Addio: In Memory of My Dad Stephen J. McCabe and My Parents

Addio, shortened from a Dio piacendo, means farewell, God willing in Italian. My father, Stephen McCabe passed away just before Christmas, just a year and a half after my mother also left this Earth. You met my parents in the Castelvetere sul Calore episode of the TV series, when we returned to my mother’s ancestral hometown. My great luck in a life – which has had its share of adversity, the part you don’t see on television – was to be blessed with the very rare treasure of parents whom I genuinely adored and respected and who wholeheartedly embraced my dreams, none more so than this dream of Italy.

“We are all just walking each other home,” Ram Dass said. How true. And these past four years, behind the scenes of escalating success for Dream of Italy, I struggled mightily, as an only child, trying to fill those final miles with care, comfort and laughter, especially in the last year when I lived with my dad. This journey was filled with miraculous highs like filming with my parents in Italy while my mother had a reprieve from stage 4 cancer and my trip to Italy with my dad this June, and gut-wrenching lows, all wrapped up with beauty, mystery, fragility, frustration, grace and faith. And signs, so many signs.

This walk of ours that once felt so long now feels so unfairly fleeting. On the way I learned a few lessons:  Always, always take the trip. Love endures all things. There are forces so much greater than us mysteriously at work. Sharing our dreams makes them real and gives them flight. Telling our stories connects us and gives our lives meaning and hope.

I’ve sat in front of this computer screen for weeks, struggling with the right words and hesitant about how much to share. Appearing on television in the first place is a great act of vulnerability; writing this is one too.

Perhaps the story of the little family who gave life to me and to Dream of Italy – with a plot twist further down that may stun you – may bring hope to your own life.

First, about my father… I didn’t realize until I grew older that they simply didn’t make men like this. Steve McCabe was absolutely the finest man I’ve ever known and probably the best human being anyone who met him will ever encounter.  His goodness didn’t make him boring though. To the contrary, my dad lit up a room with his good-natured charm and droll wit. My father’s sharp brain still produced quips and puns in record time. No one could deadpan like him.

My parents and I were at a friend’s wedding years ago when the sister of the groom came running up to me, “Kathy, she said, “your parents get along so well  for being divorced!” It took me a moment but I laughed, “Oh, did he tell you she is his first wife? She still is!”

My father’s humor and words were never at the expense of another human being. I never heard him gossip, put another person down or make an off-color joke. He was a true gentleman and I began his eulogy by reading this apt definition of such a man.

My father was my calm and steady presence. He provided the safest of safe harbors so that I could sail the world. My dad let me be me. Growing up,  I never remember my dad  – and my maternal grandfather for that fact (tragically, my father’s own father died when he was 10)  – treating me as if I had limits or if anything should be different because I was a girl. What an enormous gift.

The child of two teachers and married to a teacher, my father had an insatiable curiosity and love for learning. Because of this, I grew up in a house full of books that expanded my world from day one. I remember some of my favorites as the Tell Me Why series (and just found a set on Etsy!) My parents spent their money on experiences and travel rather than things. When I was 10, my mom read about the new budget airline People Express, the first of its kind, and planned a trip for us to London. From that vacation on, I was hooked on travel and on Europe and later worked in television news in London. Of course, a later trip to Italy with my mom would change the course of my life.

(And in a funny aside, while booking our tickets, my ever-friendly mother hit it off with Amelia the People Express phone reservations agent and never having met her, invited her to dinner at our house. She accepted the invite and was lovely. My parents’ openness to others is a lesson that is as timely as ever and surely an inspiration for my career telling people’s stories.)

When I wanted to start my own publication, my parents were the loudest to cheer on this bold idea. “We stayed in safe jobs that we didn’t always like so much, that’s why we want you to take the risk we never did,” my mom said to me once. My chatty mom was my “unofficial” PR rep and joined me for so many trips to Italy.  My father was the copy editor for the publication for many years. Producing the TV series has been one gigantic risk after another. My tenacity and perseverance I owe in large part to these two people who so believed in me.

For the premiere of season one, my parents put up a big tent in their backyard, booked my mother’s hairdresser as the guitarist (which is just so my mother!) and hired a Neapolitan pizza food truck to serve food in the driveway. The party took place the same weekend  I was profiled in The New York Times. I felt so profoundly grateful that my parents were alive to see this. Six months later my mother would be diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer with what was thought to be weeks to live.

