No Longer My Brother’s Keeper.

My Brother Vinny and I, in 2008, on the way to a Yankee Game.

When I watched Jennifer Gosar talk about her brother, Congressman Paul Gosar, on MSNBC, and heard Tim Gosar call his brother one of Trump’s “Fascist Footsoldiers,” who ought to be expelled from Congress, I thought of my brother Vinny.

Not that my sole-surviving brother is a Member of Congress — God forbid. Not that he graphically depicted using Samurai Swords to kill Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of NY and threatened the life of the President of the US — although, over the years, he’s wished for similar gruesome deaths for many Democrats, including me.

Like Jennifer Gosar, there was a time when, as a child, I looked up to my older brother. He was an outstanding baseball player, who could run, hit and field like the Detroit Tigers Hall-of-Famer, Al Kaline, and, like me, was a fanatical and knowledgeable New York Yankee fan.

Vinny was so bright, he skipped two grades and graduated high school at the age of 16. He ran as fast and hard as he could to catch up to our oldest brother, Michael, the apple of our mother’s eye.

As I got older and could do a spot-on imitation of Howard Cosell, my brother was so proud of my abilities he wanted me to perform for his friends at a local bar where he was frequently found — Anna Jean’s, located in a run-down strip mall in North Babylon, our working class community on Long Island’s south shore.

Family folklore was that Vinny had a genius IQ, and his earlier financial successes in businesses — first on Long Island and then in Southern California, were seen as concrete proof of his superior intelligence — to others, and to him. He put up my parents in his big home in El Toro, CA, when they moved out west, and gave my father a part-time job at the electronic parts company he headed. Then, something — or maybe several things — happened.

Whether it was his business wizardry and the whirlwind financial windfalls which dazzled a kid who grew up poor and never went to college, or a costly cocaine habit at the peak of his power, something started to come between my brother and reality. Living in Orange County, CA — then, the home of the Right Wing Extremist John Birch Society in the 1970’s and 1980’s and birthplace of conspiracy theories, didn’t help.

Despite our widening political differences, I became one of the few family members who could tolerate my brother. He was consistently mean and nasty to our sister Vera, a smart, independent woman who refused to put up with his insults. The fact that I was a white, Italian male and had an education, probably gave me some runway with him.

My mother would plead with us to avoid talking politics, but neither Vinny nor I could resist, and, in truth, we enjoyed the sparring to see who could one-up the other. I ridiculed his extremist beliefs, mocked the right wing loonies he listened to like Limbaugh and Larry Elder, and generally gave back to him as tough as he dished out. In retrospect, by engaging him, I may have actually enabled and emboldened my brother. After our mother’s death in 2007, all “guardrails” on Vinny’s behavior came down.

I struggled to look behind his intentionally outrageous, attention-getting behavior and listen to him, in a vain attempt to keep him connected to his own, and our, humanity. Sometimes it worked, but would often backfire if he felt I was getting too close, or, when his racist or homophobic rantings would set me off.

After Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, I cut off Vinny’s vicious attacks on the nation’s first black President — whom he knew I supported from early 2007 — -by snarling back at him that he hated Obama because the President’s success forced him to face his own failures, and he just couldn’t get over the fact that a Black man was smarter and more successful than he was. My brother’s response was uncharacteristic silence, and I knew I had scored a painful hit, and regretted it immediately. I detested his unbridled hatred and racism, but disliked my hurtful response almost as much. He was, after all, still my mother’s son.

As Donald Trump’s deranged “Birther” campaign grew, and meanness, hatred and lies became normalized on Fox News — the only network my brother watched — Vinny’s views became more and more extreme. As a Nevada resident, he owned a legally registered gun, and kept it handy, in case the “illegals” tried to break into his apartment. Ironically, if any did — and they saw how little he had — they’d have left a contribution.

Finally, in 2016, after it was clear it would be Hillary 
Clinton vs. Trump for the Presidency, I told Vinny I was going to North Carolina — a key, swing state with 15 electoral votes — to do voter protection, since NC was an open-carry State, and I was not easily intimidated. Furious, he wished I would be shot, and then when he saw that threat wouldn’t dissuade me, hoped my plane would crash, and called me an anti-Semitic slur, knowing I converted to Judaism some 36 years earlier, and my wife and son were Jewish.

