Anxious, muted conversations filled the church. People in mostly dark colors tilted their heads to the side, offering sympathetic hugs, knowing nods and long handshakes.
The attendees had come to pay their final respects to Dr. Phil Riggio, someone my family has known for more than four decades.
A husband, grandfather and friend, he shared a positive, patient energy, which made him an effective doctor. As I sat in the church, looking up at the stars and moon on the stained glass windows, I could hear his calm voice as he offered comfort to a much younger version of myself. Whenever I contracted yet another case of strep throat, he talked to me, looked me in the eye, and waited until I was ready for that unfortunate moment when he had to swab the back of my throat.
Once the mourners entered in the back of the room, the church became completely silent. Holding the hands of her children, Marge Riggio took one slow agonizing step after the other toward the front of the room. Her eyes nearly sealed shut to the painful reality, she showed the raw emotions of someone suffering from the agony of an irreversible loss. As the widow passed each row, the mourners reached for tissues and handkerchiefs. She was at the leading edge of a powerful wave of emotion for him that moved through the room one row at a time.
Whatever she or others felt about her husband going to a better place and finding everlasting peace, it was clear that those still living on Earth would feel his absence keenly.
More than half a century earlier, the Riggios were married, starting their life together. All these years later, Marge has three children and eight grandchildren she shared with her dignified, respectful and warmhearted husband. Her family embraced her, offering to hold her hand, to listen to the words mixed with soft sobs and tears, and to bring their bodies into close contact.
We all felt and will continue to feel the absence of this remarkable man who shared so much with my family and, after my father died, with my mom. The friendship my mother had with the Riggios didn’t change at all after two couples became a couple and a widow. Marge and Phil stood shoulder to shoulder with my mother, whether their shoulders were on Long Island, at an opera in New York City or waiting in line to ride an elephant in South Africa.
On this impossible day, when Marge Riggio said goodbye to the man she’d loved for more than 50 years, I could see and feel the depth of the love they shared. My wife asked me when we got married if everyone felt the same way we did when we started out; if they had the same sense of belonging and fitting together; and if they saw the whole world in each other’s faces. I can’t answer that for the rest of the world, but I could certainly see it in the way the Riggios lived.
Love is not an entitlement, given to us the same way our genes are handed down from one generation to the next. We earn it and work at it and, when it’s mutually shared and respected, we use it to power everything we do. The end of a life threatens to remove the air we breathe. Surrounded by family and friends, we dare to take those next steps, buoyed by years of memories, holding parts of those who have left us deep within our hearts.