Updated: Jul 9, 2020
| This is the 162nd story of Our Life Logs |
When I was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1938, I weighed about the same as a lobster roll. Okay, I’m exaggerating. I weighed a little over two pounds. I was so premature that no one thought I would survive, but God had different plans for me.
My parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. They raised their children to follow traditional Jewish values. My mother was 40 years old when I came along. In those days, she was thought to be too old to raise an infant. Because of her age, she was unable to breastfeed, so my father spent a fortune on breast milk. He kept the receipts until the day he died. Maybe it was so that he’d never forget what trouble I was.
I was painfully aware of the role I played in my family. While I know my parents loved me, they also resented me. They had three children before me and were content to have no more. I was both unexpected and unwanted, and this was made clear to me from an early age. I spent my first few years being cared for by a nanny. My mother was disinterested; my father was unavailable.
When I was about ten years old, my father stopped going to work at our family’s hardware store. Though he loved that business, he wasn’t healthy anymore. Within a few years, he decided that the damp, cold weather of Massachusetts was too much for him, and we moved to Florida. Since my siblings were already adults, I was the only one to move with my parents.
I simply loathed Florida. Except for the warm winters, there was nothing I could find to like about it. I had some friends at my new high school, but as a northerner, I didn’t fit in particularly well. Some of the kids even called me awful names because I was friends with a black girl. I found their ignorance sickening. Prior to moving, I had no idea how pervasive and serious racism truly was in other parts of the country. In Florida, I felt isolated both in my home and everywhere else.
At 17, I had a fateful blind date with a man named Dick who was a disc jockey at the local radio station. Dick was rock-and-roll straight through his bones. He was a “bad boy” who loved to gamble and take risks. I was attracted to his bold attitude and ambitious rhetoric, not to mention that I found it very exciting to be dating an older guy—he was 20 years old. His high-profile career, Buick convertible, and smooth talking persuaded me to go steady with him. It didn’t take him long to persuade me to make a much bigger decision, and soon I was pregnant. This, of course, was completely unacceptable, so we had to get married at once.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know I was pregnant until after Dick had begun basic training for military service in Fort Dix, New Jersey. He talked the chaplain into arranging three days off for him to meet me for the wedding. The locals told us that New Jersey had a waiting period for marriages, so we were forced to drive for hours to the state of Maryland. Consequently, my wedding was rather unromantic. No white dress and singing choirs for me. Instead, I got married deep into the night in a stranger’s living room. The ceremony lasted five minutes. I drove home alone, pregnant with both a child and a growing fear.
It turned out that Dick wasn’t as impressive as he made himself out to be. He lost most of his wages gambling on greyhounds and rarely kept a job for more than a few weeks. We never had enough money for the basic necessities. I loved Dick passionately, but I felt deprived and angry. Our marriage was already off to a rocky start.
My second child, Tammi, was a sickly toddler. The repeated ear infections left her with poor hearing, and her eyesight wasn’t much better. When she was four years old, my son asked her to cross the street to grab him a piece of cheese from our house. She was struck by a car. She survived the accident, but the ordeal took a toll on all of us. Her recovery was long, painful, and not to mention, costly.
Dawn, my youngest child, is only about a year younger than Tammi. I was devastated when the doctor told me I was pregnant with her. I already had two children at home I couldn’t afford to feed; how was I supposed to handle a third? The doctor said to me, “Don’t be upset. This child will one day be your greatest blessing.” That sounded like such a load of crap to me.
Despite our tough circumstances, we were able to live in a tenement. My three kids shared a single tiny bedroom. Sometimes, I would put the kids to bed in their snowsuits, or even leave the oven open in the kitchen, because we couldn’t afford to pay for heat.
My mother-in-law started helping by giving me $15 a week to buy groceries. I guarded the money attentively. If I didn’t, my husband would steal it. In the daytime, he would pilfer away our money at the pinball machines and card tables. He hocked my engagement ring and other jewelry if I took it off. I developed an extremely hostile relationship with him. I wasn’t much better with my kids. On one occasion, as I was serving dinner, Dawn was whining. It was the last straw. I smashed a plate of tuna right over her head. Not one of my finer moments.
We divorced after fifteen years of marriage. After that year, I went to work full time. Dick moved to Florida, where he could gamble to his heart’s content.
I remarried in 1980 to a man named Richie. We met in a lounge and had an instant connection. He had no children of his own but welcomed my children and grandchildren into his life with open arms. He wasn’t exactly “my type.” He could be exceedingly direct with people, which sometimes came off as rude but other times I found that endearing. Even though Richie was riddled with arthritis, he had an unparalleled work ethic and never let me down.
Sadly, my marriage with Richie didn’t last as long as I hoped it would. In 2002, after a brief battle, Richie died of lung cancer. At that time, I decided to retire from work. For the next 13 years, I lived alone in my condo with only the occasional visits from my family. Not having the love of Richie and being away from my family brought back the loneliness I’d known in my childhood.
In my 50s I developed diabetes, which ultimately led to horrible neuropathy pain in my feet as well as kidney disease. By the time I turned 70, the pain in my feet was so severe that I sometimes wished I could have my feet amputated. For several years I rarely slept.
The lonely days and painful nights left me tremendously sad. One day, Dawn suggested that I move to Colorado, where she would be near and could take care of me. I was hesitant at first. I had no idea what my life would look like outside Massachusetts. Even so, I went. Following my move, my daughter came to see me nearly every evening when I lived in a retirement home, and my grandchildren, young adults by that time, would swing by frequently.
It was then that the doctor told me that my kidney disease had progressed to stage four. I could have another three to five years on dialysis, or I could have about one year without it. I felt a cold numbness that paralyzed my mind. I asked Dawn what I should do, and she told me that she couldn’t answer, but that she would support me no matter what. I chose to opt out of treatment. Dawn respected my decision and moved me into her house so that she could have more time with me.
As odd as it may sound, I didn’t feel sadness about the prospect of dying. I wasn’t even afraid. For years, I had buried myself under all the loneliness and heartache that I felt, and from it, I suffocated. It wasn’t until this moment that I was able to unearth the truth, that we are never truly alone. I was actually happy that my life was ending this way, in the company of the child who the doctor said would be my greatest blessing. Moving to Colorado to be closer to her was the beginning of a spectacular life. She really was my sunrise. My Dawn.
During that last year, Dawn did everything she could to keep me comfortable. She removed her living room furniture and replaced it with mine, so I would be surrounded by the objects I loved. She took as much time off as she could and sat with me every night after work, but the time soon came when I couldn’t keep my eyes open for a full conversation. Each day I felt heavier, less alert, and more confident that the end was coming.
I said to Dawn, “I can feel my body dying. I don’t have much time.”
“I know,” she said. And we wept. I for her, and she for me.
This is the story of Joyce Kagno DiPaolo
Joyce Kagno DiPaolo was born prematurely to a geriatric mother in the late 1930s. Against the odds, Joyce survived, but her parents had little love left for her. Desperate for the attention her lonely childhood lacked, Joyce was an easy target for a young man who promised her the world. Teen pregnancy, divorce, financial hardships, and life-threatening illnesses left Joyce with a hardened, critical personality. At 75 years old, she abandoned the only home she had ever known to live with her youngest daughter, Dawn. There, in the warm light of her daughter’s living room, her heart softened. She finally received the only gift she had ever wanted: acceptance. Joyce passed away peacefully in October of 2016.
Joyce credited herself with introducing the Boston Pistachio Martini to Colorado Springs.
This story first touched our hearts on September 1, 2018.
| Writer: Amy Joy Kagno | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |