Still don’t know anyone who died of COVID-19? Let me introduce you to some people.

9 Feb

In January 2021 both of my parents died within two weeks of each other in the suburbs of Toronto, Ontario. My mother, aged 86, and my father, aged 82, lived together for over 53 years. In her final years, my mother was disabled. She had severe dementia, she was unable to walk, she couldn’t see, she was practically deaf. My father insisted on caring for her himself, fearing that she would have died in a nursing home. He was probably right.

In the early hours of December 29, 2020, my father fell while helping my mother to the bathroom. He didn’t call anyone for help. The next morning, when one of my mother’s personal support workers came to help my mother with her morning routine, she found my father struggling to make my mother’s breakfast. His knee was purple and twice its usual size. She called my sister, who lived nearby.

My sister and brother-in-law went to my parents’ apartment. In the meantime, they let me know what was happening, and I stayed on the phone with my dad while he waited for help.

My father was taken to a hospital in Toronto, where he was told that his kneecap was broken and that he needed surgery. He was then moved to nearby Brampton because of a COVID outbreak in the surgical wing of the hospital. My sister was left scrambling to take care of my mom and her own family. I was unable to travel from New York to Toronto because of COVID.

My father languished in pain, waiting for surgery, for two days. The number of procedures was greatly reduced because of COVID. He finally had surgery just before midnight on December 31. He spent January 1 recovering nicely. Then on January 2, we were told that the COVID test he had been given before his surgery had come back positive. Unbeknownst to us, he had undergone the entire trauma of the week while dealing with COVID. That same day, he had a heart attack.

By January 3, my father was deteriorating rapidly. Fluid was filling his lungs. He could not get enough oxygen. The treatment he was given to reduce the fluid was damaging his kidneys. My sister was able to go visit him, briefly. We were told that he may not survive the day.

But he did survive. January 4 and 5 went by. On January 6, we had a video visit with him and while he was unable to talk, he was responsive and engaged. January 7 went by. He continued to fight. Then on the morning of January 8, he died suddenly.

That same day, my mother’s blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels. She too was hospitalized. On January 9, we discovered that the COVID test she had had at the beginning of the week was positive. She was asymptomatic, but she too was deteriorating. She had stopped eating and drinking. It was clear that she was reaching the end of her battle with dementia, and that ending just happened to coincide with the COVID-19 pandemic–and with the loss of my father. We did video calls with her every day or two. She seemed peaceful, but she was unresponsive. She had stopped talking. When she passed the ten-day COVID window, she was moved, with our permission, to the palliative care ward, where she was found lifeless just after midnight on January 23.

What follows is the eulogy I wrote for my parents. Because of COVID-19, I was not able to attend their funeral in person. My sister read it on my behalf.

Good morning, everyone, and thank you for being here with us, whether in Toronto or around the world. I know this is a difficult time for everyone because of the pandemic, and my family and I sincerely appreciate you wanting to participate in this farewell to our parents. I can’t describe the sadness that I feel for not being there in person, but I am watching with the rest of you from my home in New York.

I’d like to do a brief reflection on the saints we have chosen for our parents’ prayer cards. Most of the members of our family are Catholic, including our parents, and even though I myself am not religious by any conventional standard, I’ve come to find wisdom and guidance by drawing on many different faiths. And in that spirit, I do find inspiration and insight in the lives of some of the Christian saints, including the two we’ve chosen to represent our parents. For my mother, we chose Saint Lucy, Santa Lucia, the saint whom my father’s mother and I are named after. A young woman born on the cusp the fourth century in Siracusa, in Sicily, Lucia was born into a noble family. A Christian, Lucia wished to devote her life to God and to serving the poor. However, her mother promised Lucia’s hand in marriage to a wealthy young man from a Pagan family. Lucia persisted in her wish to give away her wealth to the poor, an act which led her fiancé to denounce her to the local governor. As a punishment, the governor attempted to force her into entering a brothel. When the governor’s guards came to take her away, it is said that they could not move her. They tried, even with oxen, but she could not be budged. They then attempted to set her on fire, but she would not burn, and in the end, they killed her by stabbing her in the neck. Later accounts of her torture included the detail that they gouged out her eyes, the detail for which she became most famous, and over time, she became the patron saint of eyesight.

