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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Losing My Mother and Grandmother in 48 Hours

* For regular readers of my blog, due to the circumstances surrounding the past week, I am taking a short break from my lighthearted tone and speaking straight from the heart about the pain of losing a parent (and grandparent). If you're the type to skip tearjerkers like "Terms of Endearment," you might want to skip this entry.

I'm sorry for your losses.

Those words burned into my head as I sat stunned and alone in the bathroom, reading a text message minutes after Grandma had passed away, who had followed my mother into death 48 hours apart. I remember being blown away that it said losses. As in, more than one loss. That can't be common. But it was reality. I'll rewind the clock to 1:00 pm on the afternoon of Saturday, April 14th, to fully explain the devastation that was this particular weekend.

Sonia had taken Antonio to the store as I sat home and put Nate down for a nap on an otherwise pedestrian Saturday afternoon, with thoughts of Antonio's 3rd birthday party the following weekend starting to crowd my brain. I noticed my Grandma Helen calling on my cell, and instantly I worried. While we did talk often, when she called me, there was always a reason for it. Turns out she hadn't heard from my mother. And while she was certainly concerned (my mother would call Grandma every morning religiously), she wasn't in panic mode yet. "Maybe she went out and her phone died," I suggested. But regardless, after several more calls to Mom and 45 minutes had gone by, I promised I would stop by her condo "just to check." To save time, I showered before Sonia got home. I remember the water beating on my forehead and wondering if I could be facing a worst case scenario and how I'd handle it. Being a pessimist, I always thought worst case. After getting dressed, I waited by the door and when Sonia showed up with Antonio, I was off, trying not to show my nerves in front of them, kissing them goodbye and forcing a smile.

That was the last normal moment I remember. 

Before I was even in my car, my sister Nicole texted me that she was on her way to Mom's as well. I had the key to get in, but her and my brother-in-law Mike wound up getting there first. And then, as I drove down Route 23 and came to a red light, I got a text from my sister I'll never forget. 

"Her car is here," it said. And that's when I knew this was going to be the worst day of my life. 

I pushed the gas pedal to the floor and was there within minutes, anxiously creeping closer to the entrance to Mom's condo complex. Mike and I went in as Nicole waited outside with her kids in the car. I fumbled with the keys to open Mom's door, taking a good 10 seconds to finally turn them. I remember that when I finally did turn them, I looked at Mike nervously as if to say, "Get ready. This could change everything."

Then we walked in. And I knew instantly. We found her in the living room, her ringing phone laying beside her. And there was crying, and screaming, and a whole lot of pacing and shaking. Then Mike called 911. And then I had to break the news to my sister and wife. I called Sonia (my wife) while I was still in the condo. I could barely get the words out as I sobbed. All I could say was, "She's gone." Thankfully, both kids were asleep and weren't there to see her reaction, but hearing her grief over the phone will still go down as one the top five terrible moments from the entire experience. 

Telling Nicole was a task I believed fell on my shoulders. So I walked wearily outside. She was standing outside her car nervously asking what happened. I must've been so visibly shaken, she knew right away. I uttered something like, "It was probably a heart attack." I'll never forget my nephew Tyler sticking his head curiously out the car window, wondering why his mother was so upset. Thankfully, he didn't get it and literally laughed instead. The innocence of children during this ordeal will be a running theme. Thank God for them. They force us to be stronger than we ever could be otherwise.

