You’ve Got Plenty of Sympathy

liliesToday in Target I saw something that I thought I would never see: a six-pack of sympathy cards.

I was shopping with my mom and looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose own elderly mother just passed away after a long struggle with dementia. Imagine my surprise when among the tasteful, dignified cards picturing lilies, crosses, butterflies, serene gardens and poetic sentiments was a shrink-wrapped bargain bundle of them!

You know that the U.S. population demographics are skewing older when you can now buy sympathy cards in bulk, much like you’d purchase shrink-wrapped supplies of mac and cheese or vitamin water. One for now and more for later, “just in case.” Bargain survival-sized rations of something that you only use when somebody doesn’t survive. What’s next: boxes of 25 at Costco?

A six-pack of sympathy cards is perfect if you are expecting a slew of bad news. As a growing number of us in middle age also deal with aging parents, this is a morbid sign of the times. No less than six of our good friends and neighbors have lost their parents within the past year. Moreover, as I approach my sixtieth birthday I find myself scanning the obits more and more, for people my age as well as for people whose families I might know. Every time I see an age gap that’s uncomfortably close I go out for a walk and count my blessings.

Perhaps buying sympathy cards ahead is not such a bad idea, especially in the age of prepaid funerals and advanced health care directives. The late comedienne Joan Rivers planned the details of her own funeral several years ago, including tributes from Meryl Streep in five languages and a wind machine near her coffin so that Joan (dressed in Valentino) would look as fetching as Beyonce. People who are far less famous than Joan Rivers have also planned their ultimate going-away party. A good friend of mine has also asked her family to follow special orders if she is ever on life support:  don’t pull the plug until she’s a size 10. As someone who’s worked at newspapers I also know that eulogies and obits are often composed well before the body gets cold.

Well, I did buy the six-pack of sympathy cards, which are tasteful and simple, along with a “special” single card for my neighbor, and figured I wouldn’t feel bad about it because I’m not sure who will get them. Afterwards my mom and I decompressed by heading over the section of funny cards, howling out loud at some of the more risqué ones.

One can argue of course that buying ahead saves time, money and gas, just like buying toilet paper in bulk or a 700-capsule jar of vitamins. Yet the pain and trauma of losing a loved one, no matter how old, makes it seem crass to be practical about how we comfort them. I’ve always viewed choosing sympathy cards not only as a respectful custom and a duty towards the grieving, but also as a meditation on the person’s life and the family’s loss. The sentiment that works for one grief-stricken family may not work for another. And it never occurred to me to make a special trip to buy a sympathy card ahead of time, even if someone I know is clearly at the end. There is something vulture-like about this. It feels like cheating, like being presumptuous or even inviting the worst. So maybe I will save my shrink wrapped cards for people I don’t know that well.

An Angel in Pet Heaven

John and Angel, 2006

John and Angel, 2006

After nearly seven years as our pet, our guinea pig Angel died two days ago.

We knew this day was coming. Angel was at the upper end of the actuarial tables for guinea pigs; we know of many fellow guinea pig owners who had far less time with them. Guinea pigs are in the same temporary-pet class as rats and hamsters, Eastertime baby chicks, most bunnies, and goldfish. It’s no wonder that “small pet care” has such a tiny stretch of shelf space in the local Target.

Even if they live to an old age, Guinea pigs don’t insist on a bond with their humans like dogs and cats do. They don’t climb into your lap and rub up against your leg. They come out of their plastic igloos just long enough to grab a proffered carrot, then scramble back into it to eat in solitary peace. I’ve heard of several people who’ve trained their guinea pigs – including our friend Bernie, whose guinea pig Elwood had as much free range as an indoor cat — but Angel was more private.

Yet we bonded with this little rodent and she became part of our lives, even though we never expected her to share our lives for so long. She was an eighth birthday gift to our son John, now 14, who had fallen in love with his friend Greg’s guinea pig. We found her at the local Petco, where we had a choice of just two guinea pigs since most pet stores now steer people towards adopting small pets. One was a docile brown one who kept to herself in the corner of the shared cage. The other was a calico-patterned, spikey-haired furball who careened around the cage and squealed like a middle-school girl with a crush. Streaks of brown fur around her left eye looked like smudged mascara on Courtney Love.

We brought this punk rocker home, along with $75 worth of guinea pig accessories, and presented her to John the evening before his eighth birthday. What do you want to name her?, Bob and I asked. The answer was immediate: “Angel Happy Face.” A Sandra Dee-type name for a head-banging hunk of fur, but she became Angel.

