Life

August 14th

My phone rang at 7:58am on August 14th, 2015. I was in the backroom of a grocery store, working through my inventory as a merchandiser for a soda company. I was building a four-pallet display for that week’s sales items, so there was a bit of a mess around me at the time.

“Danny,” came my mother’s voice on the other end of the line, choking up as she continued, “Ninni passed away just now.”

The news wasn’t unexpected, but the reality certainly was.

In April of 2015 my grandmother, who all of her grandchildren affectionately called “Ninni,” was diagnosed with cancer after it was discovered during a totally unrelated hospital visit to figure out the source of swelling in her legs. A short time later, two of the best surgeons in Rhode Island worked on my grandmother to try to discover the source of the tumor and remove it. Less than an hour later, they emerged from the operating room with gray faces. Before they even broke the news, I knew what it would be from the expressions on their faces.

The cancer was so invasive and had spread so far as to be inoperable.

Being the realist that I am, I accepted the unfortunate truth that her time was limited.

The Love of a Grandmother

For as long as I could remember, I thought Ninni would live forever. Her health was never the best, but she was always so full of life, love, and faith.

Faith was important to my grandmother. For as long as I remember, my mere mention of a friend, even one she had never met, would be enough to have them added to her daily rosary.

Of all the evil and terror in this world, my grandmother was a bulwark of light and love.

Even more, she was the pillar that held our family up.

My family always held Christmas Eve at Ninni’s house. For Italian-American families, Christmas Eve is almost a bigger holiday than even Christmas itself. It involves a massive seven-course fish dinner and loud, boisterous conversation. It was always my favorite day of the year.

Growing up, I had the fortune of living next door to my grandmother’s house. Shortly after moving in, my dad cut a hole in the fence that separated our yards so that my family could easily cut through to my grandmother’s and she could come to our house. When I had a problem or just needed someone to talk to, I’d cut through the yard and head over and seek Ninni’s advice and wisdom.

As I grew older and things such as changing curtains and fixing things around the house got to be too difficult for my grandmother, I’d head over to help her. She’d protest, saying she’d ask “the man” (be it the plumber, electrician, landscaper…you name it, there was a “man” for it) for help or to not worry about it. It got to the point where I’d stop asking Ninni what needed to be done and I’d just do it without asking permission.

She never wanted to be a burden on any of us.

She never was.

My grandmother at my awards ceremony in 2004
Me (looking ultra-handsome with my pathetic peach fuzz), my brother, and my grandmother at my 8th(?) grade awards ceremony, 2004

April to August

My grandmother was in and out of the hospital and nursing home after her cancer diagnosis. After the initial surgery to gauge the extent of the cancer, the surgeons weren’t sure she’d even recover. She did. Then we were told she might not last through the weekend. She did.

Ninni herself said she wouldn’t live to see her 83rd birthday.

She did, on June 16th of that year.

Though she had her bad days, my grandmother fought, and fought hard. She fought with the same intensity with which she loved and cared for all of us. In spite of the cancer that had spread all over her body, she fought and outlived every single prediction the doctors made for how long she had left.

Throughout this time, I was working as a part-time supervisor in a grocery store until I found a new job as a soda merchandiser. When I told Ninni in the nursing home, she was happy for me, of course, but then volunteered some wisdom still.

“Why do you want to leave all your friends though? They like you there!”

I told her there was no room for advancement for me at the store and that this new job was full-time and paid more than double what I was making. She understood and congratulated me, but her advice would eventually come full-circle. (I ended up working full-time for the grocery store two years later.) My grandmother had a way with uncanny precognition.

My grandmother went back and forth from her home, the hospital, and the nursing home during this time. Eventually I signed the lease for my first apartment and my grandmother, though she was ecstatic for me, asked in her old-fashioned way why I wanted to move out before being married.

Ninni and me testing out my MacBook
My grandmother and I in 2006, testing out my new MacBook camera. I brought it over to show her since she had never used a computer before.

August 14

The illusion of immortality that I had ascribed to my grandmother was shattered when I was told of her initial diagnosis. I always knew, logically, that she’d pass away one day and had even sort of mentally-steeled myself for it because I knew it would hit me hard when the time came, considering our closeness. That 7:58 phone call on the morning of August 14th, 2015, is the single most surreal event of my life.

“Okay,” I told my mom on the other end. My voice was flat and hollow. I can still hear my response in my mind. Instant shock. “I’m on my way. Bye.”

I hung up and looked around the backroom. I had a mess of soda cases and half-built displays in there and on the sales floor. Like a robot, I dragged my pallet jack to the sales floor and tore down my half-built display, bringing it to the backroom and quickly tidying up before I approached the store manager. I told him briefly what happened and he, with compassion in his eyes, told me to go.

