Awareness • Early Detection • Treatment • Research • Survivorship

The Gaeta Family is Tackling Lung Cancer

A life long non-smoker, Joan Gaeta was a devoted wife, teacher, and mother of five. Diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2004, she fought a three and a half year battle before succumbing in July of 2007.

Reflections on her LIFE from her children….

“OUR FAMLY IS A CIRCLE OF STRENGTH AND LOVE. WITH EVERY BIRTH AND EVERY MARRIAGE, THE CIRCLE GROWS. EVERY JOY SHARED ADDS MORE LOVE. EVERY CRISIS FACED TOGETHER MAKES THE CIRCLE STRONGER.” This passage has been on the wall in the Gaeta home for many years now; but it was never been as poignant as it was during and after mom’s battle with lung cancer.

The more full and complete a life is, the harder it is to memorialize. A rich life filled with love, commitment, and service to others is very difficult to honor with a few simple words. Mom’s life touched countless people in a many different and unexpected ways. Her life means different things to different people. The only common denominator in mom’s life … is love.

We, her children, will do our best now to properly honor our mother, Joan Marie Gaeta. Those who knew her know what a full, rich, and complete life our mother led. The diversity of people that were at her funeral Mass was telling – friends and family gathered together from across many different places and times in mom’s life. This fact alone speaks volumes. She wore many hats; had many roles. Daughter. Sister. Wife. Mother. We would like to share our view of mom and her life; perhaps allowing our memories to bring new perspective to yours.

“OUR FAMILY IS A CIRCLE OF STRENGTH AND LOVE.” Mom deeply understood love to mean sacrifice and selflessness. As Catholic Christians, we see this fact very clearly in the Cross. Mom lived it. Every mother knows of this love: Having children demands that you put their needs ahead of your own; constantly. Mom was no different. As the mother of five and a full-time homemaker, everything she did was geared toward the well-being of her husband and her children. For mom, it did not end there. She was only 32 years old when her in-laws moved into her home. 32 years old. For the next 17 years, she sacrificed a portion of her marriage with dad. For 17 years, she took on this added responsibility and stress…all for the love of others – her husband, of course; but also her in-laws, because they too were children of God and it simply was the right thing to do.

It wasn’t too long after her in-laws passed that mom took on the responsibility of caring for her own aging mother. Although Nanny was in an assisted living home, mom simply did not feel her mother was getting the quality of care that only family could provide. For six years, mom visited Nanny almost daily – dressing her, doing her laundry, and generally making sure that her mother’s last days were spent in dignity and with respect. This ended only after mom’s diagnosis with cancer.

Mom’s love to her family was much more than this and was evident in innumerable ways to us kids, in both small and large ways. I use the term “love to her family” rather than “love of her family” on purpose. To Mom, love is not just an emotion; it is not just a feeling. Love is an action. A verb. Mom’s love to her children and to her husband was always a verb. An action. Tangible actions, like waking her children with a gentle stroke on the arm accompanied by a beautiful voice singing of, “Rise and shine! Give God the glory, glory!” Or, she’d tuck you in tight and lay in bed with you for a bit, bemoaning the need to get up for school every bit as much as you were. Tangible actions, like every unsung thing she did around the house to keep it running smoothly. Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry. Errands. (Cooking? Best Eggplant Parmesan in the world.) Things we didn’t notice at the time; but, if not done, would send our lives into chaos. Tangible actions like providing a stable and loving home. Tangible actions like her love to our father that led her to cook for over 50 people each and every year, hosting parties for Dad’s management team at GE Capital.

But much, if not most, of Mom’s love to her family came in intangible ways. Lasting examples of service to others and, quite simply, doing the right thing. Some examples:

– Serving the rural poor through her work with the Glenmary Home Missions.

– Tutoring unwed pregnant teenagers at the Nazareth House.

– Distributing clothes and food with St. Joseph’s community outreach program.

– Teaching English and basic monetary skills to a Laotian immigrant family.

– Taking people into our home, who had been rejected by others, when they needed a place to stay.

– And much more – volunteering her time and talent to anyone who needed it.

“DOING THE RIGHT THING.” This did not just apply to large acts of charity; but, in the little things that fill in the everyday moments we call “life”. We used to tease Mom about her strict adherence to “rules”. Mom never broke the rules or took short-cuts to anything. It was a running family joke. Mom never compromised her ethics or principles, regardless of the circumstances. This would sometimes annoy us, or cramp our style. But it was always “the right thing to do”, and we kids are all better people for it.

Mom’s selflessness did not stop with her family. Her constant acts of putting other people’s feelings above her own extended to everyone in her life – friends, neighbors, and strangers alike.

