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The Local Lens: Farewell, Fiorella

  For most, the death of a loved one or family member is a traumatic experience. That’s because most of us assume that our lives will go on for a long time. We don’t count on death happening today or even the day after tomorrow, but sometime in the distant future.

  Death is never a pleasant topic. There are no “nice” deaths, either. One can die instantly of a heart attack, stroke or automobile accident, or one can die slowly over a period of months or years. In the case of the latter, at least there’s a chance for the one who is about to die to say goodbye. In the case of the former, there are no such options. In the Orthodox Church there are prayers asking God to save us from an instant death. It is always better to be prepared for this important transition from life to afterlife.     

  My sister-in-law, Fiorella, recently passed away. We were not extremely close, but we still had a closeness made palpable by decades of family dinners and reunions. When I say we were not extremely close I don’t mean to imply a distance caused by alienation. Like most people, we were caught up in our own lives, which led us to assume that there would be plenty of time to see each other again.

  Fiorella came into my brother’s life at a point when he really needed change and a life partner. One day my mother called me up and said, “You’ll be meeting Fiorella this Sunday. I think your brother has met his match.”

  Fiorella had long straight hair, a winning smile, a keen intelligence and an acute sense of humor. Her Italian roots could be traced to the area by the Adriatic Sea. She was born in Italy, but migrated to the United States as a toddler with her parents. She married my brother in Saint Patrick’s Church in Malvern, an old gothic structure with enormous stained-glass windows. I attended the wedding. It was the 1970s and all the men in the wedding party had long hair and mustaches. The reception was a rollicking party along the lines of “Saturday Night Fever.”

  Fiorella’s mother was a gifted seer who provided her daughter with advice and counseling. Her father had a talent for winemaking; his wine was known for its smooth medicinal properties and it rarely, if ever, caused a morning hangover. We all asked one another, “How does he make this stuff?’

  My brother often spoke of his mother-in-law’s intuitive talents. Like the mystic and saint Padre Pio, it was claimed that Fiorella’s mother could be in two places at once — an ability called bi-location. My brother told me that his father-in-law would often see his wife in the garden and then half a second later at the kitchen stove. It was just one of life’s unexplained mysteries. Still, Fiorella’s mom’s excellent “intuitions” were sometimes not what her daughter or my brother wanted to hear.

  I remember the time when she warned them to travel by plane rather than take the train when planning a cross-country trip. The advice seemed backwards because conventional wisdom suggests that flying would be more dangerous than traveling by Amtrak. Fiorella was afraid of flying and she tried to avoid it whenever possible, so it took all her strength to muster up the courage to fly with my brother when they embarked on their honeymoon to Acapulco.

  But Fiorella’s mother was persistent: “Do not take the train! Take the plane!”

  Fiorella’s fear of flying was just too great, so she and my brother decided to take the train, despite the warning. Once on board the train’s sleeping compartment, there was a crash and a sort of explosion that sent the two of them flying off their bunks. Smoke entered their compartment and a lot of panic ensued. The train had derailed or had crashed into something, I’m not sure which, but those uncertain moments were very scary for them. Fortunately they escaped without injury.

  Fiorella and my brother settled in a house in a development in Exton, PA, where they raised three children. The years advanced and as often happens with families there were times when we Nickels siblings would drift apart only to come together during the holidays or at a 4th of July picnic. On one 4th of July, Fiorella and my brother hosted a massive reunion for my mother’s side of the family. The Muldoon-Kelly reunion covered the waterfront in terms of disparate personalities and incomes. Fiorella and my brother had also managed to obtain old photos of distant relatives in Tyrone County, Ireland. The photos depicted men with long black beards covering their chest and women carrying parasols.

  Fiorella contracted breast cancer a few years ago. She had a single mastectomy and routine chemo and radiation treatments. After that she and my brother went on an extreme health regime. Life was fine for some time, but then two or three days after Christmas it was discovered that the cancer had returned, only now it was in her liver.

  In no time at all it seemed the cancer got worse and spread to other parts of Fiorella’s body, and she was admitted to Bryn Mawr Hospital. When the truth of her incurable cancer became an indisputable fact, her youngest daughter, Amanda, came up with a plan.

  Scheduled to be married to her fiancé, Mark, in September 2017, the couple organized a wedding in the hospital chapel before their big September church wedding. All of my brother’s children pitched in to create what became a miniature but full extravaganza in just 24 hours. That included getting the wedding rings, hiring musicians, a priest, ordering food and champagne and negotiating with a tailor to alter Fiorella’s old wedding gown for Amanda to wear.

  Fiorella was informed of the impromptu chapel wedding and was given an extra treatment of radiation so she could attend. The morning of the wedding she woke up and said, “I feel great!”

  The small ceremony turned the hospital upside down when nurses, physicians and even the hospital’s president and CEO crowded into the small chapel.

  My last visit with Fiorella was on Tuesday, January 31st when I entered her hospital room around 5:20PM. She was alone and she looked to be sleeping. The room was empty except for the sounds of a nurse running water in the bathroom. When the nurse asked me who I was, I told her that I was a brother-in-law. In the few seconds that it took me to say this I thought I saw a smile cross Fiorella’s face. Was I imagining this? My brother had told me earlier that his wife was comatose, but that she could hear what was being said. The nurse said I could spend as much time with her as I wanted, so I sat with Fiorella until the chaplain walked in and told me that Fiorella had actually died hours before, at 3:20PM.

  Hearing this was disconcerting because all along I had thought that she was asleep. I spent 30 minutes sitting with Fiorella, meditating, thinking of times past.

  Then I thought of the words of St. John Chrysostom who wrote that although death is terrible and frightening — yes, even its name is devastating — for those who know the higher philosophy there should be no shuddering.

  That’s because death is merely a passing over when we leave this corruptible life and go on to another, which is unending and incomparably better.

The Spirit | Hyperlocal done differently
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