Paul and Danielle Summa welcome their granddaughter, Gracie JoAnn, into the world. Courtesy photo

Beginning and ending: gaining a granddaughter and losing a father

In 12 hours, Gracie JoAnn Summa was born, and John Summa died. How the new grandparents experienced the day.
By: 
Sep. 6, 2018

Paul Summa’s son, Danny, was excited. But he also felt weird about the whole thing: He was about to become an uncle, and he was only 12 years old.

They were cruising down Interstate 95 toward Halifax Medical Center, where Paul’s 18-year-old daughter, Anna, who is Danny’s sister, was about to give birth to a baby girl on Aug. 23. While Paul drove, Danny fired off one question after another, but Paul didn’t mind: He was amused and pleased with Danny’s enthusiasm.

“Is she going to be born by the time we get there?” Danny asked. “Are we going to get to see it happen?”

“We could,” Paul said. “It could take an hour, could take 20 hours. We’ll see.”

When they parked, Danny jumped out of the car, ready to run into the hospital.

The truth was, Paul was just as excited as Danny was — and he also felt just as weird about it. Paul was about to become a grandfather for the first time. He was only 42 — wasn’t he too young for this?

They found Anna’s room, and she beamed. And yet, she was also nervous — so much so that she had brought along a well-worn stuffed animal from her childhood to keep her company: Bob the Frog.

Paul’s wife, Danielle, was already at the hospital to support Anna, her step-daughter whom she had helped raise for the past nine years. Anna insisted that Danielle not leave her side as nurses came and went.

Paul sat with Danny and they joked about old times. Finally, the nurse said, “We’re moving fast!” She predicted the baby would come soon. More nurses scurried in and out of the room.

But it took longer than anyone anticipated. Hours passed. Soon it was 11 p.m., and Danny had to be taken home by friends so that he could be ready for school the next day — he would miss the birth after all.

Then it was midnight, and the hours continued to tick by. To give Anna some rest, everyone but Danielle was moved to a lobby outside the delivery room, and that was fine by Paul. He didn’t actually want to be in the room for the delivery itself (“I don’t have much of a stomach for this stuff,” he later said.).

At about 4 a.m., Danielle was worried she’d have to leave for work soon, so she had a little chat with the unborn baby, who was going to be named Gracie JoAnn Summa.

“Gracie girl, you need to hurry up!” she said.

Gracie JoAnn Summa

Finally, at 4:34 a.m. on Aug. 24, Paul was summoned back into the delivery room, because he was officially a grandfather. Gracie was 20 inches long and weighed 6 pounds, 6 ounces. Ten fingers. Ten toes.

Gracie’s middle name was a family favorite: Paul’s mother is also JoAnn, and he has an aunt and a cousin with the same name, which means “grace of God.”

Paul and Danielle were able to stay long enough to watch a nurse dab ink onto Gracie’s feet and stamp her footprints onto a card, before they each had to drive home for quick showers and then work.

*

Paul is the general sales manager at Palm Coast Ford — has been for a decade. He started working in the business at age 21 as a salesman and worked his way up. Now 42, he has short-cropped silver hair, an olive complexion, a booming New York accent, a commanding presence. At work, he got some coffee and powered up his computer. But he also circulated with his colleagues and showed off the pictures taken just hours earlier. He was a granddad! He got hugs and high fives, and he was just sitting back down to look at his computer again when his mother called.

“We had to rush your father to the emergency room,” she said. “He was having trouble breathing. I’ll call you soon.”

Paul’s father was 74 years old; he’d had Alzheimer’s for several years. An hour later, JoAnn called again.

“You need to get down here,” she said.

Paul, who was in a meeting with Palm Coast Ford General Manager Don York at the moment, grabbed his keys and said, simply, “I have to leave.” He left his computer on, walked out the door, got in his car and drove south — again — down Interstate 95.

*

Meanwhile, Danielle was at Matanzas High School, where she was conducting a blood drive with One Blood. Paul called, but she couldn’t understand him at first. He was crying.

She panicked. Was there bad news about Anna? She never thought it might be about her father-in-law, who, although he’d had a heart attack one week earlier, had recovered remarkably well and was, she assumed, safe and sound at his home. Once she understood that it was about Paul’s father, she dropped everything and headed for Florida Hospital Flagler.

While Paul was en route, he also called his brother and told him to join him at the hospital as quickly as he could. He felt torn between two extremes. First was the fear that his father could die today. But second, he was in disbelief. He felt sure that he would be able to look back on this day and joke with his father, “Man, you really had me worried.”

Paul was exhausted, dreamy, frazzled.

Before Alzheimer’s, his father used to be so strong. He remembered him as a strict dad, but one who always taught his six children — Paul was the youngest — to do the right thing. He remembered as a kid telling his then-40-year-old dad, “You’re getting old.” Life has a way of reminding you that it’s all one big circle.

John Summa

John Summa was one of seven children. He was born Sept. 18, 1943, in Staten Island, New York. As a young man, he worked for Northrop Grumman, then NASA, and then he joined the Army and served in Germany before returning and marrying JoAnn on April 28, 1963. The family moved to a farm in upstate New York, and John became the maintenance supervisor at State University New York at Binghamton.

The Summa patriarch was good with his hands. At their home, he hauled bricks in a rented truck and built a barbecue pit that could serve 60 people. And he loved spending time with his family, always encouraging his children to bring their friends to the Summa home — that way he could keep an eye on them.

