I am four. It is my birthday and there is a Sesame Street themed cake, a pile of presents, and a smattering of cousins. I unwrap each present with swiftness and enthusiasm until the very last one. I can tell by the look in my mother’s eyes that this gift was a special one. Even though I cannot read yet, I know that it is a Nintendo console by looking at the box. Just when I thought this day could not get any better, I notice that Nonna doesn’t drive home with my aunt and uncle.
“Why isn’t Nonna going home?” I ask my mother, as we stand outside on the hot July day.
“Because she will be living with us now.”
A wave of delight washes over me at the thought of spending every day with my beloved grandmother. This was surely the best birthday gift ever.
I quickly learn that the perks of living with Nonna are plentiful. I don’t really like mornings, but she has a gentle way of waking me up. Most mornings she opens my bedroom door quietly and fills the room with music. As she sings, she walks through the room and slowly raises the curtains, letting rays of sunshine in. Never too suddenly.
Her singing voice is gentle, soothing, and a little bit shaky.
La brava bambina
appena si è svegliata
si lava la faccia, le mani, le braccia.
Si mette il vestito
e va diretta a scuola.
As soon as my eyelids are open, she asks “Cosa vuoi mangiare per colazione?”
I am seven. We are looking through the atlas together in our living room and she shows me all the countries my grandfather landed in during the war. I listen intently because I want to remember every word she says. When old people tell you stories, you are supposed to pay attention, I think to myself. One day, they will be gone, and it will be up to me to remember all of this.
My mother is puttering around the entrance of the house, tidying up. She leans against the doorway of the living room and implores: “Ma, please speak to the kids in Italian, not in dialect.” It was her fruitless attempt to ensure we weren’t “confused” by the constant switching between regional dialects and the standard tongue.
“Oh, sì, sì,” Nonna replies, with a barely perceptible eye roll. Nonna explains to me that she was allowed to stay in school until she was 10 years old, unlike so many of her generation, and so she became fully literate in standard Italian. Five minutes later she slips back into her dialect and I’m not sure that she notices. I like it better this way, anyway. I won’t tell mom.
I am 12. I cling to her more and more these days. Her hair has changed from grey to white, and I sense her fragility. I can also sense that she is longing for connection and a sense of belonging. I notice that she sometimes tries to keep up with conversations that happen in English, but most of the time, she seems to be somewhere else. I wonder what that must feel like. What is she thinking about in those moments around the dinner table? What alternative reality is she longing for? She seems lonely, or maybe homesick.
After a boisterous (mostly English-speaking) dinner with the family, she watches a gameshow and I curl up next to her on the couch. I just want her to know that I love her. Our hands resting together are an anchor. I hope that in holding her hand she understands that I belong to her, and her to me. “Le tue mani sono fredde come ‘na morta,” she points out, while nestling my hands to warm them up. I chuckle at her statement and think of it as a bit dramatic.
Tonight is like most nights; she goes upstairs to her bedroom around 8 o’clock. I crack open her bedroom door about an hour later to see what she is doing. She is praying the rosary quietly to herself. I can hear her whispering the prayers under her breath. Her very vintage TV is on too. It is tuned to Omni for the Italian-language news.
She catches me gazing at her.
“Entra, entra, siediti qua.” She gestures me towards her bed. Truth be told, I wanted company too. Being around her was so simple. Something about our friendship just felt pure – as though nothing could complicate it. I want to lay on her bed for hours and be wrapped up in stories of her homeland. In doing that, she makes me feel at home too. Ours feels like a simple love. Even though I am starting to notice that I might be different from other kids my age, and I worry about what it all means, I never worry about whether she would stop loving me. I don’t know how I know this; I just do.
We realize we have been talking for over an hour, so I get up to let her sleep.
“Grazie Jess. Ne avevo bisogno,” she tells me, as I kiss her cheek goodnight.
I am 19. She confides in me more and more these days when something isn’t right. We are in the car together. I am driving her back to my uncle’s house where she is spending this year. She describes how she feels alienated, living with him now that he is re-married. His new step-kids mock her, and she knows it, even if she can’t understand the exact meaning of the words they use. I hug her tiny body a little extra tightly when we pull into the driveway this time.
“I’ll see you next Saturday, Nonna.”
“Se Dio vuole.”
I punch my step-cousin at a bar the next time I run into him.
I am 24. I walk through the front doors of our suburban Ottawa home after a day at the university. Nonna is sitting in the family room crocheting another potholder. They are a far cry from the clothing she once made, but they are still exquisite. This is the third one she’s made this week.
“Devo restare occupata,” she tells me.
“They are beautiful,” I assure her.
She puts her needle and yarn down and plants her palms to the couch, trying once to get up, then a second time. Her bones are stiff, achy, and full of arthritis. Oooo, com’è lunga la vita. Preghiamo per una sana morte.”
