Saturday, April 11, 2009

See You In The Next Life

In Memoriam, Melissa A. Cino, 1972-2009

Now in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring.
Thomas Merton

I WAS– AND I STILL AM – a fraud.

I don’t mean as a human being. I mean as a Pittsburgh Steeler fan. I’m not from Pittsburgh. Never even set foot there. In fact, I am such a facsimile of a true fan that I wasn’t even aware of the term ‘Stillers’, and did not know what it meant, until I learned of it from the wife of Peter Cino, my good friend for more than 30 years.

Melissa ‘Missy’ Cino, who died of cancer on April 2, was the real thing.

Pete employed the term in December 2004, as his wife and I were making plans to attend a football game between the Steelers and his favorite team, the New York Giants. In an email message he made reference to how Missy and I would enjoy watching the ‘Stillers’ play. I ‘corrected’ him in a reply, saying that no one called them that. He informed me as diplomatically as possible that his wife, having been born and raised in Murrysville, Pennsylvania – 20 miles east of Pittsburgh – had enlightened him long before that this is precisely what true-bred fans did call the team.

Whoops! Point taken.

I choose to begin this inadequate reflection on my 18-year friendship with Missy Cino with this ‘teaching point’ for two reasons. One, it was the lead-in to the second-to-last direct experience I ever had with Missy, a time I will always treasure; and two, it illuminates one of the small but meaningful ways in which Pete Cino showed his great love for his wife. For the fact is that when I came into possession of two tickets to the Giants-Steelers contest that year at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, my first thought was to call my old friend and invite him to come with me. As I have pointed out, Pete loves the Giants, so I was sure he would leap at the opportunity. ‘It will be my first time ever seeing the Steelers play in person,’ I cried gleefully.

Pete thanked me for the thought, and then told me without hesitation that he wouldn’t be going. ‘Why the hell not?’ I asked him. ‘I really want to,’ said Pete, ‘but Missy has never seen the Steelers play in person either, believe it or not. She’s going with you to that game.’

And so it was. Pete even sent me my own ‘Terrible Towel’ to wave. Missy and I did attend the game together, which happened to be the first ever match-up between then-rookie quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, both of whom ended up being Super Bowl champions later. We watched the ‘Stillers’ go ahead early, then blow a good lead; the game turned into a cold-weather thriller as the winter evening descended on our chilled knuckles and wind-burned cheeks.

I remember Missy and me howling in unison and exchanging the obligatory high-fives as Jerome Bettis rumbled across the goal line for a short-yardage touchdown to secure a road victory for Pittsburgh. Throughout the game, we huddled closely to beat the stinging gusts streaking in from the swamps of Jersey, shared stories about our small children (I had one daughter at the time; she had two young boys), and hurled screams of support (and derision) down onto the frozen turf. It was great fun and I’ll remember it always.

One of my other favorite shared experiences with Missy was not one occasion at all, but stretched out over almost all the time I knew her, almost two decades. It was like one long-running joke. It’s not something that a lot of people would understand, but it sure gave me, my twin brother John, Pete, and a few others friends a lot to laugh about.

In 1988, when Pete, John and I were high school seniors (Missy was two years younger), an action-comedy film called Midnight Run arrived in theaters, with Robert de Niro and Charles Grodin. In the annals of celluloid history, this film was fated to be obscured by another action-comedy that opened around the same time, called Die Hard. But I digress. Midnight Run is about a bounty hunter (de Niro) who was hired to track down a seemingly weak-willed accountant (Grodin) who embezzled money from a mob boss, and transport him from New York to Los Angeles. If he did so successfully and in time, a sleazy bail-bondsman would pay him $100,000. The action-comedy aspects came into play in the form of a dizzying array of obstacles, accidents, misunderstandings, and hang-ups that all conspired to prevent the bounty hunter from completing the job and collecting the money.

The script, written by George Gallo, was filled with hilarious expletive-filled banter between not only de Niro and Grodin’s characters, but also between, behind and beyond just about everybody else who appears on the screen. The Internet Movie Database informs me that what we affectionately call the ‘F-word’ these days is used 119 times in the film.

For reasons no one will ever understand, this film became an obsession among my friends and I, and we would watch it over and over, together and apart, over the next 15 years. It didn’t take long for us to start quoting the script to each other, for it did have numerous very funny lines, and some of them seemed to be applicable to multiple situations, such as: ‘You know, you’re in this mess because you’re in this mess; I didn’t put you in this mess’. Somewhere along the way this developed into an untitled contest – a game – where the ongoing challenge was to determine who could find the most appropriate, or the wittiest, means of inserting a quote from Midnight Run into everyday life.

