Thirteen Years Gone

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death. He passed away from lung cancer at age 64 on Aug. 6, 2007. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since he left this world. Since then, my sister, Lisa, had a second child, a daughter named Elizabeth. I married in 2013 and my wife, Pamela, gave birth to our son, Colin, in 2016. Francis Sr. would have enjoyed getting to know his other grandchildren, as he did with my sister’s son, Paul, who was born in 2003.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Now that I’m almost 51, I realize how young my father was when he died. And while he still had a lot of life left in him, he was also lucky to even make it into adulthood.

I’ve blogged about my father in the past, and here are some highlights from his life.

He had been born with a hole in his heart, a ventricular septal defect. On June 12, 1959, when my dad was sixteen years old, pioneering cardiac surgeon C. Walton Lillehei performed open-heart surgery on him at the University of Minnesota Hospital, successfully repairing the defect. The heart problem interrupted Dad’s high school years and he faced a long recovery; but he rebounded after the surgery, lifting weights to add strength and put on muscle.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

He graduated high school from St. Aloysius Academy in Rome, New York, went to work at the city’s Sears Roebuck store and eventually grew to a height of about five-feet-five inches tall.

And Dad was proud to have been among the first batch of patients to survive open-heart surgery in the U.S. Whenever he told the story to someone, he would lift up his shirt and show off the long scar snaking down the middle of his chest.

As a kid, I loved visiting him at the Sears store after school, as we would descend a flight of stairs into a warehouse in the basement—filled with washers and dryers, lawnmowers, rolls of carpet and other merchandise. We would go into the break room, and he would buy me a soda from the glass vending machine—usually Nehi grape, root beer or Dr. Pepper—and then pour a cup of coffee for himself. We’d sit and talk at a little round table covered with the latest edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper.

From my father I learned about the importance of hard work and about trying to be a decent person. I often observed him saying “hello” to people, holding doors for them and offering help when needed—whether that meant giving someone a car battery jump or pushing cars stuck in the snow. And people would seek him out at the Sears store because he would find a way to give them deals to on washers, dryers, stoves and refrigerators.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told him he could try chemotherapy, but it would only give him a slim chance of living slightly longer. He decided against the treatment, noting, “What’s the point?” And so in February of 2007, he accepted his fate, knowing he had only about six to nine months left to live.

As the months passed in the spring and early summer of 2007, he became weaker and weaker as the cancer ate away at his body.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

He had always eschewed desserts and when offered them, would say, “No. I hate sweets.” But as his time on earth waned, he went all out when it came to food—eating Klondike bars, Little Debbie snacks, Hostess cupcakes and other junk food. His philosophy was “Why not?”

I recall one of our last conversations while we sat in the living room of my grandmother’s small ranch house in north Rome. Sunlight poured through a large bay window, past the partially opened silk curtains. Outside I could see a clear sky and trees burgeoning with leaves—a bright, saturated landscape of blue and green.

I sat in a corner of the room and he sat in a forest-green recliner covered with worn upholstery.

“What’s the name of the angel of death?” he asked me.

I was surprised by the question, and I said, “I think he’s just called the angel of death.”

“No, he has another name,” he said.

And after a few seconds it came to me. “The Grim Reaper.”

“That’s right, that’s it,” he said.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked. “Did you see him in a dream or something?”

“No, but I want to know his name when he comes.”

During this time period, I remember listening to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which is such a hypnotic piece of music that I often play it continuously on the “repeat” cycle.

My mother died at age 66 (also from lung cancer). Both of my parents had been smokers—which I am not—but in doing the math and being immunocompromised in the era of COVID-19, I feel like I am racing against my own impending expiration date. This gives me an added sense of urgency to create art and finish the projects I had started prior to the pandemic.

Yet in recalling my father’s life and his death, I focus on the merit of being a kind person and living a life of quiet decency and dignity. He passed these values to me and I try to carry them forward.

I wrote a few poems about my father since he died in 2007. And here are four of them, which all appear in my collection Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2019).

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors the game,
pacing with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag hang above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice
and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines
and scrawl point spreads on yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about …
and in between tosses, players brag about
cooking calamari (pronounced “calamad”).

Each Sunday during football season, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing …
as everything in Rome, New York, exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone,
as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
put on your final face
like those insolent characters
in that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
with their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
on that soft, warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
with his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
body withered and shriveled,
curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
in my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
as a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
and sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And Grandma, still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat,
asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
in my grandmother’s ranch home.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
while we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
to drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

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Backyard Forest

Since the warm weather has come to upstate New York, I wanted to share a poem that seems fitting for a season of humid nights, swaying trees and buzzing insects.

