Dad passed away last night. It was a storybook ending of sorts, not exactly a heart-tugging finish with violins rising to meet the setting sun, since it involved my mother yelling at him not to leave her while I tried in vain to revive him in advance of the EMT arriving. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll save those details for the end of the piece, where it belongs.
Elmo Accetta was the third son and fourth child to survive childbirth for his parents Rose and Elmo. Dad’s father was the first Elmo, tagged with the name by a priest who happened to also be a cousin of my great-grandmother. The Priest/Cousin had just come back from a trip south to Naples, where the Castle of Saint Elmo stood atop an island in the Bay of Naples. What a wonderful name to bestow on the child if it’s a boy, he suggested to my great-grandmother. Apparently, back then people took the words of priests seriously, as Grandpa would be christened Elmo Carmelo Accetta.
Grandpa hated his first name. In the dialect of the local region in which he was raised, elmo meant “helmet.” The last name Accetta meant “little ax” or “hatchet” and was pronounced that way — AH-CHET-TAH. So, Grandpa’s name was literally Helmet Hatchet. As soon as he could, he began using his middle name socially, so that everyone outside of the family referred to him at first as Carmelo, then later, when he had achieved some level of respect from the immigrants who followed him to New York, as Tio (Uncle) Carmelo.
At the time of my father’s birth, there were problems between my grandmother and grandfather, mostly due to his chronic gambling and philandering. I asked my father multiple times over the years why his father would want to name any son of his Elmo, since he so detested the name. He had two sons before my father and Grandpa had spared them both the burden of it. Dad never came up with an answer that I couldn’t poke holes into, so I stopped asking him. I suspect it was my grandmother’s doing, as revenge against my grandfather. Dad was christened Elmo Accetta, with no middle name to use as cover. I am convinced my father was a victim of female hormonal rage. The same kind that spared me, somewhat.
I am the first son of Helen and Elmo. When I was born, it was suggested by my uncles, one of whom had already greeted a son of his own, that I should be named after my paternal grandfather. My mother objected, as vociferously as a 25-year-old woman in the 1950’s could against superior male opinion. “I refuse to raise an Elmo,” she told them. Even Carmelo was too Italian a name for my mother to bear, which is how I ended up as Charles. In a compromise, Mom agreed to use Elmo as my middle name. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but here’s a sarcastic “Thanks, Mom” anyway.
So, there were three of us, the Elmos Accetta, for a time, then down to two for much longer. The little red guy came along much later, way after Admiral Zumwalt and Dagwood Bumstead’s adolescent neighbor. But none of those guys were helmets. It was just us three. Charles is a Germanic derivative of the French Charle or Man, which made me a man with a helmet and a hatchet, even as I lay in my crib. Dad lived comfortably for most of his life with the name, the way a witch lives with a wart on the end of her nose. For him, it was just there. I struggled with both my names as a child. When my father’s oldest brother (and my godfather) Nick began calling me Charlie as an infant, Mom quickly corrected him –
“His name is Charles”
To this day, I am Charles to family and close friends of the family. To everyone else I am Charlie, which is my preference. I do answer to Elmo in jest, if only because I too have the same wart and cannot deny that it is there. Especially since I am now the last Elmo. This is how it came to pass.
Dad has been enduring COPD and emphysema for years, but suffered a series of bouts of pneumonia since this past March, with eight separate stays in the hospital, the last four via ambulance. The latest stay was approaching three weeks in length when I told my mother I would fix dinner for the two of us yesterday. Dad was expected home the following day. When I arrived at the house, I ran up to the apartment and started prepping when I heard a familiar voice downstairs. Dad was home a day early.
Mom prepared a piece of fish and some vegetables, in accordance with his dietary requirements, and we all sat together for a weekday meal, which hadn’t happened in quite a while. It was just the three of us: Elmo, Almost Elmo and the woman responsible for the Almost. We ate and talked and watched as the Yankees were losing a playoff game to the Astros, which for us was just as good as watching the Mets win. When the meal was done, I took my dinner accessories back upstairs. Within the hour, I heard my mother shouting at my father, which wasn’t unusual itself for two people in their late eighties. Then a more terrifying call of my name, repeated until I opened the door to the stairway.
“I can’t get your father to wake up.”
She had followed him into the back bedroom, his man cave, in order to help him on with his new respirator. He sat in his recliner, switched the machine on and started donning the mask. When she tried to help snap the harness in place, his head suddenly slumped to the side.
“Elmo, move your head.” No response.
“Elmo, wake up.” This was the first shout I heard up in the apartment.
And the second shout followed — “Elmo, please wake up.”
This is where I entered. Dad was unresponsive, but the respirator was doing its job, so I tried to help as best I could while Mom was on the phone, pleading for an ambulance. It felt like we were waiting for a half-hour, but it was probably less than ten minutes. When the EMT arrived, he took a quick look at Dad and asked my Mom if we had a valid DNR (Do-Not-Resuscitate) form. That’s when it hit her. She tried to get her head around the reality of the moment while she went into the dining room to get the form, which Dad had just brought back with him from the hospital. And that was that. But, for all the time he spent in the hospital in his final months on Earth, Dad got one last trip home to his suburban resort, and shared a meal with the two people who were with him in his first suburban house, way back in the beginning. He died with his wife tending him and his oldest son trying to get him one more day above ground. I have to admit, and so will Mom when she reflects back on this, that he had a good last day, warts and all.