“What will I leave behind? It’s good for me to imagine myself at that moment. We don’t know when it will happen, but it will be that moment when expressions like ‘see you later,’ ‘see you soon,’ ‘see you tomorrow,’ ‘goodbye for now,’ will become ‘farewell.’ Am I prepared to entrust to God all that I have? To entrust myself to God?”

– Pope Francis

My love for Italy began long before I ever visited. When I was in middle school, my grandfather’s first cousin Giovanni and his sweet wife Maria visited the US, and we instantly made a connection. When I studied abroad in college, their home was my home away from home. I had my own little room in their Roman apartment. Zia Maria would feed me like you couldn’t imagine, while Zio Giovanni would regale me with stories of the adventures he had with my grandparents. I remember how difficult it was to call them and let them know that my grandparents had passed. After that call, my wife and I agreed that anytime I could get to Rome, I’d go and make sure that I paid them a visit.

Thankfully, for the last decade, work has allowed me to make the trip once or twice a year. That transatlantic flight hasn’t gotten easier as I have gotten older, and as the years passed, I could see how life was getting harder for my uncle and aunt. I convinced Maria to stop making dinner and took them to a restaurant. And once the restaurants were too hard to get to, we settled for some biscotti. But I always made the visit, and the visit always ended the same way: Giovanni and I would grab each other’s cheeks and tell each other how much we loved each other, how important we were to each other, and how grateful we were to see each other again. It was a long goodbye even by Italian standards. Every time I rode up the tiny elevator to their apartment, I told myself, “This could be the last time, make sure they know.” At my most recent visit this September, there was no meal, just some candies that I had brought. Maria shared that they hadn’t really left the apartment too much in the year since we last saw each other. Their sons were taking good care of them, and now in their nineties, Maria was finally letting someone come in to help with things around the apartment every few days. When it was time for me to go, despite his frailty, Giovanni lifted himself out of his wheelchair and grabbed my face. We cried as he squeezed my cheeks and we said the words we meant, and we hugged until he couldn’t stand anymore.

Last Thursday, early in the morning as I struggled to turn off my mind and fall back asleep, my cell phone illuminated with a text message from Maria and Giovanni’s son. I didn’t have to read it. I knew. It was time. And while tears streamed down my face as I lay in bed, I felt so much peace because I knew: he knew who he was to me.

An ocean-sized distance helped me focus on letting my family abroad know how much they meant to me. I wondered if closer to home I was being that intentional. When was the last time I let somebody know how they blessed my life? The cheek squeezes may not work for everyone, but am I explicit in my affection so that when it’s time, there’s never any doubt? In my relationship with the Lord, am I intentional in the way I pay a visit? He knows my heart already, but do I tell Him what He means to me?

On the last day of my study abroad program in 2003, Maria and Giovanni’s first grandson was born and I was there to hold him in the hospital. Francesco is now 21 years old, and when I go this year, I will squeeze his cheeks a little harder, tell him how special he is to me, and encourage him to come and visit his Uncle Dan one day in Philadelphia. As we continue to walk our journey of life with those who know we love them, let’s not let it go unsaid this week.

Ci vediamo Giovanni.

by Daniel Cellucci

April 29, 2024

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