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).
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.
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.