I want to touch her so badly. It’s Mother’s Day, but I can’t.
People have lauded me for the love I have for my mother, Maria Luiga Zeppetella Martin, or “Louise.” They see the all the photos and videos and terms of endearment that I’ve posted on social media since her massive and unexpected hemorrhagic stroke in the evening on August 21, 2015. I wrote about it here.
But I can’t see her today. And I’d be lying if I denied my urge to run past the security guard, the one who sits outside the entrance — one of those kinds who gets to carry a gun — at her skilled nursing facility, just to see that look of joy on her face.
Then she would caress my face.
Later we would sit, and I’d hold her hand.
When one suddenly dies, or in my case, suffers a mentally debilitating stroke, for the first time ever, you appreciate her as you never have. This is loss, defined. In the case of death, the qualities of the loved one exist only in your mind; in the case of mental impairment, you still get to see and touch and listen, but it’s not the same as before.
Not even close.
I haven’t had a conversation with my mother since her stroke.
In addition to Mom, today I think of the millions who have no mother. Or of those estranged from their mothers because of addiction or mental illness. Children in foster care have lost their mothers, temporarily, and oftentimes, permanently.
I relate with them: grief.
My love for my mom is deep. Inside my body. My chest. Real pain — a somatic reality completely different than the emotional pain.
I want to touch her so badly.
Some have said, “Just think about what an amazing woman she was and all the good memories.”
That doesn’t work with me in times like this.
The thing about Mom was that she wasn’t really amazing in the sense of being one of those super-moms. She didn’t care about my grades, as long as I passed my classes. We never took “Mother-Son” trips or have dates or do any of that stuff.
She didn’t care whether I sat on the bench or played quarterback.
Her expectations were simply: help others, respect people, respect the planet.
But she’d always be there. Wearing whatever team pin or t-shirt. And when I finally got up to bat, I’d hear this distinct faint voice, “Go Paul!” And I’d look and you could see the expression that blended smile and joy and pride – her living and loving me, caught up at that moment.
That same faint voice sang flat at every Sunday at mass, or later at the Protestant services. But she’d sing with all her being. And she meant what she sang. You could just tell.
In every season of my life — when I was succeeding and all those times I was failing — she loved me the same.
Mom is gone. The nurses will let us FaceTime with her, but I won’t. It will only confuse her, and I’m almost certain, in spite of her mental fragility, at least possibly, cause her to wonder why I’ve abandoned her.
If she doesn’t see me, she’s not thinking about me.
I want to touch her so badly.
Three mental realities bring a tinge of solace.
First, I am a lucky man to have a mother like Luigia Maria Zeppetella Martin. I was loved, unconditionally, from the time she bore me, to the day I kissed her and told her I loved her and went on vacation. (She had the stroke while I was on vacation.)
Second, I think of the hundreds of thousands of children in the United States (and millions around the world) that either have no mother or have lost them because of neglect and abuse. I work for those children. I’ve been with hundreds. I’m blessed to have that which I…had.
Third, Mom’s real name is Maria. When she immigrated to the U.S. with her family, she didn’t want to be called “Maria” because back in those days Italians weren’t liked much. So her aunt used her middle name, Luiga, and gave it an American twist: Louise.
But I think of the name Maria. And, growing-up Roman Catholic, I think of the respect they have for Maria, Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Mother Teresa was once asked about why Catholics make such a big deal about Mary. She replied, “No Mary, no Jesus.”
Mom’s name in English would have been Mary.
So no Mary, no Paul. No me. That’s the thing about mothers, without them, we wouldn’t be here.
I want to touch her so badly.
I’m not into quick fixes. I don’t trust them. The answer to tough questions is never a simple answer. I’m especially leery of self-help techniques, the memes you see on social media. Like “Think Positive Thoughts” or “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”
No. It’s not true. Really bad stuff happens even to people who do good things — look at Jesus or his followers, or Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve been talking to my staff about this really smart author named Seth Godin and we’ve been reading a book of his called Lynchpin. He thinks that no matter how mundane your job might be, there’s always a way to add creativity and genius to it.
Human beings, Godin believes, are not cogs in a wheel. We are not machines. During our discussions at staff meetings, I would always refer to the people who work at toll booths. They take your money then they push a button so the gate does up so you can proceed on your journey.
People who work at those booths are human barriers, keeping you from going where you want to go. And most of the time, they have little to nothing to give. They act like cogs in a wheel.
