A Tribute To Aunt Rose

Posted on December 4th, 2007 by Keith Ferrazzi

At 2:30 today my Aunt Rose died as my mom, my cousins Danny and Monica and I held her hand and sang to her.

Aunt Rose has been ill for quite some time and recently moved into the Heartland Hospice in Jeannette.  (Angels work there, by the way.) 

Sunday, I spoke to my cousin Danny (one of the closest Ferrazzi family members to me) who has been our Aunt Rose's primary caregiver and he thought Aunt Rose probably had less than a week or two. I figured that Aunt Rose may or may not even know I was there, but I wanted to be there for Danny. He insisted (as people often do) that he was fine and there was no need. 

Then I got his sister on the line to whom I will be forever grateful. Just sharing with Mon (Monica) the decision I was struggling with helped. Her advice was timeless. "Keithy, (what Aunt Rose used to call me and it stuck with many of my cousins) if you come home, only come home because you are doing it for you and whatever you need to do to bring closure to the relationship you have with Aunt Rose in this life." Powerful words, Monny.  It brought so many memories to my mind.

Aunt Rose's generosity was famous with innumerable volunteer activities. She would wear her knees out at the church every day. Everyone knew her because of how many funerals she would go to in order to say prayers. But Rose helped anyone in need, and to her family's frustration, most often before she took care of her own needs. Driving others when she could barely walk, praying for our lost souls and our lost keys (we always found them if Rose said her prayers), helping family and neighbors who were financially strained. Because of Rose, my dad was able to replace our old car when I was growing up. She was the matriarch of the Ferrazzi family and the glue for the family gatherings. I remember visiting her and watching her work while watching TV, as she would start months in advance of a holiday by making thousands of the Ferrazzi tortellini (a pasta) from scratch.

In just that moment on the phone, all this flashed through my mind and I missed her deeper than I had in a while and I missed the family. The big family gatherings have faded into memory since Rose couldn't host any longer and so many of her generation (and a couple of mine) have passed. I wanted to connect again. I was definitely coming home. I told Monny I would be taking the redeye home that night.

As I boarded the plane later that evening, after a great sushi meal with friends in L.A. and a couple preparatory glasses of pinot to make my sleep easier. And then I heard, "Ferrazzi!" This was no fan of my book, it was a heartfelt Western Pennsylvania accent that was shouting out to a neighbor. It was Barb Hafer. Barb was a successful statewide politician who had run for governor, married my headmaster of Kiski, (Jack Pidgeon) and gave me a paid summer job in politics when I was at Yale after that aborted trip to D.C. I wrote about in Never Eat Alone. I got a great big hug, and we caught up in the boarding area. She shared with me that Jack wasn't doing too well and was in an assisted living facility outside of Pittsburgh. I said I would try to get there (it was an hour or so in the other direction).  Landing in Pitt, I decided that I'd go direct to see Jack. I mean Danny wouldn't even be up at 6:00 A.M.  And anyway, how could I not? This was the man who built the institution of Kiski School, the boys’ boarding school that clearly paved the path for me into Yale. Jack once compared me as a young man to his roommate in prep school, George Bush Senior, which I think propelled me even further towards my interest in politics and making a difference on a bigger scale than I might have otherwise imagined.

I got to the facility unannounced and walked in to find Jack eating breakfast with all the other folks. I noticed so many of the women sat by themselves or in twos but Jack was at the "guys" table. As I approached his table, shouting out my own blue-collar holler to Mr. Pidgeon, I couldn't help but look into so many of the old women's eyes who seemed so lonely. I could only see dark between half-shut eyes – no whites at all. I was just staring into the empty eyes. 

Jack's table was a little more lively, from the angry guy sitting to my left who complained about everything –to the other men's amusement, I must say – to the former farmer across from me wearing a hunting shirt and suspenders.  I couldn't help but pause on the equality of old age.  Something I might have read about in Jack's English class. Here Jack was (East Coast Ivy-educated, a friend to so many of the most powerful Americans of our time) sitting with men like Dad (uneducated, steel or coal workers) and they were all waiting for their pancakes with anticipation. Their morning conversations of the wars they have gone through, literally and figuratively, occupied their table between long and oddly expected silences. 