A good death. Those words swirl in my mind every time she says them. I imagine what she must mean by those words. Maybe she means she wants to die suddenly or peacefully. It sounds to me that on some level she is ready. Maybe it means that she had seen all she needed to see, understand all that she needed to understand, and lost all she could stand to lose.
I am 27. I pull up to the nursing home where Nonna lives now, walk the long hallway towards the elevator, and adjust as best as I can to the medicinal smell of the building. I walk up to her door and she is sitting in her chair. Her eyes light up when she sees me. She gestures to the edge of her bed and tells me to sit, as she re-positions her chair to face me. We slip into our chatty habits right away. She pauses for a moment mid-conversation, looks at me in the eyes, and states with an air of confidence, “Ma tu sei innamorata?”
I am stunned. I am two months into dating my girlfriend, who is certainly putting a spring in my step, but was it that obvious? She doesn’t ask me any questions about my new relationship. Maybe she knows we won’t have the vocabulary. I tell her “Yes,” and she says she is happy for me. That is the end of the conversation.
I recall a similar instance from the year before, in that same nursing home. She had identified a shift that would have been imperceptible to almost anyone. She noticed something was different about me, and somehow knew that I had broken up with an abusive partner after seven years of struggle. I hid my struggle well, but maybe she picked up on subtleties that become more important when language barriers exist. Again, she simply stated “You two broke up, didn’t you? Are you happier now? That is what matters.” In both instances, her intuition told her everything she needed to know. I am realizing that she knows me in a beyond-words kind of way.
I am 31. I walk into the ER where she is being held, and the bright white lights strike me as harsh. The setting seems so unnatural, and while I understood the need for bright lights and sterility, it just seems to lack humanity – like so much of the effort to keep my grandmother alive in her last years. It all felt like some twisted idea of progress, nothing she would approve of, if her voice could be heard here.
The lead nurse I meet with speaks Italian and a feeling of relief washes over me – at least she can speak some comforting words to Nonna in her language. A small victory on the surface, but really, it was everything.
The cruelty of dementia, I am learning, is that it strips its victims of their voices. I can see it in her eyes when I walk up to her bedside, push her platinum hair away from her eyes as I always did, and gaze into her. Her eyes pierce into me, as if she knows who I am.
She looks at me and without opening her mouth tell me, “This is not how it was supposed to be.”
I take her hand in mine and kiss her soft skin. This time, her hand is much colder than mine. Her 98-year-old skin has thinned from time, and is boney from her most recent hunger strike.
I move my lips to her forehead and kiss her there. “I love you so much. Sono Jess. Sono qui.” I repeat, over and over.
A nurse comes over and checks her adult diaper for the second time since I arrived. I pace back and forth, trying to stay calm, as I hear Nonna’s discomfort through the curtains. Surely, this second disruption is unnecessary, I think to myself. As politely as possible, I speak up with a trembling voice.
“Um, excuse me. Someone came by and did the same thing not long ago. I am concerned that all the prodding is making my grandmother uncomfortable. Do you think you can leave her be for a while?”
“Sure thing,” replies the nurse.
I am in awe of how normal all of this seems to the hospital staff, while my universe is shattering. It isn’t so much that she is dying. It is how. For the staff, it is just another day at work, I think.
I walk over to Nonna’s bedside when the ordeal is over, and I notice that a tear has formed in the corner of her eye. She looks at me and transmits another message.
“Help,” she says, again, without opening her mouth.
I cry back at her and rest my head on her bedside. “I’m so sorry,” I reply. “I don’t know how.” I suddenly understand something about love. I feel desperate. Desperate enough that my mind races to find a solution to a problem so out of my hands, I didn’t even know where to start. After getting to know someone for 31 years, loving them, being loved by them, how could I just sit here and watch them suffer?
But that is precisely what I do, because it is all that can be done. I hold her hand, and kiss her face, and make sure she knows she is not alone.
I am on a city bus when my phone rings. It is my sister’s number on the caller ID. I know this is the call.
“Was she alone?” I need to know.
“No,” she replies.
As I hang up the phone, I feel Nonna’s massive gravity collapse onto itself, into a singularity – in my stomach. No light can get in or out. My physical body has finally caught up to the moment in time that has always existed in my imagination, the moment in which she is no longer here, in this dimension. She only exists now in the past, in the dimension of memory. I can no longer walk up to her, hold her hand, and feel at home. They say a photon of light experiences the beginning and the end of the universe – several billion years, from our perspective – all at once. So somewhere, to some photon of light, her life has not even begun. But to me, it has just ended. What universe will bud from this singularity, I wonder to myself? What is life now that this moment has finally arrived?
Jessica Carpinone is a baker by trade and has owned and operated a bread bakery and café since 2013. She often turns to writing as a means of self-discovery and expression. She lives in Ottawa, on unceded Algonquin Territory, with her partner and cat.
“Homesick” appears in Here and Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing, edited by Licia Canton (Longbridge Books 2021).