For this blog post, I wanted to write something about my mom. Mother’s Day just passed and the anniversary of my mom’s passing is on my mind. This blog post may take some time to write. I am not quite sure what to write. How do I properly tell you all about my caregiver, my hero and my best friend? She was all of those things and so much more….far more than words can ever describe. However, I shall try. I owe her that much. I owe her everything.
My mom loved me. That is something I am sure of. I knew she loved me, not because she helped me or dressed me or fed me. I knew she loved me because I could feel it. “Love is something you feel in your heart,” my mom would say. “‘I love you’ are just words,” she’d say. “Real love is something you feel.” She surely loved me because I felt it. And when she left me, I felt an emptiness like a hole in my heart that can never be filled. I miss her every day. I loved my mom so much it hurts. And even though she isn’t here anymore, my love for her will never go away. I long for the day I will see her again.
My mom was born in 1933. America in the 1930’s was nothing like today. My mom’s parents had split up. My grandmother had to work to support herself and her five children. While she was working, the responsibility to care for the other children at home fell upon my mom. She was the oldest, after all. To help her mother, my mom quit High School so she would be home during the day to watch her brothers and sisters. This is what her mother needed my mom to do, so she did it. My mom always did what she had to do for her family.
Watching over my aunts and uncles surely wasn’t easy, at least that is what I gathered from the stories my mom would tell. She would often recount the time when my Uncle Richie thought he could fly like Superman and tried jumping out of an upstairs window. I’m pretty sure my aunts and uncles had too much fun keeping their oldest sibling busy. But she had to keep order and keep the house clean. Times were very hard back then. Money was scarce. There were many nights, my mom told me, when she would go to bed hungry. “It was a hard life,” my mom would often say, but she would also be reminded of happy times, too. They were a family and they all loved one another. That was all that truly mattered. My mom would tell me how they spent many Christmases without presents because there just wasn’t enough money. “But it was okay!” my mom would quickly add. She’d say they didn’t need presents. “We were just happy to be together.”
My mother would often say there was only one thing in life she always wanted to be, and that was a mom. That’s all she ever wanted to be. When she married my dad (what a coincidence!) she got her wish. Now, at last, Angelina was a mom.
But times were hard, still…
Adam, my dad, worked a few jobs until finally finding regular employment as a machinist making parts for office machines, like copiers and such. But money was still tight. It is no secret that my parents argued a lot. I suppose that’s common in Italian families, perhaps in all families. My mom, to keep busy and earn extra money, got a job as a lunch lady in a local public school. Shady Lane, I think was the school. My mom did what she had to do to support her family, as always. No matter the task, big or small, my mom did what needed to be done and she always did so with love.
Yes, life for my mom was hard, to be sure. And then in 1968, I came along…
I still have fuzzy memories of days when my mom took me to the school where she worked. She loved having me with her and showing me off to the other lunch ladies. I, of course, liked the attention.
Then something happened. In the fall of 1973, i got sick. I remember being very young and hurting a lot. I remember crying in pain whenever someone grabbed my hand. Then I remember a day when I couldn’t move my hand at all from the pain. My mom and dad knew something was wrong. But what could it be? After all, they were raising two healthy kids. Chronically ill children happened in other families. Surely this wasn’t serious, was it?
I remember my mom and dad walking me into a hospital where I would be staying for a while so the doctors could hopefully figure out what exactly was wrong. I was five at the time. I remember looking out the windows of the hospital entrance and seeing beautiful flowers. I remember asking my mom if we could pass by this way on our way out so we could see the flowers again. I remember her not really answering me. I did not understand that I wouldn’t be leaving the hospital…at least not for some time.
I was in the hospital for a month, between December 1973 and January 1974. I remember begging my parents to leave the Christmas tree up until I got home. I was so afraid. I could tell you some fuzzy memory horror stories about being in the hospital for so long and being so young and being so scared. But maybe I’ll leave for another time…
The doctors had no clue what was wrong with me. This was 1974. The medical diagnostics of today had not even been dreamt up yet. My blood tests were all wrong. They thought I had Leukemia. Finally, they figured it out. They told my parents I had Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. JRA – a crippling disease for which there is no cure. My parents were beside themselves with grief. How could this be? Arthritis was an old person’s disease, right?
