When you fall in love, and I mean really in love, you want to know everything about the person. The first thing you want to connect to is their family.
I met my husband’s family after I heard the stories. Stephen was born first, with Mario close behind, followed by Anthony. Their father, Chev, left a year after Anthony was born, more or less, to pursue a career on Broadway. My ever-capable, ever-strong Cynthia (my mother-in-law) had the task of raising three boys to herself. Cynthia became a computer programmer for UC Berkeley (a new concept and a new occupation at the time), and after school, the three boys were left to themselves, getting into childhood mischief, as is to be expected.
It wasn’t until their step-father came into the picture that all of this changed. Cynthia decided to marry again, mainly to import a father-figure into the picture. She chose a strong German man named Al Warias. His authority and strictness had mixed results: it caused the eldest (Stephen) to rebel and the younger two (Mario and Anthony) to become pretty disciplined. Stephen joined Chev in New York City shortly after said rebellion, and was pretty much non-existent in the younger two boys’ lives.
Al died of cancer in 1970 (when Mario was 16), and Cynthia was left alone again, raising two young men instead of boys. Mario and Anthony were the quintessential teen brothers: fighting, playing, sharing Lucky Charms, and competing for their Mom’s attention.
The two were the same in many ways yet worlds apart in others. Mario was tall and thin; Anthony was shorter and muscular. They both were athletic: Mario a free-style wrestler and Anthony, a running back in football. They excelled in school, attracted girls and stayed away from the newly-emerging drugs.
Competitive beyond understanding, they were each other’s benchmarks until Anthony was injured playing football.
Because of his speed and great strength, Anthony annihilated the enemy on the field. During his very first game, after wiping out the offensive line of the opposing team, their less-than-scrupulous coach instructed one of his players to “take out the knees” of the hot-dog running back. Anthony went from normal to disabled in one play. He never returned to the field and took six months before he could walk properly – all while he was in high school. For the rest of his life, Anthony had knee problems.
As with most things, the subject wasn’t talked about too much between brothers. Mario moved on to college and became a champion wrestler (which scholar-shipped him through University) and married Cathy, his first wife, an All-American blonde girl next door. Anthony dated her sister, but eventually met (and married) an athletic fellow-student named Shirley.
For me, the time of young families being built was reduced to snapshots and I was left to fill in the details: Anthony and Shirley, Mario and Cathy around a table with Cynthia. Anthony and Shirley in New York City, smiling with each other. Anthony and Shirley holding their new son, Evan. Mario and Cathy holding baby David. Anthony and Shirley with Renee; Cathy with David and Joe. Cathy with David. Mario with his police dog, Dux. Cathy with David and Joe. Being the outsider who came later, I knew the stories: Mario, caught up in his career (and other things), left Cathy and the boys. Anthony and Shirley moved to the border of California, where Anthony became a US Border Patrol Officer. Mario (also a Peace Officer) patrolled the Central Coast, and then moved to the Northern San Joaquin valley, where we met.
Here is where we fell in love. Here is where I met his mother (who loved me), his cousin (like his sister), and even his father (Chev, still a Broadway actor) and his “step-mother” (Alice, a Broadway actor, herself). I got to know his sons, David and Joe,and fell in love with them as well. He met Vince, and unconsciously treated him as his own blood, not just mine. It was much later that I met Anthony... and only then that I felt unstable and insecure.
|Evan and Renee, Anthony's kids|
with Baskin and Robin, Bassetts
Anthony didn’t bother much to connect with me, probably thinking I was another blip on the girlfriend screen. The day I met him, I had popped over to Mario’s place with Vince during the early morning hours. Anthony was scheduled to leave mid-day.
While Mario made breakfast for all of us, he tried to involve us in mutually inclusive conversation. Anthony seemed uninterested, and after awhile of talking only with Mario, he went to sit in the living room.
I wasn’t going to fall for the silent treatment, and decided to follow him.
“I heard you can burp the alphabet,” I said spontaneously, bringing up an old, manly, brotherly subject. I heard Mario laugh in the kitchen.
“Yeah?” Anthony answered, nonchalantly. “That was a long time ago.” I couldn’t tell if he was amused.
“Are you out of practice?” I smiled, not letting it drop.
“Mario, what have you told this girl about me?” Anthony yelled at his brother in the kitchen.
“Breakfast!” Mario yelled back.
As I plated some scrambled eggs, I heard Anthony over my shoulder: “A B C D E F G...” all in a low, continuous burp. I almost wet my pants laughing. Mario laughed as well, and as I looked up, Anthony watched me with a wry smile and a foreign, questioning look on his face.
