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.


The Defiled Ice Cream Cone

The Defiled Ice Cream Cone, a creative nonfiction story, was published in the Fall 2013 issue of New Plains Review. Since the magazine does not have online version, I thought I would post the story here, along with some relevant photos from the neighborhood described in the piece. The text follows:

Before my family moved to a rural stretch of land in south Rome, New York, in the late 1970s, we lived in a duplex at 126 Stanwix Street in the heart of the city, a block away from the Oneida County Courthouse, a red brick building with white columns and a dome top. Stanwix Street connects two of Rome’s main thoroughfares, Black River Boulevard and James Street. And the neighborhood’s appeal was limited to its proximity to downtown, the post office, city hall, gas stations and stores; otherwise, it offered residents a rough, neglected setting where potholes often went unfilled and you could find smashed beer bottles and other trash scattered on the sidewalks following summer weekends.

Oneida County Courthouse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Our house, much like the neighborhood, needed some work. The unstable porch steps creaked whenever someone walked on them, the white paint and emerald trim were cracked and the whole structure seemed to tilt slightly to the left.

But the house did have a working washer and dryer in the cellar and a sewing machine for my mother, and Dad could grow tomato plants in a small garden area on our property near a sloping chain-link fence.

I spent hours tossing a basketball toward the rusted, netless hoop already attached to the garage and turned the small backyard into my personal Wiffle ball domain. My sister and I could also play on a swing set in the backyard, and I remember picking dandelions when they popped up on the lawn in the spring after the blanket of winter snow receded.

Linda and Robbie Blackwood (names changed) lived across the street in an apartment building covered with cedar shake shingles. The building was often ensconced in shade and I remember Linda and Robbie spending a lot of time at our house. They were poor and their mother may have been on welfare. They wore frayed clothes and I heard other people refer to them as “wellies.”

But their financial situation had no bearing on our friendship; they lived nearby and we just had fun playing together.

Linda and I were about the same age. She was short and wiry and had blond hair. As an athlete, she could rival any boy in the neighborhood. She could beat me from home plate to first base in a sprint and her mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches usually left me dizzy in the backyard batter’s box.

I think Robbie was older than Linda, but only by a year or two; he was stocky and also had blond hair. I don’t think I ever saw their mother, not even once, but she would often yell at Robbie and Linda from her window and tell them “to get their asses inside.”

Robbie and Linda never mentioned their father, but it seemed like he was away and may have left them. They did not discuss his absence from their lives and so I did not ask them about it. But I always wondered if he would show up one day. Or was he already dead?

Routine ruled our summer months. In the mornings, after breakfast, Linda and Robbie would stop at my house. We would run through the neighborhood, exploring whatever caught our attention. We would build forts, jump rope, play hopscotch or hide-and-seek, shoot hoops and play kickball or Wiffle ball.

I also remember digging for musket balls and arrows in a plot of land near the site of Fort Stanwix, which had been reconstructed as a national monument in Rome. We had learned in school that many historians considered the siege of Fort Stanwix a turning point in the Revolutionary War because the Continental Army, under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort, repelled a lengthy British assault led by General Barry St. Leger and thus helped to thwart a three-pronged plan by the British to divide the colonies.

Colonel Peter Gansevoort. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

But we didn’t care about the historical significance of Fort Stanwix; we just wanted to find some artifacts that we could trade with each other or use in our “war games.”

We would eat lunch, separately, and then meet again in early afternoon and play Wiffle ball or some other game the rest of the day, taking brief breaks to chug a few glasses of cherry or grape Kool-Aid, which I would grab from inside the house. And it seemed like Robbie never washed off the red or purple Kool-Aid stain that circled his mouth the entire summer.

We would split up at about five in the afternoon, as Mrs. Blackwood made her kids eat an early supper at a fast food restaurant. Throughout the summer months they rotated between McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast food spots in Rome.

Linda said her mom refused to cook in the summer because their apartment lacked air conditioning. I was envious of their diet of burgers, chicken, fries and shakes, and I asked my mom why we couldn’t eat out every night like the Blackwoods. She gave me some explanation about the importance of home-cooked meals, but as a kid I didn’t understand her reasoning.

Dad would come home from his job at the Sears store at about 6:15 p.m. every weekday, and I would shovel down whatever Mom placed on my plate, before excusing myself and racing out to meet Linda and Robbie for a few games of kickball or hide-and-seek before I had to come inside for the night.

But one July day our playtime schedule was altered by a selfish act I would regret for years to come. The Blackwoods had returned home from their fast food dinner, and Linda and Robbie were playing outside. I was inside the house at the time, most likely watching “The Electric Company” or another PBS show, when I heard the sound of the ice cream truck luring me away from the television.

“Not before dinner,” Mom said after I jumped out of the reclining chair and begged her for money.

“Please Mom, just a small twist cone.”

“I said no.”

I threw my arms up in protest and ran to the window. I focused my gaze on the “Ice Cream Man” as he distributed the frozen treats at the curb. Clad in his clean, white uniform, he appeared like a modern-day knight, rushing to the succor of the Stanwix Street children, bringing cooling relief to the kids and quenching the heat that rose from the asphalt.

“Mom, I’ll be outside until Dad gets home.”

“Stay inside the yard,” she hollered from the kitchen.

“OK,” I said on my way out the door.

I pushed open the screen door and let it slam behind me, and the porch groaned as I leapt off the top step. Linda and Robbie were standing on the other side of the chain-link fence that separated our backyard from an adjacent lot. They were both holding ice cream cones and they were licking them quickly because the sun was still bright and the heat was melting the ice cream.

I walked up to my side of the fence and Linda came toward me on the other side.