We had visions of John becoming an ever-loving, responsible pet owner but in truth this did not happen right away. Angel was the focus of much attention at first but in time he had to be reminded to clean her cage, check her bowl and water and do other maintenance. Eventually, after a few years of nagging, it became automatic. Bob and I were equally guilty of less than hands-on treatment; we held her constantly when she was new to our home but less as time went on. Still, she demanded little and gave us so much back. When we held her she’d make a low, slightly rough purring sound as we stroked her fur. Her eyes never blinked, a constant source of amazement.

In the early years we would let Angel run around our screened-in back porch on warm summer days, and often all three of us had to chase her down to put her back into her cage. Our furry fugitive would run away from us, squealing and dodging the whole way, until we chased her into a corner and dropped a small towel on her, stunning her just long enough to bundle her into her cage. Eventually, we discovered to our great delight that we could train her to return to her cage. We would let her run around; then place the cage in the middle of the porch, open the hinged drawbridge-styled door until it touched the floor, create a path with slices of strawberry, then get out of the way and out of sight. Angel would eventually nibble her way back home; we’d shut the door as soon as she let herself in. Eventually the strawberries were not necessary. We’d put the cage in the middle of the porch after letting Angel play for an hour; and our pet would approach her home, mysteriously circle three times around it, then ascend the drawbridge and enter.

After Angel began chewing our wicker porch furniture we had to consider other options. One Father’s Day John, Bob and Bob’s father Gene built a four-by-six-foot outdoor cage from wooden planks and chicken wire. Angel would spend many summer hours there, in the shade, happily nibbling on blades of grass.

Angel did not have a lot of contact with other animals – except for one wild afternoon romp on our back porch with T-Bone, my daughter’s friend’s chinchilla — but we had great friends who cared for her when we were on vacation, some of whom had pets. Our friend Darren, who raised bunnies, would include Angel as part of his menagerie; he and his children would hold Angel while they watched TV. Angel also stayed over Greg’s house and hung out with his guinea pig, Mocho, and his yellow parakeet, Twinkie. We took care of Twinkie recently when his family went on vacation. Angel helped us bond more deeply with our friends.

Several months ago, when we brought our dog Gus home, we introduced them to each other carefully. Gus was curious at first, then recoiled from Angel when she began squealing at him. He eventually started ignoring her. Since dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers, which remotely resemble guinea pigs, we watched them closely when they were together, but for the most part they left each other alone.

Gus is a more interactive pet. He climbs onto our laps, stares up at us appealingly, whines when he wants attention. He is impossible to ignore, unlike Angel, who was content to be by herself and whistled for us only when she was hungry. Angel taught us our limits as pet owners: we needed pets that talked to us more and gave us more love. At times, even before Gus came home, we worried that we were not giving Angel the attention she deserved, even though we lavished her with fresh carrots, parsley and lettuce until she grew so fat she waddled.

A few months ago I noticed gray streaks in her coarsening fur, some caked spots at the roots and more shedding than usual. And over the past year Angel changed from doing her business in one corner of her cage to being more indiscriminate. She developed a skin infection three months ago and we had to take her to a vet for the first time. Sometimes Angel would just peek her head out of her blue igloo long enough to grab the baby carrot we poked through her cage; then quickly retract back inside.

Over the past few days Angel was not herself. We were accustomed to hearing her squeal when we first entered the kitchen; she knew our footsteps meant a carrot was forthcoming. The past few days were silent and we had to remember to bring her something. Three nights ago John tried to pet her and she bit him, something she had never done before.

Two afternoons ago I found her dead. We told John when we picked him up from school. John does not cry that often and we wondered how he would react. His face crumpled in the car and he did not say much. When he got home, he and Bob dug a hole in a wooded area of our back yard, not far from where we stored the outdoor cage they had built for her, and buried our pet in her blue igloo. I moved a bunch of newly blooming crocuses there and we marked the grave with a rock.

Then we cried for the pet who had outlived the actuarial tables and our attention spans for her, who had given us so much and had asked for so little.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Dad doing his favorite activity.

Dad doing his favorite activity.

Today you would have been 87 years old. Wish you were still with us. While you’ve been gone nearly 15 years I can still hear your voice whenever a clear-headed, common-sense solution to whatever is troubling me pops into my head. You are with me whenever I bake your special bread; whenever I pick strawberries or apples with my family; whenever I get the urge to make meatballs. Notice that thoughts of you often accompany food!