I wasn’t as offended by his death wish for me as I was by his expressed hatred against Jews — eventhose in his own family. For me, it was the last straw. I told him that I was done with him, that I didn’t want such toxic hate in my life, nor have my granddaughters exposed to it. That was 5 years ago, and we haven’t spoken since.

So, I understand the pain that the Gosar siblings are feeling as they watch their brother set fire to himself, and endanger others. What’s hard, is witnessing what’s happened to someone you once loved, and knowing that, in the end, much more than his own life is at risk.

“They Need To Spend A Few Days In An Iron Lung.”

My mother Margaret Julia Villano, praying at my father’s grave in Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, CA.

“You know what these people need?” my mother said to me, without a hint of bitterness. “They need to spend a few days in an Iron Lung.”

I looked at her, into her deep, kind, hazel-colored eyes. Her large circular eyeglasses seemed to magnify her eyes into large, pristine, comforting pools.

Short, plump, diminutive in her housedress, my mother was a Polio survivor for 92 years, paralyzed on one side of her body as an infant, during the Polio pandemic of 1915–16. She felt blessed to be alive, even if, decades later, she still couldn’t use her right arm, and spent her final years in a wheelchair.

In 1916, the year my mother contracted Polio during her first few months of life, 27,000 cases of paralysis were registered, with over 2,000 deaths being reported in NYC alone. Most of those cases were among children under five years old.

She pointed at the crazed, screaming men and women she saw on television, veins close to bursting out of their necks, mouths, if not eyes, wide open, opposing vaccines for themselves or their children.

“They need to have a machine breathe for them; breath-for-breath, up and down, up and down. They don’t know how good they have it,” she said. “They need to know what it’s like to suffer day after day after day — with no hope of getting better.”

She recalled the hours she spent at the Crippled Children’s Home, undergoing physical therapy on her limp right arm, walking past the rows of half-open steel pods which looked like open caskets — Iron Lungs — each of which held a young child gasping for air, their breathing muscles immobilized by the disease. Many of them died.

“Everytime I saw them, and heard the loud up-and-down noises those machines made, I felt so lucky that I was only paralyzed in my right arm; I learned to write and play with my other arm, “ she said. “Those poor kids couldn’t come out of those dark tunnels, or they wouldn’t be able to breathe. They couldn’t even hug their mothers and fathers.”

She shook her head in disbelief.

“ I was so lucky,” she said. “ Even though they wouldn’t let us Polio kids into the public swimming pools in New York City, I taught myself to swim as best I could, on the beaches of Coney Island. I thank God to this day that all I had was one bad arm.”

A devout Catholic, who later went on to teach Sunday school for the Children of Mary, my mother spent hours praying for those she knew were not as fortunate.

“I remember riding on the school bus Upstate with the Fresh Air Fund,” she said, referring to the program promoted by New York City and The New York Times which took underprivileged kids from urban areas and gave them a week of camp in “the country.”

“On our ride up through the Catskills, we’d pass camp after camp along the way with big giant hand-written signs, “NO POLIO KIDS ALLOWED, “ she recalled, looking off to the side, as if looking out a school bus window at the foreboding message.

“NO POLIO KIDS ALLOWED,” she repeated. “You would have thought they’d be nicer to us since President Roosevelt had Polio, too. Still, I was so grateful just to have a place to go that would let us play outside.”

Despite leadership from FDR, the full-throated support of entertainers like Eddie Cantor, and a widely-supported national campaign named the “March of Dimes” to raise tens of millions of small contributions for vaccine research, it took some 60 years from the time the Polio virus was first identified in 1894 to when Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the first mass distribution Polio vaccine.

People danced in the streets, hugging and kissing one another with joy and relief when the announcement was made in 1955, that there was finally a vaccine to protect their children from paralysis and death. The Centers for Disease Control estimated that the Polio vaccines, and their near universal acceptance in the US and around the world, saved some 17 million people — mostly children under 5 — from paralysis, and thousands more from death.

My mother, raising 4 children on Long Island, believed her prayers were finally answered, and that her parade of dimes religiously slipped into “March of Dimes” coin holders for almost 15 years, contributed to making life much safer for her children.

