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Hard To Say Goodbye

My mom, Mary immigrated to the United States from southern Italy with my grandmother when she was only seven or eight years old. My grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. a few years earlier hoping to make enough money to send for them which he eventually did. Mary grew up in Greenwich Village during the Great Depression, left school to work at home making silk flowers each day at the kitchen table to help the family make ends meet, met my dad after World War II, married and eventually had five children. She loved “the neighborhood” (a moniker that Italians who grew up in Greenwich Village still use even to this day) and persistently resisted my father’s attempts to move us away to a house in the “burbs”. But eventually Mary had no choice. The city condemned our south Village tenement building for demolition and thus Lou, my dad was able to persuade her to move the family (ours and my mom’s parents) to a two-family home in Woodside, Queens. Strangely, after leaving “the neighborhood”, Mary never showed any interest in going back. Woodside was her home now.

As I sat there in my mom’s Manhattan hospital room watching her nod slowly off to sleep, I could not help but notice how much she had aged during her recent illness. Almost 87 and despite being an avid smoker since her twenties, she had lived a relatively healthy life. Her most serious health issue was a life-long bout with hypertension. It is true that as a hypertensive who smoked, her time with us should have been considerably curtailed. But Mary was the product of stellar genes. Her father, Giuseppe died at the age of 96 and her mother, Carmela lived to the ripe old age of 100. And both of my grandparents had the good fortune of never being seriously ill, not even for a single day in their respective lives.

So my siblings and I were not overly concerned when my mom complained of having breathing issues. She was in good medical hands and seemed to be making progress with each passing day, albeit slowly. And my brother, Bob a physician, was staying in close contact with my mother’s doctors and keeping us all informed along the way. However, we were all very much concerned about the weight loss she was experiencing during her extended hospital stay. So given my schedule and availability, I assured my siblings and extended family members that I would visit Mary at the hospital each day at lunch time to feed her and to make sure she was eating enough in order to help get her weight back up. Of course, being Italian the food at the hospital was never really to Mary’s liking. But as I fed her, we would joke about how “the Americans” still don’t know how to eat well and gossip about certain family members. The diversion, which I first discovered as a parent feeding my daughters when they were both toddlers, seemed to work just as well with my mom. By two in the afternoon, Mary would put her head back on her pillow… her way of letting me know she was ready for her afternoon nap. Taking her cues respectfully, I would kiss her goodbye on her forehead and before taking my leave remind her that my brothers, sister and other family members would be visiting her that evening… even though by the time I would finish the sentence, Mary would already be fast asleep.

There was nothing especially alarming about this one particular hospital visit. My mom ate well and drank almost all of her vanilla gelato milkshake. Yes, you read that correctly. It was not an ice cream milkshake but a gelato milkshake that I had prepared especially for her by a small gelato shop nearby my home in Greenwich Village. And since the proprietor was from Naples, Italy relatively close to where Mary was born, she would always look forward to her specially-made-for-her Neapolitan treat. So there really was nothing out of the ordinary or untoward to which I could attribute what was about to happen.

As Mary nodded off for her daily afternoon nap, I quietly left her room and was walking slowly down the hospital corridor towards the elevators when the thought suddenly hit me. “Suppose this is her time to leave us?” It disturbed me deeply that such a thought would invade my consciousness so abruptly. Yet, there it was. And for the first time I realized that it was going to be hard for me to say goodbye to my mom.

By the time I arrived back home, a finished song melody and the line, “hard to say goodbye” had come to me almost as if it were a gift from Mary herself. I finished the song the next day. And three weeks later, my family and I were mourning the loss of our beloved matriarch. It was hard… very hard… to say goodbye for the final time. But when I returned home that evening from the cemetery, I stopped by that little gelato shop on the eastern corner of Barrow and 7th Avenue to tell the proprietor about Mary’s passing and to thank him for the pleasure he had given her those last precious weeks with his specially-made-for-Mary vanilla gelato milkshakes. Upon learning the news of Mary’s passing, he leaned over the counter and said as if sharing a secret that was meant only for the two of us, “Attesa qui un minuto.” (“Wait here one minute.”) He scurried up the staircase to the upper floor where he lovingly makes his gelato fresh each day. And within what seemed to be but a few seconds he was standing in front of me with two cups of vanilla-gelato milkshakes. “To your mother!” he said handing me one of the cups. To which I replied, “To Mary!”

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