After a few more calls were made, the cops and medical examiner showed up, asking me information about Mom, while resting a consoling hand on my back. Then, the most difficult thing we'd all collectively have to do was imminent- telling Grandma that her only child had passed away.  All of her calls to us went unanswered. We knew we couldn't break the news over the phone, but felt terrible ignoring her desperate calls. It felt like a race against the clock. An excruciating 90 minutes later, the medical examiner was done and we were free to go. The four of us (Sonia included) reluctantly made our way to Grandma's. I wanted to get there before she found out another way. But I also secretly hoped she would put two and two together. The idea of facing her and delivering this message was downright frightening. After knocking on her door to no answer, we finally used the key. And there she was, approaching us, totally confused. She'd taken her hearing aid out and didn't hear us knocking. I was in the front, as if leading the charge into a haunted house. And it was just awful. She made sounds that didn't even sound like her. Her screams echoed through the halls as we led her to the nearest chair. After she sobbed through some questions about how we found Mom, she complained of a sharp pain in her forehead, took a Tylenol, and just sort of fell asleep. We thought nothing of the sharp pain. After all, we all had headaches. We even heard her snoring. Thank God, we all thought. She's resting and not awake to feel the pain.

Mom's cousin Lucille showed up to stay with Grandma overnight. So the four of us all went home to be with our kids and create the facade that everything was fine. My biggest concern was that Antonio would be affected by our grief. It was my biggest challenge but also my main source of strength. Later that night, Sonia took Antonio aside and told him Grandma had gone to heaven. Surely, he didn't really understand what it meant. But he smiled and continued playing with his Buzz Lightyear.

I was so mentally drained that I fell asleep rather quickly that night. But I hadn't felt that unhinged since the night of 9/11.  I'm not comparing this experience to that, but my body reacted to both the same way, right down to waking up in the middle of the night shaking, feeling as if I was having a panic attack.

Waking up Sunday morning was a harsh dose of reality. No sooner did I open my eyes when I found myself crying. Looking back, I know exactly why. Waking up meant it was real. And it was still happening. It was 8:15 AM. I turned on my phone. There was a text message from my sister. 

"Call me. Grandma had a stroke."

Frankly, I wasn't surprised. As close as Grandma was to Mom, how could she not have a major physical reaction to her death? I threw on pants and left for the hospital, Sonia dressing Nate who'd just woken up. I hadn't even left yet when I heard that the stroke caused hemorrhaging in the brain. There was nothing they could do. Regardless, I joined Mike in the ER and sat vigil next to Grandma, my sister and wife staying home to keep life as normal as possible for our kids.True to form, Sonia still managed to come to the hospital to be there for me as much as she could. Having my in-laws to help with my kids proved to be invaluable that day, and truthfully every day during this process.

A priest stopped into the room and everyone there- Me, Sonia, Mike, Mom's best friend Maryann, Mom's cousin Lucille all held hands as we said the Our Father around Grandma's bed. I felt like that was when I said goodbye to her.

 Mom (left) and Grandma (right) at Grandma's 80th birthday party. As the picture indicates, they were inseparable.

Soon after, I was approached regarding placing Grandma in the hospital's hospice center. Amazingly, because of my Mom passing the day before, I was now Power of Attorney and the decision-maker. I realized at that point how rare this succession of events was. This was the point which everyone was asking me how I was managing to get through this. I answered, quite simply, "because I had to."

We put Grandma into hospice care on Sunday afternoon at 5:00 PM.  Monday morning at 11:00, I received a call that she wouldn't last much longer. Ten minutes later, as my father and I opened our respective car doors to leave to be with her, I received another call that she'd died. I walked inside and quietly announced the news to whatever family was there. People started hugging me and I noticed Antonio, standing frozen halfway down the stairs. I smiled and told him we were playing some kind of hugging game and ran upstairs to grab him. It was the best I could think to do at the time. Luckily, he smiled and I don't think he thought anything of it.

Over the next three days, support poured in. Text messages, cards, flowers, phone calls from out of state (and even country), fruit baskets, you name it.  Family and friends alike stopped by at scattered hours just to offer a hug and an ear to listen. We planned a double wake/funeral for both to take place on Thursday and Friday. And on Tuesday night, while putting Nate to sleep, I fed him his bottle in one hand and wrote the eulogy in my iPhone with the other hand. The transcript of it is below:

Ever since that harrowing 48 hour stretch where we lost two amazing women and the matriarchs of our family, six words keep coming back to me. Together in life. Together in death. And there's something strangely fitting and even beautiful that Mom and Grandma went together. Two people who simply couldn't exist without the other. And they went everywhere together. Even into heaven. And if I know them, they've already etched out a space next to each other up there as well. Alongside my grandfather who's already asking Grandma to "make him a plate." I won't talk for long but wanted to share a brief story about each that I think embodies their spirit.

