We met on Franklin Street in the Heights section of Jersey City. It was the night before I moved to Nashville, and my father had asked me to meet him at the club where he frequently played cards with his friends from the old country. We each had an espresso, and then we took a walk. Not far from the club, he handed me a thousand dollars and said he wished he could give me more. He told me to be careful. He hugged me. As I walked back to my car, I tried to control my breathing and hold back the tears. Something was ending, and something was beginning, but there was much I was leaving unfinished.
My father wasn’t endorsing this move. In the months leading up to it, he told me several times how stupid I was. He couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t until I reminded him that he was around my age, twenty-six, when he left Italy to find a better life in America. He had traveled across an ocean to another continent; I was merely moving south, about 900 miles. I too was trying to find a better life, and maybe some success as a singer-songwriter in the process.
I figured the best way to handle my father was to avoid him.
He came around, but his new understanding couldn’t make up for the past twenty-six years. My father had problems with gambling, but he worked long hours, and to him that was enough: as long as there was a roof over our heads, clothes on our bodies, and food on the table, he was doing his job, never mind that he was also verbally abusive and physically violent. I was ten years old the first time I heard my mother mention divorce. (She waited another nine years before finally getting one.) My brother dealt with him by fighting back, and my sister alternated between taunting him and taking the blows, but I figured the best way to handle my father was to avoid him. I retreated to my books and my records and created an alternate world in my head.
My first year in Nashville was difficult. When you’re Italian-American and you’ve lived your entire life in northeast New Jersey, Nashville in those days could be a lonely place. Gigs were hard to come by, and money was tight. I had moved to Nashville with my girlfriend, and our relationship was falling apart. I was out of my element. Who I was, and where I was from, quickly went from being something I took for granted to something I was in danger of losing.
A year later, in late 1999, my Uncle Giuseppe passed away in Italy. My father hadn’t been home in fifteen years, and I convinced him he needed to go back. I even told him that I would join him. He surprised me by suggesting a longer trip: instead of going directly to Pisticci in the south of Italy, we would start our trip in the northern city of Milan and ride the train all the way down. He thought it would make the visit more worthwhile for me if we saw Venice, Florence, and Rome and visited all the tourist stops along the way. It was a risky proposition. The entire trip would take almost three weeks.
Each meal was a chance for me to explain who I was and what I cared about.
The ups and downs and triumphs and tribulations of that trip are a whole other story, one that I fortunately detailed each day in a journal. While we certainly had our fights—he was miserable during most of the time we spent north of Rome—we were also forced, through close quarters in hotel rooms and on trains, to get to know each other. Each meal was a chance for me to explain who I was and what I cared about and what I hoped to accomplish. Each walk in a city square was a chance for my father to tell me about not only what frustrated him but also what made him proud—things he had never said to me before.
Our arrival in Pisticci was triumphant. I visited with my uncles and cousins and got to see my father in a completely different way, on the very streets where he had grown up. An airline strike on the day we were to depart gave us one more perfect evening to walk and talk in the Adriatic Sea town of Bari.
Everything changed after that trip. Over the next seven years, we talked often on the phone, and he even came to visit me one Thanksgiving. I never achieved great songwriting success, but I continued to perform, traveling back to New York and New Jersey for several gigs each year. In 2004, he came to see me play—for the first time ever—at a show in Asbury Park. His only complaint was that I didn’t play longer.
Everything changed after that trip.
More than eighty percent of lung cancers are already in Stage IV when they’re discovered. My father’s, diagnosed in September 2007, was no exception. I flew up to New Jersey as soon as I heard, and together my sister and I jumped into action, making appointments, reading up on cancer, and mentally preparing ourselves, and our father, for the fight ahead. But the fight didn’t last long. By early November, he was moved into intensive care, where he slipped into a coma. Forty-eight hours later, with me holding one hand and my sister holding the other, he passed away.
In a way, I had been preparing for my father’s death for almost ten years. There was nothing I needed to say to him that he didn’t know. There was nothing he needed to say to me. Years earlier, we had taken a chance to love one another, to build a new relationship because we both knew we couldn’t change the past. We succeeded.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Joe Pagetta. All rights reserved. Joe Pagetta is Media Relations Manager at Nashville Public Television and the Nashville Film Festival.