If you’ve ever been a vendor or worked in retail at all, you’re probably familiar with the lack of humanity some retail managers have towards their staff, and especially vendors. If he had said anything but yes, I honestly believe I might have simply punched him.

I was about 20 minutes from the nursing home, stuck in terrible traffic on I-95 which was being held up by an accident. Sitting still on the highway gave me enough time to start to have a panic attack. I called my boss and told her what happened, being told in turn to take all the time I need. “Family comes first. Let us know what we can do for you,” she told me.

After I got past the accident, I made it to the nursing home far quicker than the speed limit allowed.

Despite knowing my grandmother had passed away, and having mentally prepared myself for the eventuality, I wasn’t ready to see her so lifeless. I had stayed with her in the hospital probably a dozen times on nights where she wanted someone there with her (though she’d never specifically ask…again, back to how she’d never want to be a burden), so I was used to seeing her sleep.

That morning, she wasn’t asleep.

But she looked peaceful. That’s all I could have asked.

A mouse in my grandmother's house
A mouse got into my grandmother’s house. Here she is holding up evidence of the destruction it caused.

Coming to Terms with Loss

My grandfather passed away in September 1988 at far too young an age, two years before I was born.

He died from cancer.

My grandparents were in love in the way a married couple is supposed to be in love. My grandmother never remarried and always spoke so highly of my grandfather. At times, she’d say how deeply she missed him.

The only thing that kept my grandmother going was her love for her three children and her six grandchildren and, in her last year or so of life, her great-granddaughter.

My grandmother lived for her family. For us.

My grandmother would go without to help my family in any way we needed it. If we were to turn down her offer of money, she would get irate to the point where she’d threaten not to talk to us if we wouldn’t accept her gift. She was always available for any of us to go to for advice, help, or to simply hug.

She taught me so much about myself, about life, and about the type of person I should become. She was like a second mother to me and radiated so much life and love as to be unquantifiable.

Standing in her room at the nursing home, the only thing that brought me solace was knowing she was reunited with my grandfather, her beloved husband, once more. She’d seen all of her grandchildren grow up to become successful adults and she lived long enough to become a great-grandmother.

As much as I wish she were still here today, it would be selfish to demand any more than the almost 26 years I had with her.

It’s been tough not having her here. For the first few months since she passed, every time I visited my parents, I had to stop myself from going next door to say hi to Ninni. When I was having a panic attack or needed someone to talk to, I’d almost call her. It wasn’t until last month that I finally deleted her number from my phone for fear I’d accidentally call the wrong person, whoever has her number now.

The pain of loss has gotten a little easier with each passing day. My grandmother’s free of all the worldly burdens and stresses and diseases and though she’s no longer here on earth, I can sometimes sense and feel her guidance (or disapproval) in my decisions and actions.

Today, the second anniversary since her passing, will be hard for me. I only hope I can continue living my life in a way that would make Ninni proud.

My grandmother had a haircut in the nursing home
My grandmother tried out a new haircut during one of her nursing home stays. This is my favorite picture of her as it captures her inner snarkiness.

There’s two things I’d like you to take away from this post:

  1. If you have a family history of cancer, get yourself checked out frequently.
  2. Cherish your loved ones and make the most of the time you spend with them. Life’s too short.

Eulogy

When my grandmother passed away, I wanted to deliver a eulogy for her at her funeral. The priest informed my family that the Catholic Church, in its infinite wisdom, had done away with eulogies, but he understood my reasoning for wanting to deliver one. Through careful rephrasing of what it is I wanted to do, he permitted me to deliver some “words of remembrance.”

My eulogy was rewritten from some thoughts I had while sitting in the hospital after Ninni’s initial surgery, when the doctors informed us she might not last the weekend. My aunt, mother, and myself stayed by her bed that night and I felt the need to write down my thoughts. After some prodding, I allowed my aunt and mom to read it and they realized I had written something that would serve as a beautiful memorial of my grandmother whenever the dreaded day came to pass.

Months later, the thoughts I wrote down by the side of my grandmother’s bed became the bulk of the eulogy I delivered during her funeral.

Standing up on the dais by her casket to deliver these words was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My voice broke and cracked through the first paragraph. I took a long pause after as I felt the panic attack bubble to the surface…

And then felt the presence of my grandmother, giving me the strength to continue, and so I did.

I’ve gone back and forth about posting the eulogy for my grandmother here, but I think it perfectly describes the amazing, kind, loving woman she was and the lasting impact she left on so many lives.

A eulogy for my grandmotherA eulogy for my grandmother

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