When I heard that the father of my new business partner Tom Valeri died the other day, I immediately sent off a sympathy card to the Valeri family, with a special note to Tom: “I’m sorry I never got to meet your father, but I am sure there are lots of stories to be told.”
“Lots of stories” may have been an understatement, I thought the next morning when I opened the Trenton Times obituary pages. All I had known about Tom’s father was that he was an accountant — our business directory had listed his office on Scotch Road in Ewing — and that everyone seemed to know him.
When I read the obituary I realized there was more to the story:
“Thomas J. Valeri Sr., 83, of Ewing Township passed away peacefully on Thursday, January 10, at Capital Health Medical Center-Hopewell, Hopewell Township, surrounded by his loving family. Born in Trenton, he resided in Ewing Township for the past 56 years.
“A U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War, Mr. Valeri retired in 1987 after 30 years from the Chubb Corporation and for the past 50 years had been a self-employed tax accountant. Mr. Valeri was active in many civic and charitable organizations throughout the area.
“He was an avid pianist for over 50 years and was the leader of the Tommy Valeri Orchestra, which played throughout the Delaware Valley area. Tom’s passion was music and he composed and copywrote many songs.”
Like so many other business people in the U.S. 1 realm, Tom Valeri Sr. must have had tons of stories not only springing from his business dealings, but also from his avocation — in his case music. Reminiscing with friends and family, I soon heard about how the young Valeri — one of eight or nine children of a Trenton grocery store owner — did work around a neighbor’s house in exchange for free piano lessons.
During the war Valeri was accomplished enough as a musician and bandleader that he was commissioned to entertain the troops at Fort Dix. After the war his gigs included stints with big bands playing in Manhattan. I wish my kids — aspiring musicians — had been around to hear those stories.
Not so many years ago I used to attend funerals pretty much the same way I went to church: Sitting there with my mind frozen, wondering only when it would all be over. Now, maybe because I realize that my own demise is getting literally a day closer with every passing day, I listen attentively at funerals and always seem to walk away with something of value.
I arrived early at Tom Valeri Sr.’s funeral at the Church of the Incarnation on Pennington Avenue in Ewing. I perked up when the priest spoke about Valeri’s marriage of more than 60 years, his role as an “awesome” piano player — and noted that all of that “was only a small part of the story.”
Since I am only now getting to know the Valeri family, I wasn’t sure who the next speaker was, but he referred to Valeri as “Uncle Tom.” After a few wry observations about his late uncle, this nephew moved the conversation to death and dying and our convenient practice of “creating systems and culture that protect us from death — so that we can deny it.”
I pulled an envelope from my pocket and began to take notes. At another point the nephew said: “The link between death and dying is grieving, and that’s something I have seen a lot in 20 years of hospice care. We human beings have the ability to connect with others.”
Hospice. The mention of the word brought back memories of my mother’s death in 1997. Ovarian cancer had taken its toll on her, and after several operations and rounds of chemotherapy the doctor announced there was not much more he could do. He advised that she should seek the support of the very active hospice program in the vicinity of my parents’ senior housing area in Mesa, Arizona.
Hospice, we all knew what that meant. At least we thought we did. The hospice counselor showed up at the door and turned out to be a vibrant 30 or 40-something who had lost her husband to cancer. She was not there to help my mother die. Nor was she there to simply help her make end-of-life decisions. She was there to help her live. “We’re here to open the curtains and let the light in,” she announced in so many words. “We are here to help you do what you really want to do,” she said, sounding like a summer camp counselor trying to lure the shy kids out of their cabin. “Where do you want to start?”
After the funeral I mentioned to some of the Valeri family friends that I wanted to personally thank the hospice counselor for his comforting words. “That’s Cousin Vince,” they said in a knowing tone. “Cousin Vince has quite a story of his own.”
I introduced myself to Vince Corso, who — to save time — referred me to his website, www.fathervince.com. He does indeed have a story: Born and raised in Trenton, entered into the priesthood, excommunicated from the church after he married his wife, and then trained as a certified social worker. Since leaving the priesthood he has worked with homeless and runaway youth; college campus ministries; and currently as manager of spiritual care and bereavement services for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice Care Program.
I thanked cousin Vince for his kind words, and asked him for help fleshing out a quotation he had cited in his remarks from “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the book by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
As I headed back to the office I thought about the important take-aways from the Valeri funeral. First, everyone has some stories, including some that are not immediately obvious. Second, make sure your own story has both meaning and purpose. Finally, advice that my parents gave me but I never followed (to my subsequent regret): If you want to be the most popular guy at the party, learn to play the piano.