Tuesday, October 10, 2006
"I've Climbed My Highest Mountain..."
I just got back from the funeral parlor a little while ago.
A man I used to hang out with when I was younger, named John Lucarelli, died of a heart attack over the weekend. He was 47 years old.
When I knelt down before the casket, I saw there was three CD's lined up over John's body--Jethero Tull, the Moody Blues, and some other ban I didn't recognize. I remember sometime back in the 80's John had talked about going to an Asia concert.
"That was the best concert," he declared. "I don't wanna hear it."
I don't wann hear it. That was a line the boys said to indicate that they would not tolerate any dissension on a particular issue.
The wake brought out a crowd of people from the neighborhood, older, fatter, with less hair and failing vision. I saw faces I barely recalled, people just on the fringe of my memory, and others I thought I should know but didn't.
I had not seen John in years. He was suffering from multiple sclerosis for many years and I don't think he left his home much.
I hung around with John and the Senator Street boys one summer, two decades ago, when I was out of work and lacking any kind of direction.
I had broken away from the local crowd years before to hang out with some guys from school who had interests similar to mine--going to foreign movies, hanging out in Manhattan.
I think I kind of snubbed the local boys and for that I am truly sorry. When the alleged friends I had moved away--thank God--I started hanging out with the Senator Street crew again.
Back then John had this sound system in his car that could probably shattered a brick wall it was so loud. And he was very proud of it.
I remember sitting in the back seat one time when he had something blaring loud enough to rattle my sternum and I cupped my hands around my mouth to yell at him. He still couldn't hear me.
John had married my next-door neighbor's daughter, Rose Ellen, and they had a boy, who is now, somehow, 21 years ago. I can't believe it.
I went to their wedding and they had a belly dancer at their reception, a nod to Rose Ellen's Syrian roots. The dance had them sit down in the middle of the room and then she danced around them--at one pointing draping her veil over her and John's head, as if they were kissing.
Rose Ellen, who was holding John's hand, looked to the crowd and shrugged, as if to say, thanks a lot, fella.
"Hold on, Roe!" shouted George, one of the crew, and everyone laughed.
Good Old George
George wasn't at the wake tonight. He died about 12 years ago, struck down by a heart ailment while playing a game of basketball.
I was there when George died. It was an annual picnic of the Senator Street boys held by one of the former residents who now lives in New Jersey. I had only gone once before, since I was really wasn't a bona fide member of the crew. But my brother was and for some reason I tagged along with him.
So they were basketball and George said something--I wish I could remember it now--but it was so innocuous, so forgettable, because who in the hell knew they would be his last words?
And then he fell. He didn't clutch his chest, or stagger, he just fell to the crowd like a marionette with its strings cut. I think for a second some of us thought he was goofing around.
But he wasn't moving and people started shouting "call an ambulance, call an ambulance!"
Some of the guys tended to him, calling his name, "George, can you hear me?"
"He's turning blue," one man said.
George's girlfriend came out and said softly, "what is it, baby?" but then she pulled away, terrified at what she saw, and the other women went to comfort her.
My brother and I ran to the corner to flag down the ambulance and guide them to the house. We thought it was taking forever, but later we found out they had arrived in under 10 minutes.
They took George away and people tried to calm down. The host's brother appeared to be optimistic.
"The human body is more resilient than you can imagine," he said.
A short time later the phone rang. I think it was one of George's cousins calling from the hospital. The hostess shrieked "what?" and everybody stopped in their tracks and gasped--I'll never forget that sound as long as I live.
Then people began crying, hugging each other. When one of the boys came a little later, a few of the guys charged up to meet him, pulled him aside and told him what had happened. His face fell and then he, too, began crying.
That night we returned to my brother's house in Staten Island and I called my father to tell him about George, who lived directly across the street from house.
"Wait," my father said. "I hear screaming..."
That was George's mother getting the news of her son's death. That poor woman, she lost a husband to the same ailment that killed George, and another son had been stabbed to death in a bizarre case that was never solved.
She had one daughter left, and in her grief, she would tell me, "God is not going to get her."
When I went to George's wake, I was trying console his aunt by saying that George was the sweetest guy in the world.
"Yeah," she said. "And look at him."
I had no answer to that.
So now another member of the Senator Street crowd has died much too soon. I thought Rose Ellen was holding up remarkably well, but she broke down after the priest said the prayers and her family crowded around her.
Christ, I remember when Rose Ellen was a little girl, when she and her friends were listening to the radio and singing along with that song "Band of Gold." How could that young girl possibly be a widow?
Her mother, Dee, who used to be so full of life, sat next to her, small, shrunken, clutching her oxygen tank. That seems to be our choices in this life: go before your time, or slowly fall apart.
Several people asked me how my father is doing, as he is one of the last of his generation on Senator Street. I just shrugged and made the face that says, "not so good."
There were plenty of young people there, late teen and early twenties crowd. I guess they're the sons and daughters of the Senator Street crew.
Before I left I picked up one of the memorial cards, which featured a photo of John on one side and a poem called "No Time For Sad Remembrances" on the other.
The poem is a message from the dead to the living, telling us not to mourn, that our loved one has gone to a much better place.
"I've climbed my highest mountain," one passage reads, "and I've reached my an even peak. And I've found that peace and true reward that you have yet to seek."
Well, John, I hope George is waiting for you up there, and that you guys listen to your CD's and have a great eternity. Those of us down here on earth are still trying to figure out why you had to leave so soon.