I wasn’t prepared to let Lou Campanile into my life.
Yet I also wasn’t ready to lose him.
Lou, my mom’s longtime companion and, for more than 15 years, a vital presence in the life of my brother and I, passed away suddenly on April 30.
Two days after my mom told me a biopsy had revealed that an ongoing bout of pancreatitis, which we’d all expected him to recover from, was actually pancreatic cancer, he slipped away, quietly, in no doubt what was one of his last great acts of kindness to us all.
For though losing him so swiftly after such grim news came as a shock, I imagine that Lou, who’d spent a lifetime trying to shield the ones he loved from unnecessary pain, wanted to spare us all the agony of a long goodbye, bereft of hope and a cure for the cancer that would ravage his body, like it did to his dad and younger brother.
Still, the force of my grief has caught me off guard as I also struggle to grasp how he could possibly have gone so quickly, the light that he was to so many extinguished with barely an opportunity to register the thinning of its flame. In the void where his presence once loomed so magnanimously, I’ve longed for more: one more glimpse of him walking through the door, with beaming eyes and eager smile; one more meal together capped by his effusive “that was deee-licious”; one more chance to laugh at the jokes he endlessly recycled or savor his words of encouragement. I wish I could hear the gentle warmth of his voice, even in the garrulousness that sometimes tested our patience, and feel the press of his cheek against mine in the hugs he reached for with unfailing appreciation to be on the other side of the love and affection he so effortlessly dispensed.
Most of all, I long for more of who he was and what he gave to my mom: the way he seemed to stand just a little taller and prouder whenever at her side; the adoration of his gaze, whenever his eyes followed her, lit with a quiet tenderness and protectiveness; the space he allowed for whatever mattered most deeply to her, holding all of those things as closely and carefully as if they were his own …. Lou was the one who brought her flowers for no reason and constantly reminded her of her beauty, the one who never tired of dinners out and long drives to Lancaster and just about any place that included her company. And when she was away, on vacation with girlfriends or visiting family in St. Lucia, though they talked regularly, I thought it sweet that he would also call me, to tell me how much he missed her.
Lou came into our lives at a fragile and complicated time, my parents’ marriage in tatters, my mom trying to fashion a life on her own, with a quaking fortitude, while my brother and I hovered somewhere between denial and a bewildered and pained acceptance of what had long been inevitable. For my mom, he was, at first, a safe, attentive listener. She found she could tell him anything, unburdening both her heart and mind with surprising ease in the face of his nonjudgmental acceptance.
But I wasn’t so sure I wanted anything to do with him. I wasn’t looking for another father, and while I realized the collapse of my parents’ marriage was a combined undoing, I felt a loyalty to my dad that Lou’s appearance seemed to threaten.
Yet he didn’t try to be anything other than a friend to my mom, much in the way he had always gone about life, collecting friends in an ever-expanding tapestry woven from countless acts of generosity and compassion. At his memorial service, among the family and friends in attendance, were many individuals who remembered him for a single caring deed, people he said just the right words to at the right time, who he’d steered in a different direction during a crisis, who he’d sheltered, sometimes in conversation and sometimes under his very roof, when life had battered them down. Lou always had a recommendation, a resource, a gesture or nugget of wisdom to share. Sometimes, despite his own chattiness, what he offered best was silence, lending his ear to anyone, including his real estate clients, who needed that ear to bend.
He had a way of showing up that, despite his towering frame, never felt intrusive or demanding. And this is how I came to let him into my life. He didn’t ask or expect anything of my brother and me. But I saw the way he showed up time and again for my mom, helping her piece together a life worn down by so much cloaked suffering, and eventually, too, her heart. As his presence in her life grew, his kindness quietly leaked into our own.
If he could provide something we needed, he did, whether it was help fixing a car, getting a job, or assembling a piece of furniture. I remember the detailed directions he’d provide for me when I started performing weddings and had to travel to unfamiliar locations, checking in with me along the route to make sure I wasn’t lost, and how he arranged to have me stay at his sister’s house in Maryland following one ceremony so I wouldn’t have to make the long drive home at night. He was there for Betsy, my brother’s wife, when they got married, and Josie, my niece, who, famously loved her outings with grandma and Uncle Lou.
And when my brother and I had our struggles or floundered amid our mistakes, he never criticized or forced a solution. Instead, he simply let us know he was on our side. When I finally walked away from a toxic relationship years ago, Lou, for weeks afterward, went out of his way to affirm the good that he saw and appreciated in me. And when my brother’s self-esteem crumbled as he battled an unpredictable illness, it was Lou who bolstered it with his reminder of the geniuses who had suffered the very same thing.
I may have resisted his initial appearance in my life, but I came to view Lou as an angel sent to us exactly when we needed one. I first grew to love him because of the way he loved my mom. But as I crumbled under the weight of a heaving sorrow when I learned of his death, I realized just how much I had come to rely on his presence in my own life — and I was grateful, despite not being able to tell him goodbye, for all the times I’d expressed my love and appreciation to him in the last few years.
Losing Lou still doesn’t feel real to me. But even with the ache of his absence, I realize how blessed we were to know and love such a man. His gentle goodness transformed our lives and healed much of what was broken and mistrusting without our even realizing it. Lou lived by one of his favorite expressions: “Keep the sunny side up.” And like the sun itself, which cannot withhold its light, he tended and warmed our hearts simply by being the man that he was.
– The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times