There was never any question that we would be vaccinated. To do any less would have been immoral and inexcusable, especially since this one, grateful Polio survivor witnessed what life was like for some children, less lucky than she, through the long, lightless lens of an Iron Lung.

A Breakthrough View of Mortality.

Photo by Steve Villano, off the Sonoma Coast.

I knew all the statistics about COVID, kind of like how I memorized every baseball batting and pitching record when I was a kid.

I knew that we were doing real well in Northern California, and that the rate of new infections in NYC was low, compared to communities throughout the South.  I knew that the odds of contracting that devious Delta Variant were greatly reduced since Carol and I were double-vaxxed, and would be triple masked. 

To give us an extra level of protection for our upcoming cross-country flight in the weeks before booster shots were available, and proof of vaccination was required everywhere in NYC, we got our seasonal SuperFlu vaccine, a little earlier than usual.  We were pumped, and, we thought, as safe as we could possibly be.   Now, even the most careless unvaccinated Trumpholes would not be a threat to us.  

I knew that only .33 of one-percent—less than ½ of one percent—of vaccinated New Yorkers had contracted the new strain of COVID.   Yes, we’d be visiting the crowded 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan, and we’d be riding on NYC’s subways, but as long as we kept our triple layers of mask covering our noses and mouths, sanitized ourselves regularly, and didn’t get too close to other people, we could reduce the risk of being mugged by a COVID-carrying criminal.

What I underestimated was how extreme mental and emotional stress and a weakened immune system, would make my otherwise well-protected body a ripe target for an errant viral variant, propelled at many times the intensity of the original virus.  Delta’s heightened danger, never really dawned on us. 

The tension of traveling in an airport for the first time in 2 years, and crowding into  an airplane with strangers—all of whom were masked—was palpable.  My body was on high alert, looking for mask mockers, who flipped their noses over the tops of their masks as if they were middle-fingers, or wore ratty, loose material over their smug faces—breeding grounds for disease, as well as disdain. 

I consciously chose to ignore these slovenly public health sluts, kept to myself, and kept my masks on during the entire 5-hour flight, refusing to eat or drink on board the plane, and visiting the bathroom only once, out of dire necessity.   Tense, very tense.  This was not my idea of having fun through travel.

In New York, we visited a few ailing friends, contemporaries of ours, and the jolt of our own mortality lingered just outside the door, just beyond the safety of our masks.  Despite our fame, we weren’t going to live forever.

My emotional reserves were already running on fumes, when we worked our way through the 9/11 Memorial museum, at the site of Tower # 2—the South Tower, as it was now called—where six years of my life and my soul were imbedded in the concrete.   I was struggling to stay afloat in this sea of sorrow—in the shadow of the  giant Slurry Wall– when I spotted the tomb that held the still unidentified remains of World Trade Center workers.  The massive mausoleum was adorned with squares of shades of blue, capturing how many memories of the color of the sky were obliterated on that crystalline morning in September.  Memory, and mortality, had pierced my masks, and against that, I had no defense.

Somewhere over the course of the next few days, our paths crossed with one or two unmasked, unvaxxed fellow tourists, or First Responders, many of whom zeroed in on Ground Zero to pay respects to fallen colleagues.  On the evening of 9/11, we followed the two columns of light down to what we thought was their source—the Eternal Fountains of Remembrance, where the footprints of each Tower once stood. It was bad enough that the area around the fountains was mobbed, mostly with a younger, unmasked, partying crowd, but I could not believe the shafts of light were no longer there.

With my mask pulled tight around my face, to hide my hurt, I walked up to a small huddle of Police Officers, none of whom were wearing masks.

“Where are the light columns coming from, Officers?” I asked.  “I thought they were right here, shining up from the fountains, on into infinity?”

A young cop, probably in grade school when the Towers fell, could see I was visibly upset.

“They had to move them a few years ago, when it got too crowded down here,” he said.  “They moved them to a parking lot a few blocks down.  Sorry sir.”

I was crushed, dropping my guard, my shell of self-defense dissolved, and allowing the Delta devil to dance right in.    Depression and lethargy had already set in, days before a COVID test at a hospital confirmed the diagnosis.

