How a Father’s Passing Sparked an Exploration of Italian American Heritage

“Never forget where we came from. Never forget my stories.”

By: Nancy Polito, Author & ISDA Contributor

I had just come in from visiting my father at Maine Medical Center, when the phone rang. I had a sinking feeling that it was the hospital calling. I put the receiver to my ear, and heard a voice. It was barely audible over my pounding heart. “Your father’s taken a turn for the worse,” it said. “You and your family should come back in.”  I hung up, not even knowing whom I’d been speaking to. At that moment it hardly mattered.

I found my mother getting ready for bed. I told her what the caller had said. She quickly began getting dressed. I called my two brothers, John and Armand, to tell them Mom and I were heading back in. “You should come too,” I said. I followed that with calls to my two daughters, Angela and Adrianna.

Angela was living in Boston, attending Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. “I’ll grab some clothes,” she said, “and I need to tell my roommates and call school.”

On the drive back to the hospital, I felt ill. This was the moment I’d dreaded. Mom sat beside me in silence. My mind veered from hospital to highway: my father in a room dying, and my daughter all alone on the road for the two-hour drive from Boston to Portland. Silently I prayed that she would make it safely, yet I also hoped she would be in time. Just before we’d hung up she’d asked that I tell her “Papa” to wait for her.

At the hospital I pushed my mother’s wheelchair, rolling her through corridors to my father’s room. Once I parked her at the foot of the bed, I hurried over, sat down, and laid my head on my father’s chest. “It’s okay, Dad,” I whispered. ”They’re all coming in to be with you.  I love you, Dad”.  A weak hand patted my back ever so softly, as if to say: “I know you do, and I love you too.” I moved up closer and whispered in his left ear, “Don’t worry Dad, I promise I will take care of Mom.” A moment later I added: “Dad, Angela is on her way home from Boston, please stay with us until she comes.” The weak hand patted, then faded, then stopped.

That was his last sign of consciousness.

From my father’s room I kept a close watch on the doorway, and down the long corridor. Who would come next? Would they get here before he died? One-by-one, my siblings arrived with their significant others: John with Normajean, Armand, Jr. and Linda, my daughter Adrianna and her then-boyfriend, Gregg, followed by my nephew, Armand III and Merry. We only had to wait for Angela. Every fifteen minutes or so I would glance out to see if my eldest daughter was coming. This was the last time, and was sure to be unlike any other.

My brother, John, started reciting the Lord’s Prayer and we all joined in, bowing our heads.  John had questioned the fact that a priest was not called in for my father’s final hours, but I’d told him that priests no longer left their beds at midnight to give people like our father the Last Rights. That was no more than a memory.

Instead I stood over my father, and though I was barely able to speak, I gave him the Last Rights then kissed his forehead. I don’t remember what I said. I was desperate to do the right thing, and I knew the gist of what needed to be said, but I couldn’t conjure up the exact words. How could this be? All that Catholic education and I was stumped.

We stared at one another, not knowing what to do or say. Usually when we gathered as a family it was to celebrate a holiday or birthday. We were accustomed to being loud, but now silence seemed to be our only option. Somehow that felt so very, very wrong.

Up until then, when faced with a problem, we’d always turned to Dad. He was the one that fixed things. He was the core of our family. Now here he lay, motionless. Dad could no longer hold our world together.

As I sat by my father’s bedside, cradling his hand against my face, I began to think of all he’d passed on to us. He’d taught us through his actions and through his stories. He’d told us of his youth in Italy, and coming to America. He wanted us to fully appreciate the opportunity this country had given him. He knew that, if we could learn to see what he’d found here, we would appreciate our own advantages that much more.

For fifty-five years I’d asked my father questions, and whenever he knew the answers, he told them to me. I’d never stopped asking, nor would I, but I now saw that I would have to find answers on my own. My brain rebelled at the thought. I could still hear his voice saying: “Never forget where we came from. Never forget my stories.” Now he’d run out of time. Whatever we remembered was all there was. Under my breath I muttered, “Dear Lord, what will we do without this man?”

That was the moment I realized that I must preserve his stories so that future generations could see how we came to this nation. Our children’s children’s children should understand their history, starting with the Italy my father had left. I wanted to put all this down on paper, but I also wanted to capture his voice, his gestures, and his excitement and wonder at the thought of it all. It was all those things together that made me feel that I was truly a Polito.

Now that all came back to me as we gathered around his bed for the last time. Every so often a nurse would come in to give him another shot of morphine. Each time she said: “It won’t be much longer.” Not much longer. My Dad’s ninety years were running out. It was a matter of hours, or maybe even minutes. I knew this was what had to be, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. I tried to think of all the things I would have to write down about him. The scope of it should have scared me, but how scary could it be after going through this?

Finally my daughter, Angela, arrived just in time to tell her grandfather she loved him. She kissed him goodbye. He passed away at three-in-the-morning on Thursday, February 6th, 2003.

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