***My grandfather Harold DeRienzo, Sr. died this week at age 89. He did not have COVID – he died peacefully in his sleep from what I believe to be aspiration pneumonia, his body thoroughly ravaged by hit after hit after hit of the terrible luck that strikes young and old alike. He did not have COVID – yet not even his wife of 68 years could visit the long-term care facility in which he spent his final months of life. He did not have COVID – yet COVID has kept our family (as it has countless others) from fully joining in fellowship to shower his bride with love and celebrate his nine decades of life together.
COVID robbed me of the chance to deliver this privately at his funeral this weekend – so instead I am sharing them publicly now. Please share as you see fit, and raise a glass with me in celebration of the lives of those we’ve been stripped of celebrating in-person.***
I remember my grandfather as a mountain of a man, a bruiser in a knockdown, drag-out world filled with other fighters always ready to fight. My most enduring memory of him like this is blurry and unfocused – I’m five or six, it’s winter, and he’s coming through the front door of the modest brick house, on the modest street, in the modest suburb on central Long Island that he and my grandmother proudly called home for half a century. He’s wearing a fedora and an overcoat and is carrying the evening paper, all of which he still did in the 80’s despite the fact that the hats and coats and evening papers of the 50’s had long given way to more modern style. But they were his style, this was his fight, and he owned it.
As a child we’d visit my grandparents on weekends, and I remember waking up early with him and my father to drive into town and get bagels and black-and-white cookies. We’d play baseball in the empty lot across the street, basketball in the backyard, and stay up late watching movies. On Thanksgiving we’d have family dinner at 3pm, just early enough to justify revisiting the turkey with a salt bagel in hand sometime around 10 and in-between watching Rocky III and Rocky IV. And whenever possible, he would ensure the songs of Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra would fill the house, wafting forward into the kitchen from the stereo in the living room he’d built out back from brick. Unsurprisingly, “My Way” was always his favorite.
The second most enduring memory I have of my grandfather was from our road trip to North Carolina. I needed two drivers – one for the U-Haul and one for my car – to get me and my stuff from my parents’ house in Massachusetts to North Carolina for medical school. My father offered to drive the U-Haul, and he convinced my grandfather to tag along and keep me company in my car. My father made ridiculously good time – Grandpa Hal and I stopped every two hours to eat or pee, and we decided that our approach (while markedly slower) was much more humane.
For the lion’s share of the twelve hours it took us to make the drive south of the Mason-Dixon line to Durham my grandfather told stories. I’d heard almost every one of them before, but that never mattered. He told stories about how he hadn’t finished college but went to work as a bricklayer and fought his way over forty years into leadership at Lehrer McGovern Bovis. He told stories of working as a young foreman and fighting to earn the respect of older crewmen, of an ever-present boss named “Raimo,” of becoming a super, meeting my grandmother, moving to the suburbs, and building hospitals. He stories told tales of a man who was demanding and exacting, because that’s what the world demanded of a man who fought his way from laying bricks to leading teams, from wearing an orange hardhat to earning a white one. His profession demanded perfection – anything less meant you just didn’t care.
He retired when I was still young, and as I grew up I watched the same demanding, exacting will that wrought brick after brick into perfect rows across New York train itself instead on his front lawn’s blades of grass, on the hedges that wouldn’t dare bend a tenth of a degree past 90, and on the Christmas lights that year after year feared flaming out. My grandfather had more to give and many rounds left to fight, but by the time I was old enough to really get to know him the lawn and the hedges and the Christmas lights were all he really had left to battle.
Hemingway is often quoted has having written “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken parts.” Most people though leave out the rest of the passage, which comes from A Farewell to Arms. It reads “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
In my grandfather’s case the world was in no special hurry. First it broke his innards – an abdominal catastrophe that brought him near death some years ago. Then it broke his skin with cancerous lesions that would never heal. Then it broke each and every vertebrae in his thoracic spine, crushing him like a palm frond from six ramrod-straight feet to a hunched-over five and a half.
My last memories of him are in this shorter, more compact state, having been whisked from his strapping brick home into assisted living a few years before his death. A mountain of a man cut in half who still insisted on standing to meet me and my bride the three of his plethora of great-grandchildren we call our own. He was down but not out, beaten but not broken, a fighter mowed down by pain whose corner man just couldn’t throw in the towel.
My grandfather was not a perfect man – none of us are. But his is the story of a man who the world could not break. And so, as Henry whispered to Catherine, it took him anyway, as it will ultimately take us all.
But I will forever remember his imperfect soul as a man whose lot in life first forced him to fight, and whose chosen path ultimately kept him forever fighting.
I didn’t get to see him or speak to him in the months before he died – but if I had, as I am right now, I would have said “Grandpa Hal, the bell’s finally rung, the fight’s over. And you won.”