November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Warriors and giants

By |2018-03-21T18:37:57+01:00August 20th, 2009|First Person|
You don't think about them being gone until it's too late."

just spent 27 days with a warrior and a giant. My mother is the warrior. My father is the giant. But I’ll get back to that.

For those of us who live an ocean, a continent, a flight or two away from Italy, we normally make the pilgrimage to visit our parents once or twice a year. I’ve heard some say, “I was home for three days and I couldn’t wait to get back.” True, not everyone is grateful to those who ushered them into this world, and for good reason, but most of us miss mom and dad and can’t wait to see them when we can. Especially when they get older.

As they get older, and often frailer, the desire to see them grows more urgent, and then an ocean away takes on much greater meaning. In short, Syracuse, New York is not just across the pond from Florence, Italy.

Now back to the Warrior and the Giant.

Seven years ago my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, or what the doctor later redefined a cousin to Parkinson’s, Multiple System Atrophy. It is a chronic and degenerative ailment, and like most such maladies, the rate at which the individual deteriorates depends on the individual, the version of the disease, and the ability of therapy, medicinal and other, to slow things down.

The beast that preys upon my mother is a particularly aggressive one and the medication about as effective at holding the disease at bay as a cardboard cage against a gorilla, so today she passes her day in a wheelchair, her voice barely audible, her eyes difficult to keep open when she’s awake, the simple act of feeding herself a mighty struggle. She never complains. Never asks, “Why me?” She simply fights on. A warrior.

My father, aged 82, was her primary care-giver for seven years until last December when she ended up first in the hospital with PD related complications, then in rehab, and finally into Assisted Living, a home for the aged, where they both now reside.

As primary care givers often do, Dad finally wore out. In order to care for his wife of 54 years, he neglected all, including his health. He personifies that portion of the vows about “in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.” A giant.

I have two brothers and a sister who are ever-vigilant, and nieces and nephews who always find time for grandma and grandpa, and so the one thing mom doesn’t lack is love.

But I’m “here.” Like so many whose destination was a foreign country, we are here. And when our parents become frail or fall ill, we are here — far away. So damn far way. And even though I visit them twice yearly, Christmas and summer, it doesn’t do much to alleviate the pain and frustration of not being there. We call home for the latest, or await calls from family members.

Others share my anxieties.

Christina Longman says one of her greatest difficulties is picking up the phone and dreading what she might hear. Originally from London, Christina has lived in Italy for 35 years. Her 60-year-old sister cares for her 93-year-old mother. “She’s aged 10 years as primary care giver,” Christina says, a hint of sadness in her voice and eyes. “Ninety-nine percent of the responsibility falls on her.”

Like many, her trips home numbered twice yearly, until her mom fell ill. Now she must make the trip every two to three months. It gets costly. For many, frequent trips home aren’t viable.

Susan Yiannakis came to Italy 19 years ago from Malawi. Her dad was ill five years before he died, in 1999. She said she felt “helpless, isolated,” always having to rely on the third person. “The problem is you can’t put your arm around them,” she said. “You don’t think about them being gone until it’s too late.”

Susan says she calls her mom in South Africa every day without fail. The situation has given her cause to think about her own three children, as one lives in France, one in England, and one in the Middle East. Their solution is uniting as often as possible.

Though his parents weren’t far from Florence, Dominique Bichon says they were far enough in Anger, France to permit him to visit only twice yearly as his family and work for over twenty years has been in Florence. What was especially difficult for Bichon was his father’s failing memory, as the Alzheimer’s progressed. “I realized that as his memory was going part of my past, part of myself would disappear.” Though his father wasn’t affectionate, gave no praise, “it was normal to do right,” Bichon started looking for pictures and eventually found one where he is in his father’s arms. It brings him solace.

English, South African, French, American, our experience is the same. As Dominique claims, it’s distressing not being able to help. Distance equals difficulty. “Apart from the daily stresses here, there is the added stress of the ill parent. You live the day as you should, at night you take on the burden,” he says.

After Dominique’s father died, his new worry became his mother. How would she get to her appointments? Take care of her property? Suddenly, the list grew longer.

There is no solution for those of us who are far away, though a local American woman brought her parents here to live out their final years, but how many of us can do that? And how many old folks want to leave home? One woman told me it took time getting used to the idea that she probably wasn’t going to be there when her mother went. But why focus on the probable, the predictable, or the unknown when we all have moments worth holding on to.

Dominique cherishes the memory of his father’s last visit to Italy in 1998 when they watched the European Championships together and a Boy Scout song they sang at the home, though by then the Alzheimer’s was advanced. His dad remembered the song.

For me, it was going for coffee in the morning with Dad. Watching the Yankees night after night. As for Mom, it was enough just being in her presence. And that will have to sustain.

About the Author:

John Pitonzo is a literature and drama teacher at the International School of Florence. He has a monthly column, Postcard From Florence, with Calcio Italia, a British football magazine, that exclusively covers Italy. John runs a small farm in the Chianti in his spare time.