Memories of Loving My Parents
Caring for my parents in their elderly years was the most rewarding experience of my life. I became a better son, a better man, a better human being. At least, I hope I have.
In 1989, I returned to my hometown of Rochester, New York to care for my mother and father, Frances Mary Turri and Herbert Pompeii Pilato, in their senior years. My acting career in Los Angeles had stalled and I began to write, specifically about the classic TV show, Bewitched, of which I was particularly fond. I thought, “Well, I can write anywhere. Why not go back to Rochester and write from there? This way, I can also take care of Mom and Dad.”
In the process, Dad and I grew closer. He would say things like, “Herbie J — I don’t know what I’d do without you.” He was a tough guy, and he always loved me. But I would never have heard such intimate words from him had we not shared caring moments during his final days.
The years passed until 1995 when he died of lung cancer at 83.
My mother had been dependent on my father. Neither of my parents “came from money.” They never learned to be financially secure. And after Dad died, it somehow seemed cruel to leave my mother to fend for herself, even with my sister Pam living close by to help. She had a career and a family of her own, and we both cared for our parents because we loved them. We weren’t going to inherit an estate. There was none, in any sense of the word. There was no house. There was no massive bank account. There was nothing. Because I was single and worked from home, there were no qualms about me becoming the primary caregiver.
The years continued into 2008 when Mom passed away at 86 due to complications from Alzheimer’s.
During the time I cared for my parents, I commuted periodically to Los Angeles for work assignments. I never regretted returning home to be with them.
My parents gave my sister and me everything they were capable of giving and in turn, we gave them everything we could. We mostly gave our time, which is the most anyone can give anybody; especially ill or challenged seniors.
I learned about patience and compassion for elders while caring for my parents. Each had ten brothers and sisters. I was blessed with an extended family of countless aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends. For years, there was a party every night at our home on Erie Street in Rochester, and for a time, in our townhome in Greece, New York, a nearby suburb where we relocated in 1978.
After Dad died, most of my cousins had moved out of state and onto their own lives. A few of my aunts and uncles had also passed away. By the time Mom died, the remaining aunts and uncles had also left this world. Consequently, in my parents’ later years, specifically Mom’s, I created a new family for them to embrace.
I made sure Mom attended and participated in activities at the local senior community center. I helped her get to know each new neighbor at her new senior apartment complex in Irondequoit (a suburb of Rochester). I made sure she was loved, and I felt some of that love, too — when I became the volunteer activities director at her senior apartment complex.
The lessons of love and compassion that I learned from my parents as a child, and in turn applied to caring for them as an adult, remain with me. Even with both now gone, every good thing that I did for my parents continues to lead to every good thing in my life and career.
The Healthiest Way To Grieve the Loss of a Loved One
No son loved a mother and father as much as I did — and do, all these years after they left this world.
But I do not pang after their loss or grieve intensely — for several reasons.
Firstly, let me be clear: we all grieve the loss of a loved one, or a colleague, a friend, a pet, in our own way. And no one should callously dictate how another should behave, certainly when it comes to the demise of a dear one.
But there is a healthy way to grieve, and that way has nothing to do with endless daily tears, years after the soul we loved is no longer visible to us in this existence.
Certainly, too, losing a parent after they reached into their 80s or 90s, following a good long life, is much different than a parent who loses a child, or when any young person in our lives, be they a co-worker or a sibling or a close friend, leaves us.
The experience of death in our lives is different from case to case, individual to individual. But the reality is, those who have left us at any age, no matter our relationship with them, are gone. They are not here anymore. They are somewhere else, depending on our individual religious or spiritual beliefs. And we are still here. I personally believe that once someone dies in this world, they live again in Heaven or move on to some form of higher existence, which is how I when it comes to my parents.
Additionally, I feel that my parents, now in Heaven, would not want me to grieve; they would want me to live my life to the fullest; to utilize the lessons of Love that they taught me for the highest good of all concerned. “Honor Thy Mother and Father” is the Fifth of the Ten Commandments. And I believe that Number 5 means not only to respect our parents while they are alive but again, to live fully the life that God gave us through our mothers and fathers.
Living, fully in this world, to the best of our ability, is the best and healthiest way to live. To love those in this world who are alive; to take what we’ve learned by the loss of those who are now gone and to apply that love to the living; to the ones who are still here.
That helps the souls of our loved ones now gone to soar in the Heavens. Our joy on Earth helps them in ways that we cannot comprehend, while any endless grief, following a respectable period of grief (one year at the most; possibly, two) does nothing to soothe their souls.
As an example, a few years back, I had a woman friend who lost her husband, after a long horrific battle with cancer. And years after he died, she still went to the cemetery and placed flowers on his grave. every day she did this. In my opinion, this is not the healthiest way to grieve, particularly at the cost of this woman’s emotions and psychological well-being. Did she really believe that this is what her husband would have wanted for her? To grieve daily, on end, while he is living joyously in some other world beyond this one? Of course not.
