My grandfather, Carl Giorgio, lost his mother shortly after his birth. In 1906 baby-formula in a bottle did not exist so finding a wet nurse was a matter of life and death. Marie Fasulo came from the same province in Italy and lived nearby. She had lost a baby in childbirth at the same time that Carl lost his mother. Fate brought them together.
More than a century later, I was taking a class, Death & Dying from a Shamanic Perspective. One homework assignment was to contact the spirit of a deceased relative to ask for a message. I was telling my mother about this and without reservation she said she would choose her “Grandma Fasulo.” And thus I learned the story of how this woman became an integral part of my family history.
When my great-grandfather Francesco Giorgio first asked Marie Fasulo to raise his motherless son (Carl) she declined stating that she was too heartbroken. The story goes on to recount how during the night, Marie awoke from a dream and heard noise in the bedroom. When her husband turned on the light they saw a dove flying around the room. She interpreted this as a sign from the Holy Spirit that she should raise Carl Giorgio.
Marie nursed my grandfather and reared him along with her other children. When he grew up and opened an appliance store with his new wife they moved in across the street from her and asked her to care for their new daughter, Lorraine. And so my mother was also raised by the woman whom we heard referred to as Grandma Fasulo.
She would take my mother to the woods and fields around East Rock Park where they filled grandma’s big apron with herbs to bring home and prepare. Neighbors came over for her advice and medicines. My mother suffered from migraines and recalled how Grandma would hold a bowl of water over her head, pray, place drops of oil in it, and then slice the oil with a knife, while chanting until the headache was gone.
Hearing my mother tell these stories about a person I never knew made me eager to try contacting her spirit. I performed a ceremony at my altar, introduced myself out loud, and asked for a message. That first encounter felt like a blast of wind that nearly blew me over. Sensations of deep grief then flowed through my body. Tears streamed down my face. Embodied by deep emotion I heard wailing come from my open mouth. Fasulo said that when she lost her child she didn’t know how she could live. After the dove appeared she realized if she could save Carl’s life she might be able to save herself from despair. Her voice, channeled through my body said “Carl became my hope.”
And for my 91 year old mother, whose health is now declining, she said “You cannot abandon your children in death. Do not reject the love of your children and grandchildren in your dying days. They are your future.”
My mother has been suffering from memory loss and can no longer manage preparing meals and other activities needed for independent living. I was planning an extended stay with my parents to arrange home-care services and take my mother to neurology appointments. And thus I began a series of journeys to Grandma Fasulo's spirit for guidance and support.
Fasulo told my mother .... “DON'T BE AFRAID OF DEATH, LET GO OF FEAR. Feel the connection that you have with your children and grandchildren and the legacy of what you are passing down. Your behavior in your dying days will deeply impact them. Allow their love and assistance.”
I saw a pair of beautiful brown eyes shining with divine love that touched the core of my being. It rocked my body. Tears flowed down my cheeks simply from receiving that loving eye contact blessing.
Her advice to me:
“Accept their process, their indecision's and their irrationality…it's part of their letting go.”
“Honor their faults. Keep moving them forward gently. Show them the way by doing what needs to be done without hesitation, without asking for their approval.”
“Lorraine recognizes her diminishing abilities but she's confused about how to surrender. Her frustration and acting out is a pattern of comfort.”
“You need to assume authority. Their hearts know but their minds don't want to give up what they are used to doing. Their identity is invested in their ability to take care of themselves. Your confidence will help them surrender. Be patient. It takes time to give up control.”
I saw before me a beautiful, large image of Grandma Fasulo’s face with her kind eyes, looking down from above. She said I should work on my father's connection to his loving ancestors. He doesn't need to know I'm doing the work but he'll sense their presence if I do it and that will help him.
Grandma says that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by Lorraine's anxiety and difficult behaviors. Just be persistent and follow up with what needs to be done.
Her spirit said the missing ingredient to my parent’s dissatisfaction over meal delivery services is LOVE. The food needs to be delivered with a little note, a message that they can read. She says that my parent’s parents put a lot of love into their cooking and that's what my parents are now missing. I should find a way to put a love message into the food.
Next I saw an image of their refrigerator with the doors open and was told that it needs to be infused with love & light. An image appeared of a little red heart pillow that Lorraine had made for each of us at her 87th birthday. It was superimposed over the inside of the refrigerator. In my trance-like state I sang and shook my rattles to infuse the refrigerator with love and light. I saw the faint image of a saint wearing a crown surrounded by golden rays. Perhaps I should put a saint statue in there?
Grandma Fasulo appeared sitting in a chair wearing a dark blue skirt and cardigan sweater, hands folded in her lap. The image of rosary beads between her fingers was not entirely clear at first and took time to come into focus. She said she's going to pray for my parents. She will say the rosary for them even if the rosary itself is not meaningful in their daily lives. They grew up with it and its power is strong. It has been used for many generations in our family and should not be discredited just because our generation rejected the Catholic faith growing up. The women in our lineage have used the rosary to help them through many troubled times. We should honor that.
Grandma Fasulo went on to say it's a good idea to initiate conversations about aging, death and dying while Mom & Dad are still able to converse. Even if it's done lightly it will help them. Even if they reject the topic in the moment we should provide opportunities for discussion.
Another telepathic message came.
“STAND STRONG AND FIND YOUR DEEPEST COMPASSION.”
I heard “The shadow of death is lurking. It needs to be acknowledged. By acknowledging, we can let go of the fear.”
