The deepest cut that comes from losing a loved one is the fact that they take things with them. They take distinctive things, things they alone gave and as such, cannot be replicated. Eight years ago yesterday, my father died. With him went his particular approach to traditions, his particular brand of love that no one else can give, and his stories that no one else can tell. If you’re a regular listener of the The Italian American Podcast, you’ve heard me talk about him many times.
Before he died, I remember believing my family was special. God shielded us, for some reason I could not explain, from the horrible things that befell other families, and He always would. It’s a delusion we all live under, until life rips it from us. So when I found myself at the side of my father’s hospital bed, in my 20s, watching him recede into another world right before my eyes, it was unbelievable. I don’t know any other instance where the word “unbelievable” is more applicable. I wanted a recount; I wanted a replay; someone had gotten the lines crossed, and the wrong man was about to die. It could not be possible. But here we were, hysterical, stunned, helpless no matter how many doctors we called and how many strings we tried to pull. I dropped to my knees in the bathroom down the hall, and I prayed with a desperation I had never known before. I begged St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to intercede. I begged God to spare him. I offered everything I could offer. And still, it wasn’t enough. Like water through our fingers, he slipped away, no matter how hard we tried to hold him here with us.
There is a very special and distinct type of love a father gives a daughter. At a relatively young age I had to accept that I would no longer receive that love. It can’t be replaced. You have to be grateful for the love and care you received up until that point, and if you’re lucky like me and received bucket loads of it, remember that some people don’t even get that much. Be a daddy’s-little-girl all your life, as I was, and the loss hits even deeper. Some days, I think my father gave me enough love and admiration to last me two lifetimes; some days, I feel robbed of the more of it I “should” have gotten.
As Italian Americans, we celebrate a fierce devotion to family. I know people who clipped their wings, limited their potential, because they could not leave their families. They did not go away to college; they did not marry people their families didn’t approve of; they did not travel or take lucrative positions that were located in other states. In my early 20s, I was not one of these people. I moved far away and I rambled where I wanted, but I decided to move back to New York just two weeks before my father died rather suddenly, with zero knowledge of what was to come (a subject, perhaps, for another post), and was staying with my parents until I found a place.
Yet, after his death, I remained with my widowed mother. I could not find comfort in renting an apartment in some other town, knowing she was there in our childhood home, suddenly alone, full of a grief that is still difficult for me to describe. I am the youngest daughter raised in an immigrant Italian family, and as modern as I know myself to be, as rebellious, independent, free-spirited, as American, when it came down to it, my instinct was – prima la famiglia.
My American friends told me I should move. They told me I had to live my own life. They told me I needed to get out of my hometown and be “on my own.” My mother would be fine. I had to think about myself.
Instead, I lived with my mother for several years. We bore the pain together. I remember mornings where I woke up to the sound of her asking God aloud why He had done this to her. She met my father when she was 13 years old; she had become a woman by his side, a mother, a grandmother, and, briefly, since he died in his early 60s, begun to turn the corner of growing older at his side. She would be forced to continue that journey on her own. And because of that and a host of other reasons, she grieved audibly, physically, entirely, in the Southern-Italian way. I sat beside her, and in turn I relied on her when my own pain became too great to hide. My siblings, who by this time were in their own homes, raising families of their own, were grateful that I was there with her and she was not alone. I knew I could give them peace, too, by doing for our family what they could not.
I won’t say that only an Italian American would be there for her family the way I was, but I will say that I made the choice I made because I’d been raised with Italian values – put nothing before your family; it’s not only about you; you have nothing if you don’t have communion with others; you make sacrifices for something larger than you.
When my father died he took with him stories of his childhood. He took with him a blue-collar industriousness that shaped my siblings and me. He took with him a light-heartedness and silliness I so often find myself wishing I possessed more of. He took with him a devotion to friends and family that I continue to remain in awe of; he never thought of the fact that he was tired, he would still get up and come over to your house if you called him; he never thought of taking some downtime for himself, he would gratefully and excitedly welcome you in when you dropped by his home unexpected. His life was not his own. He did not look at it through the independent, success-at-all-costs lens America often pushes us to look through. His life was about others, and his successes were worth nothing to him if they did not benefit those around him.
With my father’s death, I learned to worry about my mother in a way I’d never before. She remains so utterly precious to me, like a rare flower of a vanishing species. I am concerned about her constantly. I soak up our moments together. I lament living in another city from her. She is part of the reason I continue to participate in The Italian American Podcast, and so is my father. In my memoir, The Dreams that Break Your Heart (which I am working on getting published, for those of you who have inquired!), I have a chapter where I write about a garage sale I remember from my teenage years. My mother is nonchalantly selling items from the past. She is many wonderful things, but she is not sentimental. A vase from Italy doesn’t bear much weight for her because she can take Italy for granted; it’s in her irrevocably, the way America is in me. I, on the other hand, fear the loss of our traditions, the language, the celebratory, loving, loud family life Italian Americans are beloved for to the staid, civilized way of America, so with every item she sells my heart breaks.
The podcast, my memoir, they are both attempts to not only capture it all before it’s too late, but to become more of it.
What I’ve learned from writing my book and producing the podcast is that we can, by our actions, by putting in the work, draw ourselves closer to our roots. We can’t save everything; some things really do disappear when the people who brought them to us disappear. But I am less afraid now than I once was of being completely detached from my heritage and its traditions once both of my parents are gone.
Heritage, tradition, family, belonging, these are the things that make us strong. I want to give them to the children I may have some day, just as they were given to me. I’ve lived enough life to know that if this is something I want, I have to create it. It can’t be assumed. Values, customs, these things have to be passed down; they have to be given.
My father taught me that, during his life and through his death.
– Dolores Alfieri
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