Like Lucia, my mom was very generous, and she remained resolute in wanting to be productive and independent. She was also very strong. For various reasons, she didn’t have the opportunity to go to school like she would have wanted, and was unable to get to high school. When she was about 10 years old, she suffered a trauma which caused her left retina to almost fully detach, and so she grew up with very little eyesight in her left eye. Still, like Lucia, she was intelligent and enterprising. She learned how to sew, and as a young woman, she began working as a seamstress and a sewing teacher, running her own business out of her family home.

It just so happened that among our mother’s students were some young women from the Di Rosa family: they were my father’s sisters. And it was through them that my parents met and fell in love. They were married on April 13, 1967, and they had the two of us, Lucy and Elena. In the early 1970s, our parents decided to leave Italy to pursue better opportunities for us. This was when we moved to Toronto, and very slowly, they started their own jewelry business. At the time, our father already knew how to speak English, but our mother could not speak a word of it. It must have been a very scary thing for a woman in her 30s to move so far away from her family back then, but my mother handled it the way she handled everything: with strength and determination.

Over the years, my mother continued to work with my father, to raise us, and to care for her own mother, after our grandfather died. The problems with her eyes grew more serious. She suffered from macular degeneration and glaucoma, but she persevered through all the growing pains and changes that our family went through. When she was in her early 50s, approximately the age I am now, our family moved back to Italy, to Pordenone, and then back to Toronto in 1988. At that point, we really started from scratch, and they started a new jewelry business, Blue Point, which Elena and David continue to manage today. Our mother continued to go to work, taking public transit on her own when she needed to, and to take care of us. Slowly our family grew, and there was a new generation to take care of: her only granddaughter, Isabella. Unfortunately, her eyesight continued to decline. Five and a half years ago, she suffered a tragic fall, and dealt with that, and dementia, and blindness, and hearing loss, but her spirit continued to be a source of strength for us until the end.

And now moving on to my dad, Girolamo. We chose to represent him with the saint he’s named after, Saint Jerome, San Girolamo. Girolamo was born in a Roman colony in Central Europe, coincidentally, at around the same time as Santa Lucia. He was very studious, he knew multiple languages, and he is known for having translated large parts of the Bible into Latin, which opened up the door for the Bible to be read in the modern languages of the world. He was also said to have been extremely courageous. There’s a legend that one day he and his fellow monks came upon a lion, and that while his peers ran away, he stayed with the lion and helped him with an injury to his paw, which resulted in the lion being tamed.

 Once again, my dad had some key things in common with San Girolamo. When he was a young man, he insisted on wanting to continue his education. This may seem like common thing to us today, but for him, at the time, it was not. He was expected, as the oldest son of eight children, and the brother of four sisters who, according to the mentality of the time, needed to be taken care of financially, to go to work. But he didn’t settle for the conventions of the day, and he finished not only his secondary education, but continued on to study at the University of Naples – something unheard of for someone in his environment. While he was there, he learned many languages, both modern and ancient, and I’m sure some of you had heard him quote from some of those, including ancient Greek and Latin. In fact, like Girolamo the saint, he did occasionally work as a translator.

Although he left university before he could complete his degree, my dad was a life-long learner. He learned how to run a business all on his own, and was very successful at it. He loved to read and he was very curious. When he was in his 50s, he decided one day that he wanted to retire to Costa Rica (a country which he never ended up visiting, by the way), but he studied the country for a while and decided it was a good place to be and set his mind on learning Spanish, which he did. Eventually, he and my mom started going regularly to the Dominican Republic, and by spending extended periods of time there, he actually became fluent in Spanish. I spent quite a bit of time with them there, as well, and have a lot of great memories from there, including riding the guaguas with my dad, the small vans that serve as public transportation there, and that most tourists would never dare to use. We rode the guagua to get groceries, from one town to the next, sitting beside school kids and commuters during hot, bumpy rides that were part of a big adventure that all came from the fact that my father had an insatiable desire to learn.

