On Showing Up

My cousin Joe passed away two weeks ago–he was 80, and had been in diminishing health. Joe and his wife, Ro, are some of my favorite people in the extended family: funny and smart and to me, growing up, the epitome of class. Ro was gorgeous and always put-together, and Joe was friendly and interested. They were loving, funny, Ro dry and sarcastic, Joe silly. She’s Italian and petite, he Irish, tall and lanky. They made me feel comfortable, even when I was young girl quaking with discomfort in large gatherings of strange relatives. But here’s the thing I always admired most about both of them: Joe and Ro were “show-uppers.” Joe and Ro were the distant cousins who come to everything, surprising us every time, even though we shouldn’t have been: all the family events, big and small, no matter the distance. When we threw my mom a surprise birthday dinner in Hershey last December, they were there, despite the late hour, the dark roads from Wynnewood, and Joe’s declining health. When my father died nine years ago, they drove out not only to my dad’s funeral mass in Carlisle, but then again to his burial in Arlington National Cemetery two weeks later, just to turn right around and drive back home. A few years ago, there they were again, in Wisconsin, for my brother’s wedding. Paul had been so upset because a lot of our family hadn’t been able to make it. But Joe and Ro? Well, they hopped into their car and made a road trip out of it. They were there.

I think about them a lot with regard to this: this showing up. When I worked in Philly, where my mother’s family grew up, I remember going to a lot of funerals, often showing up by myself in my ancient Honda Accord. They were for relatives I didn’t know well, but missing them was something I wouldn’t consider. Funerals are where you get to know the family you never normally see (and, frankly, learn about the ones you won’t see anymore). There’s more listening. Sometimes I became the chaperone: I still remember my horror after I accidentally blew through a stop light in Upper Darby back when I was in my early 20s and driving to a post-burial reception: I had my grandmother Peggy, her sister and brother-in-law Nellie and Ike, along with their cousin Peg Connor in the car with me, all packed in, a bunch of white-topped heads lined up in the backseat. I could’ve gotten the whole lot of them killed. I’d been too busy listening to them, and they were too busy laughing and gabbing to notice that I’d almost hastened their own funerals. Once my heart rate settled, it became one of my best memories of living around the Philly family. 

Showing up. I do less of it now, physically and otherwise: I’m terrible at letter-writing, note-sending, contact-keeping. I routinely try to back out of most social gatherings even though I know I’ll enjoy them once I get there. But Joe and Ro made it look easy, and they’re right: it really isn’t hard. Showing up is important. Showing up is what keeps us connected and lets people in and keeps the relationships strong. David once told me years ago that the way we make people feel is exactly how we show we love them. 

Showing up is what people remember.

My little family showed up at Joe Nagle’s funeral last Friday. It was one of the largest I’ve attended–Joe was an Army vet, a fire company president, involved in his church, a proud Villanova graduate. When he retired from his insurance career, he drove a school bus for special needs students. His whole life was about showing up (I can barely get to preschool pick-up on time), and people paid him back in kind. No one welcomed the sadness, nor the inability to comfort Ro and her adult children. Barring one other child, Saoirse, Quinlan and Cian were the only kids there. But look at Joe and Ro. They led us by example, so we do the same for them. We’ll do the same so that our children will one day follow suit.We’ll continue to show up.