My journeys to Grandma Fasulo’s spirit helped me feel prepared for my caretaking visits. I felt 100% present and tuned into my mother who has become mostly childlike and sweet. There are endless medical appointments that require the presence of a family member. The many doctors ask a myriad of questions. My mother has trouble retrieving words. When I offered them or made suggestions she was appreciative and expressed gratitude for my assistance. When I left for New York she said “Thank you for being my voice when I can't do it myself.”
On another visit, we returned to the neurologist to review 4 months of cognitive evaluations. Dr. Michael looked my mother straight in the eye and told her that she had “Memory Loss consistent with Alzheimer's Disease.” She emphasized that this was a degenerative disease with no cure and that it was time to make plans for the future now because her brain was going to shrink and function less and less. Her matter-of-fact manner felt cruel. We knew it was coming, but it was nevertheless heart wrenching to hear the disease mentioned as a death sentence. My mother sat like a small child, deeply quiet, the doctor’s words confirming her worst fears.
As we left the medical center there was deep silence between us, each lost in our own grief. Linking arms, I asked her how she wanted to travel home and she said “let's just take the metro.” It started to rain as we passed Whole Foods Market. She said “Oh let's go in and have a cup of soup. I do that with Laura sometimes.” So in we went. Amidst the lunchtime bustle she knew right where to go and was able to pay by herself. We found seats by the window. We sat in silence, eating our soup, comforted by the splash of raindrops hitting the glass. I felt compassionately present.
Without a word, arm in arm, we proceeded to the metro station. We were so caught up in that diagnosis that we got on the train going in the wrong direction and didn't notice for a few stops. But, my mother, despite her shrunken brain, noticed the unfamiliar stations. Arms linked tightly, bonded through sadness, we found our way back home.
My father had dropped us off that morning and said he was going to his office. Instead, we found him sitting at the kitchen table reading the Washington Post. He didn't ask about the doctor and we did not bring it up. They did a crossword together while I made phone calls to arrange interviews with home care givers.
That night the temperature dropped. We were going to my sister’s in Virginia and I needed to borrow a hat. I went into my mother’s bureau. As my hands rummaged through the drawers I felt a plastic shopping bag with something inside that was definitely not a hat or scarf. My fingers sensed round balls the size of acorns. Curious, I opened the bag and there inside was a rosary made from dark brown wooden beads. I recognized it as the same rosary that lived at the bottom of the stairs in our house in South Bend, Indiana. It hung over the RCA Victrola that served as a staging ground for religious celebration. Every morning we came downstairs and saw it hanging above Baby Jesus in the manger or Christ on the Cross in front of an Easter Tomb. Or it was illuminated by the flame of a baptismal candle burning to honor one of us on our Saint’s Day. With six children in the house, that Victrola with the rosary on the wall became a cornerstone for our religious faith.
In 1966 a tornado blew through town. It was the first time us children were home alone under the watchful eye of my big sister JoAnne. A giant Oak was split by lightening and came crashing down. We lay in our beds terrified by the cracking sound of branches hitting the house, but we dared not venture out from under the covers for fear of punishment; it was after bedtime. The tree blocked our driveway but it only grazed the corner of the house. In the morning we could not believe our eyes when we came downstairs and saw the enormous uprooted trunk and broken branches. My mother said the reason the tree did not come through the roof was because of the rosary. I never forgot that.
In the 1970s my family moved back to Connecticut to be closer to the family we never knew. I was a rebellious teenager who rejected my faith and soon went off to college. I have no memories of the rosary at our new house. I had not given it a thought until my hands opened that bag 60 years later, in Washington, DC. But now, just a few days after Grandma Fasulo gave me a lesson about The Rosary, there it was, touching my hands in a most unsuspecting place.
The next day my mother and I walked over to the grocery store. Coming home we stopped to sit on a bench in the winter sun. My mom looked at me and commented that I was wearing the hat that she spent a very long time looking for and wondered where it could have gone. I mentioned that I didn't bring a hat to DC but that I sure found a surprise when I was looking through her drawer and came across that rosary. I said “What's the rosary doing in a plastic bag among scarves and hats?” To which she replied “It's protecting our house. Why are you so interested in it anyway?”
My mother loves to hear about my spiritual encounters with her grandmother and found this one particularly interesting. She told me that the wooden rosary came from the St. Anne de Beaupre shrine in Quebec. The St. Anne Society in New Haven organized Pilgrimages there every year. Participants would say the rosary out loud together while traveling on a private bus. As a young child my Aunt Shirley nearly died from rheumatic fever. My grandmother Tess Giorgio went on one of these pilgrimages asking for a miracle. Shirley’s life was spared. In gratitude Tess went on pilgrimages every year to the St. Anne shrine until she was 93 years old.
Mom also told me that during her childhood aunties would gather weekly to say the Rosary for relatives who were suffering. She then confessed that she never had patience for all the “Hail Mary's” and “Our Fathers” so she did not continue the tradition. I confessed that it felt pointless to say the Rosary after confession or before bed because it the words didn't mean anything. I never knew that my own mother also had trouble with it.
On a more recent visit my mother mentioned “I don’t know why, but a few times lately when I have terrible moments of confusion and don’t know what to do with myself, I have gone into my closet and dresser drawer and taken out the rosary. I’ve sat down and said it. I remembered how to do it. It didn’t take long. When I finished, I noticed that I felt better.”
It warms my heart to know that my mother enjoys the relationship I have developed with her Grandma Fasulo. Thanks to both of them, I have re-connected with the power of the rosary, prayers, and faith along my family line. These teachings have restored my respect for a form of prayer that I had once abandoned. At this time of my parents increasing frailty and imminent departure from this world, I feel guided in my faith and more deeply connected to the presence and power of my ancestors, who they were, and why I am here.