Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Power to Change Lives; The Power of One

Dear Lauren (and blog entry readers),

This picture is a photo taken at my wedding in May of 2000. Our late Italian grandparents (Cottini/Gallanati) are at my side and my parents on the outside of the photo. In this photo my grandmother is squeezing my elbow. Her way of saying she is really excited and happy. Grandpa Cottini is in a tuxedo that I was able to convince him was "free". (Sorry for lying Grandpa C...I really paid for it. I knew that your suit {only suit} wasn't fitting as well as it might and I wanted you to be comfortable at the wedding; besides, everyone would see where I got my hairline and dashing good looks! I don't think he would be too upset at me.)

During stories about my grandmother's childhood (these life experiences so horrible she didn't talk much about them) my grandmother would say, "I simply decided that I have the power to change my life and my family's life. I am only one person, but I am one person. The change will start with me and my family." Pretty profound for a lady who really didn't have a lot of formal education and never read self help books.

To say that my grandparents had a "tough life" is a massive understatement. When they came to the United States, poor would be a multiple step up. They never felt (or acted) poor. They were a good old fashioned "pull yourself up from your own bootstraps" kind of family. My grandfather came to the United States as a little kid. In tow of great grandmother lugging eight children through Ellis Island who is deserving of a blog entry all her own. (All 4'10" and 95 lbs of her. Show me a 95 year old woman who can pick up a newspaper two steps below her without bending her knees and I'll show you my great grandmother's contemporary. For the record...I'm in my late 30s and can barely do that now.) I'll skip some of the details but if you remember the last winter Olympics in Turin, Italy - that is basically where we are from - the Italian Alps on the boarder of France and Switzerland. *Reader's Note: on the boat from Europe they met a German family - The Ortel Family - coming to the USA also - keep reading.* They didn't know English. They taught themselves the best they could all while being made fun of for being Italian. Italians in those days were sent from Ellis Island to the mining towns of northern Michigan. My grandfather told me stories about walking out the second floor window with snow shoes on to work in a bakery as a kid. No child labor laws back then. Moving to Chicago...they met the Ortel family again. Fast forward to Chicago in the Chicago now; my grandfather and his brothers and sisters would walk behind the coal truck hoping to collect enough coal that would fall to the ground as the truck as it made deliveries so that their house could heat itself and cook. Despite superior grades, Grandpa had to quit high school as a sophomore in order to take a second full time job (at 15) so his family could survive. (Probably a reason why he was always doing cross word puzzles; his way of learning without school. Show me a person who can do the old New York Times SUNDAY crossword puzzle (yes the sinister one)...and I'll show you someone pretty bright. Grandpa could knock those out in one pot of coffee.)

Grandma? Oh...she had it just as tough or perhaps worse. Her older sister Tina had a daughter when my grandmother was very young (eight years old)...Aunt "T" as we called her went to work in the Italian Bakery - her second job also. (I still remember the smell of the bakery and the Italian ladies feeding me cookies as a kid. Later in life eating Italian bread, lunch meat and cheese with my grandfather and grandmother at their place in Chicago.) So at eight years old, Grandma C watched (raised) Aunt T's daughter so Tina could work. My grandmother was robbed of her childhood but she and her sister "T" were very tight. My Aunt Augga - T's daughter (spelling?) and Aunt T were forever grateful for that. Augga loved my grandparents very much (one of the reasons why I really love Aunt Augga). My grandmother "was the kind of woman who wouldn't say 'shit' if she had a mouth full of it" as my Aunt says. She never complained. Grandma Cottini would make the best of whatever she had. That's all she could do. "Complaining isn't going to get us anywhere. Let's just get going!" (Flashback to Kona at mile 19 when I was getting sick. I was so incredibly mad that 10:30 was gone. I actually heard my grandmother in my head. Shortly after that I thought, "Alright! 10:30 is gone but if I can hold anything down maybe I can make 11:30." Flash forward to kindergarten, who did I sit next to on my first day? Oliver Ortel - the great grandchild of the Ortel family who left Germany with my family leaving Italy, both headed to the USA and away from pre-world war Europe. Our families meet again and for those not paying attention...that is four generations of the same two families meeting over and over. Fast forward to 1998.

My grandmother invited my fiance and I over for dinner. It was great food and really fun. After college I would go to my grandparents two or three times a month to eat with them or just "hang out". I was new to triathlon and would run in the forest preserve by their house. Grandma Cottini and my grandfather's sister "Aunt Dee" taught me how to make ravioli by hand using great-grandma's ravioli crimper; not a fancy tool but a steel cook's tool. (We still use it in making ravioli today; this is a family tradition during the holidays. Today it is a massive fall event and my wife and sister-in-law are very good at making ravioli too. Lorrie was going to wear a Norwegian cooking apron but she had forgotten that she wears my grandmother's apron.) I was taught how to season the "ravs" by hand - no measuring anything. Aunt Dee and Grandma C, " you see how much allspice that is? Ok, throw it in." ...back to the story; while I was washing dishes and grandma C getting dessert ready she grabbed my elbow and hugged me and said, "Bobby, I really like her!" She was positively beaming. Grandma knew Lorrie was really special. In the fall of 1998, Grandma C was diagnosed with "diverticulitis" off of a CT scan. "No big deal. I just have to change my diet a little" she said. Positive attitude as always.

