Last Saturday morning, June 21, was a beautiful morning in the Midwest. Mary Beth and I were enjoying the relaxed pace of the weekend over coffee and the morning news. Andrew was scheduled to play in a baseball tournament so we decided to go for a run before breakfast because we probably wouldn’t have time later in the day.
When we returned our son was in the kitchen watching SportsCenter. His baseball team had won the night before and Andrew played well. He was excited to resume play.
My wife went over to her computer to check email and I was watching last night’s baseball highlights on ESPN with Andrew as I sipped water trying to cool down from the run. Mary Beth’s cell phone rang. She walked across the kitchen to retrieve it from her purse and commented it was her mother calling.
Seconds into the call I knew it was the type of telephone call no one ever wants to receive. I placed the glass of water on the bar and walked over to where my wife was standing. At that moment, she let out a terribly anguished look and uttered the words, “Oh my God.”
She closed her cell phone and gripped the counter in front of the sink with both hands. Mary Beth managed to tell me her father had just died of a heart attack. She collapsed to her knees still holding on to the counter. I knelt down placing my hand on her back for additional support.
Andrew, still sitting on the couch, stared blankly at the television not knowing what to say or do. He just heard that his grandfather, his Pepaw, was dead.
Mary Beth slowly recovered. She stood up and said she needed to get back home, to Virginia, as quickly as possible.
Emily walked into the kitchen at this time and could sense it was not another Saturday morning. My wife put her arms around our daughter and pulled her close to her waist as she delivered the news.
Mary Beth asked me to look for an airline ticket while she grabbed a shower. Before heading into our bedroom, I heard her walk upstairs to Caitlin’s room. She opened the door to our older daughter’s bedroom. There was silence at first and then I could hear Caitlin cry out in shock and sadness upon hearing the unexpected news.
Southwest Airlines had a flight leaving Kansas City en route to Norfolk, Virginia in a couple of hours. I purchased the ticket and then walked back to my bedroom to cover the details of the flight with my wife.
When I was busy booking the flight, Mary Beth learned from her sister there would be a private viewing of their father on Sunday night. Their father, Joe, had made arrangements before his death not to be embalmed. He had also made the decision to be cremated. The family was intending to honor both requests. As a result, both the viewing and the funeral had to be accelerated.
As Mary Beth was finishing her shower and packing for the unexpected trip back home, I made arrangements to pick-up a rental van at the airport. We had recently down-sized my wife’s car so something larger would be needed for the overnight trip to Virginia for myself, Brandon, Caitlin, Emily, and Michelle, a friend of Caitlin’s who is staying with us this summer.
Andrew wanted to stay and play in the tournament. Mary Beth and I both agreed this would be best for our son. His baseball coach offered to let Andrew stay at his house and then he would take him to the airport on Sunday. Joe Russo loved baseball and was very proud of his grandson’s accomplishments. The game today was a game for Pepaw.
Mary Beth kissed her children goodbye as I placed her suitcase in the car. Brandon, our oldest child who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, would not be able to see his mother until Sunday afternoon.
After getting Mary Beth to her departure gate, I hurried over to the car rental center to pick-up the van and to leave my car in the airport’s long-term parking lot. I headed home to pack and get ready for the long trip home. Brandon had committed to getting to the house no later than 3:00 pm so we could start the 20-hour drive as soon as possible.
A little before three o’clock, Brandon, Caitlin, Emily, Michelle and I started the trip that would take us back to Mary Beth and to a grieving family in Virginia. Around 9:00 pm we stopped for a quick dinner somewhere in Indiana. After we ordered our food, I remembered Emily needed to take an antibiotic before each meal. Her medicine was in the rental van. As Emily and I were walking to the van, she grabbed my hand and said, “Daddy, this was not the day we were expecting this morning.”
I agreed with my daughter, “No, Baby, it is not.”
A life celebrated
We arrived at the funeral home in Virginia around 12:30 pm on Sunday. Mary Beth and her brothers and sisters, their mother, and Josie, Joe’s current wife, were sitting in the parlor.
We were greeted with warm hugs that lasted longer than usual. The family was busy making plans and discussing how the next couple of days would unfold. A viewing of their father’s body would be for immediate family only and would occur later in the afternoon. The funeral Mass would be on Tuesday.
