We wish for Santa, we celebrate the birth of Christ, but no one would ever expect that the happy Buddha would come to celebrate Christmas Eve. Papa had been given this designated title for about five minutes as my cousins and I went through a lightly comical “eligible bachelor” book, each page containing a fictional or ideological figure that happened to be unmarried. Dad and Uncle Jack joined us a half-minute later, Ruffino Chianti Rosso in hand, laughing and asking each other which one was taller, even though Uncle Jack was over a half-foot taller than Dad. When we flipped to a page with the Laughing Buddha on it, my dad shouted out, “That's Harry!” and he and my uncle argued whether it really was Papa or his brother Vinny that resembled the well-fed figure more. The final decision was that Papa looked more like the happy Buddha, with his pudgy, full face, smile without dimples that made his eyelids squint together, and, most importantly, his stockiness. Uncle Vinny, we decided, looked more like an Italian-ized Elvis Presley instead.
“Girls,” Dad said, “why don't you take a picture with the Buddha?”
My cousins, sister, and I gathered to take a picture with the happy, olive-toned man. When I looked at the picture later, it was unmistakable that I looked the most like Papa, carrying down the qualities of our Napolitano family, with the unreasonably extensive Italian forehead, ears that are as long as and attuned to Dante's epic poetry, brown hair as dark as Voldemort's vengeance—which thankfully keeps its color until an old age—and, most markedly, the same smile.
When my dad called me on the day my Papa died, I had missed the call because I was in a class. As my professor explained the importance of half-scenes, I saw that my blackberry light was blinking. As soon as I read, “Missed call from DAD,” I knew there was going to be no delightful news. I remember that it was exactly 3:42 P.M. when I stepped outside to listen to my voicemail.
“Sarah, it's Dad,” said the recording. “Call me back when you get this. It's important.”
I didn't have to call him back to know what the voicemail was about, but for some reason, I speed-dialed his number anyway, and after two rings, Dad picked up.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, colorlessly, hopefully.
“Hey, Sarah,” he said. “Listen, Papa passed away last night.”
My eyes started to tickle, so I didn't say anything.
“I'm going to come pick you up later, okay? The wake is tomorrow and the funeral's on Saturday. Don't tell Becky, okay? I'm not going to tell her until she's out of school.”
“Okay,” I suppressed.
“I'll call you when I'm leaving New York.”
After I hung up, I hid myself in a rarely used stairwell in the Fine Arts building. As I cried, I called my roommate, who came to get me. She called the Writing Lab to cancel my tutoring appointments and called my friend Hank to let him know that I could no longer make a meeting with him and Auxiliary Services. My dad came to pick me up a couple of hours later. He looked disappointed, as if he was somewhat annoyed that his father died on my aunt's birthday and couldn't wait a couple of more days for his birthday to pass too.
Besides that, though, I knew that his worst fear had happened. He told me once that when his mother died back in the ‘80s, she looked fairly healthy the day before she died. He said that she looked coherent and fresh. Papa was a man with "nine lives." Doctors and miracles brought him back from near death experiences. He had lived through Okinawa's battles in World War II, heart attacks, strokes, serious bouts of pneumonia. Two days earlier, my dad called me from the hospital when Papa was feeling better. We had thought he made it through again—just another hospital run. Papa didn't die in a noble, heroic, or epic manner; he just stopped breathing. And that was the most exacting to believe.
During the summers, my dad would try to hold frequent barbeques to keep my Papa happy and entertained, and most likely to also have an opportunity to make baby back ribs, corn, sausage, and pasta at the same time to show off his two-in-one barbeque grill/stove. My sister, Rebecca, and I would sit outside with Papa to hear his war stories, family history in the auto business, and gossip, which my dad didn't want us to talk about, but Papa would anyway. The neighbors behind us would be routinely lawn-mowing, sending the traditional Sassone allergy of newly cut grass to the backyard. The attention-deprived Rottweiler and German Shepherd next door would bark and my father would turn up “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” on the stereo to outshine the animals. The grill would hiss as my dad stacked marinated ribs onto one of its wired shelves and seasoned corn onto the next; the Keurig coffeemaker would sigh inside as it depleted a Rainforest Nut K-cup into a strong, fresh brew; and Papa would gossip like it was his secret, sneaky, undercover duty.
“Nana's granddaughter Katie has this new boyfriend,” he told Rebecca and me one afternoon in July 2007. “He's no good. He wants to be that Eminem guy and feeds popcorn to four month old babies.”
“Harry,” my dad interrupted. He and my aunt called Papa “Harry” because he used to look like Harry Orwell on the TV show Harry-O in the seventies. “Sarah's looking around for a car.” My mom and I had been looking for a car for me for a couple of weeks. I had had my license for a couple of months and we wanted to find a car before I began my senior year in September.
“Really?” Papa said. “What cars have you been looking at?”
“I really want a mustang,” I said. “I love mustangs, but my mom doesn't want me to get one.”
“Nah, they're no good in the snow,” he said.
“I've also looked at Nissans and Saturns, and I have an appointment at Honda this week.”
“Did you say Hyundai?” he interrupted with alarm, as if I had just said that I was pregnant with an Irish man's illegitimate child.
“No, I said—”
“Don't get a Hyundai. Those damn Koreans don't know how to make cars. Get a Honda. They're reliable and Japanese.”
Papa didn't even fight in the Korean war; on the contrary, he was a World War II soldier stationed in Okinawa—one of the most violent parts of Japan—and yet, he was advising me to get a Japanese Honda.