I was about six at the time when mom was on a ladder outside, cleaning the big window in our living room that faced the street (I should note that this was the last time such a thing happened). Suddenly, the ladder started shaking and in a heap of shrubbery and foliage, she crashed to the ground. It doesn't sound funny but I promise you it was hysterical. Afterward, mom said she was in a lot of pain. But as soon as she looked up and saw my sister's elephant slippers making their way down the stairs, she found herself smiling. Laughter through pain. And with that in mind, a couple of years ago, my sister and brother-in-law invited the family over for St Patrick's Day. Never one to miss a party , Mom and Grandma were of course there an hour before the start time, enjoying food and drink. Grandma wanted to go downstairs but tripped, falling down an entire flight of stairs at age 82. My wife and I got there several minutes later and she was sitting at the dining room table, with an ice pack on her wrist, but looking otherwise unaffected. After hearing what happened, I questioned her sanity. I said, "You're an 82 year old woman who just fell down the stairs who just had heart surgery and whose arm is blowing up like a balloon. You have to go to the hospital NOW." She looked at me in all seriousness and said "but I'm not done with my gin and tonic yet." That fall may have broken her arm. But never her spirit. That's the blood that ran through both of them.

And speaking of heaven, I will end on this note. A few years ago, my nephew Joe asked me if I'd be in heaven when he got old. And I realized that he was starting to understand the finality of death, and it rattled me. So, not wanting to lie to a sweet, innocent little kid, I looked him straight in the eye and said "Kid, not a chance. " 

On behalf of my sister Nicole, wife Sonia and brother-in-law Mike. Thank you for your unwavering support and love. God bless you all.

Later that day, I received an email from my Jewish friend Jason, who'd been at the funeral mass. He sent me possibly the nicest note I've ever received in my life. First, he included the definition of the word "mensch." And then went on to say I'd handled myself with class and sophistication and he was proud to call me a good friend. It was the first time I'd teared up since the wake.

We did something different at the repast and asked people to tell stories about Linda and Helen. And they did. Cousins, friends, even my father got up and said a few words. And we laughed, we cried, it was the full range of emotions. And afterward, all I heard was how perfect a sendoff it was. That made me happy.

The day after the funeral, we celebrated Antonio's 3rd birthday. Canceling it was never something I even considered. In fact, the party ended up being exactly what the family needed. We held it at a gym that specializes in bounce houses. So, kids and adults alike bounced to their heart's content, pegging each other with balls and breathing a sigh of relief as we saw the smiles on the faces of our children. Amidst the sadness, I will never forget that.

There is still plenty of healing to do, though. And I know it won't be easy when July comes and the day that would've been Mom's 60th birthday passes. But it's during these times that the real heroes in your life emerge. Like the best friend who cancels his plans to sit with you and talk over a beer on a Tuesday night. Like the family friend who becomes simply family. Like the father who drives an hour back and forth each way, every day to exemplify what a father is. Like the wife who is strong for you despite needing to be strong for her kids as well. There's a reason why people eventually laugh at wakes. They realize, despite the ones we've lost, the ones we're left with are pretty damn special.

Yesterday morning, I was preparing to return to work for the first time since all this transpired. After feeding Nate his bottle, I reached into his pack n' play to pull out some toys. Without having touched anything, I noticed a doggy toy with parts that light up. But only one part was lit. And it was flashing red. His heart. Love you too, Mom and Grandma. My life will never be the same without you, but as days go by, I get the feeling you're more with me than I thought.

Thank you all for your prayers and thoughts. We will continue to need them as we wade through the unpleasant tasks ahead.

And I promise, there will be plenty of laughter to come.

Much Love,
Joe DeProspero

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