Friends, Romans, Cousins (forever). . .

Maryann, Rick and Nick at our hotel in Florence.

It’s late. I can’t sleep. I am coughing from this nagging sinus-laryngitis-whatever I seem to have. I slept for 4 hours earlier today so that could have something to do with it. Sitting at my computer will likely not help me with my insomnia. A few minutes ago I scanned my Facebook homepage. There, about halfway down the page, I read the words my friend, Rick, posted on his Facebook wall:

June 2, 2006 We sat there five years ago…The test showed she’d to have to fight to live…I broke down and cried.

Along with the status update he posted a song, “Tough” by Craig Morgan. He posted it yesterday too. I watched it then and I watched it again tonight.

Five years ago Rick’s wife and my friend, Maryann, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I was barely in remission from my breast cancer. When she called to tell me her news, I didn’t know what to say. I thought she was calling to give me the latest details of our upcoming trip to Italy.

Maryann and I met in an Italian genealogy chat room sometime in 1997. We were both searching the surname Passaro. We found out that our grandparents were from the same hamlet in southern Italy, down the Amalfi Coast, Ogliastro Marina. From the moment we “met,” I knew our friendship was special. Some months later I was in New Jersey for business and we sealed the deal – we were cousins from that moment on. Maryann decided she was going to Italy not long after we met. She, Rick and her son, Nick, visited Italy twice before she convinced me to go.

Over the next few years Maryann did more research on my family’s genealogy than I did. Determined, she attacked the search for the missing links to my family as she seemed to do everything in her life. She was a spitfire, always up for speaking her mind and taking on a challenge. One year my brother, Chuck and his wife, Kathy, along with my mother and my aunt, all went to visit Maryann and Rick in New Jersey. We went to New York City and spent time in the Village, Little Italy and other notable sites. The time in Little Italy, though, was the best as we were there during the feast of San Gennaro.

No matter what adventure I took with Maryann it was just that. An adventure. A time I would never forget. We knew each other a short eleven years and yet I have so many memories of her. She insisted that whenever I visited I stay at her home. She planned lavish dinners and her brothers and their families came for dinner. It was always wonderful. She was a throwback to my childhood. She was an Italian American girl from New Jersey. How could I not fall in love?

I met her entire family and many of her closest friends. I was part of her family now. When I was in New Jersey, she would take me shopping at the fabulous Mall at Short Hills. We went to the City (New York) often and she dragged me all over Manhattan. One time we used her points to stay at the Plaza Hotel. On another visit, with Chuck and Kathy, we dined at one of Mario Batali’s restaurants. She and my brother, Chuck, shared a passion for Italian cooking, especially Mario’s.

Early in the summer of 2006, just a couple of weeks after her diagnosis, we left for Italy. I flew to Newark to meet Rick and Maryann. She gave me a seat in Business class using Rick’s frequent miles. He traveled internationally for his job. That was Maryann. She was generous to a fault. I was nervous about the long flight. Maryann made Rick sit with Nick and she parked herself next to me. The flight was wonderful. We drank wine, laughed over meals and watched movies. She fussed over me the entire time ensuring I was comfortable. She had just been diagnosed with cancer and she was fussing over me! We were hopeful on that trip and convinced she would beat her cancer just as I had. The trip was to be the first of many. She decided she wanted to retire in Ogliastro. I remember her telling me her dream was to spend six months in Italy and six months in Savannah, Georgia. I think Rick loved Savannah and so did she.

Nick, Maryann, me, Kathy, Rick in Florence

Italy was incredible. We landed in Milan, met Chuck and Kathy in Florence. From Florence we went to Tuscany. We visited Pisa, Lucca and Siena. All beautiful places. We spent a week in Ogliastro and also went to Castellabate and Santa Maria, the birthplace of my grandfather. While we were in Ogliastro, we made a day trip to Pompeii, practically in the backyard of the Castellabate region.

Maryann’s cousin in Italy, Antonio Passaro, was the local historian. I could write an entire blog about Antonio and how he helped us find our family in Ogliastro. That’s for another day. Antonio took one look at the picture of my grandmother’s passport and knew exactly which Passaro family we needed to meet. Keep in mind the entire village was filled with many Passaro families. It turns out we were not cousins as we thought we might be. No matter, we called each other Cuz anyway. Chuck and I got to meet our family. Incredible story for another time. Our Italy adventure ended in Rome. We had a wonderful, unforgettable time.

We got back from Italy and Maryann began the fight of her life. She fought hard for the next two years. We cried together many times over the phone. I didn’t get to see much of her during her battle. When I suggested visiting, she would put me off. She got sicker and sicker. I still remember her telling me, “I’ll have this until it kills me.”

I went to visit Maryann the week she died. I couldn’t believe it was my Cuz. Emaciated, I barely recognized her. She wanted to die at home. While I was there, the priest came to anoint her. She was angry at Rick about this. I’m guessing because she still wanted to fight. That was Rick’s girl – a fighter till the end. I sat on her bed and tried to talk to her. The first day I was there she could speak to me, but by the last day she could not. When we were alone, I laid next to her in her bed. I tried to talk to her. I burst into tears and couldn’t stop. I told her I loved her and I would never forget her. It was one of the most awful times of my life. I will never forget those moments.

That Saturday Rick called midday. Maryann died that morning. Chuck and I drove to New Jersey for her wake and funeral. I miss her to this day. I will never forget her. Whenever I see pictures from our trip, I smile. I hope I see her again some day.

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5 Responses to Friends, Romans, Cousins (forever). . .

  1. carlorustico says:

    When I saw Rick’s FB posts, I wanted to respond in some way but I wasn’t sure just how to best do that. Thanks for posting this blog; it seems the best response possible.

    I remember when you first told me about Maryann. At the time she was just a woman you had met in a genealogy chat room while researching La Famiglia Passaro. Over the next few months it was pretty clear that you two had connected. Little did I realize just how solid that connection would become and where it would lead.

    I think I met Maryann not too long after you did. If I recall correctly, I was visiting a friend in NJ and drove over to Maryann’s house to bring her something or maybe it was to pick up something — I can’t recall. What I do remember is that on the strength of your friendship she welcomed this stranger into her home and made me an instant friend. Like you, I came to consider her a family member.

    It didn’t take long for me to realize just what a special person she was. There has never been another person who impacted my life so much in so short a time.

    Though somewhat diminished by her loss, I am so much more for having known her.

  2. Thom Brown says:

    What a wonderful tribute and such warm memories.

  3. Donna Kress says:

    Beautiful remembrance…

  4. Ginny says:

    Ro, what a beautiful tribute to your friend. I hope you realize she was blessed to have you as a friend. We all are. Love you.

  5. Lisa Parry says:

    I, too, had the opportunity to meet Maryann on that business trip to NJ. A lovely lady! What wonderful memories you have and such a special relationship. Thanks for sharing.

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