This is a condensed story of my dad, Louis Francis Scarnato (or, "Luigi Frangisci Scarrrrnato", as he used to love to pronounce it). Lou spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn, NY. He was the oldest of four children, born to Joseph and Rose Scarnato. During his teenage years, he acquired the nickname of “Screwy Louie”, a name affectionately bestowed on him by his own family. Apparently, my dad went against the grain…he had his own agenda, whatever that was, and he did his own thing apart from the family most of the time. However, he held a very special place in his heart for his beloved grandmother, who lived close by. He would visit her almost every day, plop himself down in her kitchen, and eat her homemade bread that she baked each morning. According to him, he would occasionally miss school in order to spend time with her.
One of the first major life events that sculpted my dad’s future was the death of his grandmother. As the story goes, she died in the kitchen where she spent most of her time, and my father apparently witnessed this horrible scene. I say apparently, because each member of our family has heard a different version of this particular story, but irregardless, his life would never be the same. He had often said that his grandmother was more of a mother to him than his own, and he missed her terribly. He spoke of her even after he was a grandfather himself.
When Lou was 18, he went to a party with several cousins and friends. He noticed a very beautiful, young girl conversing with her friends on the other side of the room, and just knew he had to meet her…but didn’t quite know how to go about it. During the course of the party, a game was played where the girls picked papers out of one hat, and the boys picked papers out of another hat. Each paper in the girl’s hat had an item written on it—for example, “coat”—and the boy’s hat contained papers with things that would go with the items that the girls had, such as “jacket”. The boy and girl who had the similar match would then be coupled off to dance together. Very cunningly, my father found out that the pretty girl’s paper said “brush”…not good, because his paper said “fork”! So he found his friend who had “comb”, and bribed him into switching papers with him! And history was made with a switch of two small scraps of paper. He met the woman who would eventually become his wife—his “Helene”.
At nineteen, my father joined the Air Force and went off to do his duty in World War 2. He flew thirteen combat missions, crashing once and finishing his tour of duty with many, many stories that he would tell for years to come. When he came home, he married Helene (who eventually took the "e" off the end of her name), and they began a life together that would produce two children (myself being one of them), and that would last until she died of cancer and was buried on their 40th wedding anniversary in 1985.
My dad loved to perform. He taught himself to read music and play the piano, and wrote several songs throughout his life, including “My Helene”, which he had copyrighted and published. He was a master at “boogie woogie”: his jazzy style could make anyone tap their toes and jump out of their seat. The piano literally bounced up and down when he played! Ironically, his younger brother actually became a famous comedian, working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. My father often tagged along with his brother and loved to be a part of this stellar crowd. No matter what, however, my dad never once showed any envy or jealousy toward his beloved brother. He was always happy for him, even though deep down we knew he must’ve wanted even a little taste of fame for himself.
Lou plugged away at being an engineer. The man could fix anything, and often did…there was always someone calling our house with a request for him to come over and fix a washing machine, a dryer, a dishwasher…and he would be more than happy to stop whatever he was doing and help them out. His sense of direction was unmatched…he loved maps, and could get himself anywhere without making a mistake. However, he did tend to suffer from extreme road rage, and would drive 40 minutes out of his way to chase someone who cut him off, being sure to use his extended vocabulary of curse words the whole time. We’re not quite sure why he did this; but it seemed to satisfy some primal urge inside of him, and he eventually would calm down and get back on track!
Yes, his temper was very intimidating sometimes. Although he never laid a hand on me as a child, there wasn’t one time that he yelled at me that I didn’t wet my pants! He didn’t yell often, but when he did, watch out! True to his “screwiness”, within five minutes of him causing me to empty my bladder, he would be sheepishly laughing and wondering how I could be so scared of him. The man truly had no idea that he could be scary; he honestly didn’t view himself that way! Unfortunately, this might be the reason some people call me “Looney Lisa”.
Although I could go on and on with endless stories of my dad (there are always future posts to write), let’s fast forward into the future a little, after my mom had died. My father loved my mother. He really, truly did. He was not always the best-behaved husband; he did like to drink a little too much sometimes. But when that woman was sick, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her. After her death, he went into a depression that seemed to last for years.
Eventually, he acquired a rental apartment in a senior complex. This literally saved his life—he began to perform at holiday functions, and helped organize a comedy/musical troupe that traveled to different senior centers throughout our area. He was THE MAN. There wasn’t one woman who didn’t want to be with my dad…his white hair, his impeccable dress…and he always smelled really good, to boot! But one woman caught his eye, and since her name was “Helen”, he decided that this relationship was meant to be.
