and yet I wasn’t there when she needed me most! The loss shattered me — and if not for Anne and Sassy I don’t know how I could have made it through that dark time.

Things were a bit of a blur for awhile. My new boss was thankfully understanding enough to allow me to delay starting my pharma job while Anne and I rushed off to PA for my grandmother’s funeral (leaving Rose to look after Sassy for a bit). I don’t remember much of trip except that I got a chance to see lots of family members who I hadn’t been around in years.

It was great to be around so many familiar faces from my youth – but it also got me to thinking…

Why does it always take a tragedy to bring families together?

Why must the hustle and bustle of ‘real life’ tear us apart?

Why do we work so hard to build strong ties and work even harder to go off and do our own thing?

These are the questions I was pondering at the time — sadly I still don’t have the answers. 

As for my gram’s funeral, while I don’t recall the mass, but I do have vivid memories of the viewing — it seemed to last for hours as hundreds of people came by to pay their respects to my grandmother and seeing how much she was loved by so many people brought a bit of sunlight to my darkness. And, despite the heartache I was experiencing at the time, there was a bit of humor that I’d be remiss to overlook. As the crowds came through the viewing line and paid their condolences first to my gram’s children (including my father), and then to the grandchildren (including me), I found myself as something of a display item — as countless scores of elderly Italian grandmothers (many whom I’d recognized as long time friends of my gram) commented to each other about how much I was my grandmother’s favorite, her #1, her heart and soul, the pride and joy of her life, etc. I’m sure you can see how this would be both touching to me but also heartrending, but I doubt you can see the humor in it, right? Until you realize that these women were saying all this in front of the other grandkids as well — for you see, Italian grandmothers aren’t shy about speaking their minds…loudly. I don’t think they were intending to insult anyone, but then again I don’t think they really cared if they did — they were simply speaking the truth and it just came natural to them. This was never more evident than when a pair of my gram’s best friends came through the line, held me in awe as “Pauline’s Favorite,” shook my hand with tears in their eyes, and then looked upon my sister Tara sitting next to me and said to each other (words that everyone could hear), “Don’t worry about her, that’s just the sister, and we don’t know the rest, so let’s move on” and then they shuffled away. (I kid you not, this really happened and to this day both Anne (and thankfully Tara!) get a sarcastic laugh out of that experience).

While it was nice to see so many family and friends gather in Williamsport for my grandmother’s funeral, I left with a feeling of unease — after realizing that I had missed so much of my grandmother’s last years, I began to fear that my grandfather would also soon pass – and that I’d experience the same loss with his life as well. After all, my grandparents got married shortly after he came back from World War II and they’d been together for over 60 years! I wasn’t sure how my grandfather would cope with this new change in his life, since he’d relied on my gram for everything. Would he be able to go on? 

In spite of my worries, I knew I couldn’t realistically just up and move back to PA. I had to rely on my parents and relatives back home to take care of my grandfather – thankfully he proved resilient (although I’m sure he had lots of help from his friends – Mr. Coors and Mr. Bud). Meanwhile, I wanted to find a way to capture some of his essence in a memorable way, so I did some research on the topic and stumbled upon the idea of doing a video interview about his life — in which I would ask him a series of questions and let him just talk. Knowing that he was a garrulous man by nature, I figured this would be right up his alley. To accomplish the feat I returned back home a couple months later, and although it took some finagling (and a few Coors), I was finally able to convince my grandpop to sit down with me and chat (with the video camera running in the background).

I’ve got to tell you that this ended up being one of the best family experiences I’ve ever participated in! I came prepared with a long series of questions that covered his whole life, and the more I got him talking (and drinking!) the more he shared (and the more he genuinely seemed to enjoy it too). When it was all said and done I ended up learning more about my grandparents than I’d ever known before, and I felt closer to my grandpop as well – and since he was already one of my favorite persons in the world that’s saying something. In addition, I’d captured a family keepsake in the process – for the video I produced was one that the entire extended family would later enjoy.

But it wasn’t all fun and games – little did I know that one of my questions would spark a bit of a controversy: in an effort to capture a complete history I asked about past loves. Since they’d been married for over 50 years I figured it was harmless, right? Wrong. Oh sure, my grandfather had no trouble boasting about his prior girlfriends (especially during his days in the Marines). In fact he laughed long and proud about his clever way to keep up with them all (“I just sent them all the same love letter but changed the name at the top”); and he even made fun of himself when he revealed that he once made the mistake of sending copies of his love  letter to two girls who lived in the same town and who were friends (“Imagine their surprise when they both read my letter and it said that each was the only one for me! That took a bit of explaining to overcome.”). But my grandpop was not quite so keen to talk about my grandmother’s prior boyfriends (“She didn’t have any,” he professed) and when I related to him that she and other family members had told me that she once had a date with another boy in town while my grandpop was away at the war, he dismissed it as rubbish. At the time I merely accepted his word and moved on with the interview. Yet little did I know that he did not forget that bit of gossip – and for months afterward I (and other family members) would get calls from him to dispute the fact that my gram had ever had any boyfriends before him – he had various ‘proofs’ of this, to include even calling into question the alleged boyfriend’s sexual preference. It was quite hilarious to see him go to such lengths and my father, uncles, and I had quite a few laughs about it all. Who knew, right?

In any case, as much fun as it was to share such memories, eventually I had to get back to the real world and to the business of living my own life. No one could ever replace either of my grandparents and I was still grateful that I at least had my grandfather around and I was happy to see him start to recover. As for my gram, not only would I always have the memories with me of how she changed my life, but I had something else that always reminded me of her as well – Sassy — for as I’ve said before, and as you’ll continue to see, Sassy and my gram were cut from the same cloth of souls.

I honestly believe that having Sassy by my side every day helped to ease my pains and bring me joy again. I just prayed I could do the same for her…


Sassy’s Life Lesson #15 – Tragedy strikes us all

We’ve talked numerous times about the fact that Life is filled with ups and downs. Recall the following lessons: Chapter 8 – Nothing Lasts Forever, Chapter 13 – A Time for Everything, and Chapter 14 – For Every Action, a Reaction. Once again we’re reminded of how fickle life can be.

Our friend Solomon has another great quote for us. This one is from Ecclesiastes 9:12 — “No one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.”

Tragedy is real. Death is a certainty for us all. There is no guarantee of tomorrow. We know all these things and yet we still take life for granted. Perhaps it’s just another of our fatal flaws? As a result, we’re always left to wonder – oh, what might have been?

But there is hope. You can break a portion of this vicious cycle. The first awareness of how fragile life is. The second step is taking action – do what we’ve talked about so many times: LIVE…LOVE…and TELL others how much you love them. Don’t wait to do these things – do them right now. After all, there is no other moment in time during which you have control then “NOW” – so make the most of it.


Points to Ponder

Can you recall an unexpected tragedy that occurred in your life? What do you wish you would have done differently BEFORE the event happened? What did you learn from the experience?

Most importantly of all, what are you doing differently now to make sure you have no regrets when the NEXT tragedy strikes?

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