Juxtaposed to that woman’s experience of loss, there was another woman-friend of mine who experienced a deep loss; this time, her young son, who died tragically in a car accident. This woman grieved a healthy time, and then she moved on with her life…because she had to…for her health and well-being. But not in any selfish way. Because whenever you would visit this woman at her home, you would walk into her living room, and you would see this beautiful original painting of her son, placed over the sofa. It was clear how much she loved him. But it was also clear to this woman that her love for her son had to somehow be filtered in a more productive way. And for her, that productive way was to live her life fully…and to not be bitter or overtly grievous.
The truth of the matter is this: death has been around for eons, and it will come to each of us. The process of losing and loss, while we are here, is a learning process. Every experience of life on this planet is a learning process. And every learning process should be experienced with a realistic, respectful sense of living life to the fullest, for the highest good of all concerned — including ourselves.
As such, and as far as I can tell, the best and healthiest way to grieve the loss of a loved one is to love unselfishly ourselves and those others who are still alive.
Again, in my heart, and from my personal perspective, I know that is what my beautiful Mom and Dad would want for me. And I truly believe that’s what your loved ones, now soaring to amazing heights somewhere else other than here, would want for you, too.
I Grew Up Poor But Lived a Rich Life
I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s in the inner-city of Rochester, New York in a big Italian-American Catholic family. Both of my parents each had ten brothers and sisters and, as a result, every day was a party.
My father never made a lot of money, but we didn’t have a lot of bills. For a good portion of my childhood, we lived rent-free in the homestead of my mother’s family. It was a red-brick double house with a solid foundation of love. I lived on one side with my parents, Herbie and Frances Pilato, and my older sister Pam. Next door was my Aunt Elva Turri Easton, sister to my mom, her husband Carl Easton, and their daughter, my cousin Evie.
Numerous extended family members, neighbors, and friends were frequent visitors to “the house.”
Yep — our house was “the house,” the center of the family; the place where it all happened; where everyone we knew wanted to be.
It was a good life, even though my immediate family really had nothing of what this world calls secure. We were clean, and the house was spotless, but attaining, retaining, and saving money was always an issue.
Still, we ate well and loved God.
We attended church every Sunday morning and sat down to pasta dinner every Sunday afternoon. We also enjoyed pasta every Tuesday and Thursday at 4:30 PM and on Mondays and Wednesdays, it was either fried chicken or my Mom’s awesome chicken or lentil soup.
On Friday nights we went out to dinner.
Come Saturday night, various extended family members and friends would visit over the years, and we would gather around the TV to watch shows starring Lawrence Welk, or Jackie Gleason, while The Hollywood Palace, Petticoat Junction, Mission: Impossible, among others, were other favorites.
In one very short time period, circa 1973–1974, television on both Friday and Saturday nights were heaven:
The ideal line-up for Friday evening: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style.
The next night: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.
Seriously…what more could anyone want from free evening entertainment in your own living room? And whatever we watched at night was usually discussed the next day, when my mom’s sisters would come over for morning coffee.
Television wasn’t the only topic of conversation, of course, and it wasn’t always pleasant, the TV shows or the conversation, but the gatherings of good people were consistently plenty. And before every last drop of coffee was shared and enjoyed along with a daily danish or a dose of coogan everyone always kissed and made-up.
There were many arguments between the laughter and the joy, but not a whole lot of divorces. Disagreements were in full discourse. But the yelling and screaming were only and soon followed by large portions of immediate forgiveness, with everyone moving on to the next adventure in life and emotion.
And those were just the daily activities.
With every season our family gatherings would expand in math and geography.
Each spring, the numerous family picnics would begin, while we summered throughout Upstate, New York, in places like Waterport and Honeoye Lake, where both my dad and mom had siblings who owned summer homes. We also vacationed in Canandaigua, and Lake George, while one year, I believe during my school spring break of 1968, we went as far as Miami, Florida.
That was a good year.
My dad’s brother Mac lived in Miami, and we stayed one week at the Gold Dust Motel, and the second week at Uncle Mac’s house.
I was only allowed one week’s vacation from school, but somehow my parents worked it out with school officials that I could have an extra 7 days in Miami.
So, as I said, 1968 was a good year.
While the world, then unbeknownst to me, was falling apart with race riots, the Vietnam War, and various political assassinations, I began to fully embrace the love of pet animals and life.
I always had dogs and cats, several at one time, in fact. But it was during my vacation in Miami that I seemed to form an even more special bond with the little critters and living.
My Uncle Mac and his wife Anne had two happy, healthy dogs, with brown and black fur coats that shone so bright and clean. And I remember how Aunt Ann used to say, “I L.O.V.E. you” to both those adorable canines, who responded with full-embrace to those words of affection.
From that moment on in Florida and beyond, I learned to love and be more fully aware of what I would later label the simple treasures of life, with which, in retrospect, I had always been enormously blessed.