Fall of 2000. I'm traveling North America finishing my first real massive (read multi-million dollar) project that I was the leader on. I had just finished the Ironman World Championship. Grandma C was getting some tests at the hospital. My Aunt Nancy asked me if I could pick up grandma because something was happening with her kids but true to form - Aunt Nancy somehow made time stop and met me there at the hospital accomplishing both tasks somehow. They told the three of us it was cancer but "treatable". The doctor's body language spoke differently. I now know that that CT scan in 1998 was really cancer and not diverticulitis but there isn't much we can do now; so if you get that diagnosis...get a second opinion and re-test. It could save your life. As my aunt spoke to the doctor in the hall about possible treatment options and what we could do for grandma, my grandmother turned to me and said, "If I'm sick, how can I take care of Grandpa and you guys? I have so much more to do." I turned to her and said, "Maybe it is time for us to take care of you for a while? I'll make you a deal. You beat this and you can make the family meal when we celebrate." She smiled and gave my arm a squeeze. Fast forward to 2001 Christmas.

My grandmother was very sick. She was coming off of surgery to remove the cancer and it went well but the cancer had spread to the liver and chemotherapy was making her queasy. She still managed to have some "ravs" but she didn't feel well. She had less than six months to live and knew it. You wouldn't know it from her demeanor. Smiling and lovely all the way. In January, she was now sliding downward fast. She was loosing weight and couldn't really stomach anything. I was able to help her feel a little better with CarboPro. (True story. I've given it to several of my friends and their family members going through don't read that in their literature do you?) My mom and aunt Nancy were taking care of their mother 24/7. Just before grandma was "really sick", she pointed my aunt to a box in the closet and said, "Nan, this is for my first great grandchild." She knew her time on Earth was short. We were all there for her. She wouldn't have it any other way. On one visit, my grandmother was feeling awful and the first thing she said? "Honey, did you eat yet? Your mom and Nancy made pasta and it is really good (smelled really good - she couldn't eat it)." I told her I was fine (stomach probably keeping her awake it was growling so loudly). "How about I hold your hand until you fall asleep and then I'll go eat. I'd rather be with you." She was sleeping in less than three minutes. She was waiting to see me. This occurred daily for 45 days or so. In February, we called my cousin Vince at school in Wisconsin. "Get home fast Vince. Grandma" (Vince was already on his way.) I'm reasonably sure he broke every speed law between here and his school in Wisconsin getting back. Grandma lit up when he made it back; almost like she wasn't sick. Vince and I are the two oldest children of each of my grandmother's children. (If that makes any sense.) Later that night, with her entire family (children, their husbands and grand children) around her, she passed away peacefully. Fast forward to Christmas, 2007.

There was one very special gift for my God daughter Lauren. The card was in my grandmother's had writing and said, 'From Great Grandma". Inside was the last handmade baby blanket my grandmother ever made. She made blankets for all of us and even extended family who may or may not have appreciated/deserved them. She made this one while she was dying from cancer and the misdiagnosis year's earlier. It felt really soft and warm. Inside the box was a note.

'Although I will never meet you, know that I love you. I made this blanket especially for you. My first great grandchild. I love you with all my heart. -- Your Great Grandma Margie'

For those of you not crying now...the entire room completely lost it. Not a dry eye in the house. My 6'0" 305 lbs. "little" brother (big tough, ex-football offensive tackle) bubbled out a 'Thank you' and disappeared to cover his four month old daughter; a peaceful, sleeping Lauren in her priceless blanket of love.

One person can make a difference. Grandma C would paraphrase Helen Keller, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” This is actually the genesis of the ALS Spin-a-thon. My friend John Wolski and I said on one of our Sunday long runs, "We may only raise $200 but it might be the $200 that makes the difference in the fight with ALS." John and I are friends and have so many similarities that it is scary; especially when it comes to our view of life itself.

Why did I tell you this? I'm on a soapbox preaching to love your family with all you've got. Train for them and with them if you can. Race for them. Tell them how much you love and truly appreciate them and how hard it is to be away from them when you train. Include them in your racing experience - after you cross the finish line. Below, here I am trying to finish behind a guy and his family entourage while three guys all in the same age group, all trying to qualify for the Inaugural 70.3 World Championship are sprinting toward the finish line. The girl in the middle is looking back at me and another guy because I am literally on their feet trying to get my chip across the line (without hurting them) before being passed myself because they are blocking the finish line! I am on the right. The guy on the left is a second behind me and another (all in the same age group) is one second back of him! Five people - not counting the girls - across the line in less than three seconds. We all qualified (via roll down). Lesson learned: If you are trying to qualify for ANYTHING and have people around you...try to drop them at least 600 meters from the line so your don't have this experience.This will be my 5th year at the Florida 70.3/Disney Half Ironman (of 5 years it has been held). Good race or bad race...look for John and I and our families on Splash Mountain after the race. We qualified for Clearwater! Wee! We didn't qualify for Clearwater! (under the breath -*#@!) Wee! Just don't walk very quickly from ride to ride...ok?

One important last note about family and the love for each other. My grandparents were marred 62+ years before cancer interrupted them. Not all their time here was perfect (or even pleasant for that matter). My grandfather passed away about 18 months after my grandmother; officially a heart attack in the hospital after cancer surgery (more like broken heart). When we were preparing my grandparent's home for sale after my grandfather passed away we found a very detailed journal. It started just after my grandmother's cancer diagnosis and ended the day before my grandfather died. My grandfather went to the library and figured out he had cancer but didn't tell anyone because in his note to us, "I don't want to take the medical attention or energy away from Margie." He wrote every single detail of what he experienced and what was happening as cancer was ravaging his body too. In his last journal entry to us he wrote, "Don't think less of me because I wanted the attention to go to Margie." I also think that he didn't want to be here without her. Can you blame him?

So when Lauren is old enough to understand, I am sure she will hear this story from all of us many times. are one lucky little girl.

Love, Uncle Bobby - your God father


  1. Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é . Um abraço.