Over time the JRA, my personal monster, would painfully destroy every joint in my body. My dad blamed my mom. My mom blamed herself. Life got even harder for everyone.
My mom decided to quit her job as a lunch lady so she could devote all of her time to care for me. From then on I garnered most of the attention. I’m sure my sister and brother felt jealous. I would not blame them if they did. Yet, somehow the five of us living in a house too small for five people managed to (mostly) get along. Times were hard, but we survived.
My father did not help around the house much. He went to work each day. He made the money. He kept a roof over our heads. He put food on the table. That, he thought, was enough. In those days, that’s how life was. The dad worked. The mom stayed home and did everything else. My mom, the dutiful wife, did as she was told…as she was expected. She cooked the meals…cleaned the house…took care of my sister and brother…and took care of me…tried to manage my pain…called doctors…made appointments… prayed…wept…she did it all.
But how did she do it all? How could she be all things to everyone? She wasn’t physically strong. She was a little Italian lady. How could a small woman manage to carry so many crosses on those little shoulders? Only by the grace of God.
There were happy times, of course. There were graduation parties…cookouts…family trips. There were Thanksgivings and Christmases with big dinners prepared for so many people and nobody ever went home hungry. Later, there were weddings to help plan. My five-foot 110lbs mom found a way to take care of me AND everything else, too. I look back on those bitter-sweet days often. My mom tried so hard to make everyone happy. I remember, too, how hard it all was on her. On the outside she made it all seem easy, but I could see the pain in her heart. The strain it all put on her. Yet, she was so strong! She didn’t let anyone see it her inner pain.
Being so close to her, I saw it. My heart ached for her. After all these years my heart still aches for her.
Because I became ill at such a young age, and I was in so much pain all the time, aside from school, I rarely left the house. I stayed inside. I spent time with my mom – my best friend. The arthritis ravaged my body. I could do so little. The pain in my joints hurt so much. It was okay, though. Mom was there. She washed me. She dressed me. She got me ready for school. She dried my tears when kids teased me. She made me my favorite meals when I wouldn’t eat. She held me when I was in pain. She prayed at the foot of my bed at night. She carried me even when I was too big to carry and far too big to be carried by someone her size. She hugged me. She kissed me. She told me everything would be okay. She would do anything for me. She devoted herself to caring for me. She loved me. My life was hard, but she got me through it.
How do you thank a person so selfless? “Don’t thank me,” she’d say. “I don’t do it for thanks and praise,” she’d say, “Don’t thank me; thank God.” My mom never sought out “thanks” What she did, she did with love.
My mom never made me feel like a burden. If she was going out somewhere, she wanted me there, too. My mom and dad never made me feel like I was too much for them EVER. They were proud of me. I never knew why. I still don’t.
I knew my parents’ hearts ached for me, their sick son. I heard the arguments. Sometimes a sick child will pull marriages together and sometimes it pulls them apart. My parents somehow managed to do both…I know my illness broke them down, but still, they stayed together. They had no one else but each other.
A hard childhood…A hard marriage… and the hardship of a disabled son. My mom’s life was hard. VERY HARD. Somehow she persevered. She always did what had to be done. When things were at their worst and darkness seemed everywhere, my mom always turned to God. She had great faith in the Lord. And He, it seems, had great faith in her.
When my arthritis was so bad and I could no longer walk to school, my mom fought with the school board to get me a bus to take me to school. And when I made it to high school, the district wanted to transfer me from Deptford HS to Gateway HS because Gateway had an elevator. (By this time I was in a wheelchair because walking and carrying my books was impossible.) My mom didn’t want me to have to change schools and make new friends. She believed it was the schools’ job to accommodate me, not the other way around. My mother again did what she had to do for me. She wrote to our congressman and explained the situation to him. She fought and she won a great victory for me. The congressman told Deptford HS that they were required to put in an elevator to accommodate me. Sure enough, they did.