Photo by Luke Palmer

Enchanted Forest

When I was a young boy,
I wanted a forest for a backyard.
I wanted to open the sliding glass door
on the bottom floor of our raised ranch home
and step outside, entering a tract of land
with acres and acres of evergreen and deciduous trees.
No neatly trimmed lawn, no tool shed,
no swimming pool or garden with basil and tomato plants.

I wanted a secret place I could run to and get lost in,
the green canopy shimmering above me
as me feet struck a rocky, brown path
leading deep into the woods.
A place where I could be still and quiet
and make friends with forest companions—
cardinals, blue jays, hawks, owls, deer, elk, moose and fox.

I created this place in my mind so the cacophony
of screeching woodland birds and hissing insects
would muffle the sound of my parents
screaming on the other side of the drywall.
That’s what I wished for at night,
while closing my eyes and trying not to hear
the yelling coming from the next room.

And when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d pull myself up,
part the navy blue, sailboat-adorned curtains
and look outside my bedroom window,
where, to my dismay, I would see nothing
but a plot of green grass in our backyard.

Photo by Lum3n.

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Laughing While Peeing

Laughing While Peeing

While taking the last leak
before going to sleep,
I can’t help but laugh
when my four-year-old son Colin
switches off the bedroom light
and slams the bedroom door behind me.

Here in this small, one-bedroom apartment,
with our three-person family
locked in coronavirus quarantine,
laughter cannot be kept away.
It bubbles to the surface despite
the seriousness of the moment.

My toddler son doesn’t know
the world faces an existential crisis,
doesn’t understand that a pandemic
grips humanity in peril, upheaving our lives.
He’s just a boy who sees the door and thinks,
“Hey, let me slam this and see what Daddy says.”

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Untitled Reflections

The coronavirus has brought unprecedented changes that have altered human existence. Normal life has ended. We are shuttered at home and shuddering with fear.

Nothing I write can assuage those fears; I have no useful insight to offer. You already know the facts.

Schools, businesses and restaurants have closed. The stock market and economy have tanked. Grocery stores can’t keep up with the demand for hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, food staples and toilet paper.

Social distancing and pandemic are common words in our vocabulary now.

The situation reminds me of the Depression-era run on the bank in the town of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. It feels like we’ve been dropped into scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or the movie A Quiet Place. Life in 2020 is dystopian—actually downright apocalyptic. We can hear the thundering hooves of the Four Horsemen. This feels like the end of civilization.

There’s a good chance my wife, son and I may get the virus. There is a testing site on Salina Street in Syracuse, but what happens if we test positive and need to be quarantined at home? What happens if we need medical care and can’t be admitted to the hospital because they are overwhelmed? Who will take care of our son if both my wife and I are incapacitated?

Having hypopituitarism with adrenal insufficiency, coupled with rheumatoid arthritis, makes me immunocompromised and puts me at higher risk of developing complications if I contract coronavirus.

My health has always been fragile. I’ve had multiple brain surgeries, and my diseases diminish my quality of life and reduce my life expectancy.

Less than two months ago, I had Gamma Knife radiosurgery in an attempt to shrink my pituitary tumor and help restore normal vision. My sight has improved; the double vision I had prior to the surgery seems fixed (not 100 percent, but close). Yet all of sudden normal sight doesn’t seem that important.

And this coronavirus is beyond our control. There’s no managing this like other health conditions. I have to accept the reality that I could catch the virus and it could kill me.

There’s so much I hope to accomplish, but I know I may not get the chance to I finish what I started. Multiple writing and other creative projects could be left incomplete. And the realization sets in that I may not get to spend the rest of my life with my wife and watch our son grow up.

I guess I’m trying to imagine the worst-case scenario so it won’t be unexpected if it befalls me. As a Christian I’m trying to place faith above fear, but it’s not easy, and I am reconciling the fact that Christ’s judgment may come sooner than I hoped.

Until then, I get the gift of one more day on the planet. One more day to spend time with my son.

Forgive this hastily written blog. Because things are changing so rapidly, I wanted to get my thoughts down before they escaped my mind.

I wish everyone health, safety and survival.

