November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Regional carcinoma

By |2018-03-21T18:25:38+01:00November 1st, 2007|Features Archive|
Giacomo Balla’s “I malati,” 1903.

y bed is in a triple occupancy room, in the Gastroenterological Surgery ward, of a Milan hospital.

In the first bed, near the bathroom, sits a tiny lady with spiky tufts of white hair, a face full of wrinkles and dark teeth. She waves, grins and calls out a greeting in an incomprehensible language. A nurse explains that she speaks the Calabrian dialect and doesn’t know Italian.

I don a spanking new nightgown and slippers, supplied by my Italian mother-in-law for bella figura.

At noon we’re served white rice, boiled chicken leg and instant mashed potatoes made with water. This Calabrian lady, whom everyone calls Nonnina, little grandmother, waits for the orderlies to leave. Then she pushes away her tray. She gives me a devilishly sly wink, opens a shopping bag and takes out a ham and pepper pizza. She hands a piece to me but I pat my rump and groan. She pats her own and laughs. When the pizza is finished she eats the hospital meal. She is a bony four and a half feet tall. By evening I’ll know where the food ends up.

In the afternoon, a slew of the nonnina’s Calabrian relatives sweeps me into a party atmosphere. Nurses enter frequently to help the Nonnina to the bathroom, cheerily sending the throng into the hallway.

The next morning, after my operation, I’m wheeled on a gurney back to my room. The Nonnina waves and claps her hands. She is eating cookies from a box.

A few hours later, after a drip feed of pain killer, I show her fashion magazines someone has left behind. She repeats a word with the “legg” sound in it and I understand that she can’t leggere, read. For a while, we look at the pictures. She squeezes my hand and her eyes fill with tears. I don’t understand her words but I understand she’s terrified to be in hospital and to have cancer. I kiss her hand as I would a child’s and she cries quietly.

A new patient arrives to occupy the middle bed. She is a youthful-looking, elegant woman in her early 70’s, accompanied by her husband.

“This is it?” she says surveying the room with disapproval. She takes in the Nonnina and then me.

“There aren’t any Italians here,” she says. “Only foreigners. Foreigners pour in and Italians escape.”

“I won’t stay here,” she says to her husband. “Not in this pollaio, chicken coop.”

“Chicken coop?” I think, “hasn’t she seen this new nightgown?”

She says, “I don’t see any place I care to lie down or even put my things. I’m going back to Arezzo.”

“Don’t be like that,” says the husband.

“Go tell them if we have to pay for a private room, we’ll pay.”

The husband says, “The bed is clean. The room is clean.” He looks at me. “Is this room so terrible?”

At this unfortunate moment, the nonnina has another attack of diarrhea, this time in her bed. Nurses and orderlies rush in. The Arezzo lady rushes out, muttering pollaio and trailing her husband.

Before long, they are back. Private rooms cost as they do in luxury hotels and that doesn’t include medical treatment or exams.

I do not openly gloat but I’m tempted to cluck.

Deep into the night, I’m awakened by the sound of a horse whinnying. I sit up with a start, yanking my drip tubes.

The Arezzo woman says, “Sorry. It’s my grandson.” Moonlight illuminates her pleased but embarrassed face. She murmurs into the phone, “Grandma will be fine. Go to sleep, my treasure. I love you too.”

Afterward she whispers that her 11-year-old grandson installed that horse sound in her phone because he loves horses. She tells me about their home in Tuscany, the hilly farmland, the woods. She and her husband live with their daughter and grandson. Their son-in-law is a good man and a wonderful father but the daughter made him leave. They can’t comprehend why she despises him.

She tells me she’s come to Milan for tests they can’t do in Arezzo. She has cancer.

In a hospital, even proudly reserved people confide their fears and shame to strangers. It’s this eerie sensation of detachment from normal life and, of course, fear. A man died on this floor today. We heard people running; we heard his wife crying.

“I’m afraid,” the Arezzo lady says now. I tell her that the nonnina has cancer too. I think she might sympathize but she says, “She’s younger than me. Those women don’t keep themselves up. The real nonnina is me.”

About the Author:

Nancy Feyen's monthly "Due Diligence" column ran from 2006 through 2011.