On some Saturday mornings I felt interested in spending the day with my father and on other Saturday mornings I felt indifferent and would have felt content playing with my toys. I would wait either inside my home or on the block, close to home for my father to arrive in – if my memory serves me well – his Chevy Caprice Classic in light royal blue. I waited for my father to pick me up and take me out because my parents were divorced (that marked the first time I lost my father), and Saturdays were the ordinary day my mother agreed to my father’s visitation time. Saturdays were when he would visit and take me to McDonald’s for a happy meal and playtime and a nearby park or to a florist before connecting with my father’s side of the family. On those Saturdays when he took me to a florist before connecting with the other side of my family, he would also take me to the cemetery for a short visit and we would put flowers on a grave. I can imagine people feeling repelled at the thought of going to the cemetery or perplexed by my father spending a part of his already skimpy visitation time going there, but going to the cemetery was a normal part of my father’s visitation time. My father apparently wanted me to also connect with my grandfather who he loved dearly and who died before I was born and whose name I carried.
I can still hear my father’s voice stating: “He’s your grandfather.” On the inside, at different times during my visit I felt confused, curious, sad and bored. On the outside, my job was to take the watering can from the car to the water spigot and water the plants or flowers at my grandfather’s grave, whether they came from a florist or grew there.
From what I can tell, my father had peripheral arterial disease and there is a very high mortality of persons with it following bilateral leg amputation. My dad eventually had both legs amputated and died at age 38 when I was age 12 (or grade 7) – that marked the third time I lost my father. He could have worried about my remembering him because he was living with his new wife and his adopted daughter, and my mom and I moved into my step-father’s house, and, in fact, these new situations would eventually result in cutting off with my father and his family including going to the cemetery – this marked the second time I lost my father. I only returned in the early part of the millennium to the cemetery grave where my father was now laid to rest. I had been cut-off from my father and his family for a few years before his death and my mom, step-father, and family were reluctant to validate/support my grief and neglected my mourning, but I’ve been getting what I wanted since my early thirties, when I visited my father’s grave for the first time.
This time I entered the cemetery not in my father’s Chevy Caprice, but in a rent a car. Disappointingly, the nearby floral businesses were closed for the holiday. Visiting the cemetery seemed familiar and I could get to the plot section, but it was hard to remember exactly where was the grave marker and I didn’t see a graveside locator kiosk. And I could not find the water spigot to orient myself. Thankfully, I heard a groundskeeper on a riding mower and was able to catch up to him, and he offered to walk me to my father and grandfather’s plot. As I followed him, I felt anxious, and yet when we arrived and he departed, I was tearful and only felt intimate, sorrow and grief. I took as much time as I needed and said some prayers, but before I got back in my rent a car, I took more than my memories; I took a couple of small pebbles from the plot, which I always keep in my small wallet zipper pouch. I’m still struggling with the pain of losing my father – I got teary-eyed just wondering about the whys of my father taking me to the cemetery, and I continue to revisit my feeling grief and my feelings about both his absence and death, even though I didn’t know my father all that well.
I understood my world through my senses, and communicated my feelings both physically and emotionally. As an example of this, my maternal grandmother – who learned the dialect of Naples, Italy from living near my grandfather’s family – would later tell me she used to call me a little skutch or skutchamenza (or irritant), because I was prone to becoming irritable and crying when my mother was gone for any time. This said, my grandmother and I were very close and she helped me cope. The grief I experienced also made me miss the family I had hoped for, and I even roughly remember a holiday season moment when I held out hope that my father and mother would get back together despite both of them already being remarried. Nowadays, I don’t become irritable and cry if don’t see my mother for a while, but I do still grieve the first time I lost my father through divorce. I grieve the role my father could have played and what could have been the intimate details had my father and mother stayed together.
From my parent’s divorce onward, my father still occupied a particular space in my life when he regularly visited, but eventually I was cut-off from my father and his family by the end of elementary school. This marked the second time I lost my father. The year after I was born, my father had remarried a single Columbian-American mom of one girl, about five years my senior. And, more or less weekly father / son visitations ended, because I’m told my father did something to get me upset (something to do with him rushing me into bonding with his stepdaughter). Another story is told by my father’s family – with whom I reconnected as an adult – something about their taking me out and when they took me home I had a stomach ache and they were told I could not see them anymore. Whatever the case, my mom and step-dad got my father to agree to terminate his parental rights in exchange for stopping child support. And I can’t remember seeing him much after that at all. I was sold for child support by my father when I was only a child. Sometimes, my grief leads me to feel nauseated at the thought, “Is this how little I’m valued?” Ultimately, I experienced my value as a child of God, and I decided that I had more value than I was lead to believe. And yet I still grieve that my father simply gave up and decided that the cost – financial or personal or both – to see me was too high.
