The other day I was having a discussion with a coworker about her husband taking vitamins. She remarked that it had been a constant battle over the years to get him to take them with any consistency. Now however, 6 months or so after the birth of their first child, he seems a bit more willing. “He knows how important it is to me– I told him I need him to be around for the long haul,” she explained. Although I don’t have a child, I connected with her immediately; I too place such an importance on both my husband and I taking good care of ourselves, and for much the same reason.
As usual in the office, we got interrupted. We were easily sidetracked and moved on quickly to another topic once we resumed our chatter. Still, her sentiment stuck in my mind. It made me relieved to hear someone else express concern over the longevity of their partner; it enters my mind daily but I rarely hear other people bring it up. Some days I think I am far more fearful of the world than other people; other days I think maybe I’m just more honest and vocal about all my anxieties.
“We were going to get a house somewhere in a rural setting–she’d have her animals, we’d have little trails we could hike…I was going to kayak.”
When I first sat down with Vincent, or “Vin”, as I affectionately call him, I felt open to exploring the wide variety of topics we could and did chat about. He was born and raised in Little Italy on the east side of Manhattan–Elizabeth St. between Grand and Broome to be exact. He could captivate me for hours with stories about Sonny Indelicato or one of the other two guys that lived in his building before they got “whacked” by other members of the mob.
I was also anxious to hear about his 35 years as a teacher in the New York Public School system. I was right in suspecting that teaching in Sunset Park, Brooklyn from the early 1970’s till 2002 yielded some colorful stories. Becoming an educator to avoid the Vietnam War and teaching Sex-Ed at the onset of the AIDS epidemic is material you’d hope for when setting out to pen the next great screenplay.
It seemed even more obvious to prod Vin on his current station in life as a Bikram Yoga instructor–after all, that’s how I know him. For almost six years I’ve been dragging my butt out of bed a couple times a week to make his 630am class. On a normal day, I find myself running to catch my train or ferry to work–my tardiness a consequence of not being able to resist stopping and chatting with him for a few minutes before I leave. He’s unlike any other instructor I’ve had; I’ve never known anyone who can bring enthusiasm like that into a room before the sun has even come up.
So much material yet my mind gripped almost completely upon just one particular aspect of Vincent’s life. I get this way sometimes–consumed by something I see in someone, something I fear or don’t know. Before I got sober I was OBSESSED with a new coworker at my job who didn’t drink. I didn’t understand–I didn’t know anyone who didn’t drink. Why did he not drink? What did he do with his time if he didn’t drink? How could he not drink? I’ve been haunted by people who seem to be living out an existence that I cannot bare to fathom.
Vin’s wife died of breast cancer at the age of 57. He has been living without her for the past 13 years.
“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before; I’d seen my mother die, and other people–but this, this is your life’s partner.”
Vincent’s wife–Shirley Ford Davis Nicoletti, had metastatic breast cancer, which meant it had begun to spread to other parts of her body including her lungs and her bones. The doctor told them both from the beginning that her cancer was stage IV, but Vin says his wife never heard it. “She would ask me ‘what stage do I have?’, and I would tell her stage II,” he admitted. He knew if he told her the truth, all hope might be lost. “I didn’t want her to give up; I wanted her to keep fighting,” he told me, remembering. Shirley did fight, with unending procedures and chemotherapy and transplants and alternative holistic approaches–she fought for 5 years until she finally lost her battle.
“That last night I was there–I was there with her all night until she died–she died that morning,” Vin told me slowly. He was in shock. During the 5 years she was sick he had continuously told himself that she was not dying; he had never resigned to the idea that she would be gone. “They gave me all her clothes in a bag…I left Coney Island Hospital…the sun was shining–but it was like I was in shadow.” Vin went back to his apartment and locked the door, drew the shades, and sat on his couch for 3 days. No radio, no TV, no contact with the outside world–he just sat.
After 3 days he thought to himself–“do I want to die too?”. He decided he did not. His instincts for survival had always been physical; he climbed on his bike and set out for a ride. “I remember crying all the way to Prospect Park,” he told me–I listened, fighting against a single tear that longed to burst from the corner of my eye. He went around the circle in the park a few times and went back home and sat on the couch. He shrugged… “I thought, that wasn’t too bad, maybe I’ll do it again.” Thus began his period of grieving.