Once back in Rochester in 1968, and every year and second forward, I began to realize just how crazy “rich in love” I was if lacking in economic status.
But the lack of funds never stopped my family, immediate or otherwise, from enjoying life. There were countless weddings, banquets, and birthdays, the latter at least once a week, with some cousin or aunt or uncle celebrating their co-existence with ours.
We always laughed and made sure to thank each other for everything…each happy night before we went to sleep.
That’s what it was like all the time.
We had “structure” at my house. It was a good, sound “foundational structure,” in the geographic, physical sense, and in every other emotional and psychological way — even on the challenging days which, as I matured, were more frequent than I realized because I felt so loved.
I know my parents are flourishing in Heaven
The Anniversary of 1977
November of 1977 remains a particularly special memory of my parents
We had just moved from our red-brick home on Erie Street in the inner-city of Rochester. Eastman Kodak, which had its international main office up the street, had long purchased the house, but the city’s Landmark Society would not allow our home to be torn down.
Other homes in the neighborhood were gone, replaced by Kodak parking lots. We were the only house left on the block; even Aunt Elva and Uncle Carl, who lived directly next door in our double house, had moved to Irondequoit, New York — a suburb of Rochester.
It was time for us to move on, too.
So we found Greenleaf Meadows, a bucolic rental community in Greece, New York, another suburb of the city. It was close to the historic Charlotte Beach, which claimed Abbott’s Frozen Custard and Schaller’s Hamburgers as its own — places to which we had once traveled from Erie Street on only special day trips.
Now, we were living up the street from each establishment.
When we first moved to Greenleaf, my sister and I ran up and down the stairs singing, “Moving On Up!” — the theme song from the TV show, The Jeffersons.
It was a silly moment, but passionate and sincere.
We were sad to leave Erie Street, but happy to be at Greenleaf.
Not only were we now close to the beach, Abbott’s Custard, and Schaller’s Hamburgers, but we had a beautiful pool, tennis courts, a clubhouse, and a brand new three-level townhome.
To help give things an even fresher start, my parents purchased new living room furniture.
But we still had an old dining room set.
It was my senior year in high school, and I had started my first job as a box boy at a local supermarket. So, I had saved some money.
My sister pulled me aside one day and told me about how Mom and Dad would soon be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary ( November 29, 1977), and that we should do something special for them to commemorate the occasion.
“I have $400.00,” she said. “If you throw in $100.00, we can give them $500.00. They’ve never treated themselves, Herbie J. This is a big deal for them…moving here to Greenleaf. And we can really make it a nice anniversary for them this year.”
I didn’t think twice about my sister’s request.
I gave her the $100.00, she placed that money with hers in an anniversary card — and after having a little cake, we gave it to our parents.
I’ll never forget how it all played out because, even though we were happy to have moved to Greenleaf, it was a tough time for celebrations that year. We would always spend the holidays on Erie Street with our big extended family. But in 1977 things were different.
Not only had we and our relatives next door left Erie Street, but various aunts, uncles, and cousins moved to Arizona and California; everyone in our family just kind of went their separate ways for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That never happened before; and it was a lonely time — for everyone — in many ways.
So, when my parents opened the card and saw the $500.00 — spread out in brand-new crisp $100.00 bills — my mom cried. Then my father cried, then my sister, and then I joined in on the flood-gate.
Not sobbing…but gentle, sweet quiet tears of appreciation.
Within a couple of days, we had a new dining room set — the modern kind with nicely-fitted brown leather swivel chairs on rollers, and a big extension leaf that could be placed in the middle of the table — all of which my parents had purchased with the $500.00.
There wasn’t a nicer set in town.
And that Christmas, everyone who used to celebrate the holidays with us on Erie Street — were now reunited with us — at Greenleaf.
And a new tradition was born.
Don’t Mess With My Son
I was picked on when I was a kid, mostly every day, and mostly because I was cute and talented, and in many instances, cuter and more talented than any of the other kids, especially the little and older bully boys, who were jealous of me, because all the little girls were after me.
As a result, every day I would be called dreadful names or be physically assaulted in some way.
But through it all, there was my Mom, who would stick up for me and fight my battles for me.
And when I would want to fight back, she would say, “Don’t you dare, Herbie J. Don’t you be like them. Don’t dirty your hands.”
Then, one day, the bullying got so bad, that my Mom went across the street to the house where not one but two bullies lived — they were brothers. Yes, I was double-teamed. That’s when my Mom demanded to speak to their mother. In tears, she said through her tears to the other Mom, “My son can’t walk down the street without one of your sons making a remark or picking on him in some way. I want it to stop!”
My usually docile, never-bothered-anybody Mom was now standing firm in her faith; practicing what she always preached; realizing that Love was not a doormat; and not being lukewarm, but confirming that sometimes it’s okay to be hot under the collar, especially when it came to the protection of the son she loved.
