Joe Paterno died yesterday and the Penn State community, still stunned and numb from the events of the fall, grieves openly for this man so many say they admired, revered, and even loved.
Did I admire him? Well, certainly he had a multitude of admirable qualities that extended beyond his leadership of the football program (a world I am very much outside of). I admired the seriousness with which he treated education and it’s easy to be thankful for the academic resources he helped build at Penn State. So, admire? Sure. But revere him? No. And I would never say I loved him. I simply didn’t know the man. But it’s not hard for me to imagine doing so. He was someone’s husband, father, grandfather. He was surely worthy of love just as we all are.
But I am feeling grief on this raw, rainy January day. This has nothing directly to do with football or the coach himself, but Paterno’s death, his picture all over the news, has me thinking of the person whose loss left a void in my life that can never be filled: my grandmother, Josephine Squillante, who died in November, 2009, at the age of 88.
I think this is an important and healthy function of public grief, actually. When we bear witness to the experience of someone else’s loss, no matter how detached from it we may feel, it gives us the opportunity to revisit and inhabit our own most important losses. I really feel like this is a gift in general, but for me particularly, the sudden plunge back into mourning reminds me that mourning is not a finite experience. It just does not end. It shifts, it wriggles, it fades and flickers on and off. Forever. I know this, of course, on some level. But still I am guilty of the understandably human impulse to want to “capture” the departed in words. Is a blog post an adequate elegy for my grandmother? Of course not. Neither is a book-length memoir big enough to contain or define or explain my relationship to my father or the loss of him. But I write these words anyway, I think because every time I do, someone out there reads them and knows these people–my beloveds, my most-missed–a little more, a little better.
Which really means they know me a little better. That connection feels good and is, I think, a most appropriate response to death.
Let this be, then, a kind of elegy-in-process. Ongoing, like life.
So, Joe Paterno has died and in so doing, brought Jo Squillante back to me in memories as brightly lit as Beaver Stadium was last night in his honor. The light flooded our bedroom as we fell asleep and I woke up filled with thoughts of my grandmother that I could not shake.
Like Paterno, my grandmother was also a stubborn, steely Italian-American of a certain generation. Like him, she also died fast from cancer. It was four days from the time the doctors discovered that her chronic leukemia had spread to lung, liver and bones. Just enough time for me to throw myself onto a plane, fly to Florida, and see her one last time.
My birthday had been the month before, and uncharacteristically, she had sent me a gift (cards and phone calls had become de rigeur in recent years): a strand of pearls with a silver, heart-shaped charm at the clasp. On it, the words engraved in script: “My Granddaughter, My Love.” I drove straight from the airport to her hospital bed, and when I walked in, she saw I was wearing the necklace and brightened: “Oh, honey! I’m so glad!”
Within two hours, she had left lucidity almost completely. My sister and I took turns singing quietly into her ear and stroking her so thin hair. Mostly she stayed in that liminal space I now recognize as being between life and death, breath and stillness. My grandfather–her love of 66 years–would rouse her, though, bring her back from some far place. We would wheel him up to the head of the bed, get them as close to each other as we possibly could. He would reach out to her, his face crumpled, devastated, confused, but still filled with love. “My sweetheart,” he would say, and she would lift her terribly small arms up and wrap them around his neck. They would pull in close and kiss then. Tenderly but with the same intent, intense passion I had seen them share my whole life.
And I cried so much in those last days. Cried onto her pillow and into her arms. God, and I’m crying now as I write and realize that I’ve not let myself do enough of this. I’ve been crying for 20 years into the void left by the loss of my father. But losing his mother, the woman I admired, revered, loved so much that I gave her name in its entirety to my daughter…well, I haven’t really even begun to explore what this means to me. I’m only just scratching the surface here.
The last thing my grandmother said to me was, “Don’t cry, my baby.” But she knew me. She knew that was never going to be an option.( I got a lot from her, but not quite enough of her stubborn steeliness). And I know that crying and feeling around, learning the contours, the shape and depth of this grief, will also remind me (as it will, I am sure, the Paternos) of so many happy memories, all our shared delights…
Sitting in the spa with her and my grandfather. Watching her laugh as he tried to pull the straps of her bathing suit down. Riding gigantic tricycles with her and never being able to keep up, even when she was well into her 70s. The aloe pimple cream she sent me for my 16th birthday. (Gee, thanks.) Hot tea with sugar and milk at her dinette table. The chicken soup she made just for my dog. How she teased me about my closet being a constant disaster area.
How our hands were exactly the same shape.
That she lived long enough to meet and love my kids.