Monday, August 10, 2015

Ephemeral and Eternal

Eight nights ago I arrived in Atlanta on business for the week, and by the time I checked in at the hotel and got unpacked, it was after 9:30. Knowing that most restaurants in the area close at 10:00 on Sundays, and not wanting to be "that guy" whose untimely appearance keeps the workers from getting home when they wish, I trudged into the night and moseyed a few blocks to Applebee's -- which may not sound like an inspired dining choice, but at least I knew it stays open late.

After parking myself at the bar and ordering, I took out my cell phone to see what was going on in the world, and scrolling through Facebook I saw something that had been posted more than six hours earlier by a high school friend. It was a shared photo from the Facebook page of Pediatric Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists, which has been in practice in the Tampa Bay Area for years.

But the photo was more than just a photo, for it announced the sudden and unexpected passing of Dr. Peter Orobello. My eyes and heart froze because I knew him to be a very close friend of my sister-in-law's family, and also because I knew of his immense impact on pediatric care in the metropolitan area where I have lived most of my years. My first thought (after oh no!) was that Dr. Orobello simply couldn't be old enough to die.

I do not know precisely how long he practiced medicine, but this shows that he served a quarter-century as a chairman of the Division of Otolaryngology at the esteemed All Children's Hospital. I know that when he moved to Florida from Cincinnati 26 years ago, he needed to have his car transported because it was not fit enough to make the drive -- and I suspect that when he made that move, he was probably saddled with medical school debt and closer to being a pauper than a prince.

Dr. Orobello was a driving force in transforming All Children's from a respected regional facility to a nationally renowned one, which now benefits children from all over and has become part of the Johns Hopkins Health System. Operating on a four-year-old, he performed its first cochlear implant and went on to help some 200 born-deaf children gain the ability to hear. By the time he died, he had performed more than a quarter-million surgeries and one of his patients was my own niece -- a niece born to a different sister-in-law than the one I mentioned earlier.

He and his wife of 31 years, Jill, had six children, one of whom died of an auto-immune disease at the age of 14. Their surviving children are all between the ages of 20 and 27. Last month their first grandchild, Peter Liam, was born -- and yes, Dr. Orobello got to see him.

As you might expect from a man so focused on health, he did all he could to keep himself fit, participating in marathons and going for a run of 20+ miles every weekend. On August 1st, he left his house for one of those runs at around 4:00 a.m. Jill expected him to return at around 9:30, but he never did.

The reason was a massive heart attack that happened around 7:00 in front of a Walgreens drug store. Somebody called 911, but the paramedics' attempts to revive him were unsuccessful; and because he carried no identification while running, the body of this man who was known and loved by many got checked into the hospital as a John Doe. He was just 59 years old.

Speaking to a reporter about her husband's demise, and their son's earlier demise, Jill Orobello referenced her and her children's faith: "God carried us through a lot. Losing our son and their brother, I think it really strengthened all of us. We're all very sad and I am just praying that this too will strengthen us even more than we have been. The outpouring has been heartwarming."

The high school friend whose Facebook photo-share alerted me to Dr. Orobello's death is someone I met 30 years ago, someone born the same year as me. After seeing it, I quickly noticed that it had also been shared by someone Erika and I have known for only a few years, and who is quite younger than we.

*     *     *     *     *

Three mornings ago, while still in Atlanta, I received a text from Erika at 10:20. It said that Grandma had died.

Mary Elizabeth Foley's time of death was 10:18 and she was neither mine nor Erika's grandmother. Rather, she was my brother-in-law's grandmother, but everybody who met her -- and I do mean everybody -- called her Grandma. That, combined with the immediacy with which I learned of her passing, is suggestive of how much everybody cared about her and enjoyed her presence.

Grandma's death was not at all like Peter Orobello's. She was 86 years old, and earlier this year was diagnosed with cancer than was already metastatic. At the time of diagnosis she was told there were no treatment options and given two to three months to live -- which is about how long she made it, but the thing is, for much of that time she did not appear to be sick.

Assuming that I am recalling my information correctly, she spent only a few years less than half of her life as a widow. But she did not let that infect her soul. She always had a spitfire glint in her eyes, and always had a spitfire sound to her voice, and her mind remained sharp as a tack. The last time I saw her, she bent over to Parker and said "Hi Parker, I know your Pop Pop!" -- at once showing that she not only remembered the name of my four-year-old, who shares no blood with her, but that she also remembered the personal vernacular by which he refers to his (step)grandfather.

Grandma's bloodline sprang from the Emerald Isle and she was the prototypical Irish woman. She smoked daily and often slammed down adult beverages into the late hours of Saturday nights, which are also known as Sunday mornings. Yet she always showed up on time for Sunday mass, for her Catholicism was serious and devout, just like that of all "real" Irish women and men.

I remember a New Year's Eve party that happened after Sarah was born, which means that Grandma could not have been any younger than 75. At some time during the night, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" was played very loud and Grandma strode into the middle of the crowd, pumping her fists in the air and dancing with no inhibitions while surrounded by people generations younger than she.

Come Saint Patrick's Day, she would show up at O'Brien's Irish Pub and stay for the long haul, fully capable of drinking most of the other patrons under the table and quite successful at doing so. But she would never brag.

Her dying wish was to make it to a family reunion in upstate New York with her offspring, including grandkids and great-grandkids, in tow. As desired, she made it there and so did they, even though they are numerous and all of them reside in Florida and Texas.

Grandma's passing was the kind you read of in storybooks, the kind that once graced Hollywood's silver screens. The night she returned home to Florida, she laid down in her bed and never awoke. As she lingered in unconsciousness with her body ravaged by tumors, it became obvious that the end of her time on Earth was at hand, so the priest was called to administer last rites, which he came and did. Right after he finished blessing her, she drew her final breath and slipped the surly bonds. I do not believe that to be a coincidence.

Her funeral is scheduled for Friday morning. That evening, a celebration in her honor is scheduled to take place at -- where else? -- O'Brien's Irish Pub. 'Twas her style, after all, and I have no doubt about her salvation.

*     *     *     *     *

2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger remarked that "there is nothing more despicable than an old man who has no other proof than his age to offer of his having lived long in the world."

Peter Orobello did not make it to old age. Mary Elizabeth Foley did. Fortunately, they both leave behind enormous proof not only that they spent time on Earth, but that they spent their time well.

The tide of loving and admiring words that have been spoken of them in recent days speaks for itself, as do the size and reach of their posterities.

Their lives were very different in many respects, but similar in two that are vitally important: Peter Orobello and Mary Elizabeth Foley both enriched, whether for just an hour or for decades on end, the lives of everyone they interacted with, and they both had faith that there is a beneficent divine hand extended to all who are willing to accept it.

In the grand scheme of time, their lives on Earth were fleeting but will continue to echo on Earth through the memories and actions of their families and friends... and their just-begun lives on the other side of the veil will continue for all eternity.

I want to tell them to rest in peace... but I sense it is more accurate to tell them to live in peace, for I know they have reached eternity and found it is not mere blackness... and that makes me grin for them, and for me and my kids, from ear to freakin' ear.

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