I’m leaving Chicago’s O’hare airport and I’m in line at one of those booths — not a toll booth, but at the Enterprise Rental booth.
Even though I’m not into quick fixes, there was something about this lady that touched me deeply. Didn’t seem to be a quick fix, seemed to be a woman who was a Lynchpin — adding creativity and value and genius, even to a mundane job.
After I shot the video I asked Camilla for her email address. When I returned from the trip, I sent her an email. And she responded with this.
I’m not into quick fixes, but if we are ever to find “attention or
Elliot is my youngest son. He is 17. He is a senior in high school. He doesn’t use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook. He doesn’t watch television or movies or stuff on Netflix and YouTube.
Last year I had to take his phone away. He went without it for months. When I gave it back at the start of the school term, he said okay, but only if I restrict it for only calls and texting.
Elliot has told me a few times that he looks at “all these students” during school. “They are always on their phones. That’s all they do. They are not experiencing the world around them.”
“Dad, I think giving electronics to children, even teens, is bad for them.”
Elliot is an earlier riser; he’s up every morning, often at 4 or 5. He usually goes to bed at 8 or 9 at the latest. He often says, with a grin, “Dad, there’s nothing better than a really good night’s sleep.”
He never takes his phone into his bedroom. He leaves it in the kitchen. He says that texting is a distraction from studying or reading or spending time talking to friends and family, face-to-face.
Elliot doesn’t want a car. He rides his bike 3 miles to school every morning, often in the dark. After school, he rides his bike to the boathouse for rowing practice. At 6:30, it’s dark again, and he rides home.
He works at the boathouse on the weekends. He gets to work and back home on his bike.
Elliot says he prefers riding his bike because he doesn’t want to pollute the planet. He says riding a bike is better exercise. He says the experience of riding a bike is better than driving a car because you’re “so much closer to nature.”
Oh, and he doesn’t eat sugar. No soda. No candy. No junk food. He eats a very balanced diet. He works out 6 days a week. He is very committed to his health.
My other children are normal. They all use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook on their iPhones. They all watch television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube. They drive cars and stay up late and eat junk food.
Gina and I are normal. We use Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook on our iPhones. We watch television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube. We drive cars and go to bed late and eat junk food.
Part of me thinks Elliot’s devotion is admirable. Staying away from screens, getting plenty of sleep, staying away from junk food, good exercise — aren’t those good things?
Sometimes, a part of me thinks his devotion is extreme.
But I never think my devotion to my social media is admirable. I never think my watching television and movies and stuff on Netflix and YouTube is worthy of praise. I never get feelings of pride that I went to bed too late or gouged on junk food.
Sometimes I wish I was more “extreme” like Elliot.
I wonder if you do, too.
This post isn’t about my campaign. But in a way, it might be.
A little while ago, my son, Elliot, asked me about my ancestors. I shared a some of my memories with him. Then I decided to scribble some of what I remember in the form of a letter because memories become fixed when they are written down…
You have a very rich history with respect to your ancestors. I assume all people think that of their own families, but it’s just a fact of yours. Your ancestors, on both sides, have worked very hard to overcome very significant obstacles. On my side, I refer mostly to Nonna’s family, who I want to write about today.
After WWII most Europe, including Italy, was in total ruins. Think about that for a minute. Entire cities and towns were essentially leveled. Businesses had closed. Millions had died. My grandparents — my Nonna and Nonno — were dirt poor. They had nothing, like so many others. I remember going to their town in Umbria, Stroncone. Nonna told me that the German soldiers told them to flee to the hills if they wanted to live. Nonno would steal chickens to feed his family.
With grit and determination, they immigrated to America. That probably doesn’t sound like too big of a deal. But it involved unbelievable financial cost. And also it was scary — leaving your home, friends and many relatives for a completely foreign land. It was so expensive that half of the family moved there first (my Nonna and two of my uncles) so they could earn money in America. Then my Nonno came with Nonna and my other uncle. I don’t know if you remember the video that Uncle Tim made, but we have footage of Nonna getting off the plane when she was 12 and running to see her mother and brothers who she hadn’t seen in two years.
Some of their extended family came with them. Millions from Europe, in fact, fled. I remember Nonna saying that, at one point, they lived in a tiny two bedroom house with one bathroom. There was their family of 6, and another family of 5. Imagine.