So, as my Mom stood there, furious and in tears, the message was clear: “Don’t mess with my son.”
As incredible as it may seem, there are adult bullies of the world who attack me to this today; the mean-spirited, the insecure sorts who make an easy target of good-hearted souls like myself whom they envy. But they don’t envy me because of my talents; they envy me because of my sincerity, which scares them. They are so busy being insincere in their everyday lives, that they simply do not understand sincerity when they see it; and in order for them to make themselves “okay,” they feel the need to lash out at the sincere for being sincere.
And that’s okay. I forgive them. As we should all forgive anyone who hurts us.
If we don’t, then we become like them. We “dirty our hands,” as my Mom would say.
And that’s just not productive.
We just have to be at peace in knowing that the bullies of the world…are hurting…and dealing with their jealousies; their lack of self-worth and their inability to be sincere.
They attack the good-hearted with character assassinations, and the good-hearted have no choice but to allow this: the good-hearted and sincere can’t lash out…because the more they lash out the weaker they will appear.
So the good-hearted just have to let love and forgiveness and the all good Moms and people on Earth and in Heaven do the battling.
It’s what love, forgiveness, Moms, and good people were made for.
How Just $7.00 Changed My Mother’s Life
My mother was not a wealthy woman, at least not how the world defines wealth. But she was rich in other ways, and it did not take a lot for her to be happy.
That was one of my fondest memories of Frances Mary Turri Pilato and one of the more inspiring life lessons she left with me occurred a few years before she passed away in 2008 from complications due to dementia.
After my father, Herbert Pompeii Pilato, succumbed to lung cancer in 1995, it was a rough road for Mom. They were married for decades and were very close. She not drive and was dependent on him for many things. That wasn’t good or bad, it was just the way things were. She was part of that generation.
So when Dad died, I tried my best to do what I could for her, even once attempting to move her to Los Angeles with me (to disastrous results).
And then there were her memory issues. Although as long as I can remember, she always prayed for everyone — especially children. In fact, whenever she saw a child, she took out her rosary beads and said a prayer, right there, at that moment, wherever she was, asking the accompanying parent if it was okay for her to bless their child.
“Of course,” they would say.
Then, every Monday through Friday, Mom attended the local Senior Center where she lived in Irondequoit, New York, and which cost her about $6.00 a day — a price that included lunch and van service to and from the center.
The total was approximately a very reasonable $30.00 a week a senior’s regular activities?
It was at the Senior Center that she attended various holiday-themed parties and picnics, played cards, and bingo. She especially loved the bingo. A lot, in fact. I never realized how much really.
Until, one day, when I started giving her “extra” quarters with which to play the game. Not a lot of quarters. Just seven dollars worth. Not ten. Not nine.
Every other day, I’d walk into her apartment, and interrupt her daily viewing of Seinfeld or The Golden Girls, walk over to her, kiss her, and ask her to open up her hand.
At that moment, I would pour out the $7.00 in quarters, 28 in all.
As I did this each time, her reaction was one of astonishment. She looked as if she had won the lottery or the mega-jackpot in Vegas.
“Oh, Herbie J,” she’d say with so much joy, “…what a great son you are! I have to pay you back! I have to pay you back!!”
“Mom,” I would reply, “You just go have fun at the Center.”
And she did, all the more…with that mere extra seven dollars of quarters.
Not a million. Not a thousand. Not a hundred. Not even ten.
Moving On in Joy
We all have experienced loss in our lives, whether in the way of losing a loved one, a job, or even something as benign as our hair.
In each case, the struggle is real, and should not be taken lightly.
However, at some point, we must reach the destination of acceptance.
We have to, in order to appropriately and productively move on.
Life is about living, and not just “in the moment” but for the future.
There is nothing that any of us can do about the past. The past is over, done; gone. We can recall it, cherish it, appreciate it, learn from it, and even maybe relish it a little bit. But we can’t embrace it, certainly not to the measure at which point we live in it.
Life is about living is about now, and tomorrow, not yesterday, loving who we are; where we are, today.
Every new year is a time of renewal, an opportunity to refresh or reboot. There is always a chance for reflection, a new beginning, and a new start. Every day, every second we have the chance to embrace countless opportunities to learn, review, and rewrite our fate; our destinies, combined or singular, alone or with others…with family, friends, colleagues.
Take the chance of today, on today. Take what you can from the past, learn from it, and apply it to today…in the most wonderful, exciting, and beautiful ways.
Never forget those we have lost; always remember what has brought us to this point; what has shaped us; how we have responded; what has worked; what has not worked; and apply all of it with renewal.
Renew constantly. Rewrite your scripts of life. Be sure to study in the school of thought and life; the academics of who you are unending. Your graduation is forever pending. There is no final exam. There are only teachers, in every form, surrounding you every second.
But know that your most important professor is yourself.
