I sit in the front row of church during a funeral mass I helped plan. My wife is sitting to my left, my mom and sister to my right. I listen to the priest speak beautifully about my younger brother Anthony, who fatally shot himself at my grandfather’s gravesite the previous snowy Monday afternoon. He was 32 years old.
“Why did he choose that location?” I wonder to myself. “Why our grandfather’s grave?”
I simultaneously know, and don’t know, the answer.
My grandfather lived in the basement apartment of the home that my brother and I grew up in, just a few minutes from this very church. He was a widower; his wife died 20 years before him. As he lived alone, he loved to spend time with my brother, my sister, and me. His apartment downstairs was a place that Anthony and I visited almost daily. The three of us played card games like Go Fish, and watched TV game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! together. We would laugh, talk, and play in my grandfather’s living room. He was our on-demand chauffeur, our personal chef, and our mentor. I remember how he taught us to make fresh gnocchi, and the old fashioned pasta crank on which he trained us to make raviolis. I remember like it was yesterday the smell of all the delicious foods my grandfather loved to cook, like fried chicken, cinnamon rolls, and apple pie.
My grandfather attended church here, weekly, for many years. As I sit here, waiting to walk up to the altar where I will give the eulogy I’ve spent the past several days writing and rewriting, I think just as much of my grandfather as I do of my brother Anthony.
My mind races. Can this moment be real? How is it possible that Anthony is gone? Why would he do what he did? Why did he choose our grandfather’s gravesite?
As children, my grandfather taught us to honor those who had gone before us. He would often take Anthony, my sister, and me to visit our late grandmother. The visits were invested with tradition. It always started with him popping a large pot of kernels in his apartment. He would fill a brown shopping bag with the freshly popped popcorn. I often snuck a few handfuls of it as soon as we got into the car.
We would drive to the cemetery where my grandmother was buried, pull up to the pond, and Anthony and I would run out with excitement to feed the ducks the popcorn. Within moments of our arrival, dozens of ducks would be eating our freshly cooked treat.
After feeding the ducks, we would walk over to our grandmother’s gravesite, just a stone’s throw away. More often than not, my grandfather brought potted flowers for us to plant, usually red geraniums. This was another fun adventure for us. We would dig the hole to plant the flowers, and then water them together. We would also clean her tombstone before praying for her. My grandfather visited the cemetery often.
In my church seat, I take a sip of water, and then a few deep breaths. I find myself staring at the picture we had enlarged to display on the altar during his funeral mass. It is one of my favorite pictures of Anthony. In it, he’s wearing a tuxedo from my wedding day almost ten years ago. I think back to the speech he gave as my best man. My mind then flashes back to my bachelor party at the lake house in upstate New York, where we had spent a long weekend with a small group of close friends. Anthony had escorted me home from a bar, where I’d had just a little too much to drink. (It was my bachelor party, after all.) Neither of us had a key, but luckily, he found a way in through a window someone had left open. Though he was the younger brother, he chaperoned me to the safety of my bed that night, and cracked jokes about it the rest of the trip.
I was the oldest brother, I think to myself. I was supposed to be our leader. (Anthony and our sister Michele always told me my leadership style was bossy; I personally liked to think of it as direct.)
And now he was gone.
We grew up knowing the nearby cemetery as a place of peace and serenity. Anthony visited my grandfather’s resting place often. He carried our grandfather’s license in his wallet at all times.
Anthony and my grandfather were the only two people in our Italian family to have blue eyes.
I can feel the priest drawing his homily to a close. He’s about to call me up to the altar to speak.
My mind fills with worry. Will I be able to stay composed in front of a very full church of people? Will I be able to make everyone understand the significance of our grandfather, and the cemetery in which Anthony took his life?
The cemetery was a place of peacefulness for us, and of tradition. This church also represented tradition. Anthony often came here to sit in the exact same pew my grandfather used to sit in. He would talk to Father Xavier and the canter, Anne, after Mass.
Anthony’s final ritual in this church was to pray in the room that contains the statue of the Feast of the Assumption, depicting Mary rising to heaven.
I think back to Anthony as a child. He was obsessed with Rambo, and had a ninja Halloween costume he would wear year round. I can still see the black trunk he kept at the foot of his bed, full of Rambo gear and later, his prized Talk Boy cassette player. I remember many fun summer days in our pool surrounded by family and friends, and winter ski trips together.
I will always remember most how much he loved his family and friends.
The priest calls me up; I squeeze my wife’s hand before moving to the front of the church. I look toward the far wall, in the space where we have made a donation to hang a plaque in my brother’s honor. This space was so special to him.
I will forever remember the 32 years I had with Anthony. Like many of the people I talk to after the ceremony, I am left with so many questions as to why this happened. I know how hard Anthony fought to overcome his addictions; I wish I knew more about his other struggles. The past two weeks do not feel real.
Anthony was much too young to leave us, but his wish was to find eternal peace. I am confident that the gravesite, and the church I now find myself in, represented that peace for my brother.
* * *
I have come to learn a lot about suicide in the weeks following my brother’s death. I am surprised to find out that it is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Even worse, for every suicide death, another 25 people make an attempt.
While I trust that he is now in a better place, I will forever miss my brother. I miss his loud voice, big smile, and the crystal blue eyes I always wished I had, too.
Anthony, I hope that you have been reunited with our grandfather, and are enjoying the start of an eternity of peace and happiness in heaven.
As hard as my brother’s story is for me to tell, my family and I believe that by doing so, we are honoring him, and shedding light on a very real illness that people do not spend enough time talking about. This feels very much in line with what our grandfather taught us.
* * *
Immediately following Anthony’s death, my family started a memorial fund in his honor with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The power of social media has amazed me. In the first 36 hours of launching the fund, we raised $10,000. Incredibly, only four days after the launch, we were approaching $17,000. I am very proud to say that his memorial fund, as of now, ranks as the 7th largest funds of almost 800 for the cause, with almost $25,000 raised to support the AFSP. With your help, I am hoping we can break into the top five.
Please join me in honoring Anthony by sharing his story, and consider making a donation to Anthony’s fund or sharing it with someone who might.
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