After all of the arrangements were settled, I went with my family (sans Andrew – he would arrive on a flight later that night) to my mother-in-law’s house. After getting something to eat and taking a shower it was time to head back to the funeral home.
Mary Beth has told me several times over the past week that one of the most regrettable things that has come out of this tragedy is no one had a chance to say goodbye. Tonight would be an opportunity to do so.
I held my wife’s arm as we approach Joe’s casket. Three weeks ago Mary Beth was dancing with her father at her nephew’s wedding. There was no question she would have given anything to go back to that moment and re-live it all over again.
The small chapel was full of sons, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons, nieces, nephews and brothers and sisters. All came to say good bye.
Once everyone had an opportunity to have a quiet moment with Joe, the funeral director gave the family the chance to share a story about the man who touched so many lives. The stories all resonated with the same theme: A man with a seemingly gruff exterior who could not hide the compassionate and gracious heart we all knew lived inside until its last beat just 36 hours ago.
His sons and daughters shared stories, as did his first wife (Mary Beth’s mother), several nieces, nephews, grandchildren and finally his second wife, Josie, thanked everyone for coming.
The courage and grace Josie demonstrated throughout this time is living proof that some do have the natural and God-given ability to show strength and keep the faith no matter the obstacles. She soothed us. She comforted us. She just lost her husband and she was still there for us.
I did not share a story because I wanted the Russo family to take full advantage of the remaining time they had with their beloved Joe. If I had shared, I would have told the story about when Mary Beth and I were first married we had very little money. I was a teacher with a wife and a new-born son.
Joe allowed us to live with in his house until Brandon was three months old. After that, he would make sure we had diapers and other necessities for our son. My wife’s father would also invite us over for dinner every Sunday where he would slip me a $20 bill now and then and tell me to do something nice for my family.
I would tell my father-in-law I was not in a position to repay him anytime soon. He told me not to worry about it. Joe said they only repayment he expected was that I would do the same for my children some day.
I am Joe, I am.
The hearse holding his coffin was parked outside the church when we arrived shortly before 5:30. This was the first time Andrew was close to his PePaw’s body. We walked inside the sanctuary to get final instructions from Father Michael and the funeral director.
Family and friends quickly filled the church. Soon all of the pews were full of people wanting to say farewell.
The organist starting playing as Brandon, Andrew and six other grandsons assembled at the end of the hearse. On cue, the coffin was rolled out. My sons each grabbed a handle and carried their grandfather up the steps. Later they said they were numb to the physical weight of the solid oak coffin, but fully aware of the emotional burden they were lifting.
The pallbearers stopped by the same baptismal font that was used for their grandfather’s baptism 77 years earlier. Caitlin and three other granddaughters covered Pepaw’s casket with the burial cloth. Emily was standing between Mary Beth and me as we watched our other children weep. It was fortunate we were not able to console them, because they each needed the time and space to grieve.
When the Mass ended, we followed Mary Beth’s father out of St. Paul’s church. As the doors to the church re-opened to the waiting hearse outside, my wife flinched back with the reality this would be the final goodbye. This would be the last moment between a daughter and her father.
Brandon, Andrew and the other grandson navigated the steep steps of the church and carefully placed their grandfather back into the car. Several people came to the back of the hearse to touch the casket or to give on last gentle and heartfelt kiss. Mary Beth shared her final words in a very private moment and then retreated back to where I was standing.
After Josie kissed her husband one last time, the back door to the hearse was closed. Mary Beth turned her head into my shoulder and gasped in pain with the final reconciliation that she had just seen her father for the last time on this earth.
The next day the brothers and sisters gathered on the beach in front of their father’s house. He moved to this beach house about 15 years ago and enjoyed its serenity. It was also the perfect setting for the healing phase to begin.
We sat in our beach chairs exchanging stories and offering one another comfort. The frantic activity of travelling, picking up family from the airport, making arrangements, and attending the funeral were all over now. It was time to begin living without our father in our lives.
No one was sure how to do this. The answers may be different for each one and still may be somewhere off in the distance. But time offers clarity and time offers hope.
I put Brandon on a plane back to Kansas City so he could return to work and to make room in the van for Mary Beth and Andrew. We left Virginia on Thursday morning. A piece of Mary Beth, however, will always remain there.