And when I got older and decided to go to college, I needed someone to drive me there and back every day. My dad worked. He couldn’t do it. It’s important to note that my mom didn’t just hate to drive, she was TERRIFIED to drive. Still, with her white-knuckles clasping the steering wheel, she did it. She drove me every day from home to Gloucester County College and then two years later, she drove me every day to Glassboro State (Rowan) College. She was so scared to do it but as afraid as she was, she did it for me.
My mom did what had to be done. It was her way. She had an inner strength that will forever amaze me. I think back all the time and truly wonder how this little Italian lady did EVERYTHING! I wish I had just some of her inner strength. I wish I was more like her. Most of all, I wish she was still here.
She did it all. She did everything for me.
Then for my mom came a great joy. Grandchildren! My mom found happiness. As I said, all my mom ever wanted to be was a mother. Now she was a grandmother! How happy she was! Alyson, Nicholas, Christian, Alexandra, Kelsi, Sam and Erica. Oh my God, I cannot tell you how happy they made her. To be taking care of children again! It was like a dream come true for my mom. It was a true blessing. How she loved them. Her eyes would sparkle every time they were with her. Her heart leapt with joy.
Days passed. Years passed.
In the early 2000’s my father became very ill. Something called Diffuse Lewy Body disease took his mind. When he became too sick for my mom to care for, we all decided he should be placed in a nursing home. My mom drove every day to the nursing home to be by his side, whether he knew she was there or not. It was her duty as a wife. It is what she believed.
After my father passed away in 2005, I had hoped that my mom would maybe find a way to de-stress. Sadly, my father’s illness, combined with mine and her own health issues, were taking a toll on her. My hopes went for nothing. Too much of life had caught up with her. Her health began to fail. First it was Osteoporosis. Then, the meds for the Osteoporosis made her sick. My mom was a smoker her whole life. As she got older, stress drove her to smoked more. It all started falling apart in early 2009. Multiple trips to the hospital followed. Pleurisy was the diagnosis. Then the meds she was given attacked her liver. My mom turned yellow. And she grew weaker and weaker. She would sleep for at least 20 hours a day. I would beg her to eat something, but whenever she tried, she’d only throw it up. We all begged her to see a liver specialist, but she refused. I think, in her own way, my mom had just decided she had had enough of life. Finally, we got her to the hospital. We took her to Jefferson. They tried to help her, but by this time she had become too frail. She wouldn’t eat. The doctors gathered me and my brother and sister to tell us to take her home. There was nothing left they could do for her. She was going to die.
We, my siblings and I, promised my mom we would not put her in a nursing home like dad. She would be in her own home. We set up a hospital bed in the living room. Lisa, Anthony and I worked to keep her cared for. She had devoted her life to caring for us, It was our time to care for her. I did what I could, arranging nurses to be there for her around the clock. If a nurse was not available, my sister and brother, God bless them, did what they had to for our mother.
In the early days of her return home, I was optimistic she might get recover. Some days she would seem almost like her old self, sipping coffee (her favorite drink) and talking to me and her best friend Julie. She had become so frail and weak. Toward the end, she looked so small. I would tell the nurses (all of them treated her so well) that this frail woman wasn’t always like this. My mother was a dynamo! She was always doing something. This frail woman was a shadow of what she used to be. On the good days, I had high hopes. But bad days always followed good ones. Then the good ones became fewer and fewer.
Toward her last days, my mom was in so much pain. I could hear her cry out from my bedroom when the nurses would tend to her. My brother and sister left it up to me to decide when to give her morphine. We knew it would take her pain away but we also knew there was no going back after that. When I could no longer bear to see her suffer, I asked the nurse to give her some to ease her pain. I knew she was going to die. I had prepared myself for that nightmare for a long time. Long before she ever went to the hospital, I would hear her in the middle of the night coughing so hard that she couldn’t catch her breath. I would run into her room with my phone in my hand ready to dial 911. But then she would breathe and seem okay and she’d say
“I’m fine, Chris. I’m fine.” I believed her because I needed her to be fine. I wanted her with me. I wanted her with me forever. But I also knew nothing is forever.
On that fateful morning, her last morning, I stupidly slept later than usual. Normally I would be up by 7:00 or 8:00 to make sure the nurse got in okay. On that day, I slept ’til 9:00. A mistake. From the moment I heard her struggling to breathe, I knew. I just knew.