The game was, and still is, sophomoric. But in the same manner in which old school mates will tell the exact same stories over and over again whenever they reunite – stories that were absurd even the first time they were told – this practice of finding ways to work a quote from the film into a conversation became a part of the ritual whenever our old crew came together. Nobody understood the game except us, which made it funnier. You could only imagine the reaction of our girlfriends first, then our wives, and then even our children, as time ambled on and Pete, John, myself, and others continued to play this game unabated. Eyes rolled; heads shook; probably a lot of thoughts flew around the question of how boys who had ostensibly turned into men could still act exactly like boys.

Most people reacted this way to the game. But not Missy Cino. She not only seemed to accept the game – she embraced it, she joined it. And before very long, she was better at it than any of us. She reached the point where you could be having conversations about totally divergent subject matter, and out of nowhere she could insert a quote from the film that fit so well, we all would stop dead in our tracks, think for a moment about what had just been said, and then burst into laughter. There were times when she did this even during discussions of potentially difficult subjects, and it would always ease the tension.

I don’t know if she ever quoted the film in an attempt to make light of her own strenuous, and final, battle against the disease which claimed her life. But if I were a betting man I’d put a wager on it.

Since her struggle with cancer began, and even more so since her untimely death at the shocking age of 36, I have tried to make sense of why her role in what seems like such a silly ritual – this game around a goofy movie that not many people remember – means something to me. And I can only conclude that it has to do with the way Missy seemed to accept us – meaning Pete’s old buddies from the grammar school years, and Pete himself when he was with us – for exactly who and what we were. She never made fun of us for acting like a bunch of overgrown idiots, which we made a science of. She just rolled with it. She joined right in, and it never seemed unnatural.

There’s always that special woman who can be at the same time so totally female, in the best possible sense, and yet, when the situation calls, can also stand in effortlessly as another one of the ‘guys’. I think what this boils down to is the woman stooping to enter the sub-strata of male rituals of friendship and communication, and joining in with it instead of casting judgment. Missy was this kind of woman.

I remember Missy as being equally adept in talking about the Yankee starting rotation (the Cinos are big Yankee fans), or the latest Rush record, or the Steelers of course, as she would be in discussing motherhood or her community involvement. In my times with Missy over 18 years it was not unusual to have her in a room with five or six other men who all had known each other for decades, telling old and increasingly ridiculous stories. She knew them all and would share in the telling. In her later years she would talk proudly about her sons’ baseball exploits or other boyish triumphs as both a mom and an ardent fan. Missy always struck me as a wonderful mother to sons – down to earth, engaged, with a pair of dirty hands and scuffed-up knees – and her eyes gleamed with her love for them and her pride in their accomplishments. One got the feeling that if Peter or Daniel ever wound up on a team that won the World Series, Missy would be the mother storming the field rather than waiting until afterwards to offer a demure hug.

If I can only speak about Missy through the filter of my essential boyishness, it may be because I did not know her nearly as well as others. I know next to nothing about her childhood, nor do I know about any of her female relationships; tributes to Missy Cino strictly as a woman would have to come from other sources. In other words, I knew a lot less about her than she did about me. One of my painful regrets is that I was never able to observe Missy interacting with her youngest child, her daughter, which was all the more difficult when I finally looked upon this beautiful little girl at her mother’s viewing and saw Missy’s own face there.

Yet the fact that I knew Missy almost as ‘one of the guys’ I think leads directly to my ultimate understanding of her, which is that she loved all of us fellas through her unselfish love for Pete Cino. Because she loved Pete so much, so too did she love us, and she always, always let the boys be boys. In some ways, this woman who was junior to us in years was a kind of mother to us all: she was lovely enough to inspire our pride; generous enough to indulge our immaturity; fun enough to join us in it; decent enough not to criticize it.

Missy had a wonderful, throaty laugh. It was the kind of laugh that made a man long to have a beer in his hand so he could hoist it in the direction the laugh came from. I remember it perfectly, and can hear it even as I write these words. I hope somewhere, somehow I can drag it up from the depth of Missy’s healthy, pain-free gut one last time when I offer this last remembrance:

Missy, your courageous struggle will mark my heart forever, and your death came far too soon. After it came, and all of us men had gathered in one more smack session after saying goodbye to you, I felt later on that I had been set anew on a long, twisting, and possibly arduous road representing the rest of my time on earth without you. And facing that road, I can only think of one thing to say.

Looks like I’m walkin’.[i]

[i] ‘Looks like I’m walkin’’ is the final line from the film Midnight Run. ‘See you in the next life’ is also a line from the film.