Today's episode is going to be a little different. In part, I wish to explain my absence last week. And I want to express my thoughts about my recently deceased mother, Vicky Sorrentino Jurica. And present a tribute to her.
So you won't be hearing anything today about nonclinical careers, or side gigs, or physician leadership, except maybe tangentially. And I'm still not exactly sure why I'm recording this. Other than there might be some small lessons for those that listen; it'll be something that I can refer back to in the future; and, something that perhaps my family members can listen to.
During the memorial for my mother two days ago, on Saturday, I spent a few minutes reminiscing about her and sort of analyzing my response to her passing. And I thought it would be useful to recreate what I said on that day, for the reasons that I just specified a minute ago. But this is an extemporaneous recording. I don't have any notes and I certainly don't have a recording of what I said. And before I get into what my comments were, I'm going to have to provide a little bit of background.
My Reasons for Posting
Now, if all of this sounds a little self-indulgent or simply not to your liking then that's fine, and you should probably exit now. I'm not sure how long this recording is going to take. And once it's done, I plan to return to my normal schedule of weekly podcasts a week from now. But this being one of the most serious and important events of my life, I felt compelled to put into audio, and potentially on paper, my thoughts, my feelings, and reflections on my mother's life, and on my reaction to her passing.
My Mother's Illness
Let me start with the progression of her illness and the events that led up to her death two Saturdays ago on April 7th, 2018. She was a very healthy, strong woman. She never had any serious medical problems. She had some minor back problems and a mild radiculopathy that had to be addressed in her later years.
And she had been to Mayo Clinic because of chronic lung or chest pain, and was sent home after a complete workup with a diagnosis of an undifferentiated inflammatory condition of her pleura, for which she occasionally took prednisone.
But about a year ago, my then 83-year-old mother began showing signs of memory loss, which progressed rather slowly for the first six months, and then seemed to accelerate. She was seen by her local physician, referred to a neurologist, and after some of the usual workup she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. There wasn't any treatment for her progressive signs and symptoms of dementia, so we just adjusted at home, providing care by the family and paid and unpaid caregivers who helped as her condition worsened.
She was incidentally found to have some lesions on her lung, which were found to be mesothelioma. But as far as any of us could tell during the final three months of her life, she never demonstrated any symptoms of the mesothelioma. And it appeared that the dementia was the ultimate cause of her demise. During the last month of her life, her speech continued to decline to the point where she really couldn't express herself at all. She gradually lost her interest and ability to eat and then to drink.
During the final couple of months we involved hospice, which was based near her home, where she lived with my father, in Joliet, Illinois. For a brief period during the very end we thought about moving my mother to the inpatient hospice facility in town. But after a short discussion, my father decided against it.
Vicky Sorrentino Jurica's Last Week
During the last week or so of my mother's time on earth, my nine siblings and I began spending more time with her, first by individually taking turns. And then with multiple siblings, and sometimes their spouses, to help turn her every two hours, bathe her and simply be with her. Finally, during about the last 48 hours of her life, we “camped out” at the home of my mother and father, which was a small two bedroom senior condominium. And we all gathered around her bed anticipating the end.
It took a lot longer than we thought. And while sitting around, sometimes singing, sometimes praying, we also often times broke into laughter as we talked about stories about my parents and our childhood growing up, first in Skokie, Illinois and then in Niles, Illinois.
My mother was actually in very good health other than her dementia and this seemingly silent mesothelioma, so her heart and lungs were very strong. And there were several times during the last 48 hours or so where we thought, for sure, things were going to end. But she surprised us.
But we all hung in there, and then finally she passed away late in the morning on April 7th, 2018.
I'm not trying to be too maudlin here. I just wanted to give you a picture of what was going on. Her death was actually quite peaceful. And I believe my father felt very supported having his family around as his wife of almost 64 years passed. But at times it was quite a sight to see 10, 11, 12, 13, or 15 of us crammed into their little home, supporting one another, and preparing for the ultimate event that we knew was coming.