And since my words often take the form of verse, here are some poems provoked by coronavirus fears:

Coronavirus Poem #1

Coronavirus claiming lives
across the planet.
Shuttered at home
and shuddering with panic,
I wonder:
Will my family and I
outlive the pandemic?
Or have our lives
been lived up?

Not Ready Yet

I’m not afraid to die.
The passage from
life to death
does not terrify me.
But I have a lot
to do before I go.
And what troubles me
is all the work
I’ll leave undone.

Inspired By Coronavirus Fears

You have no control
over when your time comes.
The end will be the end.
And the choice
is not yours to make.
So why be afraid
of what you cannot change?

Trite Maxim
In the Age of Coronavirus

You have to be grateful
for every day,
because tomorrow
can be taken away.

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A Poem for Father’s Day

If ten years ago, someone would have told me that I would be a father now, I would not have believed it. I’ve always been a late bloomer—in physical development, in the realm of romance and in the area of family life. Yet here I am, a husband and the father of a three-year-old boy. I can provide little advice, except this: being a parent means surrendering control of your life to others. It’s as simple as that; your individual life ends, but a new, collective one begins.

And so on Father’s Day, I offer these words in the form of a poem. This is what being a father means to me, as I learned from my two role models—my dad Francis and my stepfather Bill.

Being a Dad

Being a dad
means improvisation.
It means peeing in the sink
when your wife and son
occupy the john during
the nightly ritual of bath time.

Being a dad
means admitting
you don’t always
know the answers,
can’t figure out the solutions,
don’t have a fucking clue
how to stop that kid from crying.

Being a dad
means living with less—
less money, less time,
less sleep, less sex.

Being a dad
means doing
your best every day,
but accepting the failure
built into the equation
of marriage and parenthood.

Being a dad
means loving
your child
even when
you’re exhausted
and when your
patience is tested.

Being a dad
means being grateful
for the gift
of being a dad.

©2019 Francis DiClemente

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Happy Thanksgiving: Italian Style

I wanted to share a recent Thanksgiving tradition in our family. During Thanksgiving week, my wife, Pamela, and I make Italian pizzelles—both anisette and chocolate flavored—according to the recipe of my late mother, Carmella DeCosty Ruane. This simple Italian cookie pairs well with a cup of coffee; it’s also one of the few things I can make from scratch, along with pasta fagioli (fazool), lentil soup with ditalini pasta (box version) and marinara sauce (pronounced madinad in Rome, New York). The pizzelle tradition is even more meaningful as this time of year always reminds me of my mother, since she passed away seven years ago on Nov. 22, 2011.

You will need a pizzelle maker in order to cook up a batch of your own.  Here’s a snapshot of our final product:

Chocolate and anisette flavored pizzelles.

And here are the instructions from Carmella’s original recipe, with some slight modification by Pamela and me:

Italian Pizzelles

3 Eggs
1 Tsp. Anise Flavoring
1 Tbsp. Vanilla Flavoring
2 Tsp. Baking Powder
2 Cups Flour
½ Cup of Butter or Margarine, melted
1 Cup Sugar

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter or margarine, and vanilla and anise. Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture. Batter will be stiff enough to be dropped by teaspoon. Makes 30 Pizzelles.

Before the first pizzelles of the day only, use a pastry brush to carefully coat the entire surface of the both halves of the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil or melted shortening. Spray shortenings work very well for this purpose. Do this only at the start of each day that you bake pizzelles. Wipe excess shortening off the grids. The first pizzelles may not come out well. These directions are for my pizzelle maker. Your pizzelle maker may not require you to do this.

Pick up about one heaping teaspoon of batter and place in the center of each grid pattern. With some experimenting, you will learn that placing the batter slightly behind the center (that is, away from you) can produce full-size pizzelles. You may also prefer to use half as much batter to produce smaller pizzelles with a snowflake border. Baking will take approximately 30 seconds depending on your preference for browning, or the consistency of your batter. Remove pizzelles with spatula and place on a flat tin. Once pizzelles are completely cool, put in a plastic container or a plastic bag so the pizzelles stay crisp.

Chocolate Pizzelles

Use 1 Âľ cups of flour (not 2 cups), add 3 heaping tablespoons cocoa and add 3 tablespoons sugar to the basic pizzelle recipe. If desired, you can substitute chocolate flavoring instead of the vanilla. Do not add anise flavoring.