It’s hard to describe how amazing my grandparents were. I just don’t know what to write. My Nonno was the most exuberant, happy, emotional in a healthy way, hardworking man. He was humble and the epitome of a “real man.” He laughed a lot. He used to rub his stubble on our face when we were little. It hurt but in that giggly kind of way. His garden in the front and back was just remarkable. He was a carpenter. Apparently, he fought in WWI as a young man in North Africa. They lived in Whittier, which is just about 30 minutes northwest of Costa Mesa. He worked in downtown Los Angeles. I remember him going to work and coming home because we spent a lot of time there when I was very young. Grandpa and Nonna owned a hair salon in Whittier so they would drop us off there.
My Nonna used to make this drink with milk, sugar, and egg. I remember the sugar sticking to the egg and it tasted like candy. (This is all sounding so old like it happened 100 years ago!) I have vague memories of her hiding my baby bottle. They were trying to get me to finally drink out of a real cup, or glass. She put it on a top cabinet shelf in her kitchen (which I still so remember). I saw it one day when she was putting dishes away. I looked up and cried and begged her for it. She said in her very broken English, “You can’t have it, there’s a snake inside it.” I would ask again from time to time and she kept saying the snake was still in there.
I don’t know if there’s a human being that’s shaped me as much as my Nonna. She was the most selfless individual I have ever met or even read of. All she did, almost quite literally, was care for others. All she did was work around the house and garden. Nonna used to yell at her, telling her to sit down during dinner because she would serve and clean while everyone else was eating. My Nonna would get so mad at Nonna. Eventually, she’d sit down but she would sit on the corner of the chair and reluctantly eat as if she was being punished. She didn’t know how to receive; she was all giving. She cared for animals as much as she cared for people. She would always dump out the water of our dogs, goats, horses, chickens, etc. and refill with clean water. She always wore a dress and usually an apron.
In retrospect, I’m certain this wasn’t completely healthy: self-care is vital. But I’m just telling you what she was like and that there was something about this kind of work ethic and selflessness that I find full of virtue.
When I was 18 I worked as a waiter. No cell phones in those days. My manager came to me and said I had an important phone call. I don’t remember who it was actually, but they told me my Nonna was in the hospital and I needed to go there immediately. Grandpa and Nonna were in Mexico on vacation. I got to the hospital and Nonna was unconscious. They said they could perform a surgery but the chances were high that she would have brain damage.
I told them I had to go talk to my Nonno. I drove to his house. He had this recliner chair that he would always sit in and watch TV. He lay in the chair, hugging an 8” x 10” photo of his lifelong soul mate. He was hysterical, crying “Oh God, Oh God, no, please, no.” Over and over and over.
I tried to console him. I asked him if he wanted to the doctors to perform the surgery. He couldn’t answer, he just kept holding the picture and crying. (I’m crying as I write this.)
I had to make the decision on what to do. They had been married for over 50 years.
I drove back to the hospital and told them, “no surgery.”
She died a few hours later. Then Nonna and Grandpa and family arrived and we all grieved and soon had her funeral.
(As an aside, we don’t know if she had Alzheimers or hardening of the arteries or both. But a few years before she died her mind started to slip. She forgot how to speak English. She’d steal things and hide them. She’d get really angry with us. It was really sad and in ways resembles what started happening to Nonna in the year before her stroke.)
Nonno eventually met another lady a few years later at his church (they were, of course, Roman Catholics). Her name was Jenny. She was Italian. They got married and were together for I think around 20 years until she died. She was a very nice lady, but not like my Nonna.
Nonno’s health eventually started to fade in his early 90’s. This was weird because he was such an incredibly strong man. I remember he had the strongest hands. I don’t know if he had an ounce of fat on him. Anyway, Nonna eventually took him in. When he was dying we were all around him.
I remember being in the bedroom with my sisters and Nonna watching him fade so vividly, though, for some reason, it seems more sad and real today in certain respects than it did then. I think Bree remembers the funeral and the memorial which, as the Catholics do, was open casket.
When we are younger — at least for me — we don’t care as much about stuff like grandparents, family, ancestors, etc. But even in writing this I can say for certain that nothing matters more to me than my family.
Maybe I will write soon about Grandpa and his family but I have to go now. But one more thing. Grandpa always talks about “La Familia” and how “It’s all about family.”
I couldn’t agree with him more.