I figured that with the requirement of a published author to have a blog these days, personal matters as well as professional insights and general philosophical musings about any given topic are certainly “game” material for posting, since it’s good to let your followers get to know you as a person better. And though I do not plan to be narcissistic (well, okay, not too much, anyway) and make personal matters dominate my choice of topics, this one I think is well deserved, as it’s done in the honor of a close family member I just lost yesterday. That would be my grandfather, known to those who knew him–and me–personally as Thomas Nigro, Sr., who passed on yesterday after 89 glorious years of a basically good and productive life.
I think that I certainly owe this blogged eulogy to my grandfather, as anyone who knew me well personally was almost certainly aware of the rocky relationship I had with him over the course of my life. The common narrative attributed to it seems to be the usual cliche’ of me taking the role of the ungrateful little punk who never appreciated all his grandfather did for him, including the fact that he let me live with him and my grandmother after my mother left their home when I was 12, and I elected to stay with them; and I was nothing but trouble for this greatly caring couple who devoted their time generously and unselfishly to raising me. Like most such stories, there is admittedly at least a grain of truth to that, as I was quite outspoken and difficult as I grew up, and my grandparents certainly went through a lot dealing with me. Of course, also like such stories, the cliche’ tends to be an overly simplistic interpretation of the situation. As disrespectful and defiant of authority as I could be (and often was, I must admit), I never abused any substance (e.g., alcohol or narcotics), nor was I ever habitually in trouble with the law, and to my grandparents’ credit, they didn’t impose strict rules on me. As such, I had nothing to rebel against, and I stayed out of trouble by choice. However, our personal relations could be difficult, as my willful nature often made me what my family would call “mouthy,” and I was mischievous in the extreme. Yes, me and the other kids in the neighborhood proceeded to terrorize it with our mischief on a regular basis, and to quote the lyrical phrase popularized by the theme song of the classic ’70s sitcom All in the Family, “those were the days.” Okay, for us maybe, if not for the neighbors who had to deal with a small group of kids running in and out of their backyards and hopping fences while playing chase or pretending to be super-heroes on a mission to save the world, that is.
The full truth of the matter, as I strive to be objective here, is the following: My grandfather and I were two very difficult people to deal with at times, and despite a few superficial similarities (e.g., a temper; stubbornness about our ways; an obnoxious sense of humor with a love of getting over on other people), we were very different individuals in many essential ways. Make two such people live together, and what do you get? Exactly the volatile mix one would expect, of course. On top of all that, my grandfather was quite big on the “tough love” ideology, and he could be merciless to those he disapproved of (and he was quick to disapprove of many people), even if you happened to be a member of his immediate family who cared about him greatly (yup, that included me on both counts, or is that surprising?). When I was quite young, however, my grandfather and I were best buds, and those were very happy times of my life. Since my mother was a mere 16 when she had me, and obviously still living at home, my grandparents took a strong role in raising me, often leading to a source of conflict and rivalry between my mother and them. One could argue that they “won” the conflict, considering I chose to stay with them after my mother left their home when I was 12. This gives an idea of how close I was to both my grandparents despite all the conflicts that eventually began, and which went a long way towards shaping me into the person I was to ultimately become, for better or worse.
When I reached my middle school years, it became obvious to my grandfather that I wasn’t going to become the grandson he had hoped for–I was obviously destined to become Chris the Writer, instead of Chris the Carpenter, and that was not an area of interest that my grandfather was familiar with. In his day, my grandfather was greatly skilled in carpentry, cement work, plumbing, gardening, just about anything you needed your hands to do, and he could fix nearly anything that broke. I totally lacked these skills, my abilities going in an entirely different area of expertise, so to speak, but I was always greatly impressed with his natural ability at what he was good at. But he valued living a productive albeit quiet life, avoiding controversy whenever possible, which–well, wasn’t the case with me. My controversial opinions (all of which I stand behind, mind you) and annoyingly natural tendency to think “outside the box” wasn’t smiled upon by my grandfather, and he and the rest of my immediate family could not comprehend these aspects of me, so it resulted in a great many conflicts and fights, with my grandfather inevitably being awarded the “right by default” status due to the usual justification of me living in his house, he being generous enough to provide for me while I did nothing for him save take up space in his home, etc., et al. I won’t get into the in depth discussion and analysis of the “if someone provides for you materially, you owe them unlimited deference” ideology here (but rest assured I will in a future post, since the ideology certainly does bears such scrutiny and analysis). Simply pointing out the crux of the difficulties my grandfather and I faced while living together all of those years is what’s important here, as this post is intended as an honor to his memory and discussion of our relationship, and it’s getting pretty long as it is.
Let me now give all credit to my grandfather where it happens to be due, in case anyone be concerned I am going to do little other than bash him along the lines of what the many celebrities do to the people who raised them in their various autobiographies (whether justified or otherwise). He was always a hard worker, sometimes maybe even to a fault, as he never hesitated to do things the hard way. He did indeed provide very well for me while raising me, and I cannot make a single complaint along those lines. Despite all of our conflicts, he almost never hesitated to provide transportation to me to various places I needed or wanted to go, and I appreciated these things more than I can possibly say. I was always concerned about taking advantage of him despite what anyone may think, and for the last three years of his life, when it became clear that old age and the health problems that so often come with it were catching up to him, I went to great lengths to secure alternative means of transportation when I needed it (it was very difficult for me to drive a vehicle due to various health problems, the main one being afflicted with a very cruel malady called chronic fatigue syndrome at an early point in my life, but I will get into more detail about these aspects of my life in future posts, as it would be getting too far off topic to delve into them here).
