he superintendent of our Rome building when I was a boy was a Sard named Giovanni. He lived in the ground floor apartment with his wife Rosa and spent most of the day sitting tranquilly in a straw chair just beside the building entrance. He’d vanish for several hours at lunch, which Rosa cooked, and then rejoin the chair until late evening. This ritual went on for years, interrupted only in winter when he reluctantly placed the chair on the inside and occupied it less frequently.
Though only in his 60s, Giovanni was going deaf. His thick Sard accent made conversation difficult, but father managed, and each time we passed him he’d raise his voice to ask how Giovanni was, in particularly his hearing.
“Yes, professor,” Giovanni would usually tell my father, not having heard a word. Weary of this pseudo-conversation, my father one day saw Rosa standing behind her seated husband and approached the chair, or the throne as I called it (portly Giovanni rarely got up).
“Rosa,” said my father. “You should take Giovanni to a specialist.” She didn’t understand. They were both peasants. Only Rosa was semi-literate.
My father pointed toward his ears. “You need to take him to a doctor for his hearing.”
Rosa nodded and whispered loudly into Giovanni’s hairy left ear, which twitched. She appeared to explain my father’s concept. But before she finished Giovanni interrupted, speaking with rare fervor.
“Professor,” he told my father (who was not a professor), “I am losing my hearing. My father also lost his hearing. This is not a surprise. This is the way life is.”
My father, a reasonably rational man, told Giovanni that he knew a hearing specialist in Rome and that he’d gladly call the doctor his behalf. “There is a remedy,” my father said. Rimedio.
At first Giovanni absorbed all this like a lizard on a rock, unmoving. Then, suddenly, he made his one and only speech, or spoke more words at once than I ever heard him speak before or after.
“Professor,” he began, “I cannot fix my ears because my ears are old, like the rest of me. And old things break. You can fix a radiator but you cannot fix a man. A doctor can work his magic but this is temporary. It does not last. We play jokes on ourselves that we can be repaired. We try to fool God. But we fail in the end because we die and when we die it shows we have fooled no one. You are an intelligent and educated man, professor, and I am just a contadino, but I can tell you that when we break we are all the same, whether we went to a university or grew pears. I do not mind not hearing. I do not want to be repaired. I think there is a natural course in life and things happen, for good and bad, after which we’re gone, all of us. This is the way it is…”
Giovanni slowed down only when Rosa called out his name, as if to rein in a reverie. I stood beneath my father captivated by this strange drawl of words and ideas. For the first time in my young life I thought about the idea of not being any more, and dismissed it as impossible. How could that be?
My father heard Giovanni out in full but pressed on as if he’d heard nothing. “Let me make an appointment. I will take care of it…” — by which he meant payment “…and all you will need to do is have Rosa accompany you.” Giovanni and Rosa did not have a car: few did in those days. Giovanni nodded, said “thank you, professor,” and we walked away.
Giovanni of course never went to the doctor. He remained semi-deaf for the last few years of his time as superintendent. Rosa later told me he’d never been to a doctor in his life and would never go. Nor would she. They were not, as she explained it, “believers.” But believers in what I never knew.
I do know that to Giovanni and Rosa decay was part of life, not necessarily a defect or an aberration, nor even something that begged fixing, which to my enlightened father it did. Human life was like plant life, seasonal. Breakdowns and hindrances were markers. Repair work in any absolute sense suggested tampering.
Giovanni retired in the early 1970s at age 80, returning, all but deaf, to Sardinia, where he lived until age 97. My father was stricken with cancer also in the early 1970, saw dozens of experts, was operated on repeatedly, and died in 1974 (“I’m not afraid of death but I hate dying,” he told me). I am now losing my eyesight and see specialists of all kinds, visits that at the start possessed deep seriousness, as if medical wizardry might reverse my condition. Now, like Giovanni in his straw chair, we ruminate on the limits of repair work, or on better days simply change the subject.