Ten years ago, my mother died. We were a close-knit Italian family. She was a selfless person who put others before herself, even after the cancer left her as a shell of her former self.
As you can imagine, it was devastating. It also sent shockwaves through my family. A decade later, we still have not recovered from some of the aftershocks.
Shortly before I was born, my maternal grandfather, Nonno Corrado, passed away suddenly. After my birth, my parents asked my maternal grandmother, Nonna Paola, to come live with us. She obliged. It was a way for her to cope with her loss and a way for my parents to make sure I was looked after while they were out at work.
For all intents and purposes, Nonna was as much a mother to me as my actual mother. I was incredibly fortunate in that way.
Nonna is a resilient person with energy, mental facilities, and responsibilities that belie her age.
She ran our house. She cooked and cleaned. She made sure we were up in time for school and that our lunches were made every day. She walked miles every day to buy fresh produce and groceries, carrying the heavy brown paper bags back in her arms while my parents worked and we were at school.
During the summers, while my parents continued to work, she stayed at the shore with us and served as our primary guardian.
There’s nothing she could not do. I admire that and aspire to be like her.
Although I will not get into the details, when my mother died, she was essentially forced to move back to Italy and into the home where she raised her family.
It was a bitter pill to swallow although we eventually came to realize that it was for the best for her. She was surrounded by family and old friends and was able to live her own life and not spend her days catering to others.
She was happy but we missed her and knew she missed us too.
I called her weekly. Most conversations ended in tears. She asked when we would come visit her. She wanted to meet our kids more than anything and I wanted the same.
“Soon, Nonna, soon,” I would say, knowing full well that I had no means to afford the cost of such a trip, no matter how much I tried to move money around or budget ahead.
The conversations slowed down over the years from weekly to bimonthly to monthly and so on. It wasn’t because I was lazy. It was because I was cowardly.
I have a very difficult time coping with the fact that nature is taking its course. She cannot hear very well. She is slipping a bit. Someone comes to look after her every day. This past year, she was diagnosed with cancer but, due to her age, the doctors said that there was nothing they would do about it.
When my siblings saw her last, they eluded answering questions about how she was doing. My uncle did the same. It frightened me
Today is her birthday and she turns 93.
The fourth of July to me will always be Nonna’s birthday. Independence Day comes second, as far as I am concerned.
When my mom’s family emigrated to America, their ship docked on the 4th. Unaware of the coincidence, Nonna truly believed that America was the land of opportunity and was so proud and honored by the fireworks display in honor of her birthday.
I’ll always remember that. I’ll always think of Nonna as a parent, a grandparent, a caregiver, and one of the strongest people I will ever know.
And that is why I woke up in fear this morning. My heart raced as I picked up the phone to call her and wish her a happy birthday. I was afraid that she would be not quite there. After my mother died, it took years for me to stop picturing her as she was at the end. I am terrified of even the slim potential of that happening again.
It’s cowardly and selfish. It’s wrong of me. In my mind, she is immortal and coming to terms with reality is just not something I am prepared to do.