My brother Alphonse, our mother, and I (1995)
MY BROTHER ALPHONSE
He was my big brother. In a family of eight children, he was the oldest child; I was the middle one. He spent his early years in the Great Depression while I was born six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Nine years separated us. We called him “Alphonse,” and sometimes “Al,” but my parents called him by his birth name, “Alfonso.”
We were hardly close back then.
During those 1940s Brooklyn days gone by, Al was studying to be a priest, a straight-A student at the Pallottine Fathers Seminary in Sag Harbor, New York. I can still vividly remember those long train trips from New York City, past Poughkeepsie, and finally the taxi ride that stopped at the main hall. We'd visit with him, take black-and-white pictures of the family with Papa's old Kodak camera, and take the train back to our tenement apartment on Graham Avenue.
After three years at the seminary, Al decided against a religious vocation. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps and we saw even less of him than before. Upon his discharge from the service after four years, he took a salesman's job selling magazines in various American cities, one at which he met his future wife Celia Ann Hitechew. Together they had four children: Michael, Jodi, John, and Alfonsina.
Al was an excellent believer in the old adage, “Believe in yourself.” From magazine salesman he advanced himself up the executive ladder until finally he was a vice-president in a leading janitorial maintenance corporation that boasted offices all over the country. He had a knack for winning friends and influencing potential buyers. A super-keen sense of business helped him earn money for himself and for the corporate people he worked for. We were proud of him.
It was not until the 1970s that we two brothers seem to meet on common ground. I was no longer the kid brother. He had become less distant. What brought us together was the fear of losing our mother to a serious brain tumor. He had come to visit; we talked, perhaps one can say, we bonded. As for Mama, her brain tumors miraculously disappeared! About that same time, Al became a Born-again Catholic and looked at life in a much different light than ever before. For me, he was easier to talk to. He cared about the important things in life. He put his trust in the Peace of Christ and life became more meaningful than ever before.
In the 80s, he, my friend Aldo, and I began collaborating on country and gospel songs. Al and Aldo wrote the music and Al and I, the lyrics. In fact, four of our country songs were used as background music in a B-film called Fortress of Amerikkka. We were Saldo Music, ASCAP members!
By the time 1990 rolled around, Al and I decided to spend three weeks in Sicily, visiting the Sicilian mountain village of Acquaviva Platani where our parents originated. We went again in 1995, and those two vacations were filled with such happy memories: two brothers rattling off our Sicilian, drinking homemade wine, singing in the streets, laughing with our Sicilian cousins. Those days were priceless.
Alphonse died one year ago today. He had beaten cancer in 1999 when the two of us struggled with it and our sister Anna had died from hers, but it came back and took his life. Sharon and I drove from West Virginia to the hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey, hardly expecting to find him in his last hours. Though he was unconscious, I spoke to him, told him how much I loved him, said prayers with Sharon and the family gathered at the sides of his deathbed. All the while I kept thinking of an old Janis Joplin
song line, “Take another little piece of my heart now...” Papa, Anna and Frankie were gone. Now Alphonse. One more heartbreak.
Two weeks before, Al and I were talking on the phone, something we did quite often. He was explaining how the cancer, first in his bladder, now showed up in his lung, and the doctors suspected it had also traveled to his liver.
“I'm worried, Al,” I said.
“No, don't worry.”
“If the cancer's moving--”
Then my brother said something that reflected his strong faith in God, his trust in God's Will, that same trust our mother had taught us would see us through all things.
“Way I look at it,” Al began, “if it spreads and I'm meant to die, I'll die. If not, I'll survive. Either way, I can't lose.”
It's been a year, March 10 again, and I miss him terribly, but I know one day we'll all meet again. Whatever made us joyful, whatever made us laugh, will do so again, but in that timelessness of life beyond this finite one we shall dance and sing in the Light of Christ!
Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts