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Family First, Right Now

by on April 04, 2017 5:00 AM

Pick up your phone or grab a pen. Your task is to call or write to that relative you've been meaning to talk to forever and keep finding excuses for not getting it done. It's time to stop talking about organizing that family reunion or picnic and just make it happen.

No more "woulda, coulda, shoulda." Just do it. Tell them how much you miss them and catch up on all the funny family stories even if it's the 100th time you have heard them. In this technology driven world, sending a text or email makes your job even simpler. But that's still not the same as calling, writing a heartfelt letter, or even going to see that special someone if travel is possible.

You have heard this before. This is nothing new. Most of us have procrastinated when it comes time to follow through on the well-intentioned message to that special relative or an old friend that might as well be family. That is why I am encouraging you stop and do it before it's too late. Before you miss your chance.

Family means a lot to me, both on the Battista and Smith sides. My childhood memories growing up in Pittsburgh were special because every Sunday we either ate a family dinner at Big Grandma's or at Nana's, with all our aunts and uncles and all my cousins. Christmas and New Year's with the Battista family were absolutely the best. I don't think I could ever explain just how special that time was and, oh, how I miss those meals, card games, conversations, and of course, the family stories.

In the past few months we have lost three close family members. My father-in-law Francis "Smitty" Smith (Penn State Class of 1949) passed at the grand old age of 96 back in October. We are still having a hard time not seeing him around every day.

It was a lot tougher hearing the news of the passing of my 46-year old first cousin Frankie Battista. He was washing his car back on one of those unseasonably warm February days and told my Aunt Joanie he wasn't feeling good and was going to take a snooze before they packed up and headed to see his sister Cheryl in Ohio. He fell asleep and never woke up.

I got the news at home from my mother. The first reaction was "no way." Frankie was a weightlifter who kept himself in great physical shape. He was a high school and college football player. He was a gentle giant. But he also suffered from bipolar disorder. His battle with this terrible mental disorder was largely private. I remember him from all the good times. He loved being with the family.

I thought of my Aunt Joanie immediately. I can't tell you the number of personal talks I had with my aunt growing up. She was someone I could confide in when I didn't want to talk to my parents. She was always there for me. She was always there for her son. She was the one with the strength to help Frankie during the tough times.

At his funeral, my cousin Cheryl (Penn State Class of 1986) delivered a eulogy that had to be awfully tough. But my "Cuz" is one tough lady and she was spot on. I asked if it was OK to share a part of that in this column. Both my Aunt and Cousin didn't hesitate. Cheryl was poised and her eulogy poignant.

We don't know why Frankie passed away. We believe that God chose Feb. 16 as the date that the torment and struggle that comes with mental illness would be replaced by the peacefulness and rest that comes with eternal life

We shared a happy childhood going to Big Grandma's house every Sunday to eat dinner and spend time with aunts, uncles and cousins. Frankie was a good friend and confidant, and a loving uncle to Troy and Tanner, teaching them things that Ray and I were unwilling or unable to teach them. We shared many good times together. This past month, we had lunch together in Cambridge, Ohio, the halfway point between Columbus and Pittsburgh, where we exchanged our most precious cargo, our mother.

My mom showed undying and unconditional love for Frank. He would not have lived as long or as comfortably as he did without her in his life. A researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, who asked for a sample of Frankie's brain tissue for research related to bipolar disorder, contacted my mom. She consented without hesitation. The results of this research will be part of Frank's legacy, as will the impact that he had on the upbringing of Troy and Tanner.

When Cheryl's son Tanner followed her with his own memories, I lost it. I haven't had a cry like that in a long time. Perhaps, the tears flowed even more so because I missed Frankie at Christmastime. I hadn't talked to him for months and now I never would get that chance again.

On March 25 I got another one of those unexpected calls from my mother. I have to be honest. I thought when I heard her voice trembling she was going to tell me it was about my 85-year-old father. Instead, she still delivered devastating news. My Aunt Mary Lou, my father's oldest sister had passed away at 81.

This time I felt a little angry after I hung up the phone and then I just lost it right then and there. I had surprised my aunt in early December with a pre-Christmas visit with my father and my youngest son. She looked and sounded better than I had seen her in a few years. It would be my last time to get to hug her. At Christmas, for whatever lame reason, we didn't get to see my aunt.

My aunt also had her share of health challenges. She too battled a health issue that people just don't like to talk about. She lived her whole life with epilepsy. But she was one tough lady and she did her best to live a normal life. If that weren't enough of a struggle, she then lost a lung to cancer. Doctors didn't think she'd live that long. They didn't know my aunt.

When her family needed something, she was there. Our family meant everything to her. I had a special bond with my Aunt "Mae-Mae."I was her Little "Jo-Jo" to the very end.

So for the second time in five weeks we found our family back at a funeral again. Mary Lou's daughter, our cousin, Anita Cook, and her family were just devastated. This time my cousin Anne Fiore-Sizer delivered the eulogy. Just like our cousin Cheryl, she captured the essence of our departed family member perfectly.

As we reflect on what she meant to each of us here, not only will she be remembered as a loving sister, mother, aunt, grandmother, great-aunt, great-grandmother and friend, she will be profoundly remembered as a survivor (in more ways than one), also as the toughest, the smartest, most generous, most feisty, most protective, most loving, most caring, the most challenged, yet determined and of course, the most sought-after family baker. Her tatalucci cookies, red velvet and pineapple upside-down cakes were extraordinary.

As shocking and unexpected as this news came, especially so close after Frankie's passing, these are the moments we can't help asking...'How could God let this happen?' My mom showed me her Living Faith prayer for Sunday, March 25, the day after Aunt Mary Lou passed, called Healing Hands. This message was to explain that God's hands are present to make the works he has done visible to us through many forms, such as caring nurses, doctors, the love and support from family and friends and in many unexplained ways all around us.

As I had recalled many memories over these last few days, I can tell you what stands out the most for me and I believe for many here, was her strength and perseverance. She taught me those skills at a very young age, when I needed to be strong, to stand up for what you believe in. To never, ever give up. She comforted me when I needed comforting, always there for me. For those that recall the sitcom, 'The Golden Girls,' we lovingly referred to having our own family's version of Golden Girls featuring Grandma Anna, Aunt Nee and Aunt Mary Lou. So as we continue to reflect and mourn our loss, let us remember all the wonderful memories, special occasions, visits and times shared and find comfort in knowing that our family's most precious Golden Girls are now all together again, reunited in Heaven.... Rest in Peace Aunt Mary Lou, until we meet again. Your 'Belle' and all present, will miss and love you beyond words...

So stop whatever you are doing right now. Reach out to a member of your family, talk to them and tell them you love them. Family first, right now.

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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