Earlier this year I made the decision to have the major surgery I knew for a decade I might one day require, and was again reminded of wisdom my late grandmother Anna Massa told me as a teen: “Be happy when you have the chance, there is plenty of time later for tears.” So pure, simple, profoundly life changing was Anna’s truth, I hear her voice nearly as clearly now some 21 years after her passing as I did when she was my loudest cheerleader.
I knew some of what she meant without her explaining further. She was teaching me she did not want me to miss out on joy, nor deny myself happiness when it was there for the taking at life’s antipasto table; she did not want me to feel guilty when good things happened to me, whether through by seeming coincidence, my destiny or hard work; and she also wanted me to know that one’s emotional tide changes unexpectedly but certainly. Nature leaves plenty of space for cavernous grief to open like the giant sink holes in Florida that have buried people alive.
I knew all of that because I grew up hearing countless stories over the Sunday afternoon meal and many were about my courageous maternal and paternal grandparents’ immigrant struggles in New York City. Epic in scale but not usually delivered with flair or exaggeration, these were richly detailed recollections that often included stories of their parents, my great grandparents. Some were alive, others had died long ago in Europe, but those adults on my family tree had lives defined by gain and loss. Conversations during those Sunday feasts, that might also include cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings talking over one another, would stretch into the next mealtime.
As a teen I could not fathom that Anna’s pearl would influence a decision I had not previously considered I would make this year: whether to tell anyone other than my partner I would have surgery that, like many medical procedures, came with potentially negative results and a huge — “huuuuuge” as in the dialect of Bernie Sanders — medical bill. I would be under anesthesia for two or more hours and remain at least one night in the hospital. That’s if everything went swimmingly.
Only my partner knew I had been in a complex health journey for a decade with monitoring and treatments that allowed me to see my daughter achieve her childhood dream of becoming a physician. Since he would be my caregiver for weeks, even if the surgery did go perfectly, I wanted him to know right away. That way he would have sufficient time to rearrange his work schedule.
What was to be gained by not telling anyone else is where I found Anna’s wisdom unexpectedly applicable: I would not interrupt other people’s happiness and create worry, fear or tears, when I wasn’t even close to being dead and may not be dead for a long time, if you factor in actuarial tables. Yes, there’s always the unexpected event that can happen during and immediately after surgery, when a patient has a tragic reaction to the anesthesia or some other mishap occurs through no fault of the experts involved. Like when my father-in-law suddenly succumbed to sepsis a few days after what we all knew to be just a “routine” gall bladder procedure. But during or shortly after his surgery, possibly while in the recovery room, another organ of his body “whoops burst” and there he went spiraling rapidly to his death in his own bacteria, when he otherwise would have been quickly discharged from the hospital to live out his fairly recent retirement. Talk about time for tears. There were plenty of those days.
But for me, there would be no tears or concern for tears, just yet. There was, though, a looming decision I had to make about who else I would tell. And that is where another of Anna’s pearls showed up to glisten with the radiance of a comet’s tail seen through a NASA telescope. It was her trope, one she sang to my heart more and more the closer she plodded toward her eventual death at the age of 93.
For years we lived states and more states away from one another, but through our frequent phone calls and snail mail letters to one another, I was privy to her actionable wisdom: “Don’t come to see me at my funeral when I can’t see you and hug and kiss you. Come when I am alive.”
She believed life is lived at the highest level when we consistently show our love to one another in full sight, when we offer the living, breathing color of our love in the flesh, on the spread wings of a bosomy hug and bird tweeting kisses, or via, let’s just say, a plate of pasta lounging in gravy on the platter extending from both hands. And if that home cooking is asking too much, well then just pick up a box of Italian cookies and cannoli from the bakery on the way over.
She instilled in me the imperative I was to live my life in such a way that if there was an accidental, premature or “expected” death of someone I knew and loved, I would have no regrets because they had felt my love when they were alive, and knew I would remember them always as a blessing. From living the Anna way, my personal and professional circles have had opportunities to reciprocate my expressions of love and gratitude. We know each other’s value mostly because of Anna. So I went in to the hospital knowing that even if I didn’t make it through, no one that truly mattered who cared about me need ever regret a thing with me.
As to whether I chose to crush many loved ones’ joy and peace of mind by giving them the head’s up about that surgery…no way, but I did decide I had to tell my daughter. I knew she would have been really upset with me if I didn’t tell her, especially had the surgery not gone well. As it turned out, I recovered and was given a clean bill of health. No one’s parade, not even mine, got rained on by tears. I celebrated with Italian cookies.