For most of us who knew her, it was impossible to imagine Lisa sick – before she became sick. To do so would have required a leap of imagination most of us are incapable of, because she was the epitome of health. A sheer cliff or a long hike was a temptation she rarely resisted. It was always this way with her.
My earliest memory of Lisa involved a brief walk when she was, as the proverb has it, “knee high to a grasshopper.”
My mother had said to me in that “suggestive tone” none of us safely ignored, “Why don’t you take Lisa for a walk?” And so I did. She was around 7 at the time, the age of reason.
The walk – from the Pesci homestead on 1 Suffield Street in Windsor Locks, down North Main Street, up Chestnut Street, through Pesci Park, though it was not called Pesci Park at that time, down Center Street, where my Uncle John and Aunt Nellie lived, across North Street and back home, the Grand Central Station of both the Pesci and Mandirola clans – was a trip that would last about a half hour, time enough for Rose to complete whatever task she had that day set herself. It was not washing windows, because I usually did that, while my twin sister Donna and my elder brother Jim loafed and “took their ease,” like Walt Whitman did before stretching himself out in a poem. I should explain that, over the years, there has been a lively debate among the Pesci clan who exactly was loafing and who was working. The dispute is ongoing.
Because Lisa was so tiny, the span between her outstretched legs much shorter than my own, I thought: This is gonna take a while. But I was ready for a leisurely tramp. The night before, I had read portions of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, a text first “suggested” to me by Mrs. Smith, a High School English teacher whose “suggestions” could no more be resisted than those of my mother or father:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
There were woods in Windsor Locks, and a Basin, and a canal, back yards to tramp through on your way to some appointed end, though one had to be very careful whose yard you crossed before arriving at your destination. To cross some yards was to cross the owners of the properties, and some of them were very cross indeed.
Lisa and I took the road more traveled. There was a path leading to the park that my sister and I had crossed daily on our usual route to St. Mary’s School. When I was as young as Lisa – there is about a 15 year difference in our ages – that path was a mystery leading to a mystery. Anything might be at the end of it. Hills are like this; they mask mysteries. Even today, when I see a bare farmer’s hill kissing the sky, I wonder what giants lie behind it. And I could see in Lisa’s eyes as we approached this path the excitement of a mystery lying out of sight – over the hill.
Just before the path was a fierce brook foaming under out feet, then the path. You had almost to turn a corner to meet the path. Trees hid everything. But as you turned the corner, the whole high hill jumped out at you. And this day it surprised us both. Such an autumn I have never seen since. It was as if some fauvist had thrown his paints on the scarlet and yellow trees. Well now, wonder is an emotional stop; the world may have been racing by you like a film unscrolling, but wonder stops it so your soul can take a picture of it. The hill was golden, the trees were blazing.
“Look, Lisa. Look at the leaves.”
And she: “They die into such pretty colors.”
It’s not often you have an opportunity to take a stroll with a seven year old poet.
Since then, Lisa many times took the road less traveled, tramping here and there, climbing sheer rock cliffs for the purpose, I liked to think, of spying on the giants on the other side of the hill.
She lived deliberately; she fronted the essential facts of life – never more than when she was attacked internally.
The hateful thing about Lisa’s sickness was that it rendered her untouchable. Her immune system was compromised by her treatment. For more than a year, she could be touched only with words.
Lisa died on Sunday, March 2 at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Her family – mother and father, brothers and sister, sisters-in-law, brother-in-law, a slew of nieces and nephews, aunts and uncle – had all visited her. In the face of a vicious assault of cancer -- three separate assaults, in fact, each more aggressive than the one preceding it – we were all helpless.
My wife Andree pointed to this helplessness when she wrote Madelyn and Jim, Lisa’s mother and father, “The silence you hear from us (all us others, who are NOT you, Madelyn and Jimmy) or the vague, unpenetrating, inadequate words we stumble to utter – Well, it’s all we can do, too. We do it for Lisa and for you. We love, that’s all, and let our hands fall to our sides – and pray.”
Every day of her visits, her sister Jennifer read to Lisa the communications she was receiving, sometimes hourly, from her many friends and co-workers.
One of her friends sent her a picture, hauntingly beautiful, of fresh snow that had fallen on an empty street in New York, guarded by two soldierly rows of trees. In that white expanse, one could almost hear the murmuring of angels, who speak to us when we are helpless, our arms dropped uselessly by our sides.
The picture was captioned, “The snow is waiting for you.”
Lisa heard all the hopes and encouragements of her friends and family. She felt the warmth of all. She attended to the words of her friends.
She saw the picture of the snow that was waiting for her. Her breath filled the plastic oxygen mask she defiantly removed. She smiled. And the rest of us prayed.
Ah yes, but God has so arranged the universe that all bright memories are prayers. And every word directed to you my dear Lisa, who fronted life bravely and who, though suffering much and long, still smiled at autumn leaves, is a prayer that travels two ways – first to you from those who love you, your family and so many good friends, and then through your suffering to One who paints the leaves in brilliant colors.