Preparations for a Memorial
So, obviously, we had to make preparations for some kind of service. With the help of two pastors who are my brothers-in-law, particularly Jim, arrangements were made to have a visitation the following Friday evening, and a memorial on Saturday morning (two days ago). And throughout this, it became clear that I should volunteer as the oldest of the siblings to prepare and present some comments to those in attendance. And as the day came closer and closer, I really hadn't prepared any specific comments.
However, I spent four or five hours standing next to my father during the visitation. And I was able to meet hundreds of people that had known my mother throughout her life, many of whom I'd never met before.
During that time, I was able to hear stories about their relationship with my mom and how much they loved her. And I began to get the sense that I really didn't know who my mother was.
Now that may be stretching it a bit. Obviously I had spent many, many hours, days and weeks with my mother over the years. But in hearing some of the stories and unearthing certain documents and pictures during the week between her death and the memorial, it became clear to me that there are many things about her that I didn't know. And that got me thinking.
And that theme would become part of the message that I tried to convey during her memorial service.
My plan, shortly, is to try and capture the words and thoughts that I expressed during her memorial. But those comments and thoughts aren't going to really make any sense unless you understand the “back stories” of our families. I'm going to take a minute here to digress completely, and describe a little bit about my mother's background and my father's background. How they met and so forth.
My mother was born in February of 1934 into a very devout Catholic Italian family. My grandmother was a nightclub singer and my grandfather was a small businessman. His name was Vincent Sorrentino but he subsequently changed his name to Sorren so it sounded more American. At the time that he changed his name my mother, Vincella Angelina Sorrentino, now known as Vicky, opted not to change her name. And so, she was known as Vicky or Vincella Sorrentino at the time she met my father.
My mom lived with her family on North Avenue in Chicago, in a home that was an apartment above the business that my grandfather was running.
Sometime before my mother's 9th or 10th birthday, my biological grandmother, Betty, had to be hospitalized in a sanitarium for tuberculosis and subsequently died of TB. Now, sometime in there my mother's parents were divorced and I'm not sure whether that happened before or after she was placed in the sanitarium. But that left her father raising my mother until he met and married Josephine and who become my mother's stepmother and then subsequently had two children.
So my mom has a brother and sister who are now in their 70s by the name of Vincent and Bonnie. Sometime in her mid to late teens she ran into this guy called John Jurica who is my father. Now I want to tell you the difference between their two families because when you consider two families being on different sides of the tracks, this would probably be a good example.
As I said, my mom's father was a successful businessman, and a short time after my parents met, he moved his family to a very nice neighborhood in a big house in River Forest, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Most people recognize it as a somewhat exclusive area, probably more so back 50 to 60 years ago when they were living there.
My father was the third oldest of a family of six children. Now his parents were a little bit different. Basically, his family never recovered from the Great Depression. My dad's dad was a lifetime alcoholic. In fact, there were stories that he was kicked out of the sixth grade because he had been drinking too much. So, not only did he not go to high school, but he actually didn't even complete grammar school. Of course, that was early in the 20th century.
Needless to say, they weren't quite at the social level that my mother's family was. And, again, I say this with no disrespect to my dad, because as a sidebar I'll note that my grandfather (also John Jurica) stopped drinking completely on the day of my mother and father's wedding. Nobody knows why. He never said anything about it. He never took a vow to do so. But it was a fact that he stopped drinking any alcohol on that day, and never had another drink in his life.
But up until that point he definitely was not a very good breadwinner or leader of the family on my father's side. And, in fact, he was the type of person who would become quite violent when he was drinking heavily. And he spent most of the money that he'd make in side jobs on alcohol and spending time with his friends.
My grandmother tried to keep things together as best she could. And the fact of the matter is that, for many of the years the home that they lived in, they basically were squatters in the home because it was in foreclosure. So they could stay without having to pay any rent, which was very fortuitous. But as a result, my father found himself working more and more to help support the family, along with his older sisters, who I believe also contributed. And so he stopped going to school and did not graduate from high school.