You teach yourself. Ultimately, you are self-taught.
You are the teacher and the student.
You have the ability to instruct yourself.
So, study hard, and live your A-life. Give yourself a passing grade that will not decide your graduation, but rather your evolution. And, in the process, don’t let your life pass you by.
Shortly before I left Los Angeles and returned to Rochester in the fall of 1989 to care for my parents, I had accomplished a lifelong dream: I met and interviewed Bewitched TV icon Elizabeth Montgomery. Doing so served as early research for what would later become my first book, The Bewitched Book, which I ultimately would complete upon my return to Rochester, my parents’ home, where I spent my late teens and early twenties.
Upon this return to Rochester, I had absolutely nothing. And when I say, “nothing,” I mean, “nothing.” Not a stick of furniture or a dime or a car or “nothing.” I was forced to sell all of my furniture and belongings to pay my rent and eat, and my plan was to complete my book and spend time with my then aging parents.
And I would do that, as fully, and with as much awareness and appreciation of my mother and father as I could. Returning to Rochester and my parents allowed me the opportunity to right some wrongs. I was always a good son. But at times I was selfish, overly-cocky, and did not always show the respect my parents deserve — the kind of respect that every tremendous parent deserves. And my parents were tremendous.
In retrospect, being with them again, relatively late in the game, was a blessing.
My Mom Had Twenty Hearts
My parents had married late in life, and I came along when my dad was 50-years-old, and my mom, ten years younger. By the time I arrived in Rochester in 1989, they were in their late sixties and seventies, and I was in my late twenties.
There was no time to waste in correcting those wrongs — and I did the best I could to do that.
But in that fall of 1989, back in Rochester, I was still needy.
One night, I wanted to go out with a few friends for a high school reunion of sorts. But I didn’t have a dime, not even for a ginger ale.
Subsequently, I asked my mom if I could borrow $20.00. And that was a hard thing to do. I had already returned to their home, was eating their food, and living in their house for free — all as an adult. And now, to top it all off, I was asking for money to go “party.”
But when I asked my mother for that twenty bucks, she didn’t flinch for a second. Instead, she gave me the funds immediately.
I remember my thoughts after she handed it to me. Before she did so, I felt like a “loser,” after she did so, I felt like “a million bucks.”
How could $20.00 make such a difference?
How could I have given money that much power over me?
I soon would find out.
Later that night, I took that $20 and met my friends. We all regrouped at a local bar. I was single, and now I felt confident — because I had that mere 20 twenty-dollar-bill in my pocket. If I met a woman who may have proved to be a potential new romance, I would be able to buy her at least one drink.
Is that insane, or what? Again, to give money that kind of power?
But before I even decided who or what was or wasn’t crazy, I reached into my pocket for the “money,” and it was empty. And so was my other pocket, and every pocket I had that night.
The money was gone!
I had lost that 20 — and I was pissed off. So much so, that I allowed it not only to ruin my evening but to somehow diffuse any “good” energy or carefree spirit that I may have brought to that bar or ignited in myself that night.
But more than that, I thought of how disappointed my mom would be when I would tell her about losing that twenty bucks.
Certainly, twenty dollars is not much today, and it wasn’t much in the fall of 1989. But it was a generous gift from my mom, who never had a lot of money to spare in any decade.
But in any case, after I realized I was broke that night — in several ways, I left the bar and returned home early.
I arrived at my parent’s home at approximately only 10:00 PM — and stood at the bottom of the stairs. My mom heard me and was awakened from up in her room with my dad, who was still asleep. She walked down the stairs and wondered why I was home so soon.
I was upset, and she wondered why about that, too.
“I lost that twenty you gave me, Mom,” I said in shame and probably with a few tears. “And I’m so sorry. I’m just an idiot! I know how hard you and dad struggle, and here I am, at 29-years-old — taking twenty bucks from you — taking advantage of you! And then, not evening having the good sense to be careful with what you give me.”
I emphasized once more, “I’m so sorry!”
But as I stood there, in emotional ruin, near the hall stairs, my dear mom just looked at me a minute and said, “Herbie J — you’re really going to let a mere twenty dollars ruin your night? You’re a better man than that — and you have a better mind than that. That $20 doesn’t mean a thing to me — but you — you — mean everything to me.”
And with that, my mom reached for her purse, took out another $20.00, and handed it to me. “Go back out with your friends — and have a good time,” she said.
But she didn’t add, “And just be careful” or “This time, be more mindful” or anything like that. She just simply said, “Go back out with your friends — and have a good time.”
And that was it.
But I hesitated in taking that second 20 and going back to the bar. I didn’t even care to return to that (then-smoked-filled) facility.
But my mom insisted. “Go,” she reiterated. “Go!”
So I did.
And while I’m not even sure if I used that second twenty bucks to buy any drinks for any potential new dates, I do know that the carefree spirit that was once infused in me by that first $20 gift from my mom was now alive in me again.
