The phone rang just after midnight. I had returned home a few minutes earlier from a summer job selling hot dogs at Shea Stadium, and watching my beloved Mets beat the Expos. A rare win in a forgettable season.
This was July 4, 1980.
The words from the other end of the phone line were far more ominous than the measured tone of voice that spoke them. “It’s all the signs of a heart attack. Go to bed. We should be home in the morning.”
The speaker was my father. The subject was my mother. The location was a hospital waiting room.
They had spent the day in Atlantic City, playing the slots, walking the boardwalk, talking the future. But something wasn’t right. A cold sweat, numbness in her left arm, tingling in her fingers, tightness in her chest.
“A heart attack? Huh. That’s weird,” I remember thinking. But I took my father’s advice and went to bed, for a few hours anyway, until I was awakened by a noise in my room. It was my mom, turning off the air conditioner.
I opened my eyes and considered saying something, but didn’t want her to think I was worried. So I stayed silent.
I shouldn’t have.
Less than an hour later, I was escorted downstairs. I vividly remember avoiding an EMT worker carrying an oxygen tank. I distinctly remember my grandmother wailing something in Italian. “Perché non potrei essere io?”
“Why couldn’t it be me?”
Then came the words that would forever change me, from my beloved aunt.
“Your mom just died.”
I looked around, grappling for some semblance of clarity. My father was outside, heaving, trembling, vomiting. My younger brother had punched a street sign and broken his hand. A coroner’s office station wagon sat in the driveway, its back door swung open. Neighbors were stirred from their sleep.
There was no clarity about this.
My mom had just graduated law school. She was studying for the bar exam, while working for the Queens district attorney, while keeping a quaint home in Queens, while raising four kids.
She was 41.
She was Superwoman.
Turns out, her heart was her kryptonite.
Rita Jane Schrader Giannone was a modern-day matriarch during turbulent times. A smart, strong-willed, career-minded woman. But first and last, a wife and a mom. A measured mentor to my older sister, who was planning her September wedding. A peacock-proud supporter of my older brother, who was headed to Columbia University to play football in the fall. A caring coddler to my younger brother, a high school sophomore.
And for me, a best friend.
Sports was our bond, and my mom was my glue. We partied for the Miracle Mets and the Miracle On Ice. We lamented every loss for the Giants or St. John’s. We rejoiced in the Rangers’ improbable run to the ‘79 Cup Final.
I skipped countless hours of sleep on school nights to watch west coast games with her. So often, I chose Saturday night sports with my mother over teenage nights chasing girls or drinking beer, which exposed me to what would be considered bullying today.
My mom would never miss her kids’ sporting events. Ever. Whether a finish line in The Bronx or a high jump pit in Manhattan, a baseball diamond in Flushing or a hockey rink in Rego Park, she was my cheering section. How that happened while simultaneously attending my brothers’ games or my sister’s events, I’ll never know.
She was also my strongest source of encouragement. The transistor radio she bought me as a 10-year old was the window to a vibrant new world. It kindled my passion for sports and for words. It is a direct link from her world to mine. My teenage imitations of Marv Albert calling the Rangers, or Bob Murphy on the Mets, or Jim Gordon describing the Giants, were, to my mom, a suggestive springboard to chasing a dream.
I haven’t seen my mother in almost 38 years. I haven’t heard her voice, watched her laugh, hugged her, since that fateful early morning Fourth of July, when a young doctor made the tragic misdiagnosis of a muscle spasm and told my mom to go home.
Within an hour, she was dead. But in a very real sense, she is very much alive.
I have lived 13,794 days without my mother. Somewhere around Day 30, I made a conscious decision to make my life her legacy, to live a life that would’ve met with her approval, to keep her alive through me. That task remains a work in progress today.
Because even today, it’s a high bar.
There have been signs of that “life” over the years. Subtle reminders. Small signs, mostly, if you’re so inclined to believe in such things. The strongest came in 1997, when I interviewed for that dream job as a TV sports reporter for CNN. On the flight to Atlanta for the interviews, I asked my mom for a dose of calm and confidence. Within 10 minutes of the first interview, I had an overwhelming sense of peace about everything.
Within days, I landed that dream job. I officially began on September 22.
My mom’s birthday.
Mom would have been 80 this year. It might have been a celebration of a life well-lived, perhaps after a career as a successful attorney, or a judge in the circuit, federal or, heck, Supreme Court. She always preached lofty dreams. It worked for me.
So why today to reminisce? Why today to embark on this thousand-word endeavor? Because, 55 years ago today, this amazing woman brought me into this world. Although our time together was short, that time has long since carried me. Those formative years formed the basis of my life.
My career, my love of sports, my passion for politics, my gift of gab, my one-in-a-million family, my desire to help others, even the way I look.
It’s all mom.
And for that, I’m forever grateful.