Hard Candy – Thank You

Gulfport, it’s good to be home.
August wasn’t the best month. My uncle – my godfather, my dad’s best friend, and just an all-around good guy – died wholly and completely unexpectedly a few weeks ago, leaving a wrenching void. He was on the cusp of his 68th birthday and – especially compared with his three brothers – fairly healthy. Except apparently not. My cousin – his son – went on vacation and my uncle thought he’d surprise him by installing new doors. My uncle and my dad are incredibly generous like that; I can’t tell you how much work they did – one of them living in New York, mind you – on places I’ve lived. But this last project will likely haunt my cousin for the rest of his life, because my uncle dropped dead in his son’s bathroom, most likely, doctors say, of a massive coronary.
I flew to New York for the services, and I can assure you that one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced was watching my dad and cousins grieve as I sat there helpless to make things better. Of all the heartbreaks I’ve experienced, watching my cousins burst into tears at the sight of their daddy in a casket paled only to seeing my dad take one last moment to tell his brother goodbye just before they closed the casket.
Aside from all the usual reasons New York will never be one of my top 25 places to visit, that pretty much topped it all. The only thing worse than not visiting family you love often enough is visiting them only because of a tragedy.
I found myself in a sea of relatives – most of whom I love, but in an Italian family the relatives are like an all-you-can-eat buffet: they just keep coming – with nights in the high 40s and not a single gecko in sight. I was there to bury my godfather. It pretty much, if you will forgive my base vocabulary, sucked.
Don’t get me wrong, my family made me welcome, despite the circumstances. My very pregnant, very beautiful cousin Sue had just spent two years in Charleston, and we re-acquainted and then bonded (much to the New Yorkers’ chagrin) over our mutual love of shrimp and grits. We also (to no one’s surprise) bonded over our even stronger love of dogs. I have a munchkin dachshund, she has two labs and a mastiff that I would have crammed in my carry-on if I could have gotten away with it (my cousin’s pregnant but I still think she could take me in a fight; Salustri women are scrappy, but she has youth on her side). I raised eyebrows at the idea of diners that had full liquor bars; they marveled that we could sell wine and beer at CVS drugstores. My cousin Michele showed me her house; I spent time with my cousin Chris’ little girls, who didn’t really understand what happened to Poppy but knew he wouldn’t be there for his dog anymore. His younger daughter – entering kindergarten this year – also knew that her dad “was all alone now.”
Needless to say, we cried a lot. It was awful. We laughed a lot, too, and we ate a lot. Those parts, while always overshadowed by death, were not so awful. Nevertheless, I missed El Cap. I missed Calypso. And I missed Gulfport. Although my cousins did a tremendous job of making me feel utterly welcome and comfortable in their homes and lives under horrendous circumstances, it did not ease my unreasonably acute homesickness. It wasn’t just El Cap or Calypso; although they played a huge part. It was all of you people.
My family is, of course, my blood, and I wouldn’t trade that time. But coming home was lovely, made more so by the imminent Geckoness swirling like a dustbowl through town. I was thrust back into work – always a good thing for me – in a way that reminded me that home and family are words that can stretch to fit different meanings. When I came home, one of the first things I did was pay a visit to the Casino to see what was in store for GeckoBall, and the first thing that happened was that someone swept me up in a hug. This was was one of many – I didn’t realize how many people knew the situation until I started getting e-mails in New York – and it helped ease the suck.
Right about the time things calmed down for me and I started to feel a dull ache at my uncle’s death (as opposed to a sharp pain), my friends Tiffany and Donna had to hospitalize their nine-year-old daughter, Katie. After unsuccessfully battling a virus, Katie went to All Children’s Hospital. Spoiler alert: Katie, after a grueling bone surgery and much wringing of hands, will make a full recovery, and her moms cannot say enough good things about All Children’s Hospital. Katie had – you’ll love this – cat scratch fever. I can’t get Ted Nugent out of my head, but that’s besides the point.
When people I love are having a bad time, I try not to ask “is there anything I can do?” because it’s kind of an empty question; no one is going to say “yeah, come clean my toilets.” I ask “Can I bring food? Can I let your dog out?” because food and animals are two things I do very well. For Tiff and Donna, I offered both. They asked instead if I knew anyone who could cut their grass while they rotated shifts by their daughter’s bedside.
I asked Sunday morning and within five minutes of a few text messages, someone had arranged for the grass cutting. Before they could get out there, though, someone else had already cut the grass. The first person actually apologized to me for not getting there sooner.
In case you’re so immersed in Gulfport that you don’t realize this, that sort of thing does not happen everywhere.
Gulfport, we have our problems but they pale compared to what else we have. Even through the ever-isolated moments of acute sadness and odd bouts of tears, I realize how lucky – and yes, it was luck, there was zero planning in my decision to move here 10-plus years ago – I am to have a home here.
I appreciate your indulgence in reading this Hard Candy this far, because this one was mostly for me. I had to write something to get back into writing, because I’ve been sort of phoning things in, if you will, since my uncle died. I apologize. August was surreal. This week’s column doesn’t have some great outrage or message; it’s just a (probably way too long) message of gratitude.
Thank you, Gulfport. Thank you for being what you are and letting me be a part of it. Of all the good, wonderful, and happy things in my life, I count you all as one of the top ten.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.