But not because I had felt confident again with a few bucks in my pocket. But rather because I now knew just how blessed I was to have such an awesome mom — one of two loving, generous parents who were always waiting and ready to be there for me, at any age, primed and ready with an endless amount of unconditional, nonjudgemental love and support — in such a way that was simply not of this world.
But thank goodness they were in mine.
My Dad Had Twenty Hearts, Too
Back in the spring of 1994, I was doing early research for Bionic Book, about The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. I was fortunate enough to visit the set of the third and final Bionic TV-reunion-movie, Bionic Ever After in which the famed sci-fi superhero characters Steve Austin (as played by Lee Majors) and Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) finally married. The movie was being filmed in Charleston, South Carolina — a place I had then yet to visit.
Meanwhile, and unfortunately, my father Herbie P. Pilato, was suffering from lung cancer back in my hometown of Rochester New York, and I was debating whether or not to leave him to visit the film set of Bionic Ever After.
But my dad, stoic as he was, insisted that I take the trip. He knew how much being on the set of that movie would ultimately have meant to me and contributed to my book. He also knew that I needed a rest from caregiving.
That’s the kind of man that he was.
I Left With His Blessings
Consequently, I made my plans to leave for Charleston.
But before doing so, I made sure to take my daily walk with my dad to the pool that was part of the townhome complex where we lived.
There I was — young, healthy, excited about the trip. And yet I was sad…because I was strolling with my elderly, ill father, who only months before, had been the picture of health himself.
In fact, my father had not been sick a day in his life, and he always looked much younger than he was — which was the case when he was 83-years-old during this spring of 1994.
If anyone could have been a movie star, it was my dad.
But certainly not at the time of our walk. Not with his walker. And not with the tubes that ran from his nose to the oxygen tank.
A healthy Herbie P. with son Herbie J, circa 1978.
And Then He Did It…
My father’s body was weakening, but his heart was strong — in peak condition, physically and emotionally. As was the pride for his son — and as was his generosity of spirit — and his wallet — both of which were always “on the money.”
For it was in the middle of our walk by the pool, that my dad, a former champion swimmer in his youth, suddenly stopped in his tracks on the cement shore of where we now stood still.
At which point, he took a labored breath, and then reached into his pocket.
“Dad,” I began to ask, “…what are you doing?”
He remained silent, and then pulled out a twenty-dollar bill — which he had somehow prepared to give me before we started our journey that morning.
“Here,” he said, handing me the twenty, “…you take this…for your trip. In case you need it.”
Now I was silent, stunned so. I was making money as a writer. Not hundreds of thousands, but enough to get me to Charleston and back.
But yet — I could not turn away from father’s mere twenty-dollar offer.
Deep Pockets, Boundless Love
I looked into his eyes.
The sincerity with which he was giving me what he perceived as more than just a modest amount of money was so loving-kind, so pensive, so massive. It would have cracked his heart in two had I rejected his offer.
What’s more, by this time, the cancer in his lungs had begun to affect his emotions — and his thinking. My dad’s age, combined with his general inability to grasp onto just how different and complicated the world had become — had clouded his perspective; how twenty dollars had not been considered a lot of money for a long time — for a young man or even a senior.
And yet, for my father, that twenty dollars was worth a great deal, while for me — it was a priceless gift.
In Final Tribute to My Dad
My dad was always the first one in my family who remembered to play a joke on April Fool’s Day. Only on his last celebration of the holiday in 1995, a mere five days before he died of lung cancer, did I find out why.
On April 1, 1924, when my father was just a boy, he lost his mother when she was 35-years-old. As her eldest child, he and my grandma Rose were quite close. I don’t think he ever got over losing her. He must have thought it was a bad joke that a twelve-year-old boy would lose his mother on April Fool’s Day. It’s like he made some kind of promise to himself that he would always be the first one to do a funny every year. It was probably the only way that he knew how to deal with the pain he must have felt every year on what should have been a very humorous day. Inside, I don’t think he ever stopped asking where his mother was. From the day she passed away, there was no one there to comfort when he fell, so he fought. There was no one there to guide him through school, to encourage him to get a formal education, so he quit.
He was on his own.
Still, when push came to shove, my father did remarkably well in this world. He always managed to enjoy himself in our hometown of Rochester, New York, and during his time in the service (World War II), which allowed him to travel to California and to the Philippines. He married at 40, and the good times continued with my mom, my sister, and myself. In the fall of 1977, after years in the inner-city, we left Erie Street and moved to the beautiful suburban townhome that we rented, and he loved it there. We all loved it there, from the moment we first went to inspect what would be our home for the next 18 years. Even after taking the long way, down the wrong road, on a rainy day, we somehow managed to end up in the right place.