So you can imagine the dismay that my maternal grandparents might have felt when it was explained to them that my mother, Vicky, and my dad, John, were planning to get married at about the age of 20. So that sort of sets the stage.
The First Child
Now I was born while my parents were living in Chicago. And apparently they moved to the first home that I grew up in, in Skokie, when I was about six months old. That was an apartment that they called a “co-op.” It was one of four, in a two-story building, two apartments on the first floor, two apartments on the second floor, that my grandfather owned. Apparently he owned several, and he provided one to my parents to live in.
I think they paid rent; I don't know. But I have fond memories of living in that apartment and growing up with my friends on Kirk Street in Skokie, Illinois. And we lived there for the next 11 or 12 years, until I began the 7th grade, when we all packed up and moved to Niles, Illinois.
Now mind you, during that time my mom gave birth to eight of my eventual nine siblings. So you can imagine it was a little cramped for 11 of us (that's my parents, and myself, and eight siblings) to be living in a four room apartment with two bedrooms and one bathroom.
But my father worked hard. My mom stayed at home basically raising the family. And we move out to Niles to a bungalow, which seemed like a mansion at the time, but also only had three bedrooms and one bathroom. So it was a little bit larger. But with some remodeling and so forth, over the years, we made it work.
And then shortly thereafter, when I was 16 years old, my mom gave birth to my youngest sister and there are now 10 of us. I have two brothers and seven sisters.
The final area that I want to cover, in anticipation of my comments made at the memorial, has to do with the issue of religion. My father was raised as a Lutheran, but has never practiced any religion. In fact, he's actively not practiced a religion most of his life. And my mother was a devout Catholic. That might explain the 10 children.
But somewhere along the line, my mom found herself looking into the charismatic branch of the Catholic religion. I've never really understood completely what the Charismatic Movement is about. But it's a movement that involves many of the Christian religions. And it definitely affected a subset of Catholics who found themselves spending time in prayer groups and in reading the Bible, much more than the typical Catholic does. And ultimately, it led to her leaving the Catholic religion and becoming what one would call an Evangelical Christian.
Throughout all of this, though, she was always very faithful to her religion, to her God, and she was always a strong believer. Again, this was sort of the opposite of my father's position on religion, in which he, at times, declared himself to be an atheist, but basically didn't partake at all in spiritual activities.
I found out later, in part during the visitation, that my mother was one of the founding members of an evangelical church which was opened somewhat of a distance from their home in Niles. But it was just the place that she was looking for, and she became a regular participant, supporter and prayer leader in that congregation. And over the years it grew and grew, and she became an integral part of it, again something that I didn't really understand until after her passing.
And as people told me the stories about her, they said that she was considered to be what they called a prayer warrior because she was always in groups of people leading prayers for whatever struggles or challenges that they were facing. And she had this strong conviction in prayer and belief in prayer. And from what I heard from her friends and other churchgoers, she had a very unflappable faith.
And I kind of knew this as I was growing up, but again I was doing my own thing, I was going to school, I was working to help pay for expenses. And since I had such a large family, we all had to kind of do our own thing. And so I didn't really understand what she was doing. And then as I went to college and medical school, I was kind of out of the loop. So it was very interesting to hear these stories during the visitation part of this past week or so.
I got to hear the founding pastor of that congregation talk about how critical she was, my mother, to the founding and growth of that congregation. And also to an affiliate bible college, where several of my siblings attended, and some of whom met their future spouses, who are now a part of our family.
Now I think I've set the stage sufficiently to get into my comments at the memorial service.