As an older man, my father learned many things that as a younger man his culture didn’t give him room to learn – and he excelled at them. When he was in his fifties, he learned to take care of a toddler, becoming my niece Isabella’s favorite babysitter when Elena and David took a larger role in the family business. When he was in his sixties and seventies, he learned how to take care of the entire family, becoming an enthusiastic and talented cook, managing a lot of the household chores, and then becoming my mother’s primary caregiver as she was less and less able to care for herself. In fact, I should note that my father is really the only person who ever cooked for me in my adult years, on any regular kind of basis.

I could go on for much longer, but I will spare you, and my sister, who has been kind enough to read this on my behalf. In closing, I want to remind all of us of the traits that my parents are best remembered for, and that I will always treasure and be grateful for: their generosity, their determination, their warmth, their hospitality, and their characteristically Neapolitan sense of humor. They may be gone, but I know that none of us will ever forget them.

Before I end, I want to say a few words about COVID-19, since it is the reason why my father died, it is one of the issues that my mother dealt with in the end, and it is the reason why I’m not there with you today. What happened to my family is a tragedy, and it’s very personal. But I am very aware that it’s part of a larger suffering that we’re all going through, and I think we need to remember this period, always, to remind ourselves that life is precious, and that we are all connected.

I’d like to close with a verse from Hamilton, a soundtrack to a musical that I love and that I have played repeatedly over the last year to keep myself motivated during the pandemic. It was a soundtrack I shared with my dad the last time I was with him and my mother in September, when I was last able to travel to Canada. The verse goes like this:

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes

I know this is what my parents would have liked us to do, to keep living, and to rise when we fall, and that they would want us to keep striving to live up to the example they set for us.

“Is the President Making Racial Tensions Worse?”

6 Jun

I’ve seen various media outlets asking this week whether Trump’s response to George Floyd “made racial tensions worse” or asking “should we be afraid of what happens next?” Let’s remember that this man started his presidential campaign in 2015 with these words:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Immediately after the election of 2016, I remember three incidents in my area in Brooklyn:

1. In Brooklyn Heights, someone went into Adam Yauch Park and spray painted swastikas all over the playground equipment.

2. A woman (white, I believe) got punched in the face by a nearby patron at a restaurant in Cobble Hill for expressing distress at the election results during a private conversation.

3. While walking in Fort Greene, I was witness to a conversation among a group of African American people who were saying, “Now everyone is going to know what we’ve been dealing with.”

I also recall that a few months after this, an interracial couple was beaten in Coney Island by two white men. They were called n**gers, and they were threatened with lynching. I didn’t see it happen, but the attack was reported in several outlets.

These are just local anecdotes, and I can’t begin begin to list the hateful, racist words and actions of this man. If you feel you need to see a more substantial catalogue, this piece from The Atlantic is pretty compelling.

Trump did not create racism in this country. And removing Trump will not remove racism. But racism has been his primary organizing principle from the beginning, and he has the most powerful political position not just in the United States, but in the world. Let’s stop asking questions, let’s stop analyzing his words, and focus on what we do about that.

Are You White? Do You Think Racism Is Not A Problem? Read On

3 Jun

I grew up in a Catholic environment. When I was a kid, we learned at school that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. To put these notions into the context of racism, a sin of commission would be, say, to put the weight of your body on a person’s neck until they are dead. An act of omission would be to watch this horror happen in front of you, and to do nothing about it.

Now, I’m not religious in any traditional sense, and the word “sin” is not in my everyday vocabulary. But I do think that if it applies anywhere, it applies to racism. And if you still think that “sins” of racism are isolated incidents, or if you think that racism has nothing to with you or the environments you are in, I’d like to invite you to consider that casual, racist behavior happens all around you, every day. I’d like to invite you to consider that we are guilty of it ourselves, perhaps without knowing it. I’m going to give you a couple of examples I’ve observed in my life to illustrate this point. And I’d like to invite you to consider that these patterns help to uphold the racist systems of which we are all a part.

