Letter #1 — Invitation to My Father with Terminal Cancer
This is the first in a series of letters between me and my father, also named Tom Rastrelli, who just over a month ago received news from his oncology team that they can no longer treat and fight his stage IV cancer of an unknown origin.
September 2, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot about funerals lately. This got me reminiscing about the first time that I realized that you were speaking to me as an equal. I was 17, only a year younger than you were when your father died. It was nearly 29 years ago to today: September 1991, the night before Grandma Ida’s wake.
You knocked on my bedroom door late on a school night and said that you needed to talk. You sat at the foot of my bed, the same bed you’d slept in during your childhood. I could feel your grief, depletion and fear. You told me that tensions were high and old resentments were brewing among your four siblings. With Grandma dead and the family politics surrounding the struggling family restaurants that were the lifeblood and pride of our family, there was bound to be a huge fight at the wake or funeral. Your siblings were bound to push one other’s buttons. As the youngest, you probably didn’t have the clout to stop things, and you weren’t sure that you’d be able to control your reaction. You asked for my help.
If a confrontation arose, I was to walk headfirst into the fight, take you by the arm, and ask you to go for a walk.
I was shocked that you were asking me. You recognized what I couldn’t: I had a skill or gift that you needed, maybe it was the self-control, or the ability to remain calm in an emergency, or an emotional capacity to do what you couldn’t. I’m curious to know what it is that you really saw in me that night. You let me see your vulnerability, and because you believed in me, I believed in myself. I believed I could help you.
The next night after the wake service, you, your siblings and the funeral director were in the director’s office that adjoined the space where Grandma laid in her casket and the rest of the family and guests remained. The intense Italian cadence of your overlapping voices stirred into all out shouts. The useless walls didn’t buffer it at all. Your attacks echoed over the gathered mourners and the purple webs beneath the skin of Grandma’s fingers. Mom looked at me, horrified. I took a deep breath, walked into the office, through the insults and disowning declarations, placed my hand on your arm, and firmly ordered you to come on a walk. You pulled away, your face engorged with rage. I took your shoulders and forced you to look me in the eye. “Let’s go for a walk,” I ordered. You acquiesced.
I remember headlights on 2nd Street whooshing past as we retreated from the funeral home down the dark sidewalk. I also remember Uncle Bob’s charcoal voice cursing you from the doorway: “Wimp. Sissy. Pussy. Loser. Asshole!” I’d never heard anyone deride you like that before. With a firm grip on your bicep, I could feel your instinctual pull to turn and fight back.
“Keep walking,” I said maintaining my grip. “Don’t look back.”
A few blocks later, you cried. I held you.
That was such a difficult school year. That same month, I saw a classmate have a psychological breakdown in the hotel room we were sharing on a school trip. I remember the cassette tape that you made on New Year’s Eve after you’d locked up the store and were sitting out in the parking lot of NorthPark Mall. You were so miserable and at rock bottom. Then two weeks before my high school graduation, Grandpa Figgins had his heart attack and a quintuple bypass. A week later, you and Mom sat us kids down in the family room and revealed the Davenport store had closed and that you were unemployed. I remember cleaning out the restaurant that you worked so hard to sustain. And somehow, throughout that awful year, you persevered and retained your optimism. As I grew angrier and angrier at the world for the shit that was going down, you kept hope.
And you still do, even now, as our time together on Earth is coming to an end. We’ve always known this time would come, that the cancer you fought before my birth could return and claim you. And you have fought valiantly for the past two years since it did. Even a month ago when the oncologists said your lungs are too damaged to survive more chemo, you responded with optimism and hope.
Additionally, we’re six months into this pandemic and closing in on 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. I'm acutely aware of our mortality and overwhelmed by the preciousness and frailty of life, love and relationships. I need to process this reality. I imagine that you and Mom may need to as well. There is so much I still need to learn from you, and I imagine that there is much you can still learn from me.
I have a proposal. In whatever time we have left, I want us to exchange letters. I know that you’ve been trying to write a memoir about your parents and your life. I also know from experience that the only way to write a book is to write on a schedule and hold yourself accountable to it.
I promise you this, in whatever days we have left together, if you like, I can help to hold you accountable. I promise you one letter for every letter you send me. On the days we’re waiting for a response letter, we can commit to spending time writing our books. I have so much more to tell after the timeline of “Confessions of a Gay Priest” and I want to hear your stories.
I propose that we publish these letters on the website that bears our name, tomrastrelli.com.
The pandemic has left so many of us depleted, raw, dismayed, disoriented and depressed. The best-case scenario is that we’re halfway through it. We might only be a quarter of the way through.
One of the greatest gifts you have taught me, especially since I told you I was leaving the priesthood, is resilience, particularly the resilience of optimism. In the face of overwhelming odds you’ve taught me to nurture hope and love. And I believe in love, a love that is expansive, a love that breeds more love. I am willing to take the risk of publishing these letters, so that others might glean something helpful and maybe even transformative.
The rules I propose are these:
We write out of the truth of our experience and the love we have for one another.
We challenge one another and leave our egos and expectations at the door.
We are honest and daring. As Abdel says, “This is a safe space, so let’s have a dangerous conversation.”
If we feel hurt by the other’s words, we assume the best possible motivation and ask for clarification. For we both know that tone in the written word can be ambiguous and we are both passionate and sensitive people.
What do you think? Are you ready for one last big adventure together?
I love you.
This is October 1989: just a few months after I escaped from the sexual abuse of Dr. Lauz in "Confessions of a Gay Priest." I was 15. Dad was 42. He impersonated Father Guido Sarducci, which is why he's dressed as a priest. He even did a cooking spot, the "Healthy Heart Priest," on a local afternoon talk show in which he'd cook as Father Guido Sarducci.