Come home, my mother said
For years I had been dreading that phone call in the middle of the night.
There’s not much time. It’s your father.
In my worst nightmares, all flights out of Lima were full for weeks ahead. Even when I dreamed I had got the last seat on standby, I would still wake up with my heart racing. For that dream always ended with my taking the wrong turn on the way to the airport. I would miss the plane. Or else I would arrive at the airport and discover I had left my passport at home.
As it was, I could only get to Florence by back-tracking via Santiago de Chile, after which there were two five-hour stopovers in São Paolo and Lisbon and another three-hour stopover in Rome.
He died in her arms. What? What did you say, Daddy?.
As I push my father’s wheelchair round the piazza, the wheels scrunch on the gravel.
He died in her arms.
What? What did you say?
I pause to listen more carefully. Maybe I have misheard.
Last night, it rained. Strange that nothing looks refreshed. With their ghetto-blasters full on, the municipal gardeners are pollarding the trees and tarring the stumps. The pungent whiff of pitch brewing in a rusty vat scratches the back of my throat. I push on. At the far corner of the piazza, I click on the wheelchair brakes and take out a wad of Kleenexes from my pocket to wipe the seat of a bench.
Ah, so you do have hankies on you.
My father laughs to himself. I laugh too, delighted by this shred of memory, his mother grabbing at us whenever we rushed out of the front door.
Ce l’hai un fazolletto?
Have you got a hanky on you? No civilized person goes out without a handkerchief.
It’s good to know there are some small things my father has not forgotten. The handkerchief was one of Nonna Adela’s obsessions.
Is it time?
Time for what, Daddy?
My father is agitated. But, when I pat his forearm, to calm him, he retracts his neck into his shoulders, as if warding off a blow. As I brush my fingers down the back of his hand, he yanks it away.
How thin his skin has become. The slightest bump makes it bloom into black bruises. The day after my arrival, my mother claimed exhaustion and handed me her sewing scissors. Now it’s my task to cut off the elasticated tops of my father’s new socks. Otherwise, the ribbing digs into his ankles and makes them bleed. Still, whenever I put his socks on, my father winces at my touch. It’s like dressing an unwilling child.
Your babbo loves you to bits.
As a small girl, I used to love my Daddy to bits right back. Home late from his surgery, he would scoop me up in his arms and, laughing until we were snorting, we would waltz round the living room. But now he shrinks away from me.
My mother too restrains her natural instinct to cuddle and kiss. The most she dares to offer is a kiss blown from the tips of her fingers into the air that separates us.
It’s my fault for losing touch. I cannot deny it. Fifteen years ago, after my son died, It was I who put eight thousand miles between us so that my mother and father would not be able to take me in their arms and try to comfort me. I was afraid that one day I might let myself be touched and eventually consoled.
Buon giorno, dottore.
As she passes us on the piazza, Maya, one of the Peruvian carers from the Casa Shalom, struggles to keep control of Signora Toledano’s wheelchair. Every afternoon, this square fills with a ghostly army of middle-aged sons and daughters taking a mother or father out for a stroll. But, Signora Toledano has no children. She depends on paid South American or Philippino carers.
Just my luck. All my supermarket trolleys seem to have a will of their own too. When speaking to me, Maya often adopts a conspiratorial tone. Perhaps she imagines that I find taking my father out a chore. The wheels always veer to the right or left, she says.
My father eyes her with suspicion. Though it happened only two weeks ago, he does not remember Maya is the one who found him on the bathroom floor, his trousers tangled round his calves, unable to lift himself up. My mother had gone to town for the afternoon so no one knows how long he had been calling out for help.
I do not want Maya to think her position and mine are the same. I turn away, busying myself by tucking the mohair rug more tightly round my father’s lap. His muscles stiffen again at my touch. His eyes are cloudy. The pupils have a white rim. The arcus senilis. My father taught me all the medical terms for the signs of ageing. Claudicare gives us claudication, he said. This is when blood from the arteries no longer flows freely. Un-irrigated, the brain begins to wither. Memory starts to fail us.
There are times, however, when he asks a question so lucid that it makes me dizzy with yearning for the man he once was.
That racket at lunchtime, on the radio. They were playing Schoenberg, weren’t they?
These sudden flashes of insight ignite sparks of happiness in me. In my mother too. Better to have him irritable, we say, than staring passively into distant horizons.
This is the aeroplane coming in to land. Open your mouth.
Giacomo, my son, used to love this game. Now, I play it with my father, spoon-feeding him at mealtimes. The Dragon Lady who supervises the dining room tells me if I don’t force my father to eat, he will wake up in the middle of the night dying of hunger!
Once more mouthful, Daddy. Just one more.
I daub a bubble of spit from the corner of his mouth.
Which is when it hits me, the memory of the same gesture as I wiped my son’s face. There was a spot of pumpkin purée on his mouth. He had jerked his head away from the spoon coming in to land.
Mamma, I’m so tired. I can’t eat a thing.
So I settled Giacomo in the back of the car and we headed off for his weekly transfusion. But, that morning, unannounced, they had put up a new a one-way system near our house. We had to make a huge detour. Then, closer to the city, we got stuck behind a broken-down bus, its engine smoking. Drivers tooted their horns, rolled down their windows, waved fists and shouted at each other.