"Sorry Jack, I can't stay too long because I have to go pick up mom on the way to see Rose."  That was all I needed to say. All the men at the table (minus Mr. Grumpy) seemed to get a little more animated as they confirmed, "That's the right thing to do." They all shared a reverence and respect for taking care of Mom.

As we arrived at the hospice, it began to snow. I had forgotten how damn cold it got back there.  All I was thinking was, "Why would anyone live here?" My mindset was still in the practical "I'm here to do something I need to do" state. The sky was gray, and the small mining-town houses around the hospital reminded me (painfully, I might add) of the poverty I escaped and so anxiously put behind me when I went off to college to become a "new man," or at least "reinvented."  Of course I found I never became truly new or reinvented anything. I've always been and still am that boy from Latrobe. It was an oddly familiar feeling. It was just like when I would come home from college, leaving behind one place not feeling like I fit in only to come home to a place not feeling like I fit in either.

I walked in to Aunt Rose's room first. Her eyes were open. She was staring forward as if she couldn't see and she was struggling with each very small gasp for a breath. It became clear after a few “Hi Aunt Rose, its Keithy. It’s Danny! It’s Monny and Nancy!” that no movement nor acknowledgement was going to be likely. I knew then that I had come in her last moments. The nurses assured that she didn't have long. We learned the clinical signs to watch for over the next few hours. The color of skin turning purple as oxygen was increasingly, in 10-minute increments, no longer getting to her arms and legs moving northward to her heart and lungs. We called the priest again. We all said The Lord's Prayer in unison reminding me of the Protestant and Catholic mix our family had as we uttered slightly different versions.

I had never been with someone in the very last hours of life. My dad died when I was living in NY. He had driven into Latrobe hospital to have his dialysis treatment and was flirting as he always did with the pretty nurses (pretty or not, he always called them pretty) and then he stopped laughing and died. He was laughing just before he died. That always made me happy.  And, I was always so grateful that his suffering was not prolonged. 

But here was Aunt Rose. We all tried to get her to respond, even her eyes, with no reaction.  "Look here, Aunt Rose." "We love you so much."  Then the eyes of those women from earlier came back to me. I started to cry. Partially for Rose, partially for those women, partially as I looked over at my mom and hoped this scene would be so distant into the future with her, and even partially for me. 

We are all going to end up here aren't we? How will I end up? Who will be with me when that time comes? I have to say, the nurses in that Hospice amazed us. They cared for us as a family, with intimacy and warmth for Rose every time they came in. This was a special place and I finally understood what "dying with dignity" was about. I thought of my Uncle Art who died in a hospital with no one around but unresponsive and seemingly uncaring or at best, numb, nurses who never even touched Danny's shoulder when his father passed away.

And how did I want to die? What a thought. But, it really made things easier for me. I knew so clearly what to do now.  Monica sat on the bed and held Aunt Rose. Danny and Mom pulled their chairs closer and I went outside to find a hymnal. I want to go with loved ones touching me. I want to go with people I trust telling me, "It's ok to let go." That my work is done here. I want to go with people reminding me that my time here was important to them and that I made a difference in their life. I want their tears of sadness and joy to fall on my hand. I hope to God that I can feel those tears. And I want to hear music.

So music it would be. After searching the entire hospital floor for a hymnal, I found a beautiful young nutritionist filling out paperwork and I discovered that she played guitar and had hers in the car. There we were, now, sitting with Rose and singing soft Christmas carols to her - particularly the ones about angels. Rose always collected angels - the similarity between her and the objects of her collection not unnoticed to us at all. This was a moment that I will always remember. So much love and compassion and in her dying hours. Here she was, Aunt Rose, again the one who brought us all together.