1. A couple of years ago, I was walking with a friend in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. The neighborhood is pretty mixed culturally, but it’s predominantly white. My friend and I had gone to a nearby park, and we were going home. I could walk back to my own apartment, but my friend lived farther away, and he decided to take a cab to get home. (Let me pause here and say that I am a 5’2″ white woman, and my friend is a 6’1″ African American man.) Cabs aren’t extremely common in my neighborhood, but there is a stretch where they’re pretty easy to find, so we walked towards that spot together, split up at an intersection, and both waited for cabs.

It just so happened that a cab came my way first, and so I hailed it, and the driver stopped. My friend came towards me, we said goodbye, and he put his hand on the door handle to get in. Just as he did that, the driver sped away.

My friend looked shocked, and I was immediately suspicious. Could this have been a coincidence, that when the driver saw that my friend was the passenger and not I, he decided to leave? Sure. And you might be thinking, “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” OK. We didn’t say anything about it to each other. We split up again and looked for another cab.

A second cab came by, again towards me. I hailed it. The driver stopped. My friend walked up again. We said goodbye. He went to get in. The driver took off.

It took us three tries before my friend could get into a taxi to get home.

2. This week, after a disaster of a speech from the Rose Garden of the White House, followed by the violent removal of peaceful protestors outside that White House so that the President could walk to St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible for a photo-op, a curfew was imposed on New York City. As the evening wore on, I was more and more alarmed about what was seeming to me like the imposition of martial law, and the creation of an environment that was becoming even more distressing for all of us, and more dangerous for African Americans. I spoke on the phone with a friend about the situation for a long time, and then I decided to go downstairs and check on my door person, a lovely man who has expressed to me how upset he is at the number of people suffering from COVID-19. I’ve been concerned about him and everyone who works in my building, you know, the “essential workers,” who continue to risk their lives so that they can look after  our homes. (Note: they are all people of color, and this particular individual is an African American man.) I went downstairs and found him sitting at the front desk. “Matthew,” I said (not his real name), “there’s a curfew beginning at 11 o’clock. How are you getting home?” (It was after 10, and his shift ends at 11.) He told me he was taking the subway. I asked him if anyone from the building, the property manager, the board, had talked to him about the curfew. He said no. He said no one in the building who had passed through even mentioned this issue to him.  We spoke for quite a while. I told him I would contact the board and the property manager immediately. I went back to my apartment, and I emailed them, asking what our plan was for the people who work here who have to travel during the curfew. I mentioned the person who was there on site specifically, and  asked: “How can we protect him if he is stopped by the police? What is our plan for the duration of the curfew?”

I sent the email and then grabbed a business card of mine, wrote on the back: “Owner”, and the address of the building, and went back downstairs. I said, “Matthew, who are you supposed to call if you have an emergency?” He told me he was supposed to call another staff member from the building who is currently living in our basement during the week because his commute is too difficult, and he’s concerned about COVID (!). While this other staff member is 100% reliable and I have no issue with him being in charge, it didn’t seem fair to them, or sensible from the point of view of “the authorities,” that there wasn’t an owner or manager taking responsibility in case of emergency. So I told Matthew that if he was stopped by the police, he should tell them where he works, and use me as a contact.  He told me that he should be fine, and I didn’t want to be overbearing. I said goodbye, and told him I’d check on him the following day.

Checking my email back upstairs, I saw one, very short response to my email, which basically said that essential workers are exempt from the curfew, and that our staff are all essential workers. The section of the executive order that spelled this out was also quoted in the email. I am guessing that eight to ten people received the email, but this was the only response I got.

When I read this response, I was fuming. I wasn’t worried about breaking the rules of the curfew. I was worried about the fact that we were asking people who protect and take care of us, who have black and brown skin, to move around during a curfew and in an environment where violence towards them is so easily inflicted by police.

I was more angry than I can describe, and I decided to pause before answering. I now believe this may have been a mistake on my part, and I believe it was also a mistake to not offer to get Matthew a ride home that night. But let’s move on.