The family traveled, went to the Bronx Zoo, had picnics. Paul also remembers his father taking lots of pictures, including selfies, with a Polaroid camera.

In 1995, John retired, and, after a year in St. Augustine, the family moved to Palm Coast. Paul was 19. Eventually, Paul married and had two children of his own, Gage and Anna. He got divorced and then married Danielle in 2015; he treated her son, Danny, as his own.

Paul’s parents were heavily involved in raising his children because of Paul’s long hours at the dealership when they were younger, and then John and JoAnn moved in with Paul and Danielle for a few years.

Would this hospital trip in 2018 be just one more part of John Summa’s life history, or the end of it?

*

Paul and Danielle sat with his mother, brother and aunt, in the hospital on Aug. 24, getting updates on his father: Kidneys shutting down. Lungs shutting down. Heart rate at 30 beats per minute.

In the hallway, they heard, “Code blue. Code blue. Code blue.” Nurses and doctors rushing down the hallway. He thought about how his aunt — John’s sister — had recently become a widow; and how John was her only remaining sibling. He imagined his mother, alone in her home.

As the family waited, Paul excused himself, and he walked the hallway in the hospital, surrounded by nurses behind counters, carts in front of rooms, clipboards, subdued paintings on walls.

His father had become like a child over the past several years. And yet, there were flashes of his old self, like the day when he suddenly spoke fluent German with a fellow veteran, remembering things from decades ago but not minutes ago. John also had a good memory of tools that had been borrowed and not returned.

Paul tried to stay composed.

*

Back in the waiting room, Paul and his family listened to Dr. Dean M. Abtahi give them the percentages of survival, the likelihood that even if John did survive, his quality of life would be poor, given his dementia. There wasn’t much that could be done, other than to try to make him comfortable in his last moments. Abtahi was full of compassion, hugging Summa’s mother, consoling her, praying with the family.

They walked to the intensive care unit, where his father was on a respirator, eyes closed. JoAnn was given an hour alone with her husband of more than half a century.

*

When the family returned, Paul kissed his father on the forehead. He held onto his father’s foot. He praised John, although he couldn’t respond, for being a wonderful father, a wonderful grandfather and great-grandfather.

Then Paul said, “It’s OK. You can go be with Jesus. I’ll see you again someday. Don’t worry about Mommy. I’ll take care of her the way you would want me to.”

Then JoAnn said, “It’s time.” Earlier in life, John Summa had made it clear that he was not to be kept alive by a respirator.

Paul couldn’t watch. Just as he hadn’t wanted to be in the room for the birth at 4:34 that morning, he also was squeamish about the removal of the breathing tube. He sat in the waiting room alone, and he cried. He cried and cried. His father had been such a strong man, and now —

*

John and JoAnn Summa

Danielle decided to stay in the room with JoAnn, Paul’s brother and John’s sister. The breathing tube was removed. It was now only a matter of time.

JoAnn held her husband for 10 minutes. When his breathing stopped, she didn’t want to accept it. She coaxed him: “One more breath, baby, one more breath.”

John Summa, a doting husband, obliged. He inhaled through his nose, and struggled mightily to exhale, an unnatural gasp, all still with his eyes closed.

Again and again, JoAnn asked for one more, and John managed another labored breath.

Danielle was in awe, overwhelmed. The love this man and woman had for each other was almost tangible. They had promised to love each other till death, and they had kept that promise. She was saddened by the scene, but she also felt privileged to witness it. She thought about Paul, struggling in the waiting room, and she longed to share her life with him in the way that this couple had.

Finally, JoAnn said to John, “It’s OK to go home. I’ll be there shortly with you.”

*

Danielle told Paul the news: At 3:30 p.m., just under 12 hours since their daughter had given birth to their first grandchild, Summa’s father was declared dead.

But there was no time to decompress before Danielle realized that there was another difficult task ahead: They had to tell Anna. They had to tell her in person, and they had to do it before she found out from any other family member posting on social media.

“Anna is a very emotional girl,” Danielle recalled later. “I knew that after just having a baby — it was going to affect her a lot harder than everybody else. The last thing you want is to see your daughter go through post-partum.”

Paul, Danielle and JoAnn rushed out. They drove home, and as soon as Danny got off the bus, they all headed to Halifax.

Danny had been expecting all along to go to see his sister and his niece right after school. They had to break the news to him, as well, that his grandfather had died in the meantime.

He was distraught. “Why couldn’t I stay home from school?” he said. “I should have stayed home! I didn’t get to say goodbye to Pop.”

When they arrived at the hospital and entered Anna’s room, Danielle said to Anna, “Let me hold the baby while Daddy and Nanny talk to you.”

Anna knew something was wrong.

Just as Danielle expected, she took it hard. Everyone was hurting.

*

It was a day unlike any other in Paul’s life. He felt inspired to talk to his own children in the following days, promising them that things were going to be different, that he was going to spend more time with them, that he wanted to be closer, that he knew the value of making memories that would last.

What helped Paul find some peace was a particular moment in the hospital. When he saw his mother hold Gracie for the first time, connecting two generations, he also felt that somehow the birth and the death were connected, part of a larger plan. Somehow, he felt that things were going to be OK.

Email Brian McMillan at editor@palmcoastobserver.com.