Lou and Helen carried on a little love affair for several years at the senior center before deciding to move to Florida together. My brother and I were not thrilled with this arrangement; Helen didn’t want to get married because she was still collecting social security from, um, one of her former husbands. She wasn’t the warmest of human beings, and we weren’t really sure what her intentions were concerning my father. But being the stubborn Italian that he was, he went anyway, and they purchased a small home on the East coast.
My dad didn’t visit too often once he moved, but he seemed happy and was continuing to delight people with his piano playing at the clubhouse, and keeping busy by playing golf, riding his bike and working as a “greeter” at Wal-Mart—the perfect job for him, being that he was so outgoing. Over the course of the next couple of years, we noticed that he was drinking a little more, and calling to complain about his companion after imbibing in one too many. It seemed he was having an issue over her refusal to marry him, to really commit. Little did we know what was to come.
In his 75th year, at a holiday party at the clubhouse down the road, he began to argue with Helen. He drank more martinis than I care to mention and became agitated and obnoxious, as he often did if he drank anything other than beer. Helen became annoyed at him, and walked home from the party. My father drove home a short time later, pulling the car so far up the driveway that he almost went through the house. He stumbled out of his car; wobbling, he lost his balance and fell head first into the windshield. That blow most likely knocked him out, and he fell down onto the cement. Watching all this from her window, Helen decided that she was going to leave him there rather than see if he was okay. A short time later, some neighbors knocked on her door to inform her that he was lying in the driveway, and only then did she make an effort to bring him inside. Nothing was done for my father. No ambulance was called. He was put to bed, and that was that. He wasn’t himself the next day, or the day after that; by day three, he was wetting himself and he didn’t know his name. Helen finally got him to the hospital, where it was discovered that he had a huge hematoma on his brain due to the fall. Surgery was imminent. Only then did she call me to tell me the whole saga, and I was quite surprised by her honesty.
He seemed to make it through the surgery with flying colors; his speech was a little slow, and he was unable to move as quickly as he once had. He seemed on the road to recovery until he developed more blood on his brain, and had to have another surgery. During this period, I would fly down and visit him several times, each time my heart breaking more at his deterioration. Eventually, he recovered enough that Helen thought it would be a good idea if he flew up to New York for my son’s First Communion.
The last time my father had visited , about six months before his accident, he sat at my piano and played for what seemed like hours. He had on his Izod sweater and his neatly pressed jeans, and his thick, white “combover” made him look ten years younger than what he actually was (he learned how to “fake” having hair the professional way from Frank Sinatra’s stylist years before…this wasn’t your everyday, greasy, three-haired “combover”). But the man who came off the plane in a wheelchair was feeble and old-looking; there was no hair on the top of his head, only scars from the surgeries. His legs were skinny, his trunk was puffy. But then, there it was: That crooked, warm smile and the slurred joke about not being able to go to the bathroom for three hours. He was still Lou.
He was still able to walk short distances, and he enjoyed himself at the communion and several other outings during his week-long stay. He went back to Florida with a good attitude, and I really felt that there was hope that he would improve. I was wrong.
More blood developed on his brain, and he had to have another surgery. He then had several “mini-strokes”, and really started to deteriorate to the point that he could no longer walk or use the bathroom. Helen did her best to take care of him; I believe that she felt guilty for what she had (or hadn’t) done several years before on that fateful night. But eventually, he became too much for her to handle, and he had to go into a nursing home. The last time we visited him as a family, he was unable to remember my name…he knew that he knew me, he just couldn’t place where he knew me from. When I told him I was his daughter, I was never really sure if he was telling the truth that he remembered me. He didn’t remember his grandkids, and he especially didn’t remember my husband or his children, either. But he was so pleasant and kind during our visit…he didn’t speak much, but when he did, he always tried to have a humorous demeanor about him. Once when he dozed off, we spoke with his roommate, who was listening to Frank Sinatra CD’s. He told us how he loved to listen to Frank, and other artists from that era. I said to him, “Well, then, you must LOVE my father’s stories about Frank Sinatra!” He looked at me curiously, as if he had no clue what I was talking about. I added, “I’m sure my father told you about his brother, the comedian, and all of his Sinatra stories?” His roommate looked at me sadly and said, “Your father doesn’t talk.” I knew then and there that Lou was no longer himself…only a mere shell of the vibrant life force that had graced this earth for 83 years.