The next day, I greeted Matthew and asked, “How did it go last night?” He told me that the overnight door person was stopped by the police and told rudely to get indoors when he told them he was going to work and pointed to our building (which was in view). They then trailed him in their car. He told me that one of the other owners of the building  came down and got Matthew a car. And he said that after that, the property manager had told him that he should take a car home every night and that the building would pay.

I’m guessing (although I can’t be sure, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter) that it was only when I sent that email that others realized the situation we were putting our staff in. And I’m not saying that I’m righteous, or that my neighbors are evil. But I am saying that our collective disregard for the safety and well-being of other human beings, who have black and brown skin, is a problem that inflicts damage every day. And until we can be more mindful of the actions that actively cause this damage, the “sins of commission,” and the thoughtlessness and neglect that lead to it, the “sins of omission,” we will never get out of the patterns of violence we are in, and we can never achieve justice for all.



On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

6 Jan
On the Christian calendar, today is the Epiphany, which celebrates the story of a group of kings who bow down not to power, force, or wealth, but to a baby born in a shack because his parents were too poor to get a safe place to rest. The kings were confused, but they read the signs and knew they were in the right place. 

US Navy v. Lighthouse: A Parable

24 Jan

I recently heard a parable that apparently has been floating around for decades. Over the years, people have tried to pass it off as a true story, but as far as I can tell, it never happened.

The parable goes like this:

On a dark, starless night, a US naval ship encountered another party off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Their exchange was as follows:

US Ship: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”

Canadians: “We recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

US Ship: “This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.”

Canadians: “No. I say again, you divert your course.”


Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

Me Too

16 Oct

I’ve never been raped and my heart breaks for the millions of women (and men, and children) who have. But have I ever been physically assaulted or otherwise invaded and intimidated and threatened by men? Several times.

Here’s one story.

Several years ago, I hosted my first big fundraiser. I was very nervous and working hard to manage the event’s many moving parts while trying to remain sociable. Before the start of the event, when the venue was very quiet and the lights were up, I said “hello” to the manager and chatted with him. I didn’t know him well but I had met once or twice before, as he was a friend of some of my colleagues. At a certain point in the evening, we had a couple of people from our organization speak briefly, and then we had a performance planned. By that time, the venue was full of people, and it was difficult to move from one place to another. I was preparing for the speakers when I realized that the microphone they were going to use wasn’t working. In the meantime, the performers were ready to go.

I struggled to move through the crowd to the bar. The manager was standing behind it. The speakers and performers were waiting and wondering where I was. I tried to get the manager’s attention, but he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the crowd. So I edged my way behind the bar, hoping that if I got closer, he would hear me and help me.

When he saw me behind the bar, he charged at me. He grabbed me by both arms and lurched forward, forcing me back several steps. The heel of my shoe got caught in the mat on the floor of the bar and I fell to the side, slamming my upper arm into the bar.

I can’t describe how shaken I was, physically and emotionally. While he was shoving me back, I screamed at him multiple times: “I’m managing this event!” Apparently, he hadn’t recognized me and thought I was — I don’t know — robbing the place? It seemed absurd to me then, and it seems absurd to me now, because, as I’ve said, I had met him before, and had spoken with him at the beginning the evening. But whatever was going on, he felt it was wrong that I had stepped behind his bar, and so he felt he needed to remove me by force, without a question, without a second thought. In fact, he continued to make the point to me that I shouldn’t be behind his bar, even as he clued in to who I was and why I was looking for him.

I was so angry at him. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I tried to transition quickly from, “Why did you do that to me?” to “I need your help,” as the crowd was getting restless and my colleagues were waiting. I somehow got my message across and he got the microphone working. The evening went on.

The event was very lively and lasted for several hours. But the venue, as crowded as it was, was small, and I struggled to stay there and engage with guests while avoiding him. At first, he offered me ice for my arm (he was more aware than I was at the time, of how hard I had slammed into the bar). I refused his offers. Later in the evening, he insisted on giving me shots of tequila. I repeatedly turned him down, but he wouldn’t leave me alone until I took one and clinked glasses with him.