Vin admits that for 2-3 years, the last few hours played on his brain. He could hear her saying, “I’m frightened.” He remembers comforting her, replying, “don’t be frightened, I am with you.” “You don’t expect your wife is dying at 57,” he told me. As if his loss was not enough to manage, Vincent was facing another huge change. “My wife died the same exact summer that I retired from work–35 years on the job then suddenly, no job, no wife.” At times it seemed like too much to bear; there was a sense of profound loneliness that he had never experienced before.
Still, looking back, Vin says that he really needed that period of grieving. All that time he spent alone was really worth something. He says he now notices that often when someone loses a loved one, they try and surround themselves with relatives and other people. While he understands the initial coping, he finds most people are running away from their grief. He frowns on this and tells me, “sooner or later it’s all going to come to you that the person is gone and never coming back.” He feels like once someone can face that reality, they can get closer to moving on and carving out a new life for themselves.
“If you are strong enough, you learn to live again; I can’t do things half way–I had to embrace life or not embrace it…for whatever time I have left, I am giving it my best shot.”
I’m afraid I won’t get off the couch. My biggest fear in life is not rejection or failure–it’s losing my partner. Pretty early on in my relationship with my husband there came a point where the butterflies I would get when I would see him were mixed with a thumping in my chest–I suddenly became acutely aware of my own heartbeat. That thumping was a knocking; I realized I was opening the door to a love that had the potential to bring me the most joy and the most pain that I might possibly experience in my life. How terrifying it was. How easy it is to understand why so many people are never able to fully commit to another person. There comes a point when you realize that the universe will not allow you to know joy without knowing pain as well; I think choosing love is the ultimate acceptance of that.
Georgia O’Keeffe said something that I think about every single day; I feel it encapsulates the essence of who I am, right now:
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life–and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
The most revealing and definite truth I can offer the world is that I am afraid. The most important promise and commitment I can make to myself is that I will live anyway–I will push through that fear. Of course I spent several years trying to avoid the road blocks, trying to find a shortcut or a way around the fear. Then I learned that the gift on the other side is only there when you walk straight through–and lord knows I’m all about the cash and prizes.
I don’t want to ever have to live without my husband; I don’t want him to ever have to live without me. Sometimes I pray that we’ll die together holding hands in our bed when we are in our nineties. I do realize that I am insane. It’s just that in my mind, it is impossible to make sense of a life without him. Instead of trying to, I ask for a story like Vin’s. I seek out my fear to look it in the eye. I witness that person–living the life I couldn’t fathom– exploding with passion and appreciation for each moment.
Vin reiterates what my husband reminds me of daily–that all we have is right now; that we must strive to capture and live in just this present day. With much verve he explains: “To me, the “meaning of life” is a meaningless question–find a reason to get up tomorrow, there’s your meaning; you carve a meaning out for yourself, it’s not universal.”
These days Vincent is getting up to teach Bikram Yoga. “If there is a meaning of life for me, it’s the joy I get from working with people–trying to let them see the power and strength in themselves; that’s why I do what i do.” Whether he has fallen into both gigs on a whim or not–it’s clear to me this man was born to teach. His Saturday morning classes are packed for a reason. People are coming there for more than just their weekend yoga; they come to laugh, to be motivated, and most of all, to be inspired.
Vin’s also been getting up lately to take acting classes. He has had a passion for the theater his whole life but was discouraged by his parents–“they didn’t want a starving actor for a son,” he told me. Now, he practices monologues and toys with the idea of going on auditions. “I might go for an audition or two– if I could get into a play it would be nice, but I’m not really that concerned, I’m not putting all of the marbles into the basket.”
I think he should put a bunch of marbles in that basket; I think he’s got real talent. It’s been a treat for me to see the joy he gets from acting spill over into his teaching; as if he could get any more positive and entertaining. He’s become one of the most compelling characters in my life; I have no doubt he is ready to engage an even wider audience.
I am so glad he went for that ride that day. I am glad he decided that he wanted to live. I hear people walk out of the studio all the time, talking about Vin and saying, “I hope I’m like that when I am his age.” I hope for that too. I hope I can take each day as it comes, and decide to live, no matter what happens. Vincent is 68 years old; I look at him with wonder, excited to think of all the other things he will accomplish. I know he will keep on going.
“I am not down-beaten,” he tells me. “I am naturally a lover of life, and it’s really quite hard to stifle that.” Yes it is Vin, yes it is.