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June 24, 2019 | Rome, Italy

Nonno

By | 2018-03-21T18:57:54+02:00 November 7th, 2013|First Person|
Remembering is a life-giving act in its own way.
L

ast month my grandfather died of cancer. Starting in his lungs, it eventually spread to his brain. I suppose if the illness had to go anywhere, it’s best that it went there. I’m told he wasn’t in pain or even fully aware of his diagnosis, a small bitter comfort. My sister and I flew home in time to see him, and watching him so thin and sleeping, I came to believe every theory about the afterlife:

I believed in heaven.

I did and then didn’t believe in God (who would reduce a man to this?).

I understood the Transhumanists, who seek to eliminate unnecessary suffering.

I doubted those who reassured me he would be going to a better place.

Faced with mortality, I grasped for some meaning of life after death. His hospital bed became the axis around which my family orbited, a ritual of holding his hand, tucking in his blankets, whispering into his ear (I love you, thank you, it’s okay to go).

In the hours I spent next to him, I pictured his life in reverse. The cancer would travel back down from his brain to his lungs and then disappear. He would get up out of his bed and walk backwards through the kitchen, towards the hospital, and then out through its front door. He would return to the golf course and win his last tournament and the rain from that day in August would be absorbed back into the clouds. “God is on the golf course,” he always said. He would go to church every morning and sit in the last row, but afterwards complain to the priest he couldn’t hear the sermon.

Moving backwards, my grandfather would fall in love twice, first with a brunette and then with a blonde. I love them both. He would make 24 Christmas lasagnas — a day-long affair of layering, grating, and sprinkling. One Christmas, in an effort to avoid leftover sauce, his lasagna grew until it towered out of its pan and quivered dangerously. One false move would undo our hard work. “It’s nice,” he said. “But next years less layers, hon. Less layers.”

I remembered him as a grandfather: when we had chickenpox he fed us pizza for breakfast and brought us to Toys ‘R Us in our pajamas. When we were older, he arranged a two-week tour through Italy with his five grandchildren, our very first exposure to his beloved patria. He drove us to my great-grandfather’s village and we took a photo in front of the family’s former home. (This is the trip that determined my present, and I wish I’d had the chance to tell him.)

He would tell me to keep writing because “you have a way with adjectives.” His black Ford would go in reverse and horizontally block off a busy main road to allow a mother duck and her ducklings to safely cross, and he would gently lift the slower, smallest duckling to join its siblings. I thought of all the food my grandfather consumed, always with such gusto, in his 84 years. I imagined him savoring a dish of pasta washed down with red wine, but remembered he was always just as enthusiastic about a meal at Denny’s.

His passion for cooking was born from necessity, an act of love: as the oldest child, he cooked for his baby sisters, and every dish we sat down to eat, whether simple or more involved, made me remember the history behind his hobby.

There are also the parts I don’t remember, or didn’t exist to witness, but I imagine those stories nonetheless. I see him when he was just Dominic, playing bocce and becoming a father three times. I picture him when he met my grandmother (they look like two movie stars in black and white). I see him playing football in high school, caring for his mother, joining the army. I think of him as a child, small and serious, and then I see him as an infant.

In the present, I hold his hand and tell him I love him. I love you too, he says. He shrugs his shoulders and gives me his characteristic lopsided smile. “What are you gonna do,” it seems to say. We mix wine with a little water and it’s the first thing he drinks all day.

In recent weeks, I’ve had strangers send me emails with memories of my nonno, and 600 people were said to have attended his wake. Back in Rome, my sister and I talk about him often: the towering lasagnas, the olive oil smell in the house, the penchant for watching hours of golf. We remember. And if that’s not life after death, what is?

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Alexandra's "Second Generation" column ran from 20012 through early 2017.

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