It was just this past May that Geraldine “Gigi” (Vitale) DiPaolo lost her husband Billy. He was eighty-eight years of age. They would have been married sixty-eight years in a few short months. “Billy was a gentle soul who everyone loved. We had a wonderful romantic time together. It was a life of success.”
Gigi was a devoted caregiver at the end of Billy’s life. His dementia had increased in the last year. “He didn’t want to do much but sit for hours. I had to push him to get him moving.”
Gigi first met Billy when she was thirteen years old. Billy was a sixteen-year-old popular, handsome high school athlete. “It was love at first sight.”
Gigi’s brother had befriended Billy. He was new to Beverly having moved at the age of fourteen, from Ohio with his family.
Gigi was not allowed to see Billy on her own. There was always an escort of cousins or a brother. At fifteen years of age, her father gave permission for her to go on her first date with Billy – accompanied of course by family members! That first date was at the Paramount Theater in Lynn.
Billy and Gigi dated for three years. At eighteen, she wanted to get married. Her parents thought she was too young. Her father promised her a car if she did not get married. He went so far as to bring her to the dealership to choose a car. “I said no, I want to get married.” I used to joke with Billy and tell him, “I should have picked the car.”
“Billy and I came from the same backgrounds. We were Italian Americans. Our parents had emigrated from Italy. Our families were hard workers.”
“We got along because we liked the same things – history, politics, antique shopping, swimming, and biking.”
The young couple settled in Beverly. Billy always had three jobs – “Billy did everything to make a dollar. He was such a hard worker.” Gigi worked at the drugstore. Gigi became a homemaker upon the birth of her son and she and Billy raised their son and daughter in Beverly. After fifty-two years in Beverly, Billy and Gigi moved to Topsfield where they lived for twenty-one years.
In 1971, an opportunity to purchase a garden shop in Hamilton, MA, presented itself. Unbeknownst to Billy, Gigi had managed to save $15,000. She was always a saver. “We never had money growing up so I always worried about having money. I banked every cent I could.”
The DiPaolo family owned and ran Hamilton Gardens until they sold the business in 1996. “I cried when we sold the place.” It was twenty-five years of a labor of love.
“We worked seven days a week. We made money. Our kids worked in the business. Billy knew everything about gardening. He was a natural. He could get anything to grow. I guess he learned that from his parents who had owned North Beverly Gardens.”
Billy retired at age sixty-five, but he always had several jobs he worked at during his “retirement” years.
“Billy liked to putter. He loved helping people. He couldn’t say no to anyone who asked for help.”
Billy continued helping customers on the side with their gardening needs. That grew into his becoming a general repairperson for anyone who needed help.
Mr. and Mrs. Gardner of the Gardner Museum in Boston hired Billy to help tend their gardens. They had a full time gardener. However, when they needed an expert, they called Billy. He worked for the family for ten years.
“My friends always said they wanted Billy for a husband. He helped around the house with vacuuming and cleaning. He did everything.”
Gigi started seeing increased signs of forgetfulness. She blamed some of that on the concussions he incurred playing football in high school.
The last two months of Billy’s life were very hard. “My daughter and I kept him at home where I knew he wanted to be.” With some help from hospice, the family was able to keep Billy at home where he died.
“It was hard on my son and daughter. He was a good father and they were close to him. But they have great memories.”
“My daughter asked me recently if I missed Billy. I miss him but I do not miss taking care of him. It was very hard. I started to feel resentful. I hate to say that. I would say things that I didn’t mean at times and I’d be sorry after.”
“I knew Billy was accepting of dying. He was ready. That made it easier for me to let him go. We had had a wonderful life together.”
Caregiving is a role you can never really be prepared for. It is tough work. Gigi DiPaolo never paled in the face of hard work.
It is a different life now; one that Gigi has embraced with all her get-up-and-go attitude. She is not one who is going to sit around and feel sorry for herself. Her zest for life is infectious. You cannot help but feel upbeat and happy in her presence. As much as she describes herself as an introvert, she bears her heart and soul to those who are fortunate enough to have her in their lives.
When Billy died in May, she decided to sell the Topsfield home and found an apartment in Peabody. Only two months after Billy passing, she moved into her new home in July. She admits to finding the move overwhelming but she has managed due to the help of her kids.
Gigi prides herself on being independent. “I know I have to get out and start finding things to be involved with. I get lonesome living here on my own. It is quite an adjustment to losing Billy and to starting over in a new place but I’ll figure it out.”
There is not any doubt about that.
The caregiving role is a difficult one to take on alone. At North Shore Elder Services, we can offer caregiver support. Check out our website at https://nselder.org/family-caregiver-support-program/ to learn more how we can help.