You are with me when our son John plays the trombone, just like you did in high school. You would be proud of what he’s accomplished. In fifth grade he chose this instrument because – wisenheimer that he was – he had visions of Three Stooges-like episodes of hitting his fellow musicians in the head with his slider. And his first year or two was not easy as he discovered the trombone is a very physical instrument that demands much of you. He stuck with it because, like you, he doesn’t give up and finishes what he starts. A few days ago one of his music teachers told me that John has become an accomplished, more relaxed player. I hope that someday he will play the trombone with the same easy grace I saw in my favorite photo of you: as a 20-year-old, shirtless, in khakis, with tumbled brown curls and your trombone in hand.

Wish your other grandchildren could have shared more of their triumphs with you. They still remember the great times picking peaches with you, the “pop-pop bread” that showed up on our kitchen counter when you’d come to visit; watching the July 4 parade in front of your house. You are no doubt proud of how they turned out: Ryan (you once said, “He’s so smart he scares me”) has a great job in Europe with Kimberly-Clark and Rachel is now in dental hygiene school. Your grandchildren include engineers, a future doctor, a special education teacher and lots of very smart kids making their way through school. I’m sure you are on top of their accomplishments but I wish they had more years to learn from you.

I wish you could have gotten to know my husband better and that he could have spent more time with you. Bob is a lot like you…easy-going, always ready to see the good in people, friendly and hospitable, fiercely protective of those he loves. I think of you whenever he nags me about locking the door, keeping the dog on a leash or checking in whenever I’ve reached a destination. I think of you whenever he insists on watching our 14-year-old at the bus stop. We were married just a month after you died and you knew Bob well enough to know I would be in good hands.

As I get older I see more of you in myself, but not nearly enough. I’m a homebody who loves curling up on the couch with the family; a perfectionist in the kitchen; and good at following instruction manuals and doing household repairs if I’m not too tired. I remember all the hours we spent putting up drywall and molding around my old house, and the prosciutto sandwiches we’d enjoy afterwards. I feel closer to you whenever I have a screwdriver or hammer in my hand.

Yet unlike you, I struggle with being petty at times. I remember how outraged we all felt when people who barely knew you crashed your funeral luncheon and we didn’t have enough chairs and tables for relatives and friends. The only thing that kept us from tossing them out was the thought that you would want us to be gracious. So I keep praying that I can learn to live like you did, always ready to forgive and to see the best in people.

That’s it! I will think about you tonight, Dad, when I cook dinner for my family. Send me a message sometime, the usual way. Help me to be more like you. Love you!

Saying Goodbye to the ‘World’s Best Dog’

Molly (left, above) with Guinness, Mike and Erica’s other dog and best friend. Molly was put to sleep a few days ago after an accident that was gradually paralyzing her.

My brother-in-law Mike and his wife Erica lost their beloved chocolate lab, Molly, a few days ago.  Mike posted this very moving essay on his Facebook page, and I had to share.  It is a beautiful tribute to how dogs fill the gap left by children who’ve grown up and moved away — as Mike puts it “with the added bonus of no back talk or allowance.”  He rightfully called her “The World’s Best Dog.” RIP, Molly.

This Saturday was the one of the most sad moments in recent memory for my family. Molly, our twelve year old Chocolate Labrador and loyal friend – broke her back a couple of weeks ago running like a puppy around the yard. She slipped, hyper extended her aging back and, well you get it. She seemed fine for several days and we never knew anything was wrong. Then she slowly started to lose her balance, had trouble walking and then eventually – no amount of money nor the greatest of veterinarians could prevent her from becoming paralyzed.

Molly was the dog I never wanted – we already had a friggin’ dog and I certainly didn’t want another one. I liked dogs, but they were just dogs, nothing more. Besides, they shed and they smell and they don’t have the courtesy of cleaning up after themselves. The nerve . .

But my 14 year old son wanted his own dog, so months of wife and family pressure gave way to a trip to the breeder to find a new friend for my son. He wanted a Labrador. He chose her, he named her, he was supposed to take care of her. Of course, it’s the story you often hear – grumpy man doesn’t want stupid dog, but once dog arrives and takes over the house and all the cars – the fabric of the home begins to change. And that’s what happened, this “dog” became an integral part of our lives – transitioning us from a two-kid household, to one where the kids have left home, graduated college and started careers. They never returned, but dog was still there – now “our dog”. And that’s what happens. The dog replaces the kids with the added bonus of no back talk nor allowance.

