31 December 2009

It was five years ago today that my father passed away

4 January 2005

Thank you for coming today to help us remember my father. Immediately following this service, there will be a chapel service at Gate of Heaven Cemetery on Montgomery Road, followed by a reception downstairs. I must remind you of something that anybody who visited him at St. Margaret Hall already knows:

YOU CANNOT LEAVE ‘TIL YOU SIGN THE BOOK!

Before I begin, I want publicly to thank our mother, Rose Marie, for loving, comforting, and caring for our father “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, ‘til death did them part.” You truly lived your wedding vows, and we thank you for that. We love you.

I just want to be “Little Gilbert” again.

I was never an Aeneas. Aeneas, as you may recall from Vergil’s epic The Aeneid, was a Trojan prince and future father of Rome, who dutifully and lovingly carried his infirmed father on his shoulders out of the burning city of Troy. I was never that son. Early on, it was my older and stronger brother, Mike, who, when necessary, did the heaviest lifting. In the most recent years, the responsibility has fallen on the youngest, Anthony, who has been a rock for both our dad and our mom. I never was Dad’s Aeneas; so I want to be “Little Gilbert” again.

I couldn’t be Dad’s “favorite daughter” either. I couldn’t, as only an only-daughter can, make our father light up just by entering his room. Fran could and did, and Dad benefited greatly from it. I couldn’t be Fran; I just want to be “Little Gilbert” again.

Nor did I ever have to be a Frank Sinatra, Jr. I never had to be someone burdened by the weight of someone else’s name (and the responsibilities that so often attend it). Dad, after all, didn’t make his namesake either his first-born or even a junior. Our different middle names (Mario and Leonard, respectively) individualized us and, as he did with all his children, allowed me to be who I wanted to be (even if, as dad used to say – and as only he could – “Gigliotti’s a big name around here”).

He never forced his wishes upon his children. I’ll always treasure his response to my decision to leave law school and teach Latin instead. Despite being confused and probably disappointed, he only said “Your mother and I just want you to be happy.” This was hard-earned wisdom from a man who went to both West Point and medical school but was prevented from finishing either because of familial obligations.

I just want to be “Little Gilbert” again. For, growing up, that’s who I was, and, given my size and my age, it made sense then, even if I didn’t always enjoy it. In high school, when a friend would call and ask for “Gil,” I didn’t necessarily appreciate Mom’s automatic response, “Big Gil or Little Gil?” Nevertheless, as time has gone by, I realize that the name we share is more than appropriate and due more than to the fact our November birthdays are but four days apart.

I am the only male English professor at CCSU who feels underdressed in the classroom without a jacket and tie. I, like my father, have a reputation at the office for being preternaturally cheery…almost to the point of annoyance. Who else but my father, after all, would decorate his walker with Christmas lights and greenery? Well, to be honest, I hope I would!

I, “Little Gil,” more than my siblings, appreciate Dad’s abiding and deep love of old Hollywood and his theatrical bent. I understand his affection for Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby. I was the one with whom he sang and danced to Carol Channing’s “Baby Face” from the soundtrack of Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was the one who went with him to the construction site at the end of Meadowbright Lane for a bivouac (that is, “a picnic in the middle of winter”) because “That was the kind of thing Nelson Eddy’s “Stout-Hearted Men” would do.) I was the one with whom he got up early Saturday mornings to watch and laugh at “Lance Link, Secret Chimp.” I am the child who could most appreciate Dad’s pride in being the lead in Brother Goose, his high school senior play, and his performance of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” in the Angels Follies. And I was the one with whom he shared (and not infrequently performed) favorite lines from films he watched for hours every week when he was young at the Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania movie theatre.

The films he spoke about that take on particular poignancy for me at this moment are both from 1942: King’s Row and Pride of the Yankees. The most famous scene of King’s Row, a better-than-average Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan, and Ann Sheridan melodrama, has Ronald Reagan waking up without his legs in a hospital after an accident and crying out “Where’s the rest of me?” I cannot but think that Dad must have asked the same question to himself many times over the years. His response is unambiguously powerful now, some 32 years after he was diagnosed: nothing’s going to defeat me, he clearly told himself, until I’M ready to say goodbye.

The second film, starring Gary Cooper, is justly more famous, and the only time I watched it with him is etched in my mind. I was visiting on Thanksgiving, and Pride of the Yankees came on television. I watched with my father and grandmother, and as Lou Gehrig slowly began to experience the symptoms of ALS, the room only got quieter. After Gehrig’s celebrated speech at the end of the movie, we all remained still – recognizing the 800-pound gorilla in the room but not saying a word. Once again, knowing my father as I do, I can imagine his thinking of the family and friends (including his many doctors, nurses, and aides) who had gathered around him throughout his life and saying the same thing the ballplayer said to the crowd in Yankee Stadium: “Today I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Today I stand here, at the very age my father was when he had been diagnosed with MS, to say my father was wrong. He wasn’t the luckiest; we are luckier – because WE had the chance to know HIM.

I just want to be “Little Gilbert” again because I want to be the loving husband, generous father, wonderful grandfather, and loyal friend that Gilbert Mario Gigliotti was. If I can even approach the man he became over his 76 years, I will, like he has, make an impact upon those around me that will be felt for generations to come.

To “Big Gil” from “Little Gil” (but on behalf of all of us):

We love you; we miss you. Godspeed.

3 comments:

  1. I remember that day five years ago as if it were yesterday. I remember my hearing the news, where I was (the top of the second-floor stairs), and my response (somewhat mild, unfortunately, but it was only a matter of time). I miss him too. Nice eulogy, Dad.

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  2. It will be great to watch Thoroughly Modern Millie, i have bought tickets from
    http://ticketfront.com/event/Thoroughly_Modern_Millie-tickets looking forward to it.

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  3. I still don't understand why they changed all the music In Thorouighly Modern Millie when they transformed it from a musical film to a theatrical musical!

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