I walked out of the room briefly to stretch my legs and looked out the window. The ground and sky was white with so much snow. And it wasn't just falling, it seemed to swirl up and all around those tiny mining-town houses. And it was beautiful. I wasn't thinking "Why do people live here?" I was thinking, "In so many ways, I belong here." I was feeling what it means to be "a Ferrazzi." And I felt more peace than I had for quite some time. I felt blessed to be there.

I went back into the room and it was as quiet as it was outside.  We all sat and we hummed. I asked "Aunt Rose, will you give a hug to my Dad for me when you see him, please?"

Then at 2:37 today, just as Aunt Rose brought those she touched so much peace during her life, Rose died in peace and once again gave all of us in that room a gift I’ll never forget. I learned to live a little better today. In death, I saw what matters in life, and I want more of it. We all deserve it and we can have it. It’s waiting in every person we meet if we just calm ourselves enough to turn that person from a stranger into a friend or someone to love or be loved by.  Those nurses did that every day. Aunt Rose did that every day. I walked into that hospice not doing that. I walked out into the snow and listened to my muffled crunchy steps on the covered sidewalk. Every step toward a deeper commitment to what really matters.

Rose will always be the spirit that binds our family together and will continue to be remembered for all of the angelic beauty that was and is Rose.

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12 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Thanks for sharing. My best to your family.

  2. Keith- what a beautiful post. It really touched me and made me reflect on humanity, authenticity, and family -- thank you for sharing.


  3. Keith,
    I'm so sorry to hear of your great loss. As I read it, I couldn't help but remember how much I still miss my mom, dad, and grandparents... There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of them. What stamps they make on our lives! Your aunt was a fortunate woman indeed to have been part of such a loving family.

  4. We all need an aunt Rose in our live. I am exteding my condolences to you, Keith but I am glad you had an opportunity to learn what it is all about when you can die surounded by loved once.

    I loved the story. Thanks


  5. That was beautiful Keith. Thank you

  6. Thanks for a moving tribute to your Aunt.

    My condolences.

    Aunt Rose sounds like a lovely Angel.

    Peace, Lyle

  7. I think it's wonderful that you are able to share your feelings about the loss of someone dear to you and, at the same time, reflect on life and its meaning. Learning to appreciate who we are and from where we come sometimes seems challenging. Though from what you have shared, I couldn't imagine not wanting to be a part of your family.

    All the best!

  8. Ho letto solo oggi questo post ed ho voluto scriverti subito per esprimerti le mie condoglianze e per ringraziarti di come hai presentato questa tappa della vita di una persona ultima solo per chi rimane a ricordare, perchè non avrà altri ricordi da aggiungere, ma terrà come più preziosi quelli che gli sono rimasti. Anche io per quanto poco l'ho conosciuta ricordo la sua grande Fede e voglia di vivere, l'amore per la famiglia.
    Scusa se scrivo in italiano, ma non riesco a pensare inglese in questo momento.
    Tuo cugino Max.
    P.S.: Avviserò la parte italiana della famiglia.

  9. Howard Tucker says:

    Keith, your post to Aunt Rose is genuine and touching, and makes us all think of that very special person who was our savior in life. For me, it was my Aunt Millie, a surrogate mother and father to me for 44 years after I lost my parents as a young boy. I am comforted by the thought of your Aunt Rose and my Aunt Millie chatting right this minute about what a good job they did with their "boys."

  10. Thank you for sharing such a remarkable woman with us. You're in our thoughts and prayers.

  11. Keith,

    I just wanted to say that was a very touching post. I often get chills up my spine when people are truly speaking from their hearts, and that was completely true here. I too have been learning some of these feeling recently, they demand a lot of reflection time and I believe you have decided to give it that. That is good.

    My condolences go out to you and your family but I am glad to know that you are blessed in knowing that Aunt Rose has just moved on to a better part of life. Our World needs more Aunt Roses in it and I'm with you in trying to consciously create them from within ourselves first, which will in turn help others to notice and be more reflective themselves.

    Best Regards,

    -Jeremy Salter

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