But she got a miracle…one she attributed in part to the powerful Madonna delle Grazie of her ancestral hometown Castelvetere sul Calore. Originally I was just going to film the Castelvetere episode alone and only about a month before when my mom’s health remained good, I decided my parents simply had to be part of it. Thank God.  Shortly before even the TV show was born,  a very open-minded medical doctor suggested I also visit a mystic who specialized  in health issues.  The mystic veered off topic and told me, “Wherever your work takes you, know the ancestors will be with you.” I believe strongly the Madonna and my ancestors actively conspired to make this miracle, this episode happen. Before she left this life, it was important that my mother tell her own story and that of this miraculous Madonna who had helped generations of her family.

Growing up Catholic, I have always had faith and a strong belief in eternal life. My deeper interest in all of this began a decade ago with the sudden death of a man I loved deeply. As my mother with her amazing zest for life truly lived the heck out of the two and half year miracle she received, I became even more curious about our souls, serendipity, metaphysics and the afterlife. I started to tune into my own intuition and began to see so many things in my own life in new ways. These experiences gave me the unimaginable strength to walk those final steps with my parents with absolute certainty that our connection would remain even after death. I pray my conviction eased their fear.

A little bit about my mother…No one loved my father more nor protected him more fiercely than my mother. They met in a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was wearing St. Michael’s bell from Capri, which I now wear. She always told me that the legend of the bell and St. Michael meant you were never alone when you wore it.  That night my father said he heard bells and she never took it off; forever her good luck charm. My funny father steadfastly maintained that he only married her for a parking spot – since he lived in Manhattan and she lived in New Jersey. If you even saw them together once, you knew they were truly partners – on the dance floor, on the tennis court or simply in life.

As my mother was leaving this life in April 2018, I asked her what she saw. I expected her to say her parents or the wire fox terriers that had graced our lives. She said, “the Madonna and light.” It took my breath away and months later, I returned to Castelvetere specifically to thank Santa Maria delle Grazie for accompanying my mother home. A rainbow appeared after I left the church built in her honor.

If you knew the force of nature she was, you might not be surprised to learn my mother did not go quietly into that good night, ha! The signs and dreams she sent, not just to me and my more skeptical father but others who knew her, couldn’t be denied and still shock me and I believe in all of this! I went to see a medium not long after her death (and if your beliefs are open to such a thing, I can say it really is something that can give great peace to the grieving) who told me to look for the butterflies – this would be my mother’s sign. I wasn’t so sure because I cannot even remember my mother even mentioning a butterfly once while alive.

Sure enough, half a silk butterfly that hadn’t been there before appeared on a desk, butterflies throughout her belongings as I cleaned them out, on a fleet of plumbing trucks as I drove by crying about her death, a chandelier of butterflies in a bathroom in Italy when I took my dad to our beloved destination. And on a late winter day when my father and I had to do something excruciatingly difficult, a white butterfly flew between us. Even my father said, “my God, that’s your mother.”

This year a friend recommended another medium. She didn’t know who I was when I went to see her. As I sat down, the first thing she said was, “Your mother’s here. Why does she keep showing me the singer Madonna?” “You’re sh-ting me,” I said, not my usual vernacular but I was that shocked. “I think she means the Madonna, mother of Jesus.” The medium continued, “Okay, she wants you to know, she’s seen her, she’s met her,” she paused for second, and looked more closely at me, “and all of it is true.” I always have chills when I share that story.

But that mother of mine saved her biggest sign for when we needed her most.

My father declined rapidly this fall with a sudden illness.  I couldn’t believe this was all happening again, so soon after my mother. I had grown even closer to my father as I lived with him and was his caregiver. He remained funny and sweet despite the physical pain of his final days. I felt so very alone and begged my mother for one of her signs. When my father entered in-patient hospice and was unconscious, I then begged my mother to come get him. That is such a strange, conflicting feeling but I wanted his suffering to end.

In my father’s last few days, the nurse came in to tell me something she thought was coincidental. “The doctor on duty the next two days has your last name…Dr. Kathleen McCabe.” I froze. My mother’s full name was Kathleen Marie Nargi McCabe. Her mother chose an Anglicized version of Caterina to name her after her Italian-born mother. And as I was named after my own mother, my full name is also Kathleen McCabe.  When she arrived, the young, red-haired doctor was pretty surprised too. And ultimately, “Dr. Kathleen McCabe” was the certifying physician on my father’s death certificate.

My mother was signaling big and bright that she would take him from here.

My parents ashes were buried together along with the tortani from Castelvetere symbolizing the protection of the Madonna. One of the songs that was sung at the cemetery was the ballad, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”

–Kathy McCabe