Why didn’t I get up earlier? Why didn’t I call my sister to get home from work? (My brother and sister-in-law were at my nephew Christian’s College graduation and couldn’t leave.) At least I was there. Thank God I was there.
On that fateful morning of May 14, 2009, my mom was not alone. People who loved her were there. Her friend Julie happened to be visiting. Also, there was her nurse, Treasure. And what a “Treasure” she was. She had plans to pray with my mom that day. But when I saw my mom struggling to breathe, I knew this was it. I said, “Treasure, she is struggling.” But Treasure thought she was okay. I should have listened to my gut. Another mistake.
For a few moments I was alone with my mom. I could hear her struggling to breathe. She wasn’t speaking. Every breath was a painful chore. I knew I was going to lose her. I said, “Mom I love you and I am going to miss you.” At that moment her breathing got faster. She could hear me and she was becoming emotional. I tried to calm her. I said “Mom, I’ll be okay. I promise you mom, I’m going to be all right. You don’t need to worry about me. It okay.” I then said an Our Father and a Hail Mary by her head. I wanted to kiss her, but I couldn’t reach her in that hospital bed. I knew she was going to die. It seemed like when I told her not to worry about me, she calmed down. I think that’s what she needed to hear. She was holding on to life for me. I called the nurse and Julie over to the bed. I told Treasure, she’s not okay. The nurse ran to her bed. She put her hand on the side of my mother’s face. My frail weak mother who I adore looked up at the nurse, she took a breath….a pause….a breath…a longer pause…a breath…and then nothing. She was gone. The woman with the will and strength to move the world for me was gone.
I told my sister to get home, but didn’t tell her mom had passed. I couldn’t. If only I had gotten up sooner. If only I would have persuaded the doctors to try harder. If only I had been better to her…
She’s gone 9 years now. I miss her every day. I never got to kiss her goodbye.
This amazing woman who took care of me, and my sister and brother, and my dad, and her grandkids, was somehow gone from the earth. How could this be? My rock was gone. Our rock was gone.
I carry with me my memories of her. It’s all I have. I shall remember the struggles, the private battles she and I fought together…the fears we fought through that nobody ever knew about. I think about those terrible nights when she struggled to breathe. But I carry with me all the happy memories, too. My mom was truly my best friend in the world. It sounds cliché, I know, but it’s the truth. We watched TV together. We laughed together. We listened to music together. Some days when I would be working at my computer, she would come in to my room and say, “Chris, play my favorite song,” and I would. I would pull up John Lennon’s “Imagine” on my desktop and play it.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.”
I would say, “Mom when you pray, what do you pray for the most?” She would say, “Peace, Chris. I pray for peace.” She is at peace now.
My mom was a special woman. One of a kind. Was she perfect? Of course not. She had arguments and held grudges. She would hurt people sometimes, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. She was a human being with a great weight on her shoulders. She carried a cross,..so many crosses. They would take a toll on her at times, and the darker side of her might come out. But that angry bitter person wasn’t really my mom. My mother exuded love. She loved so much. She loved so many. She loved more than anyone I have ever known. She loved God, too. She is with Him now.
So many nights she would be sitting at the foot of the bed watching TV when I would come in worried about this or that. (I’m too much like my dad. I am always worried about something.) My mom would calm me. Those little eyes would look at me and that soft smile would appear and she would tell me, “Chris, everything is going to be all right. I promise.”
And I believed her. But nowadays nothing seems all right. I find myself missing her more and more and wanting too much to see her again. My only comfort is that someday…someday I will see her again.
I’m sorry if this testimony is inadequate or incomplete. I am not sure it shows her as she truly was.
There was once this vibrant little dark-haired woman who cooked and cleaned almost non-stop. There was this woman who took care of babies and grandbabies. There was this woman who carried me home from elementary school when I was too big to carry. There was this woman who baked amazing Christmas cookies. There was this woman who gave the best hugs. There was this woman who saved up a little of the food budget just to surprise me with a treat from the store. There was this woman who kept only a little for herself so others could have more. She was my mom. She was the most amazing mom.
Her name was Angelina. In Italian, her name means, “Angel.”
I miss you, ma. I love you so very much.