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Something to Say

Gosh it’s been so long since I have posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my dormancy. Life has invaded my writing space, as family and work obligations have kept me preoccupied. I am still pecking away at some long-term creative projects—nothing worth mentioning at the moment, since the completion of my goals seems very far off. So this is just a brief dispatch, a few scattered words to let anyone who may be interested—very few people I’m sure—know that I am still here, I am still active, I am still writing. And since I feel compelled to leave you with something more valuable than my aimless sentences, here is a new photo of my toddler son Colin. Who doesn’t like cute kid pictures?

Colin Joseph DiClemente. Age 2 years, 8 months.

And here is an excerpt from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I have been reading via the Kindle app on my iPhone. A possible interpretation of the passage eludes me, but I found the words stirring nonetheless.

From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard …
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease …
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

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My Mother’s Tupperware

My late mother’s handwriting. Black Sharpie marks on masking tape stuck to an old Tupperware container.

She wrote this out on August 30, 2011, less than three months before she died from lung cancer. I claimed the Tupperware from my stepfather’s house after her passing and never had the heart or the desire to peel off the tape.

This summer I cooked my mother’s zucchini and green bean stew with onions, Italian seasonings and crushed tomatoes. I don’t have a recipe of hers to follow, but I winged it and it came out edible. For the full effect you need to dunk fresh Italian bread in the juice.

And it was fitting to dump the leftovers in my mother’s Tupperware and stick the container in my freezer. Marking this date, I thought I would defrost the Tupperware today to honor my mother’s memory and enjoy the last zucchini stew of summer.

Yet when I pulled out the container from the freezer this morning, I saw another one, filled with the same stew I made, with my mother’s handwriting on masking tape (also dated 8/30/11), tucked in the back of the freezer. I think I’ll save that one for a frigid night in the middle of winter.

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A Parental Poem

From time to time, I like to post some poems from my published collections. Here’s a longer narrative work with elements of fiction. It’s about my parents and how their absence has left a gulf in my life. For some reason I think about them more often during the gray days of winter, which are lingering this year.

Vestiges

My parents are gone.
They walk the earth no more,
both succumbing to lung cancer,
both cremated and turned to ash.

With each passing year,
their images become more turbid in my mind,
as if their faces are shielded
by expanding gray-black clouds.
I try to retain what I remember:
my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose,
my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer
while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.

I search for their eyes
in the constellations of the night sky.
I listen for their voices in the wind.
Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze
the voice of my father whispering,
letting me know he’s still around …
somewhere … over there?
Does the squawking crow
perched in the leafless maple tree
carry the voice of my mother,
admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Resorting to a dangerous habit,
I use people and objects as “stand-ins”
for my mother and father,
seeking in these replacements
some aspect of my parents’ identities.

A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint
embodies the spirit of my father saddled with debt,
playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff.
I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell,
if only to discover who resides there.

In a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night
I spot an older woman
standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines cake mixes.
With her short frame, dark hair, and glasses,
she casts a similar appearance to my mother.
She is scanning the labels,
perhaps looking for a new flavor,
maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet, or Lemon Supreme,
just something different to bake
as a surprise for her husband.
A feeling strikes me and
I wish to claim her as my “fill-in” mother.
I long to reach out to this stranger in the store,
fighting the compulsion
to place a hand on her shoulder
and tell her how much I miss her.

Carmella Ruane, 1945-2011

I fear that if my parents disappear
from my consciousness,
then I too will become invisible.
And the reality of a finite lifespan sets in,
as I calculate how many years I have left.
But I realize I am torturing myself
with this twisted personification game.
I must remember my parents are dead
and possess no spark of the living.
And I can no longer enslave them in my mind,
or try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
I have to let them go.
I have to dismiss the need for physical ties,
while holding on to the memories they left behind.

And so on the night I see the woman
in the grocery store aisle,
I do not speak to her,
and she does not notice me lurking nearby.
But as I walk away from her,
I cannot resist the impulse to turn around
and look at her one last time-
just to make sure
my mother’s “double” is still standing there.
I want her to lift her head and smile at me,
but she never diverts her eyes
from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

Cover art by Donatas1205 (via Shutterstock).

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Sunday Dinner essay published

I’ve been away for a long time, as I’ve been preoccupied with work-related video projects. But I wanted to mention that one of my essays, Sunday Dinner, has been published in the online magazine The Cook’s Cook. In the story I reflect on spending Sunday afternoons at my maternal grandmother’s house in Rome, New York.

Here’s a photo of my grandmother, Amelia.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente.

And you can read the essay here.

 

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