Since then, I have seen that look many, many times.
For some reason, Anthony’s dead-pan comedy was the funniest thing I ever heard. Combined with that, I am not shy to laugh. I am kind of known for it. It comes out in a loud burst and continues with waves of high-and-low pitched guffawing. Once in a crowded elevator in San Francisco, Anthony remarked on a poster of breakfast that was strategically placed to make someone’s mouth water. Since we had just eaten a heavy dinner, it looked sickening. Anthony agreed , “Just what I feel like right about now: Breakfast!” It hit me so funny and I started to laugh. Most people in the elevator were startled. I could hear Anthony apologizing to all of them as I guffawed my way out at the next floor.
|Anthony, Shirley, Janet and Mario 1999|
Yesterday, our email contained a different picture of him: frail, jaundiced and thin. The picture was taken from a hospital bed, dying in a way unthinkable for such a strong man. Shirley had sent it, from her phone, given to us at Mario’s request. His desire to see his brother was understandable: it was hard to comprehend such a severe change in such a short amount of time.
“I have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Anthony had told us in June, over the phone, from the hospital. I instantly burst into tears. What else?? What else could happen to Anthony? It had been a hard, hard year for our family, and a hard few years for Anthony. We were removed from everything, doing our work here in South Africa.
Anthony never did well with my tears, but quietly let me get composed. Mario listened, over my shoulder, in stunned shock.
“What’s the prognosis? When did you find out?” I asked.
Anthony explained. He had been experiencing strange pain and finally went to the doctor. The doctor ran some tests, and came up with this: a raging Non-Hodgkin’s...in its advanced stages. Very aggressive. Those words hung, like icicles in the air: very aggressive.
The doctor asked Anthony why he had waited so long before coming in.
“He asked me how I could take the pain....” Anthony told us.
The doctor didn’t know that Anthony knew pain like he knew how to breathe. His life of pain began with the football injury, and then came the quad accident while working for the Border Patrol. Then the assorted other injuries. He was the King of Pain, living with it, like a ghost, ever since I knew him.
When we hung up the phone, I burst into deeper tears. Anthony had told us he wouldn’t be “traditionally treating” it. The cancer was only semi-responsive to traditional cancer treatments and both Mario and Anthony had seen Al, Cynthia and finally Chev die of cancer and its treatments up close. Because of its aggression, and its dubious results, Anthony’s choice of treatment was more holistic and resigned to the inevitable, which would come sooner, rather than later.
“I have to go out there,” Mario said, after the call.
I stuttered in my thoughts... We had such a limited budget. In full-time ministry, there are so many variables. Our set income is only Mario’s pension, and that is barely enough on most days. Still, we knew that God would find a way.
As soon as he found out Mario was coming out, he said a telling thing to Mario: “Let’s have beer and cigars.”
Anthony didn’t smoke or drink. He and Mario used to do this in their early college days, for a reckless departure from their schedules. Since those days, both men became solid. They shared a deep faith in God that bound them together. They lived on opposite ends of the world, but held very similar beliefs. Asking Mario to a beer and cigar party meant something deeper: “Let’s have fun, just us, as brothers.”
Mario visited and took a gazillion pictures. The pictures were the same old Anthony. Blonde, wry smile, tough-as-nails. From the visit, one video is very dear to my heart. It is of the infamous cigar and beer party on Anthony’s back porch. Anthony and Mario are smoking cigars with Anthony’s new son-in-law, Joshua. Renee (now 25, and married to him) was filming her father and her uncle trying to teach young Josh (also a non-smoker) how to blow the perfect “O” from a cigar puff.
In it, the exchange of Anthony being funny and Mario being the big brother are reduced in two minutes: this time involving Josh (who is relatively silent) and Buster, their beloved Boxer. It is a reduction of who they are, at their most relaxed.
It was taken less than six months ago. Less than six months before today. In that short amount of time, the lymphoma has altered my brother-in-law's body with the bleakness that we first heard of it: very aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma taking him out at the knees.
Now I am typing from my counter in our cottage here in Johannesburg. I am in my morning bathrobe. I look up at the clock and see that is 1:30 in the morning in Arizona.
Now, my beloved sister-in-law waits at his bedside and talks to him, knowing he can hear much better than communicate. Now, my niece is working, even though she is expecting her first child in March. Now my nephew might be sleeping... might be with Shirley. He has the unfortunate assignment of being strong for everyone.
Now we are here.
So far removed from the world where Anthony is....
To see the youtube of the "Cigar O's" click here
To see the youtube of the "Cigar O's" click here