Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Beside the Mountain: Finding Strength and Courage
Pacentro was a haven of sorts that summer—a place to recharge and stay away from the stress and the changes going on in our house. My father still cried a couple of times in the living room in the chair that faced the open window from which we let in the cool mountain air during the evenings. But for the most part, we had distraction. Flavia toured the streets with Nicole, sheltering her from getting lost and protecting her when my mother was at a friend's home getting an espresso, or talking loudly with women in the streets. And I remember the visits to the cemetery and the small inkling of recognition I felt seeing the names on the mausoleum's white stoned walls and the pictures that hung below the iron wrought names.
On the mornings we'd visit the cemetery, we'd first stop at a floral store in the Piazza del Popolo. In the opposite corner of the square stands Il Ristorante al Forno, owned by my parents' friends, Franca and her husband, Ernesto. The restaurant acts as a central meeting place for many of the townspeople in the small square. Beside the restaurant, there is a narrow road called Vico Diritto that connects the Piazza del Popolo to the Piazza Iaringhi, where cafes bustle with gossip and jokes and momentary pauses of others contemplating their day. For lifetimes, people have walked steadily upon Vico Diritto beneath the balconies and the empty and taut clotheslines lit by the street lamps mounted to the walls of homes built centuries before.
The Piazza del Popolo is the small piazza that houses the Church of Santa Maria della Misericordia where my parents were baptized and eventually married. The face of the church stands erect and wide, bearing a clock on the right, high beside the upper window. The walls are made of thick stone, water stained in areas and browning with dirt. Beyond the front of the church looms the bell tower, measuring close in height with the castle towering farther up into the town. In front of the wooden door bordered by an elaborate stone fixture, sits the fountain shaped as a sepulcher, where small children crawl and bend beneath as they laugh with one another, sipping water as it spills from spigots bordering the sides. And near the entrance to an older part of town, towards La Guardiola, is the floral shop and there, we would often times buy lilies and carnations and bring them to our relatives in the cemetery.
Once inside the cemetery, to the left, stands the building housing my mother's relatives. It is a white building with white steps leading to the second and third levels of an open-air mausoleum. My mother and Nicole would walk hand in hand ahead of us. My dad and I often walked to the trash bin standing on the outside of the stairwell, filled to the brim with empty bleach bottles or unmarked and empty plastic gallon jugs. He'd grab one and I'd do the same, following him a few paces to a black piped faucet which resembled the stone-backed spigot near his childhood home. We'd fill each container with the cold water and walk slowly up the stairs to my mother who stood sweeping and cleaning her parents', grandparents' and great grandparents' corner of the floor.
I'd usually walk around aimlessly during that time my mother would snatch each flower, gracefully tearing away the dead leaves and browning petals, replacing the sour water with the fresh water we'd give to her. I'd look at the different names in the wall and look closely at their faces. I'd think about the years these people lived and when I'd tire of looking at these strangers whose names often matched my own, I'd return to watch my mother dutifully keeping her parent's corner spotless. I'd watch her wipe away the dust that would settle on their pictures and I'd see her kiss her fingers to their names, to her mother's name in particular. My mother's mother, Flavia, had passed away when my mother was sixteen. My mother had been her caregiver for months as she suffered slowly from cancer. Because her father was an abusive alcoholic, my grandmother's death was especially hard on her. After she was gone, my mother was alone except for her younger sisters, a brother she barely spoke to and a father who was bent on making their lives miserable.
Each time my mother would look at her mother's picture, she'd pause a little longer than she would otherwise. She'd make the sign of the cross and pray silently before sweeping one last time and gathering the dead flowers and leaves to dispose of. Nearby, my father who stood behind her, turned to walk away.
The sunlight from the stairwell reaches into the open doorway of the third floor and I imagine my father must have squinted his eyes before descending those white stairs. He would have turned to go as my mother stood praying and I wonder if she held her breath as she turned to him in bed that morning a little more than a year later, when she finally let go of her list she kept of all the ways he was changing. I wonder how he reacted that day she turned to him and asked, "Giovanni—tell me, what's 8 minus 5?"
And he—"I don't know." I wonder how long she lay beside him and what words the two of them shared before a silence would have fallen so quick and heavy, cold and forceful like that same rush of water that filled our empty gallons in the cemetery.
This of course would have occurred after we returned. After we traveled back home and the weather would have eventually grown frigid. And it was then, finally, that the phone rang that afternoon, as I was most likely in my room, reading magazines or books on witchcraft I had just purchased. I was dabbling in depression, touching merely the surface of feeling emotions I wouldn't know how to handle. And Nicole, with her missing tooth, would have been playing with the neighbors' children again, her glasses sliding down her nose and Flavia would have been studying in her room, her senior year in high school, pressuring herself to do well and succeed as the phone would have rung and he would have answered.
And that's when it would have all begun—that afternoon when the doctor confirmed what my mother had suspected—my father, at the age of forty-eight, had the brain of an eighty-five-year old man.