“We got ice cream,” Linda said.

“Yeah,” I said.

Robbie followed his sister and approached the fence. His flavor was chocolate and I noticed a trickle of brown liquid rolling down his forearm. He then started taunting me because he had ice cream and I did not.

I have replayed this incident in my head more times than I would like to admit. And no matter how much I want to, I can’t stop myself, or more accurately, the memory of myself, from doing what I did that day.

“You want a lick?” Robbie asked me.

“Sure,” I said, my eyes fixed on his cone.

I think Linda may have told her brother they needed to get home before their ice cream melted. But Robbie ignored her. Instead, he extended his arm and held the cone over the top of the fence. He may have said something like, “Here, try it.”

Yet when I reached up to take the cone, he yanked it away and I clutched a handful of air.

“Madge ya [Made you] look, now suck my dick,” squealed Robbie. He indulged in a long, satisfying lick of the cone and then opened his mouth, revealing a brown froth swishing around inside.

I think Linda laughed at her brother, and then she tried again to make him go inside, but he wouldn’t listen.

His laughter seemed to ricochet off the facade of a nearby tan brick building and then resonate inside my ears. And he kept repeating the little phrase: “Made you look, now suck my dick.” He also alternated the wording, saying, “Wanna lick … suck my dick.”

I could feel sweat bubbling on my face and neck as an internal rage started to swell and demanded a release. I was standing near Dad’s tomato plants. And so after Robbie repeated his mocking phrase, I bent down, scooped up some of Dad’s fertilized soil and threw it across the fence at Robbie. The dirt covered almost the entire surface of his ice cream and also smacked him square in the face before settling in his eyes and hair. I rejoiced when his laughter ceased and a frown appeared on his face; he also looked liked he was going to start crying. He dropped his dirt-sprinkled cone on the ground and ran away screaming, “I’m gonna tell my mom.”

Linda was still standing near the fence. I shrugged my shoulders and said something like “sorry, I guess” or “well, he was asking for it.” But she just looked at me with a blank expression and then turned her back and followed her brother across the street to their apartment building.

I must admit I felt proud of my actions. I convinced myself Robbie had provoked me to a point where a response was needed.

I awaited repercussions from Mrs. Blackwood. I was nervous all through dinner that night, as I expected her to come marching across the street at any moment, bang on our screen door and start swearing at me and demanding repayment for the ice cream cone. But it never happened; no retaliation came.

I thought I got away with it. Or did I?

I think I may have told my parents about the incident later that night, just before bed, when the guilt had started weaving its way through me. I don’t remember what they said, but most likely they told me to go to bed and apologize to Robbie the following day.  They may have also suggested I give him some money to make up for the ice cream.

But I don’t think they meted out any punishment. And as for Linda, Robbie and I, we remained friends and continued to play together the rest of that summer.

The ice cream event did not ruin their lives. They forgot about it in a couple of days. I think that’s because childhood is all about living in the present. You’re not thinking about yesterday because you’re always looking forward to what’s next; you’re always searching for the next fun thing to do.

So then why does it stay with me? Why does this scene still haunt me? Maybe it’s because the image of the dirt covering the cone remains so vivid in my mind. I can close my eyes and feel the hot sun on my neck. I can see a rivulet of chocolate ice cream sliding down Robbie’s forearm. I can picture the hurt and disappointment on his face when the dirt hit the cone and he realized it was ruined, that he wouldn’t be able to take another lick. I can see the cone lying on the ground at the base of the fence. I can see Robbie’s squat body running away.

But there’s something else. I think the reason I threw the dirt on the cone was because I thought I was better than the Blackwoods. I was getting angry as Robbie was teasing me and in that moment—right before I reached down to grab the dirt—I thought of him like other people did, as a nothing but a “wellie,” just white trash. And I was also jealous. They had something I didn’t and some sickness in me wanted to take it away. I thought, “If I can’t have ice cream, then you shouldn’t either.”

My family wasn’t rich, but we could have had ice cream just about anytime we wanted. All my sister and I had to do was ask our mother or father to buy some at the store. The Blackwoods were different. How much did it set Mrs. Blackwood back to give Linda and Robbie some change for the ice cream man? Where else would she have to save to make up for it? This was a special treat for them and I wrecked it.

Of course I was only about nine years old at the time. I was irrational and immature—a stupid selfish kid. But if I start to think about the incident and relive the memory again, I feel ashamed when I see myself stealing Robbie’s joy.

I think we moved away from the neighborhood around 1978 or ’79 and I never saw Robbie or Linda again. Our house at 126 Stanwix Street is no longer standing. It was demolished by the city several years ago.

In 2011 when I was visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, I went for a long walk on a clear summer evening. I walked southbound on James Street, heading toward Gansevoort Park and St. Peter’s Church. When I got near the police station and the courthouse, I crossed the street and started walking on Stanwix Street.

St. Peter’s Church. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

As I scanned the block, I realized not much had changed in the neighborhood. It still looked ragged. Some of the small front lawns needed mowing, a tan cat was crossing the street and a kid’s bike was lying on its side in a driveway. And if you can believe this, a white Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck was parked at the curb and the man inside was selling ice cream treats to customers.

Stanwix Street, Rome, N.Y. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I thought about Linda and Robbie; I wondered where they were and what they had done with their lives. Were they still in Rome? Were they both married? Did they have kids of their own? Was their mother still around? And what happened with their father?

Of course I had no way of finding out the answers to the questions that came flooding to me as I stood on Stanwix Street.

I wished Linda and Robbie would have appeared on the block at that moment, walking westbound on Stanwix Street toward James Street. I wanted to see them again and offer to buy them both ice cream cones to make up for what I had done and what was lost as a result.