Yesterday we lost a man who meant so much to so many people. A man who was well known throughout his community and adored by his family. He was a father, a husband, a brother, an uncle, a coach, a friend, an optimist, and he was my Godfather.
Uncle Tony touched so many lives in his 61 years on this Earth. So many that people from all walks of life have been reaching out to our family to give their condolences. People like my Facebook friend Matt, who said, “I didn’t realize Tony was your uncle. He and my parents are good friends and he was always so kind to me.” Or my friend Chuck, who shared some memories of Uncle Tony coaching him and the Pirates in little league. Or my friend Rhonda, who said Uncle Tony was her biggest cheerleader growing up and he will always have a special place in her heart. It seems that almost everyone in the Burlington area knew Uncle Tony and had a special bond with him. I of course feel the same way.
Uncle Tony was my 7th and 8th grade CYO basketball coach. Along with my cousin Jenna (Tony’s daughter), he taught a group of 10 teenage girls the in’s and out’s of basketball on the St. Mark’s team. I’m not sure if many of you remember what it’s like being 13 and 14 years old—or better yet—what it takes to coach teenage girls, but somehow Uncle Tony did it. He was patient, encouraging, and he never gave up on us. He put up with dramatic stories of middle-school break-ups (“I can’t run laps today, I’m too depressed…”), and excuses only young girls would have (“I can’t make practice today because I’d rather go to the mall.”) Uncle Tony gave up every single Saturday to coach our practices and every single Sunday to coach our games.
One of my favorite memories of Uncle Tony and the St. Marks team was while we were practicing one Saturday morning. Uncle Tony never went too hard on us, so after going over a few plays, and running a few laps, practice was winding down. But before it ended, he had his regular proposition for us: “Ok, girls. If any of you make this half-court shot, I’ll buy you all pizza next practice.” WOW, we all thought. Pizza?! Besides going to the movies with a cute boy, free pizza was about the best thing you could offer a teenage girl.
Each week we tried in vain to make that half-court shot, launching rubber balls as far as we could. And most of the time they just bounced off the backboard and went up into the 2nd floor auditorium above. We’d have to stop practice, hoist a girl up on Uncle Tony’s shoulders, and go searching for the ball.
So as usual on this Saturday, we lined up at half court, one by one, to take our shot. Uncle Tony sat on the sideline with a grin on his face, knowing that none of us had a chance in hell of ever sinking this shot. I threw the ball as far as I could—and missed. Jenna launched one, and missed. Liz went, and missed. And it went on like this until we got to Rhonda (the same girl I mentioned earlier). Rhonda, the girl with an infectious laugh who was constantly smiling and joking on our team, chucked the ball as hard as she could. And to everyone’s amazement, it actually went in.
Uncle Tony was absolutely dumb-founded. As we all jumped up and down, cheering and celebrating, he sat in shock. If you know the Lafayette’s at all, you know that we’re cheap frugal people. The thought of him having to buy pizzas for 10 girls nearly put him over the edge. But being the amazing man he was, he congratulated Rhonda and came to the next practice with pizza for all of us.
Besides spending the weekends with Uncle Tony, I also once shadowed him for a middle school project. At the time I thought it would be really cool to be a real estate agent—and because I was too lazy to contact a person I wasn’t related to—I followed Uncle Tony around for the day.
I thought it would be a cushy shadowing experience: sit in an office for a bit, make a few phone calls, sip on some coffee, show someone a house or two, and then call it quits around 2pm. But oh no. Uncle Tony had other things in store for me.
Our first stop was to an apartment he owned in the Old North End. The renters had moved out and he was having trouble filling the place. We walked in through the front porch and I was immediately greeted by a weird smell.
“Careful, Aim,” Uncle Tony said as we made our way through the crowded porch. “Watch your step,” he said.
And then I realized why. In front of us were at least three dead squirrels, all curled up and frozen, looking stiff and terrifying. They had somehow made their way into the house, but then couldn’t get out. It wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated seeing that early in the morning, and being a teenage girl, I freaked out a little.
“I’m going to wait in the car,” I told him.
Lunchtime wasn’t really any better. We went back to his house to eat. Hmm, not exactly what I had in mind, but ok. I grabbed a kitchen stool and sat at the counter.
“Got your sneakers with you, Aim?” he asked me.
“My sneakers? No, why? I thought we were having lunch?”
“Well we are. But first we are going for a jog. That’s what I like to do on my lunch break.”
You’ve gotta be kidding me I thought. “Oh well, guess I can’t go since I don’t have the right shoes.”
Then Aunt Melissa chimed in. “What size shoes do you wear, Amy? You can just borrow a pair of mine.” Great. There was really no way I was getting out of this one.
I reluctantly put on the sneakers, telling Uncle Tony how much I hated running, and we set off. We jogged for probably only 20 minutes, but it felt like 2 hours to me, and I spent the entire time wondering why someone would do this at lunch and being jealous of my classmates who were probably eating at some fancy restaurant. When the jog ended, we went back to his house for hotdogs and chips.
By the end of the shadow day, I was not only exhausted, but I also had such a greater appreciation for the life my uncle led.
After middle school, although he no longer coached me, Uncle Tony was still an important part of my life. He always asked how I was doing in school, what sports I was playing, and asked about my friends.
Uncle Tony even helped Liam and I buy our first home. Although he was battling cancer, he was so proud that we were about to buy our first place and he wanted to be involved. He visited the house during the Open House, met with the owners, inspected the basement for leaks, and asked all the right questions. He told us the house was sound and would be a great first home for us. Then he helped us draft the contract and seal the deal.
Uncle Tony will be remembered as a man with a huge heart who loved his family more than anything else in life. He was giving, selfless, and he was always upbeat. It’s hard to imagine what our family, and our community, is going to be like without him. But I know we will all be better off if we try to live each day the way he had: with patience, generosity, courage, and with a smile.
Rest in peace, Uncle Tony. We love you.
I encourage any of you to leave your favorite memories of him below.