Molly went everywhere we went. Endless ski vacations, camping, trips to the beach, swimming, hiking, gardening (helping to uproot newly planted flowers), washing the car (stealing towels and other valuable tools). She accompanied both boys to their respective colleges, helping them settle into their dorms.

And in the blink of an eye, 12 years have passed, and this dog is so entrenched into your lives you cannot imagine waking up without those soulful eyes staring down at you. But the years do pass by, and in one of life’s cruel tricks, your dog has aged so much faster than you.

And so on Saturday morning two weeks after her injury and after agonizing for hours, we called a mobile Vet to come to our home to end her life in the place she most enjoyed, her own home in her own backyard. There was no way Molly was going to die in a clinic on cold stainless steel table. We led her out to the backyard and gave her one of her favorite treats, peanut butter stuffed inside a cow bone. She licked away blissfully on a beautiful sunny morning while lying down next to us as we held her. Fifteen minutes later, she was gone.

There is no greater loyalty in the world, no stronger bond then that between man and dog. Unless you’ve known the love and peace a dog can bring into your life, it’s hard to comprehend the anguish surrounding a decision that will end your dog’s life. “Dog people” will know what I’m talking about, others will roll their eyes. Regardless, no matter how humane the decision to peacefully release your friend from the confines of pain and suffering, you never escape the guilt of “but maybe I could have done more.”

I found this poem on the web any years ago. It moved me then, but now of course it has a very special meaning.

Sweet dreams Molly. Thank you for all the happiness you brought to so many lives.


If it should be that I grow weak
And pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then you must do what must be done,
For this last battle cannot be won.

You will be sad, I understand.
Don’t let your grief then stay your hand.
For this day, more than all the rest,
Your love for me must stand the test.

We’ve had so many happy years.
What is to come can hold no fears.
You’d not want me to suffer so;
The time has come — please let me go.

Take me where my need they’ll tend,
And please stay with me til the end.
Hold me firm and speak to me,
Until my eyes no longer see.

I know in time that you will see
The kindness that you did for me.
Although my tail its last has waved,
From pain and suffering I’ve been saved.

Please do not grieve–it must be you
Who had this painful thing to do.
We’ve been so close, we two, these years;
Don’t let your heart hold back its tears.

A Life Both Ordinary and Extraordinary


My Aunt Rita (center), with her sisters Chickie (left) and Theresa (right) in their prime. Rita died recently at age 91.

In 1982 I read a copy of a speech by Jeffrey R. Holland, then President of Brigham Young University, about how stay-at-home mothers are undervalued.  I don’t agree with the Mormons about a lot of things but I saved that speech.

Holland told the attendees at the American Mother of the Year Convention that women who devote their lives to their children can have as profound an impact on society as Nobel Prizewinners.

“How do you get the world to notice the mother who gave her daughter the courage to run for student body president?” Holland said. “Would ’60 Minutes’ tell the story of a widow who made baby clothes for each arrival in the neighborhood?  Could we build a best seller around the mother who silently but meticulously raised an honest accountant, a high school teacher, a medical doctor or a concert pianist?  Yet the sons or daughters of mothers make our society honest or dishonest, educated or uneducated, healthy or unhealthy, lovely or unlovely.”

I thought about this last week when I traveled to suburban Philadelphia for my Aunt Rita’s funeral.  While it was sad to lose her, it was great to reconnect with my dozens of cousins, some of whom I had not seen in at least 15 years.  Aunt Rita was 91 when she died, and luckily stayed in great health until her last three weeks or so.  And she died surrounded by her family, which along with her faith was her only career.

We paid our respects in the town where we all grew up and where Aunt Rita had lived nearly all her life.  The wake was at the same funeral home where my dad and beloved aunts and uncles had been laid out; the funeral was at the church where Aunt Rita attended Mass for at least 80 years.  The post-burial luncheon was our first huge family gathering in quite a while.

Such gatherings were frequent when I was growing up, and Aunt Rita’s house was where many of them took place.  She lived in the house where her parents, my grandparents, had lived for decades.  She and Uncle Frank inherited the house, took care of my grandparents as they aged, and raised their own four children there.   Our big Italian and Polish family gathered at that homestead on many a Sunday.  My uncles drank Seagrams VO and argued about Roosevelt around the big dining room table, while we played with cousins Frank, Nancy, Rick and Lorraine around the house.  We watched my grandfather pick tomatoes in the garden out back.  We played hide-and-seek in the unfinished basement — where we could see my grandmother’s old ringer washer; the stove where she made pizzelli and a stone-lined storage closet for the vegetables and fruits that my grandparents canned.