It’s taken me about two weeks to come through quarantine; my cough is subsiding, and I haven’t had a temperature or headaches for a few days running.  I’ve been sleeping long nights, and, little-by-little, my strength is returning:  a few hours of gardening here, a few minutes of walking there.  I soak up the sun for part of the day, mainlining Vitamin D, remembering the hours I would spend sitting in the California sunshine, chatting with my mother, in the years before she died.   It felt the same now, as it did then.  Timeless. Gentle. Healing.

Unlike hundreds of thousand of other COVID sufferers, we were fortunate to have been fully-vaccinated, and to be healthy enough to manage our own illness, and stay out of the hospital.   We isolated ourselves from our son and granddaughters, and have slowly, steadily, regained our strength.    

But, what lingers deep within me, sometimes deeper than I can fathom, is a feeling that I am walking on egg shells, waiting for the next breakthrough vision of my own mortality, another reminder of the fragility of life.

A Man on the Cusp of His Life.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life, 

One week from turning 25,

Father of a newborn child,

Is no longer alive.

 

No more chimes gently blowing in the breeze,

Nor hummingbirds darting through the trees.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life, 

Promising, next time…

To get it right.

No more innocent smiles cast his way,

No more breath for another day.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life,

Unaware of his fate,

Until, it was too late.

No more crazy vaccine theories,

Of tracking chips, or other murderous

Lies dripping from the lips of ghouls.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life,

One week from turning 25

Is no longer alive.

The Universe yawns.

No one pays, 

Attention, nor the price.

Except, for The Man on the Cusp of his Life,

One week from turning 25,

His orphaned child, still alive.

9/11, Derek Jeter, & the Memory of Time.

The 9/11 Memorial (Photo by Steve Villano)

It’s one of life’s oddly poetic moments to be back to NYC for the 20th Anniversary commemoration of 9/11, in the very same week Derek Jeter got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the very same weekend the Yankees were playing the Mets in a subway series.   It was Jeter, after all, and the Yankees, who picked up many of us New Yorkers,  after we were numbed by the death and destruction of 9/11. 

The Yankees were having a banner year in 2001, headed for another World Series after beating the Mets the Year before, and the promise of a 4th Consecutive World Championship was on our minds.  Twenty years ago,  on the night before 9/11,  I was at Yankee Stadium with my college friend Phil Cantor, and my son, Matt , and a few of his friends. We were there to see Roger Clemens pitch against his former team, the Boston Red Sox, and–we hoped–win his 20th game of the season.  Our spirits were soaring; everything was within our reach.

It poured for hours that night, and before we headed into the Stadium, Phil and I stayed dry by having pastrami and corned beef sandwiches in the Bronx’ famous Court Delicatessen, a landmark for Yankee Fans. The “Court” as we called it–just down the block from the Bronx Courthouse, was not its usual jam-packed self that night, the driving rain keeping most sane folks away. We lingered in a booth for over an hour, talking about little things and big things, and simply enjoying being with a friend I’d known from when we were both 19 years old.

The rain was still coming down in sheets when we dodged under covered doorways and under the El Train to get to the old Yankee Stadium.  We found my son and a group of his friends, sitting in a rain-sheltered section of reserved seats. Several generations of friends, each traveling different paths, were brought together by the prospect of seeing Clemens pitch, watching Jeter hit, and ragging against Boston—a national pastime for New Yorkers.

We talked and ate and drank for another hour or so, watching the rain form little rivers in the tarp on the field, laughing, and basking in the joy of each others’ company. It was a timeless moment, endless youth relived and shared with my son, and I wanted it to last forever. The game was cancelled, but we didn’t care; we celebrated life with each other for hours.  World without end, Amen.


The rain finally stopped that night, long after we left the Stadium, and the following morning, September 11, the sun was sparkling on a crisp and perfect September morning in New York.  Then time stopped, and the world, we once knew, ended.

Twenty years later, I was reminded how blue the sky was over New York City, when we awakened early on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Only this time, it wasn’t a violent storm that cleared the air, and brought such sparkling clarity. 