Those who knew her, knew very well of mom’s intense fear of animals – particularly dogs. They knew the drill: when mom would visit their house, they would have to be sure that the coast was clear of all “pooches.” It was almost a ritual. As our sister Tina would say, “Mommy was afraid of dogs the way most of us are afraid of sharks.” But even mom’s fear of dogs could be used to illustrate her intense concern for others. Many years ago, mom was outside talking with a neighbor while Tina was waiting for her in the car. As they were talking, our neighbor’s dog jumped up and bit mom on the leg. Not wanting to embarrass her neighbor, mom never flinched…and carried on with the conversation as if nothing happened. Our neighbor never knew that mom had been bitten. Only after my mother got into the car did she reveal the pain she was in. In fact, my mom’s leg was bleeding through her jeans. A trivial anecdote on the surface; but, it illustrates mom’s priorities: others first, herself second.

Mom’s selfless character was evident even in her dying days. She was always thinking of others and never wanted anyone to feel bad or embarrassed. Although constantly fatigued and in pain, she felt bad that others felt bad for her. When people would come to visit her, she always wanted them to feel comfortable – not to be afraid for her or too upset. It would take literally all the energy she could muster to “put on a happy face”. Somehow, she could always manage to turn the conversation away from herself and towards the other person. The visit would inevitably be about how they were doing and what was going on in their lives, not focusing on my mom’s condition. No sooner would they be out the door then mom would be fast asleep…exhausted. She truly gave the last bit of her energy in life making those around her feel better.

“EVERY JOY SHARED ADDS MORE LOVE.” Mom was a woman full of joy and passion. Mom was our “Dancing Queen”. She loved to dance and often wished she had been born with “dancers’ legs”. We have absolutely no doubt in our minds that she is dancing in Heaven right now. She never looked more alive than when she and dad were dancing together at a party….a family get-together…. spontaneously on the beach…out on the deck…..or just in the kitchen. (Although … that on-all-fours rendition from the musical Cat’s was a little over the top!) So great was their dancing that they often “stole the show” at weddings. When they threw our brother a high school graduation party, they astonished Rick’s friends by taking over the dance floor – something that is still talked about to this day. When driving in a car with the radio on, mom was known to break out into a rhythm and hand motions….much to our brother Joe’s embarrassment as this was often done while driving in carpool. When the family would make our yearly trip to the beach, you could spot the lead car in our caravan by all the grooving and hand-motions coming from my parents’ car.

Those who know the Gaetas know that, as Italians, we love our food….and we love our drink. Mom was no different. The best times at our house are when we are all home for a holiday or any other party. Music playing….the smell of good food cooking….and Mom enjoying the perfect Martini. No one enjoyed a Martini like mom. In fact, it was very important that the cooking was complete – or at least that one of her daughters was on hand to help – before she indulged. Our sister Theresa will tell you that this is how she learned to cook like mom. Cooking is important, but enjoying a Martini and dancing? Now that is the stuff of life. “Mom’s got her Martini?….Is the food done yet?”

But, as much as Mom was passionate about dancing, cooking, or Martinis – nothing topped the passion of the love affair my parents shared for over 50 years. They were truly “one”. It is easy to speak in lofty terms about the depth of Mom and Dad’s love; their teamwork, their incredibly deep and lasting bond. We could write volumes about the example they set for us children and how their life together was built on something more. But, a simple anecdote best shows the passion that never left them. Even with five kids and the drudgery of everyday life, it was never unusual to see my parents…well…making out in the kitchen. They were not bashful about displaying their love in front of their kids – or anybody else who happened to be present. One day, when our brother Joe was five or six years old, he was leading a friend through the kitchen up to his room as they passed my parents in a deep and passionate kiss. Noticing the look of shock on his friend’s face, Joe dismissed it, saying, “Oh, don’t mind them…they’re married.”

“EVERY CRISIS FACED TOGETHER MAKES THE CIRCLE STRONGER.” Perhaps mom’s most significant gift of love to her husband and children was given to us over these past three and a half years. Little by little, day by day, as this disease slowly overtook her, she could no longer care for others the way she used to. We now had to care for her. For nearly 50 years she gave. Cooking, cleaning, laundry and doing all the things that go unsung. How she hated to not be able to do such things for herself and for dad any longer. It wasn’t until mom’s illness that we watched our father learn to do these things. But it was so much more than that. He finally was able to care for mom in her time of need, as she had cared for him all those years. She who cared lovingly for her children, her husband, her mother and friends, could no longer care for herself. In her dying days she gave us the greatest gift of love, she let us love her and care for her in the most intimate of ways… up her dignity and literally putting her life in our hands.

In the end, though she was helpless and couldn’t even talk, she was teaching us to love as Jesus loved. And that’s how we become stronger.

All this is echoed in some of mom’s last words as told to Deacon Larry Casey:

“It has been a wonderful journey with many loving stops along the way:

…the care, support, and nurturing I received for many years from parents and grandparents.

…the love and devotion given to me by this terrific man I have been married to for 47 years.

…the joy of giving birth to our five children and watching them grow and mature into men and women that any parent would be proud to call their own.

…the pleasure of hearing the silence of our home broken by laughter, hugs, and conversation that can only come from visiting grandchildren.”

The reality is that pain and suffering are a part of all of our lives while here on this Earth. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise any of us total happiness. What He did promise was life eternal for those who endure their hardships with faith, hope, love, and courage.”