Last December 31st, Helen called me to tell me that my dad wasn’t doing well. They thought he had pneumonia, and it didn’t look good, but he had pulled out of pneumonia before and she wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The next morning, on New Year’s Day, I called the hospital and spoke with his nurse. She told me that he was probably not going to make it this time, and made it clear that he could last a day, several days, maybe a week. I hung up the phone sadly. This was how it was going to end…and the next time I saw my father, it would be in a casket. Something came over me, and I immediately called the airline to get on the next flight. I made arrangements for my kids, and decided to fly myself down to Florida for 24 hours. I just knew I had to be with my dad, to see him one last time.
I always flew into Orlando airport when I visited my dad. There was an airport closer to the nursing home, but it was small and inefficient, and I couldn’t fly on Delta or Jet Blue to get there. Orlando was an hour away from the nursing home, so I knew once I got off that plane that I had to bolt to the rental car booth and pick up my vehicle. Of course, there was a problem with the car they assigned me, and I had to wait several minutes for them to get me another one. I felt anxious, like time was wasting away, and I tried to calm myself down so that I could drive the dark, desolate Bee Line Expressway with a clear head.
I drove for a little over and hour, and finally found the hospital after accidentally going in the direction of the nursing home by habit. I parked the car and ran into the emergency entrance, the only entrance that was open, being that it was now 11pm. I inquired with some very kind security gentlemen as to how to get to the second floor, and they pointed me in the right direction. When I got to the second floor nursing station, a quiet, soft-spoken nurse asked me who I was there to see. When I told her “Lou Scarnato”, she held my hand and looked at me. “I want you to know that he’s nearing the end,” she softly said. “I didn’t want you to be surprised and I wanted you to be prepared for that when you saw him.” I thanked her, and assured her that I knew he wasn’t doing well and that’s why I made the trip down.
The hospital was quiet and peaceful. There was soft lighting and remnants of Christmas still decorating the counters and moldings. I had never seen a carpet throughout a hospital, but this place seemed more like an upscale hotel with its hunter green and gold, grand-designed wall-to-wall. The nurse walked me to my father’s room, which was dimly lit, the window curtain still opened to the black night outside. My father lay still and quiet, his mouth open as if he were about to snore. “Oh!!” she yelped, and stopped in her tracks. “…I think he just passed!”
“…Right NOW??” I said unbelievably. “You mean, just this minute?!?”
“Yes, yes…I was just in here a half-hour ago! He must’ve waited until you got here.”
Well, well, I thought. Isn’t that just like Screwy Louie? Always in a rush to go where he wanted, when he wanted. He didn’t want to wait anymore. He wanted to be with Helene. He wanted to be with his parents, with his beloved grandmother…even his pets, animal lover that he was. Couldn’t he wait just five minutes longer? But it dawned on me. He did wait. He waited for me to take that three-hour flight. He waited for me to drive an hour down that dastardly Bee Line Expressway; he waited for me as I got my streets mixed up once I got into town. He waited until I got to the hospital…and waited until I got to his room. Yes, he did wait for me. I walked over to his body, still warm with tiny beads of sweat on his forehead. I kissed him and gave him a hug. I spoke to him and thanked him for waiting for me to get there. Then I looked out the window into the still of the night and imagined my father and my mother, hand in hand, waving to me from outside. I knew with all of my heart that she had come to take him to his new home, and I felt great peace.
I admit, I did think to myself, “What a way to start the New Year.” But in essence, I knew that the year was starting off on a positive note, as strange as that sounds. My father could finally be Lou again. He was finally free of living in the prison of his own, non-functional body. He was at peace with God, whom he loved and respected his whole life. And that led our family to peace.
During the moment of worship usually reserved for prayer at his wake, the priest stated that instead of the usual spiritual music that he normally played, he decided to find another piece that he felt would better suit Lou. He asked us to bow our heads in prayer, and clicked the “play” button on his tape player. To our surprise, a piano started to play the most lively, fun-loving “boogie-woogie” music we had heard since the days that my father had played for us! And I knew that wherever Lou Scarnato was, he was playing once more.
Louis Francis Scarnato: April 2, 1922—January 1, 2006. Happy one-year anniversary in heaven, Daddy.