This time, it was one single wall at the 9/11 Memorial, on the site of where, 57 floors higher, I lived much of my life, working in Tower 2, now referred to as the South Tower.  The underground wall encased a massive tomb, holding the remnants of hundreds of souls who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

On the exterior of the wall was a quotation from Virgil, etched in fragments of steel from the mighty towers that, impossibly, fell that day:  “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”

The quote, coupled with the thought of human remains behind it, was staggering, transporting me back to Jerusalem, to the moment I first witnessed the Yad Vashem Memorial.   It was the wall, the tomb, the letters made of  crumpled World Trade Center steel, but most of all, it was the patches of blue squares–of varying shades of blue, really–which made me gasp.  

Each square patch of blue—one for every human being taken from us on 9/11—was a different tone, a different color, a different thought, representing all the individual, and collective memories we shared on the final morning of our youth, when Derek Jeter still represented our dreams of what was possible. 

###

Growing The Gratitude Tree.

The Gratitude Tree.

Not too long ago, I gave my oldest granddaughter a “Gratitude Tree.”

It resembled a punch-out, paper doll tree and came with many little, paper green leaves, each no bigger than a thumb-print, on which notes of gratitude could be written, to remind us of what we can be thankful for each day.

I promised my granddaughter that she would earn a dollar for each “gratitude” leaf she completed. She asked if she could enlist the help of her younger sister, age 10, and if they could split the proceeds. I loved the idea of their collaboration and said, “Of course!”

I simply wanted them to stop and take a moment — a deep breath, really — to think about all they have to appreciate, even during the most daunting of times.

The Gratitude Tree sat quietly in its dark, slender box for a few months, while the two girls finished school and dealt with a some significant changes going on in their lives. I knew that asking a 12 and 10-year old to pause for a few minutes, and step off of the quickly spinning merry-go-round of everyday life was asking a lot, so I didn’t put any deadline on the activity. It was a process I wanted to last a lifetime.

“When you get to it, you get to it,” I said. Gratitude shouldn’t be forced, even though I believe it should be positively reinforced.

Finally, in the middle of the summer of 2021, they set up “The Tree” on my oldest granddaughter’s dresser. A few of the delicate, laser-cut paper branches broke off, but that didn’t deter them.

“A few of the branches broke, Grampy,” my oldest granddaughter told me when I noticed The Gratitude Tree atop her dresser. “But we did the leaves, anyway.”

I was delighted by their determination to carry out the task, and devote, even a nano-second of their precious, fleeting time to think about these things. The results were both revealing and remarkable.

They wrote on each leaf some of the obvious sources of things they were thankful for: “Sisters, (including their almost 6-year old youngest)” “Dad”, “Mom,” “Cats,” “Friends”, “Family,” “Our Planet,” “Food”, and their “Guinea Pigs,” but other entries blew me away.

“Joe Biden,” said one; “AOC,” another, harking back to their pre-COVID summer visit to AOC’s Washington, DC. Congressional Office. These girls are very aware of the world around them, and they LOVE having female she-roes.

“Pride,” one wrote; “Loyalty,” “Kindness,” “Honesty” and “Love.” “Maia,” wrote another, referring to an Oakland-raised pop star named MXMtoon, and “Liv” — a reference to the star of “High School Musical,” Olivia Rodrigo. One proudly wrote “Entrapta,” the non-binary cartoon character who also happens to be Autistic.

“Everyone is Equal” one leaf read; “Doctors,” “The Moon & the Stars,” “Water,” “Trees,” “Birds,” and “Hamilton,” read several others. Lin Manual-Miranda would be grateful to make it in such sublime company.

Rather than curse the darkness of a year of distance learning, my granddaughters gravitated to the light, expressing gratitude for, “Zoom,” “Prodigy,” “Tech,” and “I-Message.” Extraordinary. No time for negativity.

“Books,” and “School,” also made their Tree of Gratitude, as did, “Teachers,” “Dad’s Friends,” and “Bees” — even though they panic when yellow-jackets buzz too close for comfort. They get the bigger picture.

I rewarded them for their beautiful green leaves of Gratitude, but my reward, of being privy to their thoughts, and dreams and the inner workings of their hearts, and being part of their lives was much, much greater. For that, I’m grateful for being alive to watch them grow.