Joy Magazine

A Warm Current

Left: Jim Ritacca and his mother, Dorothy Miligi Ritacca. Top Right: John Ritacca and his wife, Sharilyn Devos Ritacca. Lower Right: John Ritacca stands with his mother, Dorothy, at his graduation from dental school in 1975.

As a child, I never saw my mother cry. Through bumps and scrapes, physical and emotional, she was always controlled and calm. But on a September day in 1963, when she discovered my father's body behind our two-car garage, her pain could not be contained.

A battle-field surgeon, he had survived the horrors and bloodshed of the South Pacific during World War II. But the battles in his mind eventually took him hostage and snuffed out his life at 46.

We lived in the Southern California countryside, amid thousands of acres of orange and lemon trees. The day he died, I found my mother sitting on my bed, dazed and full of confusion. To that point I never recalled my mother's embrace, much less having her bury her head into my shoulder.

"John! What are we going to do?"

Her words created the most helpless feeling of my life. Yet within the length of that sentence, she regained her strength and resolve.

True to her nature, this woman with the black, Sicilian eyes found the strength to forge ahead. Her focus was to get her children the best education possible. She was driven to ensure we would enter adult life with solid careers and futures.

It wasn't long before the family moved ahead, and my older brother, Jim, became the new face and future of the family. With Jim performing brilliantly in medical school, there was a sense of Camelot once again. A true first-born, my brother was not one to indulge in self-pity. He wouldn't accept it in himself, and he wouldn't allow it in us.

His expectations for my sister and me were uncompromising, if not draconian. But he got results. We all ended up with advanced degrees and successful careers.

It took years, but we discovered collective joy again. The horror and shame of suicide took a back seat to the academic focus necessary to achieve degrees in medicine, dentistry and music.

Jim was a gifted anesthesiology resident at UCLA Medical Center. He thrived on challenges and excitement, and Los Angeles offered an endless train of trauma through which a young specialist could hone his skills.

While attending medical training in Snow Bird, Utah, Jim accidently skied into an unmarked creek bed, breaking his neck. He died instantly. After only 10 brief years following my father's collapse, we were brutalized once again.

Jim had become my mother's support and a surrogate father to me, and his death was a hard blow. Near the end of my mother's life, she confessed that if she let herself, she could cry every day over losing Jim. Despite this crushing blow, she continued to work, often seven days a week, supporting herself on a meager income. She always found a way to create special events for us, and her smile and laughter were perpetual.

I have often thought of life as a swim across a mountain lake. The water is frigid yet invigorating. Just when you feel desperate to swim back to shore, a warm current finds you, offering relaxation and pleasure. Shortly after my brother's death, a warm current found my mother. She met a retired surgeon who had lost his wife to cancer. Mother was like a teenager again, giddy with new love. The sparkle and light came back into her eyes.

During dark days in my own life, I often remember my mother's smile and sense of humor. I remember her unshakable faith and optimism, her raw determination to overcome adversity. When my mother died of multiple myeloma in 1996, she left this remarkable benediction in a letter she wanted my sister and me to read following her death:

"I hope you are learning from experiences,

that we all to a great extent, shape our own destinies

by the choices we make.

Also, I hope you are aware

that the only worthwhile footprints we can leave

on the sands of time are the thoughtful deeds

we do for others — to reach out

and build up and gather in for God."

I learned from my mother's life that braving the cold water brings big rewards. You never know where or when a warm current will find you. I find myself in the midst of just such a current, in a rich season of love and purpose.

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