In the kitchen, Aunt Rita was always cooking something wondrous.  From the time she was a little girl she cooked side by side with my grandmother, who taught her everything she knew.  After my grandmother died in 1963 Aunt Rita continued to make her home the nexus for family connections and a place where one could always find an encouraging word and something delightful to eat.  Since Uncle Frank was Polish, Aunt Rita perfected many Polish dishes as part of her cooking repertoire. We enjoyed her Italian Sunday gravy; her cherry pies on Washington’s birthday; her Polish babka on Easter; her kugelhopf cake at Christmas; her pierogi many times of the year.

In fact, Aunt Rita — an Italian — became the pierogi mogul at her church, where she led a monthly fundraiser selling the Polish, potato-filled version of ravioli.  Some estimated that she might have raised close to $1 million for the church over the decades.  In a bold stroke of leadership, she convinced the incredulous old Polish ladies in the church kitchen to give up peeling fresh potatoes and use potato flakes instead, enabling the pierogi initiative to save time, scale up and make more money.

We shared these memories at Aunt Rita’s funeral Mass and at the funeral luncheon, both warm and loving events that Aunt Rita would have loved.  No doubt she enjoyed looking down from Heaven at all the graying heads that once belonged to the small children whose laughter filled her home, and at the fresh and beautiful expression of the family genes in their own children, now in the prime of young adulthood.  She no doubt was smiling when she saw cousins exchanging emails, cell phone numbers and promises to keep in touch.  She was smiling when she saw the comfort and support that surrounded her two sisters — my aunts Theresa and Chickie — the last survivors of the eight children in their family.  The love and concern we showed one another, the joy we felt in being together, was her life’s work and her legacy.

Rest in peace, Aunt Rita, and thanks for teaching us what’s most important.

Finding Dad in Cyberspace

My dad, Guy Cipolla, died from cancer in March of 1998. All of us who were fortunate enough to know him and love him will never forget him.

Around my home and on my computer desktop are many photos of him, doing the things he loved the most: holding his grandchildren, picking peaches, fishing, and mostly just enjoying himself with his family.

I thought I had seen every photo of Dad until I got a message from my brother Dan last night. Dan, who is passionate about family history, has been looking online for information about the Cipollas. Last night he sent this message to my mom, my sisters Julie and Maria, and me:

“In commemoration of Veteran’s Day, I always look on line for information on Dad’s unit in the service. He was part of the 47th Bombardment Group, 84th Bombardment Squadron. I happened to stumble on some old pictures from a guy in his unit, and I starting looking. I found this—Does the guy with rolled-up sleeves look familiar? The hairline looks right, and the ears and eyebrows. It came under the title of ‘payday.’”

While much of his face isn’t visible, we instantly knew the handsome soldier second from the left in the photo was Dad. We instantly recognized his jawline and his habit of standing with his shoulders slightly forward and his hands in his pocket. It would be Dad’s official stance for the rest of his life.

While we had seen photos of him as a young man before, seeing this one felt different. It felt strange to pluck the photo from cyberspace rather than a family collection, and to realize it was a random photo taken by a stranger rather than somebody he knew. If his comrade had not decided to post his pictures online, and if Dan had not looked in the right place, we would have totally missed this photo, taken when Dad was about the same age as our sons are now.

It also felt strange to peer in from the future on this moment when we were not yet part of Dad’s life. Where was he in this photo? What was he talking about with the guy on the left? Who was he thinking about right then? Did he have any idea that within the next two decades he would have four children; within five decades he’d have a dozen grandchildren; and that 67 years later we would be looking wistfully at this photo on a computer screen?

Could he have known back then, as he bantered with his fellow squadron member, how much greatness was in store for him?

The man in the photo eventually became the father who loved us; showed us the primacy of family and loyalty; taught us to fish, to choose a ripe peach and to build things; and who was there for us always, at our greatest celebrations and lowest moments. He became the husband who fiercely protected his wife and his children (even from themselves); the coworker who was universally respected over more than three decades with the same company; the grandfather, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, neighbor and friend who inspired both respect and affection; and, more than 13 years after his death, the dad we miss every single day.