We’re almost there. Hang on, cicciolino.
I still used the same term of endearment, cicciolino, my little tubby, a carry-over from from the days when Giacomo was a chubby baby, not the pale, wheezing invalid he had become.
What a bonny baby.
British expatriates at Old England or Via del Tè used to coo over the luxurious pram my father had bought him.
The tumours were pinpricks scattered all over my son’s brain. We had followed every lead in search of a cure. Specialists in Paris, Brussels and London. From Canada, cousins sent magazine articles written by a celebrity homoeopath whose clients included heirs to extinct European monarchies, rock stars and models. My father, the GP, was furious. A dogged rationalist, he believed everything outside conventional medicine was quackery.
So I said not a word about the good-luck ribbons our Brazilian cousins sent me: fitinhas da nossa senhora de Bonfim. You tie a ribbon with seven knots round your wrist and make a wish. Then you wait until the ribbon wears thin. When, after two or three months, it finally drops off, you take it down to the sea and throw it into the seventh wave.
As my ribbon got filthier and tattier I hid it from my father under long sleeves. Three months before Giacomo’s death, I travelled to Viareggio alone to throw that ribbon into the seventh wave. But I must have counted wrongly. The waves flattened out and merged into each other as they got closer to shore. My feet got tangled in putrifying seaweeds.
So, we’ll change his name. My mother had a brainwave. Then, when the Angel of Death comes in search of a boy called Giacomo, he will not find him.
This time, my father, the fierce opponent of all forms of obscurantism, did not explode. Which is when I knew that he had lost hope. It almost made me lose hope too seeing him so subdued.
To my surprise, however, he offered to choose the name, Rafaele. In Hebrew, it means “God has healed”.
Might as well double our chances by giving him the name of a healer, my father said.
The ceremony took place in an anteroom to the via Farini synagogue. Although we never attended services, my mother’s family was well-known to the rabbi. I had not expected most of the Jewish community to turn out for the re-naming. It was a January day of low skies, the air so damp and cold that it made my bones ache.
Only the day before, my father had been a youthful-looking, dapper sixty-five-year old, a man who occupied all the space around him with his expansive gestures and deep booming voice. Now he had been transformed into a bent and shrunken old man. From the women’s pews at the back of the room, I tried to catch his eye but he was staring blankly into space. Next to me, my mother wept silently. It was hard to drive back my own tears as I gazed around me at the other mothers. With stricken faces, they clutched their children as if they too were in imminent danger of being snatched away from them by a skulking Angel of Death.
The sun should not be shining today.
I have never forgotten my father’s words the day we buried my son.
Now, on another sunny day, in the Casa Shalom, the light through the window is so bright that it stabs my eyes. So I draw the net curtains in my father’s room. The shadows on the floor are shimmery, like the surface of water. My father has turned his face to the wall.
For the last three days, my mother and I have relayed each other in keeping vigil. The duty nurse bustles in and out. She switches on the motor that makes the water-bed vibrate. Noisily, she pulls up the sides of my father’s cot and locks them into position.
So he won’t fall and do himself permanent damage!
He died in her arms.
What? What did you say?
Oh, nothing, Sister.
But it isn’t nothing. I realise now what my father had been trying to say each day on the piazza.
When I finally got my son to the hospital, he’d stopped breathing, I carried him out of the car in my arms, but by the time we’d got inside it was too late.
Is my father hoping for the same comfort at the end of his life?
The problem is how do you hold someone in your arms when he is lying behind the bars of a cot? Sitting in a chair at the bottom of his bed, I rub my father’s feet. I remember Giacomo’s plump baby feet, how he loved having them tickled. Can my father feel my touch? I willed my son to live though he was already dead. Now, I will my father to let go and, for a moment, he stops breathing. The net curtain blows onto his face. When I brush it away, my father twitches and starts breathing again.
There’s still a bit of time. You should go to the cafeteria. Have a break.
I follow the nurse’s advice.
While I am out of the room death creeps up on my father. Once again, my back is turned.
Do you want me to go round to your mother’s room and break the news to her? I’ll need to prepare the body first.
No, thanks, Sister. I’ll go.
I knock on my mother’s door though it is half open. She has put her nightdress on and is sitting on the edge of the bed, staring blankly ahead.
It’s over, isn’t it?
Yes, it is.
I put my arms round her narrow shoulders. At first she stiffens against my touch. Then, unexpectedly, she relaxes, leaning her head towards my shoulder. She has always radiated heat, going round barefoot, wearing only thin sweaters even on the coldest winter’s day. But now her skin is clammy. I too feel suddenly cold and shivery.
Come on, mamma, get into bed.
I peel off the sheets and blanket and lift my mother’s limp legs onto the bed. Then, I plump up the pillows and settle her gently on them. She is gulping down silent sobs. I squeeze her tightly.
Then, without speaking, I remove my shoes and climb into the bed next to her. I will hold her in my arms until dawn. In the morning, we shall go to my father and hold him one last time.
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