Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austro-Hungarian writer who was born, wrote, and died a long time ago. He was most famous for his poetry, still is, but he did write one semi-autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I remember it as a very mournful, if also a very beautiful book. I also remember it as a book with a lot of death in it. I can’t remember if it was an uncle or a grandfather Rilke was writing about when he wrote a line that I no doubt wrote down somewhere because it’s been a long time since I read the book and I remember it still. “We all carry our deaths within us. Like slowly-ripening fruit, we carry within us the seeds or pit of poison that will eventually explode and kill us.”
Of course, we all know that though we may indeed carry the seeds of our deaths within us, this may not be the thing that takes us in the end. Accidental death has been part of the human experience since the beginning. Now in this age of mass shootings and suicide bombings, we’re all keenly aware that we may be taken because we were at the wrong place at the wrong time: in the wrong church, at the wrong concert. We may have gotten on the wrong plane, or made the mistake of going to work or school.
The death Rilke was writing about in his novel, however, was “the right kind of death,” the one that comes “naturally,” at the end of a long life, of a life lived large and well, but the death I heard about a few days ago, the death of my friend and former colleague, Gina Calabrese, was not “the right kind of death.” Though it wasn’t inflicted by a madman with a grudge or a cause and came from within her, it came abruptly, shockingly. At the age of sixty-three, it came too soon.
I don’t know anything more about Gina’s death than what I read in her obituary. I know she wasn’t sick for long. I know she died of lung cancer though I can’t remember her ever smoking. But I don’t intend to write about Gina’s death here. I intend to write about her life.
Gina was my principal at Walsh, but I met her several years before this. Before she came to Waterbury, when she was still in Watertown, she used to do live teacher observations for the State of Connecticut. This was back in the days of BEST when subject areas like TESOL fell into the special third category that didn’t need to do a portfolio. All we needed to do was satisfy three observers during three live observations and we were done. Gina was my second observer and she was like a breath of fresh air after the first one who’d been in a bad mood because she’d come from somewhere else in the state and couldn’t find our school.
I remember how Gina fell into her seat laughing and put me immediately at my ease or as much at my ease as I could be under the circumstances. In those days, I didn’t have a room of my own. I was itinerant not just within district, but within my own school. Gina observed me in a room in the main office with the sound of the school’s business taking place outside. Neither of us knew at the time that the room next door was to become her office.
I didn’t see her again until a few years later when she was being shown around Walsh as our new principal. We recognized each other and she laughed and asked how I’d been. Most of my memories of Gina are of laughing with her about something though she wasn’t always laughing. She had a fiery temper and could get really exercised about things. That was when the hands started moving, the hands and the arms. When I remember Gina, I remember her arms raised and her hands in motion.
Her hands were in motion when she reminisced about the old days in Waterbury, going to Ortone’s after church to get something sweet. Her hands were in motion when she talked about her parents, about some of the challenges of caring for them as they aged. Her hands were in motion when she discussed students, or teachers. She was a woman in movement.
You always heard her before you saw her. Either her voice from around a corner, or the jangle of keys always dangling from around her neck, or tied to her belt. She moved through the halls at a brisk clip, always coming when teachers called.
I remember her charging down the hill on Dikeman Street one day running after a teacher who was running after a difficult student who’d decided to take off for home. The teacher was in running shoes and slacks. Gina was wearing pumps and a dress. When even she realized she probably couldn’t make it much farther, she skidded to a stop at the corner of Dikeman and Walnut, arms and hair flying in the wind, calling after the teacher pursuing the child that she’d run back to the school and get someone to help her.
On another occasion, I remember her trotting down the long hall to my room, her arms once again flying above her head, calling out that she bore good news. One of my ESL students had won a city-wide poster contest. I remember how she and I and our art teacher, Carol Coppola, went to City Hall to see him get his award and then the three of us went to dinner at Diorio’s afterwards. I was happy to be able to tell her years later that the student in question had contacted me to say he’d gone on to college, double majoring in International Studies and Economics.
Gina had other skills as well. She could sing, for example. I remember her one Christmas in a bathrobe, with three or four fifth-grade girls as her back-up group, “The Walshettes,” singing “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” I remember after she left us to go to Rotella her telling me how hard it had been to let go of the attachments she’d formed with some of these fifth-grade girls whose bruised emotions lay so close to the surface that only the slightest brush against them often brought forth symphonies of rage and pain.
I remember when she came back to us. How relieved we were. How grateful.
The last communications I had with Gina were about Italy. She and her husband went last May and as part of their tour went to Venice where I’d just been. She contacted me to ask about the location of her hotel and about restaurants. She asked what they should go to see. I know now that she didn’t know she was ill when they took that trip. She saw the light of Italy, the skies and the water and the buildings, and drank the wine and ate the food unaware of the darkness gathering within her, of the seeds starting to explode.
She told me she wanted to go back, and today I’m going to believe she made it. Maybe not the way she intended, not with her husband at her side, exploring the country both their families left to find better lives in America. But she’s there in spirit, the warmth of her personality moving quickly over the hot Italian land.
Her funeral was held in frozen Waterbury today, and I’ve no doubt the church was full. She didn’t live as long as she should have, but she did live well. She lived a life of service and love and laughter. She lived a life that gave other people pleasure. Her arms are at her sides now, and she’s put down that heavy load of keys. No teachers are calling for assistance, only mourning her departure, and feeling privileged that we knew her.