After a time, however, my father grew bitter, thinking he had made the wrong decision by paying rent all those years and not purchasing a home. I tried to tell him again and again, that in life, no one really owns anything, that the life we all shared was good, even if we argued nearly every day, that a person’s true success is measured by the quality of time he has with others, not the quantity of material gifts he or she is able to gather in this world.
But he didn’t want to hear about it. Then, when he got sick, he really didn’t want to hear about it. And I didn’t blame him.
Along with my father’s physical ailments, his emotional state deteriorated. I prayed for his soul because I believed that he would not. At least, I thought he would not.
Then, one day, shortly before he passed away, I was trying to arrange the huge family rosary upon the holy mantel we had in our home. I couldn’t find the right position. I gave up and huffed away upstairs. About one half-hour later, I started back down the steps and noticed my father situating the rosary in the most perfect way. At that moment, I knew that so simple and graceful a move had somehow cleared his path to heaven. All the times when he chose not to pray, all the moments when he could not find the strength to forgive himself for not going to school, finding the right job, paying into the right pension, winning the lottery, or losing at OTB; all the bitterness and anger that was eating away at him, was wiped clean. His heart was replenished. My father had faith, after all. But like so many of his other emotional truths, he concealed it.
Though, I had underestimated his integrity before.
While in fourth grade, I wanted to go to the circus.
“Get a good report card,” he told me, “and I’ll get you tickets.”
I began to worry. I was a horrible student in the fourth grade. And when my report card arrived, as I had feared, I received all Ds and a great big F. After stalling for an hour or so in my room, I called him upstairs and showed him the card. He took it down into the living room. About 20 minutes later, he returned it to me. Inside were the tickets he had purchased weeks before. He granted me those tickets when I thought he would punish me. But I punished myself by not comprehending the scope of my father’s love.
Where was my faith?
Where was my faith when I worried about how I would get to college, in a family of three drivers and one car? When my father showed up with a brand new car for me with which to commute to a local college, I was embarrassed. Once again, I had miscalculated the magnitude of his love, and the generosity of his spirit.
In the last weeks of my father’s life, I did all I could to beautify his physical surroundings. Colors of creme, beige, and eggshell filled each room. I wanted to make his transition to heaven real smooth. The new sofas and rugs were great, and I knew their staying power was weak. But they were strength-inducing for my dad. He walked around the house, looking at the new mini-blinds and kitchen floor, and said things like, “Well, it looks like we’re going to be here at least a couple more years.”
The rent began to matter less to him.
My sister, my mother, and I decided not to verbally inform him of the severity of his illness. And we’re glad we did not. Every case is different and had we acknowledged to my father how sick he was, he would have left us at least seven months earlier.
The bottom line? My dad knew in his heart how sick he was (how could he not?). We gave him all the proper medications, helped him to eat all the right food, etc. Telling my father (who viewed himself a failure all his life) that now, at 83 years old, he didn’t have long to live, somehow just didn’t mesh. So we all pretended he would get better, and, as a result, his last days were happier.
All the while, I would ask God to grant my father more time. And God complied.
I later prayed, “If it is your will to take my father, then grant us the strength to deal with the loss.”
And God complied again.
We retained the strength, and I don’t know how people with no faith deal with any loss.
Strangely, before my dad became sick, I asked God to show me what really matters in life.
Shortly thereafter, I went to get my hair cut. I was complaining about how it doesn’t grow tall anymore, just long. The stylist put down his shears and told me this story:
“A little boy with thick curly, red hair came in one day, and I commented on how full his hair was. The little boy came back with a startling revelation. ‘Well, you know,’ he said, ‘I have leukemia, and I’d trade in a second, my healthy hair for a healthy body.’”
Then, one night, I was watching Unsolved Mysteries on TV. There was a beautiful little girl, dying of cancer, and talking about how she spoke with the angels. How, for her, heaven was a place with colored clouds that taste like different kinds of ice cream; a place where the angels wonder what our favorite ice cream flavor is. She said “Chocolate Chocolate Chip.” And then suddenly, one huge white cloud became one huge scoop of Chocolate Chocolate Chip.
In light of this happy thought, I pray today that my father’s dairy dessert-flavored cloud is “Heavenly Hash,” which he so enjoyed with my Mom many times on Earth. And if his sole (soul) mission in life was to bring the reader and the writer together now, with this communication in celebration of his life, then he completed his journey with flying colors -a term of which also may have its origins in those ice-cream flavored flying clouds.
In Final Tribute To My Mom
My Mom was a great person, parent, sister, daughter, cousin, niece, friend, and employee. She worked at Kodak for 17 years, just shy of earning a pension that would have “set her up for life.” But she left Kodak — to have me. Years later, after we moved from Erie Street to Greenleaf Meadows, she started working in the lunchroom at Number 7 School.
My Dad used to take her to work, go to OTB, and then pick her up a few hours later. They’d go on to McDonalds, then Wegmans supermarket, and back to Greenleaf. After my nephew Sammy was born, they’d pick him up at daycare, and bring HIM back to Greenleaf. And that was their simple HAPPY life — every day — for years.
