Maria Palmieri was not the most famous person in Bayonne. She wasn’t well-known to the public the way the mayor is or a congressman.
So more was the surprise when Vito Palmieri, her husband, turned around at her funeral mass and saw St. Henry’s – the largest church in Bayonne – filled to capacity.
“It was standing room only,” said her son, Anthony Palmieri.
“I was amazed,” Vito said during an interview a few weeks go when trying to get a grip on the situation and the death of his wife, a nurse at Bayonne Medical Center for more than two decades.
Until about five months ago when his wife fell into a coma, Vito, who owns Pompeii Pizzeria on Broadway, had planned a large celebration of the store’s anniversary.
But his wife’s illness had dampened the spirit, and the anniversary came and went as he and his family waited for his wife to recover.
He should have suspected something about his wife’s popularity when at the hospital people stopped outside her room and prayed. Vito didn’t know who they were or why they had come to show their respects.
So he went out and asked them. Suddenly, he saw a whole different side of his wife’s life that he had not known. While he knew she was kind, spiritual, courageous and loved her family, he didn’t know all of the other people whose lives she had touched in a meaningful way, like the patients she stayed after her shift to keep company when family members could not or did not come, and the calls on the telephone to check on people who were suffering terrible diseases, comforting them with words and prayer.
Palmieri was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer seven and a half years earlier.
“She knew what the diagnosis meant even when we did not,” Vito said. “She was a nurse. She knew and never told us she had the most serious kind of cancer.”
“She didn’t make a big deal of it, or feel sorry for herself,” her daughter, Danielle Fauci said.
If anything, Maria continued to do what she had done for 25 years working at Bayonne Medical Center.
She helped other people. In fact, during her illness she counseled others suffering from this and other diseases, giving them hope.
“She always had a smile on her face.” – Vito Palmieri
“I have two shopping bags filled with them,” he said. “And people shared their stories I never knew about.”
Maria didn’t boast about things she did, therefore Vito didn’t know about them.
“One patient had 12 children. None came to see her,” Vito said, recalling one of the stories. “So after her shift, Maria sat with the woman.”
The doctor that Maria worked for became her doctor, but she continued to work in her own way. She would talk to other patients who suffered the same or similar conditions as hers. She would check up on them from time to time, giving them comfort.
“People generally succumb to this form of cancer quickly,” Vito said. “Seven months is considered a lot time. She survived seven and a half years, and except for the last five months of her life, she was very active.”
She couldn’t be anything else.
“She always had a smile on her face,” Vito said.
Five months ago, Maria slipped into a coma.
People started to come out to help comfort Vito, and they would bring him food and their prayers.
“A thing like that usually lasts a short time, a couple of weeks, but people kept doing it the whole five months,” Vito said.
At the cemetery, Vito was stunned to see how many people there were, his wife touching the lives of people he never realized, all owing some debt of gratitude for a kind word or deed performed at the right moment in their lives.
Danielle said her mother was inspired to become a nurse.
“She liked helping people,” she said. “She was a strong person. When she was told that she would only live a few months, she held on for seven and half years, and without complaint.”
She walked to the A&P for groceries.
“Nothing stopped her,” Danielle said.
At one point in her life, a wave hit her child, and Maria rushed into the ocean before even the life guard could react.
Born in the United States and residents of Bayonne, Vito and Maria moved to Italy in the 1980s.
“We went on vacation and stayed there three years,” Vito recalled.
They moved back because of there were better prospects in the U.S. for their child. Their second child, Danielle was born after that.
Maria got to meet two popes. John Paul II in 2004, and then Pope Benedict XVI in July 2005.
She told Vito that there was a special feeling in the room she had never felt before. Vito had felt it, too, calling it surreal.
Maria, he said, was very spiritual.
Danielle said Maria attended the soccer games her daughter played in.
“She always worried about what we were going to eat,” Danielle said. “We would be at dinner on Monday, and she would ask what we wanted for Tuesday.”
She held on for all the important events of her life to happen, the birth of grandkids, the marriages of her children.
Maria also left her mark on people in Italy, since a mass held there in her honor also filled the church with people.
Vito said he wants people to have hope from Maria’s story. And he wants to thank the hundreds of people who gave their support during the long months prior to her death and those who came out to pay tribute to the woman after her death.
The family was not taken by surprise by her passing and had gathered at her side on March 16 when she died. She was 54 years old, but left a legacy of helping others as well as her family. She is survived by her husband Vito, her son Anthony and his wife Lynette, and her daughter Danielle Fauci and her husband Anthony. Maria was also grandmother to Anthony Jr. and Nicola.
She is also survived by her sisters Rosalba Doria Rocca and her husband Fernando, and Teresa Doria Tino and her husband Zaccaria, as well as many nieces, nephews and cousins.
“She touched people’s lives and never took credit for it,” Vito said.