Brief Thoughts and Feelings About My Mother, Vicky Jurica
This diminutive Italian woman, who was a devout Catholic, and then later a committed Christian, married to my father for over 63 years, bore and raised 10 children. And she was consistently steadfast in her faith in God, and her love of her husband, and of her children, and her 29 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
Let me now try and restate the thoughts and feelings that I expressed during her memorial two days ago:
I was having trouble thinking about what I should say at today's memorial. I hadn't prepared anything and I woke up this morning really trying to think what I might express. Part of what I experienced, of course, during these recent days was sadness. And I was thinking about: What was it that was making me so sad?
Was it simply that my mother was gone? That I was going to miss her? And I think what it came down to primarily for me, and I don't know if this is the root of everybody's sadness (but it's probably a contributor): it came down to the word regret. Now the word “regret” means sadness as a result of something that happened, especially over a missed opportunity. And I think it really does describe a lot of the sadness that I'm experiencing with the loss of my mother.
Now my wife warned me when we first became aware of my mom's illness that I needed to spend as much time as I could with her. And it was really good advice. And I probably could have spent more time with her. But as I think about the word “regret” it wasn't the time that I missed with her that I was regretting. It was the fact that it seemed like I didn't really know her. So in a way, it was too late even with my wife's admonition to spend more time with her, to really get to know her, because she was already in the throes of her dementia.
But as I've spent time with my family and my mother over the last week, and then following her death, looking through some of the things that we had to sort through, it became apparent that I only know a little bit about her. I had expressed during the visitation that my mother was quite adventuresome or adventurous, but really as I'm thinking about what I've heard from her friends and family here in the last day or so, it was more than just being adventurous.
Mom Was Courageous
She had a lot of courage that I didn't fully recognize or understand. For example, and I don't mean any disrespect Dad, but it took a lot of courage for her to marry you. Your two families couldn't have been more different. And I can't even imagine the kind of pressure that was put on her by her family, but she went ahead and she married you. I understand that she was in love with you, and that you loved her, but that took courage.
And even to consider her having 10 children: I can't even imagine the kind of peer pressure or comments that might have been made. Like after the sixth child, “Vicky, are you guys going to stop now? You've enough kids?” Or after the seventh or after the eighth or even the ninth: “Surely Vicky, you and John have decided that your family's large enough.” But no, she continued to have children because she basically put it in the hands of God and she had the courage to do that.
My dad and I were going through some things after her passing, and we found an old amateur playbill from 1972. And we discovered that she was in a play that neither of us remembered her being in. I was 17 at the time and surely I would have known, since I was living at home. And there she was on stage acting in a play, probably singing (because she loved to sing). And I'm sure that took courage.
And this was something that I really didn't know about my mother. I didn't know that she was a prayer warrior in her church. That she helped dozens if not hundreds of people work through challenges and issues through prayer and counseling. I knew a lot about my father, because my father is a “talker.” And all you have to do is sit down with him and before long he'll be telling you stories about almost anything in his life you can imagine, from his childhood to his work, to fishing, to flea markets, anything involving him and his thoughts and his experiences.
But my mother was not like that. Anytime I spent with her she was trying to see what was going on in my life. She'd offer to pray for me. She would listen to me. She would provide advice if I asked for it. But she barely ever described what was going on in her life. So my regret isn't that I didn't spend time with her, (though I could've spent more time), but that this time that I spent with her didn't allow me to get to know her fully. And whether because of my hubris or my self-absorption, I really didn't feel it was important to know her to the depth that she obviously knew me.
And that makes me sad. And that's the lesson that I've learned, among others, in going through this experience and advice I would give to you. Children whose parents are still around, not only should you spend time with them, but you should really get to know them. I think you'll find there's a lot more there than you really know.
And the last thing I want to say, is to my dad: I just want you to know that you're an awesome father, you're a fantastic grandfather, and you were a loving husband to my mother. And I thank you for that.
Thanks for listening today. Next week we'll return to our usual format in which I'll be describing the certified physician executive designation from the AAPL. Thanks for listening today and I'll talk to you then.
If you'd like to listen to the premier episode and show notes, you can find it here: Getting Acquainted with Physician NonClinical Careers Podcast – 001