When I tried to move on with MY life after my father died, I made the attempt to bring my Mom to California. And that was pretty much a disaster. So, we brought her back here and subsequently moved her to the South Village Apartments at the Shire in Irondequoit.
Meanwhile, I stayed in LA — and did a few shows — but my heart wasn’t in it. I missed my Mom. I missed Rochester. So I came back and moved into the NORTH Village Apartments at the Shire, where I named myself the Volunteer Director of Activities. I wanted to create the sense of family that we had for years on Erie Street and at Greenleaf. So, I started throwing parties and picnics — big parties, little parties, pizza parties, Thanksgiving Day Parties, Christmas parties, New Years Eve parties, Easter parties, Tax Day Parties, and of course, the real big parties for my Mom’s 80th and 85th birthdays — the latter of which was the mother of ALL the parties.
People said, “Oh, Herbie J — you gave up your life for your Mother.” But I never looked at it like that. I did those parties because I wanted to — and I enjoyed them. I’d see movies and TV shows about a small-town boy who moved to the big city and made it big. He then realizes that the big city ain’t all that.
And I loved those movies — for a few hours. Then I thought, “You know — instead of me feeling all warm and fuzzy for just a few hours and instead of me putting all my energy into maybe writing scripts similar to those movies, I’d rather LIVE the scripts of life — then write them.”
It’s because of my Mom that I came to appreciate the simple treasures of life — as opposed to the glamour and glitter of Hollywood. In turn, she gave me a treasure trove of stories, which may one day be turned into movies and TV shows. Who knows?
One of my favorite memories of my Mom centers around a TV show: The Golden Girls, which I’d watch with her whenever I had the chance. One afternoon last year, while watching the show with her, I thought about the full and successful lives and careers of the older women on the series. I also thought about how my own life has been so full of aspirations, personal and professional. I then looked over at my Mom, turned off the TV and asked, “Mom — what did YOU want to be when you were young?”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Well,” I continued, “Did YOU ever have any dream job or dreams of how you wanted YOUR life to turn out?”
My Mom sat there for a moment, with these questions, and searched her memory, which had been gradually erased by dementia. Yet, she glanced back at me, determined to give me an answer, and replied, “I guess it was always my dream to one day go to a community center every day, where I would have a good meal, be with people, play cards and bingo. That was always my dream.”
At first, I was startled and sad for her. Whatever aspirations she may have had as a child, a teen, or an adult were gone — lost in the deep sleep of her memory. But then, after a moment, I was happy for her. My Mom had convinced herself in the short new history of her life that going to the Senior Center (every day for the last twelve years) was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream — and she was content.
I felt God shining upon and through her that day.
And I felt that a lot in her last few months — more so than usual. Everything and everyone was beautiful to her. Everyone’s blouse was pretty — everyone’s shirt was sharp. The trees were so green. The sky was so blue. She was already seeing Heaven.
On Earth, my Mom left me, my sister, and our extended family and friends with nothing. And yet, she left us with everything. Nothing of what this world calls secure. And everything of what this world holds dear. My Mom left no diamonds, no cars or homes, no stocks, bonds, or annuities — but taught us to understand the true value of endless forgiveness. She left us no cold, hard cash, but encouraged us to invest in warm, soft unconditional Love. She may have left Kodak one year shy of earning a pension, but in the end, or at least what we call the end, she had a penchant, as in “enthusiasm” for life — and it was concealed in new beginnings:
She died in the Spring, the season of rebirth, shortly before Mother’s Day, on May 5th — Cinco de Mayo — a joyful 24-hour period that kicked off the week-long festival of lilacs, which bloom in the many shades of lavender — her favorite color.
I loved my Mom — and my Dad — and it is through them that I came to love all of you, and if I learned anything in caring for my parents in these last few years, I learned this: we are ALL Mothers and Fathers to one another…we are each other’s children — equal in the eyes of eternal Father/Mother. Whether on Earth or in Heaven, Love is the only thing that survives in both worlds.
On Earth, my Mom’s Love was packaged and shaped in a body and a personality called Frances. And though we may not see her now, everything about her that was Love — lives on…her sense of humor, the echo of her singing voice, every hug she ever gave, every blessing she ever made with her rosary — all of it — survives. Everything else that was not Love…the dementia…the fear…the anxiety…the heart ailments…the stomach issues — all of that has been burned away in the Light of God’s Love.
In my view, our journey and final destination are like a rocket soaring into space. The pieces of us that we don’t need — fall off as we move closer to the Light of God’s embrace — until all that is left is the little capsule that holds our soul.
The “capsules” of both my parents are filled with every loving thought and every act of loving kindness that they ever displayed on Earth. Now bundled together, magnified, multiplied, and showcased in Heaven, their very souls live on in the personal, immeasurable, immortal — and priceless legacies of love they left on Earth.