Peter S. “Bucky” DiDonato & the late Joan DiDonato
Bucky lost his late wife, Joan, to dementia on St. Patrick’s Day last year. Talking is what helps the most.
With his four children, he talks about the sweetness of life with their mom — how hard she made them all laugh, the enormous quantities of cookies she would bake.
With his friend, Nick, whose wife died four months before Joan, Bucky talks about the loneliness of living without the woman with whom he shared everything.
Most of all, Bucky talks to Joan.
“I visit her grave every week, sometimes twice a week,” said Bucky, 79, who lives in Langhorne with his youngest daughter, Nicole, her husband, and their three children. “I tell her how much I miss her, how I miss holding her. I tell her about family news, like the births of our two great-grandchildren. I tell her I went to dinner with our friends. Sometimes I play music for her — she loved Donna Summer.”
Together for more than 64 years
Bucky met the former Joan Watson in 1958, their freshman year at Abraham Lincoln High School. He was the new student who joined the class after six months at Father Judge. “I can still visualize the first time I ever saw her,” he said. “My wife was Scottish and she had a plaid, pleated skirt on and a green cardigan sweater. I looked at her and said, man, she is beautiful!” At a school dance, she accepted his invitation.
Both lived in Northeast Philly, and he walked her home from school each day. An item at age 15, they got engaged at 19 on the Valentine’s Day after high school graduation. “I called her to babysit my younger brother with me, but my parents had actually left to go get her mom,” Bucky remembered. “She was sitting on the sofa, and I got down on one knee and gave her a ring.” His parents returned with her mother — Joan’s father had died — and they celebrated together.
Joan and Bucky married May 16, 1964, at St. Timothy’s in Mayfair and held a reception at Polonia Hall in Bridesburg, a place big enough for their 200 guests to dance. Between the morning wedding and evening reception, four members of the Ferko String Band — including the bride’s uncle — got the families in a party mood at Joan’s mother’s house.
After a Poconos honeymoon, the two settled into a Tacony duplex. Bucky worked at Nicholson File then and Joan, at Penn Mutual Insurance. He got home first, so he would stop at the store and do the prep work for dinner, but left the actual cooking to Joan, whose meatballs, macaroni, and gravy were masterful. She would turn up the music and dance while she cooked, Bucky remembered. Later, his career included trucking, owning his own sandwich shop, Bucky D’s, and working for a commercial demolition company. Joan worked for 13 years in the business office at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Not long after their eldest, Paul, was born, Joan was expecting again. They bought a home in Academy Gardens in Northeast Philly, where there was plenty of room for not only the new baby, Denise, but the two children who followed, Peter and Nicole. It was the family homestead for the next 46 years.
For many of those years, the family spent the first two weeks of every August at the same Atlantic City guesthouse, Millie’s. In later summers, they explored different beaches: Hilton Head, Ocean City, Virginia Beach.
As Bucky and Joan’s children married and had a total of 11 children of their own, the beach parties only grew. “We always did things together, back before Joan started getting sick,” Bucky said. “We rented a place in North Wildwood and 23 of us went for a week — half a block from the beach.” It was a giant celebration for Bucky’s 75th birthday.
As empty nesters, the couple dove back into the things they loved when they were young: Saturday movies followed by a burger, plays, and concerts, including Dionne Warwick, Paul Anka, and Michael Bublé.
Wherever they went, throughout her whole life, people always said how pretty Joan was, Bucky remembered. “Her insides were just as pretty,” he said. “I would come home from work with stress, and she always had the time to sit down and listen to me. She was so caring. I still get mail from all of these charities because she used to just give and give. Every Sunday, we had family dinner here — she didn’t want to know nothing, everybody had to come!”
Almost 10 years ago, Bucky and Joan and Nicole and her husband, Eddie, decided to buy a home together in Langhorne, where Paul and his wife, Rose, had already lived for decades. Peter, who was then engaged to his wife, Nicole Rae, moved to a home nearby at almost the same time. Within a few years, Denise and her husband, Vincent, moved to Langhorne, too.
In sickness and in health
In 2018, just after Joan joined Bucky in retirement, she began to forget things, like where in the kitchen her pots were stored. When Bucky tried to help her, she always insisted she was fine, but he knew she was getting worse. Later, he found the detailed notes she was writing to herself.
“The last year was terrible,” Bucky said. “Some days she would know me, and some days she wouldn’t know me — that was the hardest thing.”
The family, eventually with the help of nurses and aides from Serenity Hospice, provided Joan with the care she needed at home. A hospital bed was placed in Bucky and Joan’s bedroom so he could be near her.
“She went through all of the different stages [of dementia] quickly,” said Bucky. “First she couldn’t eat, and we had to feed her. Then everything had to be pureed. Then she couldn’t swallow at all.”
A few days before Joan died, Bucky and her children were gathered around her. “She knew everybody, and then she threw me a kiss,” said Bucky. “I do believe in miracles.”
In the middle of a night soon after, Bucky looked over at his wife. “She was so white.” He kissed her, and then woke up his daughter. Joan was gone.
More than 200 people attended her funeral at Our Lady of Grace in Penndel.
Life after death
Most of the time, Bucky feels really lucky. He and Joan had a strong, loving, joyous marriage and he has so many good memories. He enjoys tight bonds with his children and their families, who include him in their lives. He regularly goes out with friends and remains an active member of Our Lady of Grace and the Knights of Columbus.
Still, some days are very hard. One day, he might be ready to join the grief support group the counselor from hospice recommended, to sit in a circle and talk to people he doesn’t yet know who have experienced a loss something like his.
But for now, at church, at Resurrection Cemetery, and every night, Bucky talks to Joan.
“I keep asking for a sign that she hears me, that she’s alright,” he said. “When I go to bed, I ask her to come into my dreams.”