On Tuesday, March 11, 1997, around 9:30 p.m., Louis Zammarelli, my 79-year-old grandfather, or Pop from here on, suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. It's as nasty as it sounds. Only 10% of men his age make it through the operation. It did not look good. This story, though, is not about a hellish night of prayers and anxiety. Thanks to the skills of Dr. Michael Prior at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence, RI, he made it through surgery and once his condition stabilized, the prognosis was good. I was elated and made plans to visit him.
I've played the Good Samaritan many times. Relatives, friends, and relatives of friends need to see friendly faces. They were often recovering from a bout with the flu or from a minor operation. I brought magazines or crossword puzzles to help them pass the time or did a little routine about hospital food, the smell, you know, the usual suspects.
These were not life threatening times. And this visit wasn't to be any different. Having never visited the ICU unit before, I thought it was funny to pick up the telephone and ask permission to enter. Upon entering, I went toward room 14. Pop was hooked up to a million tubes, but seemed to be comfortable. I walked over to his bed and someone told him that I had entered the room.
His eyes opened, clouded with anesthesia and who knows what other drugs. He writhed in agony, and he pulled at the tube jammed down his throat feeding him air. His eyes turned toward me. These were the eyes that twinkled with a love of life and a great compassion for all he met. Except now they reflected his pain, fear and confusion. I began to choke back my tears. It's an image that would haunt me many times over. My sadness suddenly subsided though. For some reason, our 1950's Ford tractor came into my mind.
It was now twenty-five years ago. Pop was driving the tractor while my sisters and I, who lived next door, would take turns riding in his lap. Images came fast and furious. Pop using the back hoe to dig a hole for a septic tank or new horse corral. Pop using the back hoe to accidentally knock down the back porch or tear some vinyl siding off the house. I sometimes thought they should revoke his license. It was his pride and joy and I cannot remember a week going by without him tinkering with or talking about that tractor.
After every snowstorm for almost four decades, Pop would trudge outside with his trusty pipe in his mouth, mount his tractor, and plow his 200 foot plus driveway as well as my parents' and his neighbors' driveways. He would pile some of the snow extra high so we could sled and take refuge when the snowballs began to fly.
On some snowy days, I would stop by my dad's restaurant where Pop was cooking, his other great love. I told him that since he was busy I would go home and plow. His eyes would twinkle and with mock gravity, he'd tell me to "stay away from that tractor." My father was just barely allowed to drive the tractor. There was no way I was going to be allowed behind the wheel.
I came back to the present. There was snow on the ground. "Hey Pop," I said, "since you're laid up here, I guess I'll have to plow." For a brief moment, his body stopped twitching, and he stopped clawing at the myriad of tubes that caused his discomfort. His head turned toward me. The twinkle came and a smile crossed his face from ear to ear. Then, just as quickly, his eyes clouded in confusion again and his body jerked uncontrollably.
As I said, it is an image that haunts me to this day. That image though is overridden by another image. That brief connection told me the man I knew was still with us and would be for some time. There is no amount of distance, pain, or mind-numbing drug that will ever overcome the love shared between my grandfather and me. Get well soon, Pop.
Update 22 July 97
I wrote this article originally in March but never submitted it. Pop's condition continually improved. He got back into his routine and waited for the day he could cook and drive his tractor again. On July 18, a portion of weakened bowel tissue gave way. Five hours of emergency surgery could not repair the damage. Pop died. I am sad.
This website was a great source of information and support during this time. Please e-mail me with comments or questions about AAA.
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