Monday, September 11, 2017

Saying goodbye... for now

I began this blog -- if we can even call it that anymore -- because sometimes, over the past five years, as I was in the throes of multi-generational caregiving, there were moments just too absurd to keep to myself.

And then there were moments just too sad or painful to capture in irreverent short-form writing.

The last few years, since my father-in-law moved from independent to assisted living, there have been more of the latter and fewer of the former. If you had administrative access to this blog, you would see 14 unfinished drafts. I couldn't seem to get it right, which perhaps offers a bit of psychological insight into how all caregivers of aging parents feel. We start something we hope will work -- a prescription, a therapy, a regimen, an approach -- and then, for some reason or another, have to change course and try again.

Hence the lack of logging in my blogging.

In May of this year, we said our final goodbyes to Renzo. And today I am saying goodbye to this phase of The Baloney Sandwich. It may come back again in another form -- goodness knows my life is never devoid of The B.S. -- but there are other aspects of life and love about which I feel more compelled to write at this point.

For my final post, I thought I'd share the eulogy I wrote for Renzo's funeral. Perhaps that way, anyone who comes across these sparse pages will know the fullness of his life rather than just the fraction of himself he was at the very end. We miss you, Grandpa. Every day.

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Renzo Barto, 1932-2017
I recently finished reading a memoir entitled The Other Wes Moore. In it, the author recalls one of his commanding officers at Valley Forge Military School addressing the cadets. Colonel Murphy was a “no excuses” kind of guy. When he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and had to leave the school to seek medical treatment, this is what he told the students on his last day:
“When it’s time for you to leave this school, leave your job, or even leave this earth, you make sure that you’ve worked hard to make sure it mattered that you were ever here.”
Renzo wasn’t a public figure. He had a quiet spirit. He was an introvert. But in everything he did, he made sure that he worked hard to make sure it mattered that he was there.
He worked hard at stickball as a boy in the Bronx. Maybe he wasn’t as natural a player as his brother Mario, who had pro ball aspirations, but he still played hard. And my guess is that to his teammates and friends in the neighborhood, it mattered that he was there.
Renzo worked hard in school. Many traditional subjects didn’t come easy to him, but you better believe that each of his book reports had an original piece of artwork on the cover that was worthy of an A. To his classmates at the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan and all who enjoyed his art for the rest of his life, it mattered that he was there.
He worked hard in the Army, whether peeling enough potatoes to fill up a beer keg while on KP (the one kitchen task he refused to do ever again after his discharge) or running maneuvers in the field with the 7th Infantry. OK… maybe he chose not to work so hard when he volunteered to spend his final weeks in the army on board a ship home from Korea rather than flying back and still having 2 months left on base in NJ, but can you blame him? He returned from Korea with a United Nations Service Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Bronze Service Star, and a Purple Heart. Years later, when the Bergen Record ran a feature story on Renzo and his carvings, one of his old army buddies, Frank Rocco, found him and rebooted their friendship after 45 years. It mattered to our nation and to Renzo’s fellow soldiers that he was there.
Renzo worked hard at Norcross Greeting Cards… even when others in the office would gather for their cigarette break around his desk – the only non-smoker in the department – and exhale all over his drawing board. I guess that is what happens when you work in the humor department. He certainly worked hard wooing Bobbi Lewan once he met her, and thank goodness he did. It mattered so much that he was there.

He worked hard on 291 Midland Avenue, whether building the brick fireplace in the den or constructing the backyard deck. Everywhere you looked there were children’s books, comics, original artwork, wooden carvings – all details that made that house their home. To anyone who walked through the front door and was served, within seconds, a cup of coffee or tea from the Sunbeam Hot Shot hot water dispenser, it mattered that he was there.
Renzo worked hard as father. The obituary originally read, “Renzo and Bobbi had one son, Nicholas, who was the pride of their lives,” but one member of my family who shall remain nameless thought that might be over the top. It wasn’t. Renzo and Bobbi waited years for God to send just the right child and then took turns trying to keep a toddler boy contained and entertained while they worked from home. Renzo coached Little League baseball and drew the covers for the game day programs, taught his son how to use every tool in the toolbox – not to mention the wonder that is brown packing tape, accompanied Nick on football recruiting trips all over the northeast (where Renzo said a little prayer for Nick’s safety every time they encountered other recruits six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than his son), and even put up with all the completely ridiculous girls Nick dated until that boy finally wised up and brought home the right one. In his college yearbook, Nick quoted Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Every time Renzo was there for his son, it mattered.
He worked hard as a husband and caretaker, doing everything he possibly could for Bobbi during her life and her battle with cancer. He was an example of selfless love to us all. It mattered that he was there.
Renzo worked hard to make sure his granddaughters knew how much he loved them. He flew to North Carolina within weeks of both girls’ births – remember, this is the man who flew to Korea (not back) and then not again until our wedding. For these girls, he jumped on a plane as often as possible. When Barrie was 15 months old, and I was required to take a week-long course at Columbia, he took care of her, overseeing meals, diapers, naptime, and daily trips to the park. He sold his home of almost forty years to be closer to his granddaughters in North Carolina, and then, at age 80, this Italian-born, Bronx-raised guy once again packed up… this time to board a covered wagon and move across the country to Colorado. 
Do you know how great it is as a parent when one of your kids says, “Mommy, draw a hippopotamus in a tutu,” to be able to respond, “Go ask your Grandpa.”? Renzo surprised his granddaughters with chocolate bunnies on Easter, became our official jack-o-lantern designer on Halloween, always had Werther’s hard caramels on hand for treats, attended Grandparents’ Day festivities, and – when Adie-Morgan had to do a report and presentation on her favorite artist – even spent a morning in 3rd grade being interviewed in front of her classmates. It mattered so much that he was there.
He worked hard – in his own unique ways – to be a good, generous brother, uncle, friend, and human being. One friend said he could light up a room with his smile. He walked Patti down the aisle at her wedding. He made baked clams for special occasions. He drew caricatures and sent them to their subjects. He gave away countless of his incredible wood carvings, usually for no other reason than he sensed that the recipient would get joy out of having an RB original. If you needed a custom box built or a ride to a doctor appointment in the city, he was your guy. He gave presentations in the community on his life’s work. He put up with my dad’s phone calls every time the Red Sox pulled ahead in the Division… and then resisted saying “I told you so” when the Yankees would inevitably retake the lead in September. He always had the perfect Yogi Berra quote for any occasion. I guess today’s would be this: “You should always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t come to yours.” Even when his physical and mental health were declining, he always managed a smile and usually a joke for nurses, pharmacists, and caretakers.

In Ecclesiastes, the wise Solomon tells us that “there’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth… A right time to cry and another to laugh, a right time to lament and another to cheer… a right time to embrace and another to part, a right time to search and another to count your losses, a right time to hold on and another to let go…” Two chapters later, he goes on to write that “we should make the most of what God gives, both the bounty and the capacity to enjoy it, accepting what’s given and delighting in the work.” He also tells us that “hard and honest work earns a good night’s sleep.”
We’re so sad that the time has come for us to let go of Renzo / Dad / Grandpa / Uncle Pretzel. But these two things I know for sure:
First, Renzo made the most of the job he had for as long as God gave him life. He earned his rest and the reunion that took place last Friday with his beloved Bobbi.
And second, I know that during the time he was with us, Renzo worked hard to make sure it mattered to all of us – and countless others whom we may never know – that he was here.