I remember my mom telling me with sadness that my father died, and she asked me at some point in the moment if I wanted to go to the funeral. I kind of recall feeling sad, but mostly numb and I could not speak, saying something like I did not feel like going. I still resent my mother for her reluctance and not giving me parental support when I needed it most to let out my feelings of grief and taking me to my father’s funeral. Never mind that I did not know my father all that well and that I had not had contact with my father and his family for a while, I had a right to grieve and mourn. More recently, I did ask one of my father’s first cousins who was a hospice nurse for ten years – a more neutral party – about whether she went to his funeral service. She told me about going to the funeral with her father (one of my father’s paternal uncles), and that when they were there, my father’s family talked among themselves as to my whereabouts and if I was allowed to come to the funeral. The answer was my mother thought it best I not be there, which was sad for my father’s family and still makes me very sad. I feel valued knowing that my absence was noted by my father’s family, and I also feel deep sorrow that they “were a family that didn’t ask a lot of questions;” questions which could have changed my mother’s mind, made her respect my need to mourn, and take me to commemorate my father’s passing.
For a lot of years since my father died, the only connection I could establish with him was to wonder about the quality of life that he knew in the end and my own grief. This changed with my acceptance to a graduate school of theology. Growth counseling was mandated for everyone in seminary formation. We addressed things I told myself such as, “My father left me, so why should I grieve,” and “I did not know my father all that well, so why should I grieve his death.” My counselor addressed my losing my father and the stoppage of my visiting my father’s family. I came away from my sessions feeling courageous and free to contact my paternal grandma (the search for her phone number is another story), and in no time I felt reconnected with my father’s family. In fact, my father’s family chipped in and funded my Eucharist chalice customarily given to priests for ordination.
On the bottom is engraved my name, the day of my ordination in 2006 and it ends: “From his family with love.” I used it for the first time I presided during the Eucharist on Sunday morning, May 21st, 2006. For Roman Catholics, the published Mass time intention in the parish bulletin is the priest’s primary intention for that Mass, and the priest may have his own intention. Most often, intentions are offered for a deceased person. My personal intention held deep within my heart was for my father, lifted up in prayer a week to the day since he died twenty years earlier. I did not attend my father’s funeral, and now I was expressing my grief in my heart and commemorating his passing with his sister, two of his first cousins, and a cousin’s husband sitting in the front pew, along with hundreds of others attending Sunday Mass. With this ceremony and my private visit to my father’s grave, I finally claimed my right to grieve and mourn. To be sure, the three times I lost my father is still painful for me, but the pain of losing my father has now been openly acknowledged and communally supported.
Today, I think about the likelihood that my father had no one to speak with at home about me and that his life with his second wife and adopted daughter did not include me. My father could have demonstrated courage as a New York City patrolman in the 1970s in Hell’s Kitchen, but not at home with his second family. Some evidence for such lack of courage in his contact with divided family was shared with me by one of my father’s first cousins:
And yet, I think that I could have mattered to my father in silence, and I now feel his presence and influence, and every now and then prayerfully “talk” with him, saying something like, “Hi dad, I think you are up there in heaven with God. I hope you pray and look over me.” I believe that makes him a kind of saint for me. My belief in the Communion of Saints – enshrined in Christian thinking – gives me space to do this. So, I hold in tension my grief and the continuing bond and influence of my father who has gone from my sight to be with his father, my granddad.
Author Bio: Joseph Musco, his fiancée, and their family of four paws live in Dunedin, Florida. He is a commissioned member in the Federation of Christian Ministries. He is a former Roman Catholic priest, a native of New York and long-term resident of FL. He is a PRN chaplain at both Suncoast Hospice and Mease Hospitals and is anticipating doing his fourth unit of Clinical Pastoral Education in the Fall 2020.
I decided to submit my story to Grief Dialogues with the hope of supporting others in their healing journey.