It was September 1982. I was a freshman at Ohio University and I had learned a few months earlier that my cousin John was a senior there. I got his telephone number and called him. He knew about me being there. We just needed to connect.
When I reached him, the conversation went something like, “John, this is your cousin Jan. Hi!” He didn’t hesitate to suggest we get together. He called back on a Friday to finalize plans for the evening and says, “Instead of going uptown, would you and your friends likes to come up here and drink some margaritas?”
When John and his roommate Jim arrive, we had one of those, “John?” “Jan?” moments followed by a big hug. What a fun night. We hit it off like, well, like family. He cemented his “cool” factor that spring when he showed up on campus on his motorcycle to take me for a ride into the hills surrounding Athens.
That was the beginning of a friendship, if I may use that term about my cousin, that then lead to reconnections with all our other cousins. We’re a big Italian family with many extensions. John’s father and my mom were first cousins. John is my third cousin.
John died Aug. 21 after a two-year battle with ALS. The day I found out about the diagnosis, in February 2019, I called him and it was gut-wrenching. I didn’t know what to say. What do you say? I was in shock. And heartbroken. We cried. But then John showed me, actually he showed everybody, how to handle life when you’re dealt such a horrible fate. More on that later.
Did I mention he was a drummer? I remember one picnic where we were treated to a drum solo in the basement of his house. And then at his daughter Lauren’s wedding, he sat in with the band for a few songs. Trust me. He was the guy at the party that everybody wanted to know. He was everybody’s friend.
I missed his wedding to the beautiful and wonderful Joanne because I was in Rome, Italy, on an internship. My mom went and I heard for months afterward how much fun it was. Months!
The following years I lived in Florida and New York City and when I’d come home for a visit, there was always a night out with John and Joanne on the agenda. I got great seats at a Bengals game once because of a media connection. I called John. Reds game? I think there were 12 of us who went. I called out of the blue once to go to Oktoberfest in downtown Cincinnati and they picked me up.
I remember when two of our Sicilian cousins were visiting, about 10 of us went out to dinner and a club afterward. We were dancing outside and being silly. On our way home, cousin Gabriella needed a roll of film so we did what anyone would do in that situation: we went to a beer and liquor drive-thru to buy one. The man could not understand Gabriella’s broken English, so then John said, “Mar ga reeet a” in a strange accent. And the clerk said “OK – Margarita,” and went to go get us a bottle of something. And we just drove away. (Maybe it was one of those “had to be there” moments but it was pretty funny.)
We also started a tradition of meeting for lunch on December 26. At first, it was me, my mom and John and Joanne and their growing family. The group grew as the years went on and it was something my mom and I always looked forward to after Christmas.
The day I saw John’s true selflessness was the day before my mom died. I arrived at the hospital in the ambulance with her and she was put in the ICU. By late morning, John was there and stayed by my side all day and into the evening until my brother arrived from New York. It didn’t matter what was on his schedule. He stayed all day.
After his ALS diagnosis, John found a way to handle the madness. He was at peace with it – he saw it all as part of God’s plan for him, to bring him closer to him. When his son Sam told him he wanted to push him in a wheelchair in the half-marathon at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, I reached out to a friend at the Cincinnati Enquirer to write about it.
Listening to John during that interview showed me how incredibly brave he was, how his faith emboldened him. He said, “From a moral perspective, from the human condition, my story is not good. But when I look through the same lens, through a spiritual lens, I see great hope for me.”
I sat there and was embarrassed by the petty things that bothered me that day, or any day really.
I last saw John in July. He came to our monthly cousins lunch and was communicating through a computer where he’d choose the letters on a keyboard with his eyes, form the word and then we’d hear the phrase. The guy was still cracking jokes.
We’ve got another big cousins picnic planned. John was formative in getting the picnics going again in 2019. (You can read about it here: https://1cannolo2cannoli.org/2018/08/15/catching-up-with-cousins-lots-of-cousins/ )
In this video, he explains how it all happened and adds a little joke at the end about one of our cousins, who, incidentally, took the reins and organized the upcoming picnic!
I miss my cousin.
I hope when I’m feeling low or struggling with whatever crisis crosses my path, I remember John and his words, his strength, his attitude. And I will take a breath. I hope I remember how he handled his life with grace and peace. He was such a rock star.