“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?” – A.A. Milne
I must say, this type of lucky is not a very lucky type of luck. In fact, it’s a rather sucky, what the fucky type of luck.
Sundays are a sacred day. Every Sunday, Grandma and Grandpa would come over from Brooklyn. Grandpa would be out in the yard, clipping something off a tree or digging around in the dirt. That was his element. He loved being outside, watering the plants, feeding the birds, in fact, he had built a pigeon coop in his own backyard.
Grandpa raised homing pigeons for about 40 years. I grew up with a love of animals that stemmed from the many, many many pets that I’ve met in his backyard. He cared for his animals the way he cared about everything else, with his whole goddamn heart.
My Grandpa is the strongest man I know. In the summer of 1991, his son was in a fatal motorcycle accident. That same summer, I was born. I never got to meet my uncle Sal, but I’ve been told that we’re a lot alike. I didn’t know it at the time, but I came into the world at the time when my Grandpa needed me the most.
Sunday was a day for eating. Sometimes we would order pizza from one place, and pasta from another. Grandpa always had something to say about something someone ordered, because it wasn’t as good as HE would make it. He loved being a skutch. He especially loved skutching Grandma, his bride of 61 years.
Yes, his sign says “do not disturb.” Men today can take a page or 20 from Grandpa’s playbook. I’m afraid that a heart so genuine only belongs to men who were born before 1940. Grandpa would write notes for my grandma in chalk that she would see as she walked to school. And I can’t even get a text back.
The past 8 Sundays have been nothing like the rest. The world has felt a bit shaky lately. Remember those pigeons I was telling you about? Well, going back to them… A few months ago, Grandpa had about 20 pigeons in his coop. One night, a small cat got into the coop– which is a happening that has never occurred in his 40 something years of pigeonry. Grandpa, lover of animals, was stuck in a true to life flight or fight situation, and had to fight off this cat to save the birds. Grandpa had to bury over 20 of his birds that day. In the end, only 4 were left. Two days after he experienced such a loss, Grandpa’s brother passed away.
The pep in Grandpa’s step has been slowing down quite a bit, but after losing his birds and his brother, he had become noticeably weaker. When a stubborn Italian man such as himself says, “hey maybe I’ll go checked out by a doctor”… you know he really must not be feeling well. He went for a physical and all signs pointed towards just healthy enough, so he went on with a false sense of confidence.
In the beginning of December, that false confidence was wiped away by shortness of breath. Grandma was worried, but Grandpa said crock of shit I’ll be fine til the morning. That next morning, my mom and sister went to Brooklyn to see what was the matter. Grandpa said he went until he couldn’t go no more, so my mom called an ambulance. He poured half a shot of Canadian club, and took it with Willie, his next door neighbor and BFF. He showed my mom how to take care of his pigeons and his cats. And then he started bullshitting with the EMT’s as they gave him oxygen.
In the emergency room, they found out through Grandpa’s blood work that he had a heart attack the day before. “Heart attack?!”, Grandpa said, “I thought I had gas!” Talk about a bad ass mother fucker. He was admitted to the ICU, which seemed so strange, because he was the most lively guy in the unit. I would take pictures of his pigeons when we would feed them, so that I could show him in the hospital. He would take my phone with the picture of the pigeon and stick it under his blanket. Then, he would press the button to call the nurse and when she arrived he’d say… “wanna see my birdie?”
Even when he was at his most vulnerable, he played it cool. He never wanted us to worry, and we never wanted him to worry. Grandpa was transported to the ICU of a heart center in Manhattan, and stayed there for two weeks. He said, “oooh the big city, can we go see a play first?” My mom quickly transitioned into his role as my Grandma’s caretaker, and still was able to make it to the hospital every night in time for dinner. She did it with her full heart, because she’s her father’s daughter.
After two weeks of studying the condition of Grandpa’s heart, the medical team decided a triple bypass was the first step in treatment. The night before the surgery was glum. My mom, sister and I all sat around my Grandpa’s bed, trying to make idle conversation, but we were all scared shitless. When it was time for us to go, I told Grandpa how bad ass he’s going to feel when he’s showing people the scars of the bullshit he just went through. We’ll see, we’ll see… he told me.
No time moves as slowly as waiting for your loved one to come out of open heart surgery. But he did it. He fucking did it. We were right there as he was wheeled into the recovery room. He wasn’t breathing on his own yet but that was okay, because he made it through, like the bad ass that he is. “Salvatore, Mr. Salvatore,” the nurse tried to wake him. He didn’t budge but when my mom yelled “Cheech!”, you bet your ass he opened his eyes. His beautiful, blue eyes.
It was a Sunday, the last day Grandpa was able to breathe on his own. December 24th, Christmas Eve. It was three days after his surgery that the team was able to remove his breathing tube. They told us that they took their time with such a step, because once they took the tube out, having to put it back in is no good. He couldn’t talk, so we wrote out the alphabet for him to communicate. He spelled out w-o-t-e-r… we knew what he meant. The nurses couldn’t give him any, because of the excess of fluid in his lungs. We told him, “Cheech! You did it! That was one hell of a surgery!” But he gave us that are you fucking nuts look, with a big ol thumbs down. He used his hands to tell my mom to change the channel on the TV, and to give my sister and I $50 rather than $20. We kissed him goodbye and told him that we’d see him tomorrow.
This year on Christmas morning, we woke up to the news that they had to put Grandpa back on the breathing tube. From then, we tried to remain positive as his health continuously declined. After two weeks, we were called in for a meeting with the social worker. It was time to be Grandpa’s voice.
Grandpa’s voice is not a timid one. It’s not a voice that’s afraid of being honest. He’s got a, “I’ll do it my way and tell you what’s what” kind of voice. A life where grandpa could not use his voice is is not much of a life at all. He was no longer his rambunctious self, but was a mere body being kept “alive” by machines. When I went in to see him, it wasn’t him. The essence of who Grandpa is was already gone.
Going back to the birds… Last Sunday, my mom, sister and I were in my Grandpa’s yard taking care of his birds. We kept counting, “one, two, three,” but couldn’t find that fourth bird. Until we saw it, on the floor, still. We buried the fallen bird, careful not to unearth any of his brothers or sisters. Hours later, we received a phone call from the hospital telling us that Grandpa had passed, peacefully and without pain.
We often refer to ourselves as the three little birds, because we flew from a caged past into a life of freedom. After all those years of raising pigeons, Grandpa passed away leaving behind his three little birds. I love you with every ounce of my being, Grandpa. Losing you is a real crock of shit. We’ll be here tonight celebrating the legend that was born on this day 85 years ago.