So the truth is, despite all the not so great personality traits which we both possessed that made us difficult to relate to and get along with each other, my grandfather was a pretty cool guy. For the past 12 years, he was generous enough to allow me to inhabit the upper apartment of his home for a very affordable rent (far less than I would have been able to get for such a big apartment from strangers, especially in the Western New York area), and I will always be thankful to him for this. He took care of family no matter what his personal feelings for them may have been, and this is something that one cannot take away from him. Once I moved out of his home and finally gained the privacy and space we needed from each other after I graduated from college and began my career as a struggling writer (finally now beginning to bear fruit, but again, that is another post), our relationship improved significantly. We started the road towards becoming best buds again, and despite the continued conflicts we had from time to time, and all the resentments and regrets one can expect to develop between two peas from separate pods living together for so long, I came to the conclusion that my grandfather was alright, and I was glad to have him in my life for so long.
Most importantly, I’m glad I got the chance to tell him that very thing last week, the last time I saw him alive, just a few hours before he had to be hospitalized for the final time, as it turned out. I deeply regret not seeing him the few days he was in the hospital, but not only do I greatly dislike the atmosphere of such places, it was very difficult for me to see him in such an emaciated condition. I like to consider myself a generally strong person, but I have to admit that some things are just beyond me, and this happens to be one of them. Understand that my grandfather was a physically powerful and energetic man well into his later years, and I was always impressed by this facet of his being, with the result being that I grew up seeing him as nigh-invincible. I never thought old age would catch up to him to the extent that it did, but over the past decade, as he went from his late 70s into his 80s, he began to physically decline, and it was very difficult for me to see this happen. It weighed very heavily on him too, as he became increasingly (and understandably) depressed and irritable over this inexorable decline. I could do nothing but sympathize with this plight of his, for I could only imagine what it was like for him to gradually but quickly lose the great prowess and energy he once had, and was well known for. He was a prideful man who was used to getting things his way and being in full control of his life, and this was not something he could deal with gracefully. Despite his enjoyment of life, he wasn’t happy any more as his physical decline progressed, and in truth, he wasn’t upset when the end came for him. The members of his family (including me) are very upset, of course, because we already miss him terribly. But my mother and my uncle, his two children, made the right decision in deciding not to have extraordinary measures taken to resuscitate him when the end came, nor put him on life support; he would not have wanted these things, and when my mother discussed this with me two days before he passed on, I fully agreed with her that to do that would have been selfishness on our part, and if we did such a thing, it would have been for us, not for him.
I am certain that many reading this, if not most of you, have gone through the same thing, as loss comes to all of us eventually, and I don’t need to explain how difficult it is to do the right thing, rather than the self-serving thing, when it comes to parting with someone who meant so much to you, and whom you wanted to be around forever. And as I have often noted, and will certainly note again, the right decision is most often the hardest of two or more possible decisions, which is why doing the right thing can be so difficult to do in many given instances.
During his few days of hospitalization, I wanted to say goodbye to my grandfather, to let him know how sorry I was for my no small part in the difficulties we had, and how glad I was that relations between us had improved over the past decade. The ‘l’ word was there, but he and I weren’t the type to use it without feeling terribly ‘mushy’ and awkward, at least between us (I have been able to use that important word with my grandmother often since I almost lost her to an aneurysm a decade ago, thankfully). That may be a “macho” fault we had, no doubt, but that was the way it is, just like we both knew we had to accept each others’ stubbornness and various other idiosyncrasies, even to the very end. But I felt so much between us was unresolved, and there were other words that could be used to make how I felt about him clear. After a heartfelt discussion with my boss and BFF the same day he passed on, I resolved to compromise by writing him a letter that expressed how I felt, and how much I would miss him, and my mother agreed to read it to him the following day. Sadly, however, my grandfather didn’t last another day, as he passed on at the hospice mere minutes after my mother and uncle arrived to see him later that afternoon. I will always regret not getting that letter to him, but I am determined to honor his memory in other ways, so that in the end, it won’t seem so bad that he got Chris the Writer as a grandson instead of Chris the Carpenter (who would have figured, eh?).
When I was quite young and we were best buds, and he would let me accompany him on all the work he used to do around the house–fixing, repairing, and building many things while dealing with my annoying presence the entire time–he gave me the nickname “Benny,” something he never really used once my childhood gave way to my problematic middle school years. Nevertheless, it stands as a memory of the happy times I shared with him back in those all but carefree days, and as such, this is the reason I gave the character in my upcoming novel Centurion the name Benny Lotherno (the last name being one of the variants of our real last name throughout history I recently uncovered via research). There will be quite a bit of autobiographical material in that novel despite being a work of fantastic fiction, and since I hope it’s successful enough to be the first of many featuring that character, his first name will stand as a lasting monument in memory of my grandfather, and the good times we shared. Moreover, I plan to write a special story, intended for publication, that will likewise do him honor, this one featuring another continuing character of mine, Mike Nero, as he and his grandfather–based on guess who? (Go ahead and guess, your first one will be correct!)–will share a final adventure together that will serve as a sort of emotional catharsis for me. I do believe my grandfather’s consciousness lives on in a better plane of reality (he didn’t believe in an afterlife, so if I turn out to be correct, I will gain the satisfaction of one day visiting him and telling him, “I told you so!”), and wherever he now resides, no doubt happily taking advantage of the restored vigor he now enjoys as he sets off on a new adventure, I am hoping he will see that his grandson will do his best to insure that he is immortalized and never forgotten, as he was quite a special guy and I want it always to be known that despite how often we knocked heads, his grandson respects and appreciates all he did for him wholeheartedly.
I would like to ask all my followers and friends who read this to give a minute of silence in my grandfather’s memory.
Thomas J. Nigro, 1923-2012