I was slightly surprised that my aunt was up so early. It was half past eight and normally she doesn’t surface until around ten. I had been up since seven watching the Chelsea game from the night before, which I missed as I was in the hospital with my father.
I had stayed for several hours, talking to him about everything from Bach to my children and football. He was, as my aunt had warned me, “closer to death than to life”. There were flashes of him, but mostly he just lay there, breathing heavily, eyes closed, moaning and now and again yelling “Ostia!”
So I chatted on. I told him at one stage that he’d been a wonderful father, and he opened his eyes almost in shock. I suppose the fact that I didn’t see him between the ages of two and 12 might preclude him from the category of ‘really good dad’. Also his method of fathering would not meet with universal approval. To him the most important thing was that I could speak five languages and quote Dante, he didn’t really care if I ate my greens or had casual sex.
Next door to my father in another bed was a man my aunt called “il mostro“. It is true he was not attractive. He didn’t say much, but now and again shouted out “mamma” to which his ever-present and ever-patient wife would respond: “No I’m not your mother, I’m your wife.” She repeated this sentence with the same regularity that she repeated one other. “Let’s hope Napoli won.” I felt terribly sorry for my father. Not only was he bed-ridden and in pain, but he had a couple of Naples fans next door, one uglier than the other. I could just imagine the abuse they would have received if he had been able to speak.
“This isn’t real,” I told him. “You’re not here. You’re at La Scala, we’re about to see Don Giovanni and at the moment you’re reciting Dante to some beautiful unsuspecting woman. ‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….'” There I had to stop, because even though he has recited this canto to me thousands of times, I couldn’t remember any more. I felt I had let him down. “You’ll have to finish it,” I told him. He looked at me and clutched my hand. “Let’s hope Napoli won,” said the monster’s wife.
When my aunt knocked on my door yesterday morning I was still in my underwear. I had got distracted after the football by the Australian Open. She was fully dressed. I was about to ask her a question I had been thinking about all morning. Could we take some nail scissors and cut my father’s eyebrows? They were really unwieldy. And as I know he likes to shave them off and send them to his enemies I figured we could pop them straight into an envelope and put them under il mostro‘s pillow. I didn’t mention the eyebrow stuff, partly because this is a joke he shares with my children and she would not have understood, but mainly because I didn’t have the chance to open my mouth before she hugged me and said “He’s dead. He waited to see you and then he died. If you want to know what love means, it is that.”
To be honest I still don’t really know how his death will affect me, because even though I have met countless people who keep telling me they’re sorry, and I’ve been to the funeral parlour and I’ve met the doctor who treated him and I’ve even seen his body, it just doesn’t seem real that he’s gone. Forever. That’s it. Finito Benito as my father would say. To me he just doesn’t seem to be gone if that makes sense.
He is now lying in state like Stalin (whom he once played in a film). Unlike the other dead there who all have pictures of themselves aged about 80, my father has adopted the columnist’s trick of using a picture from about 50 years ago. So instead of looking like some old codger, he looks like a cross between a young Richard Burton and a less gay Burt Lancaster.
Friends and relations are invited to come and pay their respects until tomorrow when he is driven to the crematorium in Ravenna. When the funeral director told my aunt that was where it was she told him that Benedetto would be so pleased, because it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 to 476. The funeral director nodded and looked sympathetic.
“Take a card,” he said, I suspect in an effort to change the subject.
“I’d prefer not to,” said my aunt.
I am on my way to England where I have the difficult task of breaking the news to the children. The girls especially were really close to him, they loved his zany ways and crazy imagination. No one could make them laugh like he could. I’m just so happy they all saw him as I want to remember him, sitting on a rock in a beautiful garden close to Rome reciting Dante.
In life as in death my father did as he wanted. I believe he decided when to die, and I guess that makes it easier to bear.
He has one last act of rebellion too. We forgot to bring his underwear. So although he is dressed in his Sunday best, he’ll be heading to the crematorium commando.
He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.