“Okay Papa,” I said. “I'll look out for a Honda.” Papa was very happy to see me two weeks later in an atomic blue, white pinstriped, 2007 Honda Civic Coupe, which I named Viv'Enne.
“I'll never get a Hyundai, Papa,” I said as I shared this memory to my family and the other attendees of Papa's wake on March 12, 2010. My cousins, sister, and I went up to the podium beside Papa later in the evening to tell everyone about our favorite memories with him. After I shared the story, everyone who knew Papa's love and history with cars laughed. It seemed to be a very fitting memory considering my dad and aunt bought him blue-dyed mums that were arranged in a pick-up truck template with head- and taillights that actually lit up.
A little while later, after my cousin Megan and I conversed with our second cousin Henry and heard stories of how he and my dad stole tea kettles and wine glasses from restaurants in the ‘80s, my dad went up to the podium to give a speech about Papa. He looked as he had for the past twelve hours—grave, yes, but able to handle Papa's passing in an attitude that he would consider appropriate.
“Dad was a good man, a hardworker, a good husband, and a great father,” he said. “He had a wonderful wife, my mother, who unfortunately passed at too young of an age. He was thankfully blessed with another loving partner, Mary Lou, who has cared for him the past 27 years. He had two wonderful children—”
“One,” my aunt called out.
“Yes, thank you,” my dad joked back, putting his hand on his chest, acting flattered. “In the past couple of years, he has been in and out of the hospital. It's truly amazing that he lived as long as he did. At last, God decided to give him a better life, and take him peacefully—”
Suddenly, Dad's voice started to break and his eyes weakened for the first time since Papa died, only 40 hours before. He quickly suppressed his tears, finished his speech, and went back to his revamped, personalized Italian mourning process: stubbornness and denial.
When the wake was over that night, only the true Sassones on Papa's family tree were left. Papa's 27-year common-law wife-now-widow-golddigger and family—who my sister calls the “Lou Whos” because they physically resemble Dr. Seuss characters—were long gone, thankfully. We had only called her Nana because we were taught to be polite. After all, as Papa told us many times, he only had four granddaughters—in other words, not her delinquent grandchildren.
I didn't want to leave him that night because when he was in the nursing home for the last ten months of his life, he hated being alone. He had had minor dementia and would often be confused that he actually resided in the nursing home and was there for the long term. The last time I visited Papa, his memory seemed very nebulous and ambiguous, more than usual.
“Is Mary Lou coming to pick me up later?” Papa asked as we brought him back to his room. It was already dark and visiting hours were almost over. “I'm going home, right?”
Dad helped Papa get into his bed and I folded his wheelchair and leaned it against the wall.
“Yeah,” Dad said, knowing Papa would forget. “She'll be here in a bit.”
Papa smiled. “Good. I don't like it here. The nurses aren't very nice to me.”
As each of us said our final goodbyes at the wake, I didn't tell Papa that he'd be going home. He knew I'd be lying this time.
The funeral the next day was dismal at best, and it ranks between the day before my brain surgery in 1997 and the day my mom went into hypoglycemic shock as one of the worst days of my life. The final farewell from the Lou Whos was welcomed and prized afterwards because for the last year of Papa's life, I grew drastically livid towards them. The final goodbye towards Papa, however, did not come as easily. It was months before I could accept the direct fact that Papa was no longer with us.
By the time of the 2010 Sassone family reunion, I had better attitudes about his death. Henry and his wife Cheryl held the party in their secluded, substantially grand house, like one you can see on Desperate Housewives, except Cheryl is cooler than those women. My dad and I joined the Italian festivities of eating, drinking, and attempting to get tan.
The updates from my family were fairly predictable: another Sassone-offspring was going to Manhattan College, which is practically a Sassone landmark; my guidette cousins were happily paired with their guido matches that looked like MVP from Jersey Shore; my cousin Vinny was still a magician, and couldn't make the reunion because he was performing a magic show to a group of kids, or an elderly group, or whatever. After a while, Henry took out some old pictures he had, which were passed down from the first eleven Sassones that lived in the U.S.: Papa and family.
Pictures that were taken back in the 1930s, my dad told me once, were often taken very seriously because they were done on occasion. In one of the pictures Henry brought out, Papa stood with his parents and his eight siblings, each of them formally dressed. My great-grandparents stood in the middle of their nine children, with the three youngest standing in front of them. Each of the children looked so innocent and serious, following the example of their parents to stand straight and keep a stern face. The three oldest Sassone children stood to the right of the picture, likewise in their appearances and attitudes. Papa stood next to his two remaining siblings on the left and while my great aunt and uncle also modeled stern faces, Papa was smiling. His hair was combed to the side, making his ears notably stick out from the either side of his head, and his smile labeled him as a sneaky rebel, not out of bad behavior, but just because he seemed happy.
Like most of us, I don't know what happens after death. I'd like to think that he and Grandma Margie, his real love, are together somewhere celestial, sipping red wine and talking about Harry-O. I hope he is happier now than he was with the burdens of his medical sufferings in the last few years, or that he can even feel the emotion of happiness and isn't just in some wall next to Grandma Margie and below his brother Amarico at a mausoleum in Westchester. I do know, however, that even though he needed to pass on, his prominence with the Sassone family will always live through me. I will respect the Laughing Buddha every time I see one. I will never buy an unreliable Hyundai. And I will always smile when I am happy, even if I am not supposed to.
All rights reserved.
The death of my grandfather inspired me--we were very close. It has previously been published. Of course, it is dedicated to my grandfather, Thomas Mario Sassone (December 9, 1924-March 11, 2010).