The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, —
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses…
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dirge without Music
The diagnosis was devastating and shocking, as I imagine it must be for anyone; at 83 years of age, Rose had stage 3 lung cancer, the type caused by smoking. Even though Rose had quit decades before, the cigarettes had spawned a mass that had been growing slowly and surreptitiously inside one lung for years, and would end up killing her in eight months.
Rose was a very youthful octogenarian – in fact, the ER doctor had to check the ID band on her wrist to be sure she was the right patient because she didn’t look her age. For most of her life she had been able to avoid doctors, and her only health issue was macular degeneration, which was advancing but not slowing her down too much. Her mind, memory, and wit were as sharp as a woman half her age, and she wasn’t ready to die.
Rose was born Angela Rose Caputo, the oldest daughter of immigrants who left Calitri, a small hill-town in southern Italy and settled in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She grew up in a home where Italian was spoken and I remember her telling me that she learned English by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Her younger sister by 18 months was my mother.
My favorite story of Rose as a child involved a pair of roller skates. She found them after my grandmother had bought them for her and had wrapped and hidden them away in a closet before Christmas. She found them, unwrapped them, spent an hour skating around their basement, then re-wrapped them and put them back where she found them without my grandmother ever knowing.
When she was 22, she met John Patrick “Bull” Harrington on a double date (she was not his date) and they married on May 2, 1948. They were soul-mates and adored each other.
Rose and John never had any children – didn’t ever try to figure out why. They accepted it as God’s will. I was their only niece; for me it was like having a second set of parents, and Rose was Auntie Mame. They weren’t wealthy, but they lived comfortably and their life style allowed them to travel, play golf, and belong to a country club.
Rose was a devout Catholic but never a phony baloney pious one; she believed you had to live your faith. Her favorite image of Jesus was what she called Laughing Jesus. She believed that being Christian had a lot to do with joy.
Rose loved taking me on outings and shopping. She was the only one that I knew who shopped at Tiffanys and Lord & Taylor, and her taste was impeccable. She wasn’t a snob – she just knew what she liked and she wasn’t shy about telling you what she thought.
Rose loved dark chocolate, Frank Sinatra, martinis, pasta, and Manhattan, not in that order. My uncle used to tease her and called NYC the “Rotten Apple” but she got into the Big Apple every chance she could, and because he loved her, John would accompany her. She took me to see my first Broadway play, Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand, buying me the soundtrack album afterwards. I memorized the lyrics to every song. Seeing my 10-year old self singing “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady” absolutely delighted Rose. Then, when it was time for Walt and Grace to see their first Broadway show, Beauty & the Beast, I thought it only fitting that Rose accompany us to the show. The circle was complete.
She went back to college when she was in her forties, first to a local community college and then graduating with honors with a history degree from a public college. After the terrible loss of my uncle to colon cancer when she was in her early sixties, she dealt with her pain by getting a job as a tour guide for AAA, leading tours around her beloved Manhattan as well as all over Europe. It was the perfect job for her – a chance to educate her fellow travelers, take charge of everyone, and see the world. When asked what she did for a living, she would reply with a smile, “I am a shepherd”.
Rose had a wide circle of friends and was a ferociously loyal friend in return. However, she was her own force of nature, and she wasn’t afraid to tell you that you were wrong because of course she was right. She generally said exactly what was on her mind, whether you wanted to hear it or not, and I remember quite a few very awkward silences following a harsh rebuke. If she didn’t like what I was wearing or how I looked, I would know. She would look at me and say, “it doesn’t do anything for you”, and that meant don’t you dare buy it. She wasn’t mean or nasty – she just had supreme confidence in her knowledge of what was best for everyone!
As she aged, she softened and became more willing to listen and consider other points of view. Though she had led a privileged life, she had a heart of gold and chaired numerous charities and fundraising events, even winning a Volunteer of the Year award from a Catholic hospice.
However, it was after 911 that her volunteering advanced to a missionary level. She took the attacks on the World Trade Center personally, and the first Monday after the towers came down, she got herself to the Jacob Javits Center, where the first responders were gathered, and offered to do whatever they needed. Those first few weeks she made sandwiches for anyone working on the site, and I remember her descriptions of the exhausted firemen coming in, covered from head to toe in ash, with their sweet cadaver dogs, thanking her with their sad smiles for the sandwiches she handed out (she made sure the dogs got sandwiches, too). She was in her seventies then, but nothing stopped her from making those weekly trips into the city, and she continued every Monday for two years until the clean-up operation officially ended.
In the beginning phase of her disease, she fought it with a vengeance. The cancer presented itself initially as a blood clot which had caused a stroke, so she needed speech and occupational therapy for a few weeks; she worked so hard that within a week you couldn’t detect any noticeable difference in her speech.
Once done with rehab, I remember her determined walk, her refusal to turn down any social invitation, her willingness to do anything that the doctors ordered. She fought the live-in caretaker that she had to have, dear sweet Ella who was so patient and kind to her (“she’s moving my things around”, she would complain to me, “Aunt Rose, it’s just stuff.”). As the disease progressed and she got weaker, she did start to let the small stuff go, and a peaceful acceptance of her situation settled upon her, and she found joy in the gift of each day.
I was terrified about the end – dreading that the pain would be too much for her, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hold myself together for her, panicked that I wouldn’t know what to do for her. But she held on with the grace and dignity that was as much a part of her DNA as her hazel eyes.
In those last days, thanks to the phenomenal hospice nurses who came every day to administer her morphine twilight, she and Ella and I were miraculously OK; I do believe that a divine presence shielded us like a force field and kept all the bad stuff away.
I read to her as she lay in bed or we watched movies until she fell asleep. Her last words were in response to something she heard on TV. A man asked, “What will you have to drink?’, and with her eyes closed and smiling, she replied, “I think I’ll have a martini.”
She died as she wanted, in her own bed in her own home, surrounded by her dearest friends who all came as soon as I called, and helped me keep the last 24-hour vigil. I will always be indebted to Nancy, Jean, Lois, Judy, and Ella for being as much of a support to me those last few months as they were for Rose. It gives me great comfort to know that I helped her have the death that she wanted, and that I gave back to her some of what she had given to me.
She has become my role model for a life well lived, and this week marks eight years since she lost her battle with cancer. I like to picture her as my guardian angel, zooming around the skies on wings of steel, staying by my side and cheering me on whenever I need guidance and protection. When I talk to her, I feel her listening.
As I think about reimagining retirement and how I plan to live the rest of my life, the best way that I can honor her is to try and live with as much sparkling joy, ferocious passion, and genuine love for others as she did.