At the end of the evening, after everyone was gone, my colleagues said goodbye to him. At the time, I felt I had to keep up a façade and went to say goodbye to him, as well. But I was seething. He hugged me. He may have kissed me. I don’t remember.

The next morning, I had one of the worst bruises I’ve ever seen on my upper arm. It was large. It was black and red, with pooled blood under my skin. It was painful. It stayed for months. I told one of my colleagues what had happened. But I never told anyone else, including the people who worked with me who were his friends. Do you know why? Because I believed at the time that they would tell me I was overreacting about him, and laugh at me for being so sensitive. And if that happened, I wouldn’t have been able to keep working with them. So I stayed quiet.

Day 9,063

1 Sep

On November 8, 1992, I was 24 – to be exact, I had been alive for 9,062 days. I was lying in a coma at Toronto General Hospital. In the weeks leading up to that day, my liver had stopped working. The liver failure had happened so quickly that I was not aware that it was happening. In a matter of days, I had stopped thinking coherently, I had become weaker and weaker, and I had lost consciousness. My only chance for survival was a liver transplant.

Patients on transplant lists typically wait months or years before they receive an organ. Many die waiting. After I was admitted to the hospital in early November, my doctors had given me only a few days to live. But on November 8, 1992, against all odds, a liver became available for me. I was prepped for surgery and I received a new liver.

As you may have guessed, the surgery was a success. Within a day or so, I was wheeled out of ICU and my journey back to life began.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. I received my transplant 9,063 days ago. As of September 1, 2017, I have lived longer on this Earth with a liver that someone donated to me, than I survived with my own. Everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve accomplished since that day has been possible thanks to the gift I received from my organ donor and their family. I have finished a Ph.D., traveled to several countries, moved from Canada to the United States, gotten married, gotten divorced, switched careers, purchased a home … I have done a lot of living. And hopefully there’s a lot more to come.

Leaving aside the numbers on the calendar, I see many signs around me right now that my life as I know it is changing. I sense that a transformation is happening. I believe that this milestone (which is arbitrary, as all milestones are — we are the ones who choose to give them meaning) comes at an auspicious time. It’s one of three related milestones I’ll be marking in the next few months, as November 8 is the 25th anniversary of my transplant, and then January 18 is my 50th birthday.

Although many people around me know about my transplant, I’ve been a little reluctant to talk about it, and there are many people who have no idea. But I’ve decided to put aside my hesitation about letting people know, because here’s the thing: I’ve now been alive for a total of 18, 125 days. 9,063 of those have been gifted to me by an organ donor. I’m not religious, but I do believe there is a miracle in that. And that’s something to be celebrated … you know … out loud.



That Old Saying About Assholes

4 Jun

I was listening to an episode of the Dharmapunx NYC and Brooklyn podcast recently. At one point, the teacher, Josh Korda, referred to an “old saying”:

If you’re going about your day and you encounter one asshole, chances are that person was an asshole.

If you’re going about your day and you encounter two or more assholes, chances are … you’re one of the assholes.

I think that’s a saying worth remembering.

The Tug Boat Captain

29 Dec

The tug boat captain knows that size doesn’t matter.

She knows the things that count: finding the proper points; being confident; being consistent; exerting the right amount of pressure at the right moment.

No matter how many years have passed, no matter how much technology has changed, her job has remained the same.

And in doing it well, she can turn any ship around, no matter how large, and no matter how narrow the space for maneuvering.



Crowning Miss Universe

21 Dec

All of my news feeds are clogged with headlines about how the host of Miss Universe (I won’t name him … I think we’ve heard enough about his very public mistake) crowned the wrong participant as Miss Universe.

What is much more shocking to me than one person’s error in a moment of pressure, is the fact that Miss Universe still exists.

Surely there are better things that sponsors can do with their money, and that supporters of the competition can do with their time, than to uphold this system of ranking human beings based on their looks and on other similarly superficial categories.

Let’s move on.

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