I gave my grandfather’s eulogy last Saturday. My dad walked me to the pulpit and I climbed the marble steps of a new church’s altar that echoed with the soft tap-tapping steps taken toward my First Communion, toward my wedding, toward my older son’s baptism. Life is strange. I watched my grandfather die in his bed, my hand on his hip, my heart pounding with panic as his slowed.
I told him we loved him.
The nurses smiled and said, “It’s time,” when we looked to them, helpless in those final moments. In the struggle of it, the harsh exit of a last breath.
It was so much like childbirth — an exhausting fight, hour after hour. Endurance and perseverance and onlookers only able to provide small comforts. He left the world on his side, curled up like a babe, born into whatever comes after life.
These are the words I shared. I don’t remember speaking. I was terrified, but my voice held steady. I owed him that much, and much more.
As my Papa neared the end of his life, many of those who loved him gathered in vigil. We came armed with love and laughter — and plenty of food. Flights were arranged and road trips were taken and during his final two days, Papa was surrounded by calming words, soothing touch and prayers for peace.
I’ve never been as proud of my family as I was watching us come together during that difficult time. We moved organically, taking turns being strong, taking turns receiving strength. It was a testament to the fierce love he inspired in all of us.
As we come together to celebrate his life, I ask that we remember what we learned from him, how he pushed each of us to become better people. Everyone here has been touched in some way by Papa’s generosity. He was generous in every way imaginable — whether he was sharing a story of his childhood or giving someone else the opportunity to find success.
His own success was hard won.
Papa’s father was an Italian immigrant. His mother was the daughter of a bootlegger from St. Louis. He grew up in San Diego with a traditional Sicilian upbringing. Because of family naming traditions, he had four cousins with the same name. As young children, all five of them were arrested for shining shoes on the street. Each told the officer, “My name is Leonard I——-.”
In an essay about his life, he said: “My dad had to come down and get us out of jail. He gave us a hard time in front of the police in his Italian accent, but outside he told us to go back to work. I often wonder if the police really believed us.”
He and his cousins sold paper and flowers to make a few dollars when they could. On Mother’s Day, they stole every carnation within two miles of Little Italy and sold them at a hundred percent profit.
He wrote, “I guess you could say I worked almost my entire life.”
A keen business man from an early age, Papa understood people. His recollections of business transactions and partnerships always came down to names. That’s because he was the kind of person who asked questions and listened. If you came to him with a problem, he wanted to help you solve it. He had no problem speaking his mind and letting you know exactly what you were doing wrong. But I believe this is because he wanted to see everyone around him succeed.
Papa got his first job on a fishing boat at just 12 years old, making money for his family during his summer break. When he turned 18, he bought a boat with his father and named it Virginia Rose after his sisters. “The boat had been built in 1912, and what a pile of junk it turned out to be,” he wrote. “We had put all of our profits back into the boat to keep it afloat.”
Though Papa was often focused on business, he had a soft side — especially when it came to family. While fishing off the coast of Torrey Pines the year his father died, the cold air blowing from the canyons brought him back to the days when his father fished alongside him. He remembered standing in the crow’s nest spotting fish, and the way his father would call him down to get a cup of coffee and warm up. Overcome with memories, he headed home and sold the boat.
After that, he made a bold decision that would change his life forever. Married and supporting three young children, he moved across the country to New Bedford to try his hand at the emerging bluefin tuna fishery on the East Coast.
Before the family could move, Papa had to captain an unfamiliar boat, the North Queen, all the way from San Diego to New Bedford. Uncertain of his navigational skills, he spent afternoons on the beach practicing with a sextant and clock. “We really did not know where the heck we were going, but we got there,” he wrote. “The trip was a very interesting experience — the Panama Canal and the straits of Florida, new coastlines and city lights at night.”
Papa never stopped looking at the world with wonder. Part of him remained that little boy stealing flowers and hurrying to the docks after school to watch the boats unload. He loved to explore and travel. He lived passionately and loved fiercely. He was the first person to try an exotic food, and he loved to cook. A few years ago, we visited Walt Disney World as a family. He rode a motorized wheelchair right up to Space Mountain and rode it despite many protests.
He had the kind of laugh that made you smile. It was a silly sound, so different from the deep, commanding sound of his voice.
It is very difficult to imagine a world without Papa in it.
I want to share with you a quote by Anne Lamott. “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
Right now we feel his loss keenly, though we know he is at peace and unburdened. I can’t tell you what Papa would have wanted us to do, or how he would have wanted us to go on. But I can tell you that he was a man who found joy in life despite suffering great losses.
As we remember him, as we strive to meet the potential he saw within us, I hope we honor him by looking at the world with wonder, and with gratitude for the lives we’re privileged to lead and the opportunity we had to be guided by a great man.