I have just got back from Italy where I was visiting my father, who is ill in hospital. He will be 87 in December, but it was still a shock to see him so weak and, well OLD, for the first time ever.
I wrote him a letter on the way back to the airport because there was so much I wanted to say. I call him biologico, because by the time I really got to know him, it was too late for daddy.
Here it is in parts…
I’m not sure I will ever send you this letter, but I want to write it anyway, because there are so many things I want to say to you and to remember about this visit, which I don’t know how else to express.
We said goodbye three hours ago. I left you, in your wheelchair, with my mother standing beside you, you were pulling a face and she was waving, smiling, trying not to cry. You looked like any other old couple in the hospital; grey and wrinkly and together. No one would have guessed you haven’t been together since I was two. As a child all I ever wanted was to have normal parents who were together, to have you both in the same room, to be able to say “my parents” and not follow it with “split up when I was two”. Of course there is nothing “normal” about either of you, thank god, but as a child for some reason normality was all I craved. As an adult I’m grateful to you both that I never had it.
I don’t know what I expected, in what state I thought I would find you, but I certainly didn’t think you would be so THIN. You’ve never been thin. I remember those zany diets you used to do, the ‘eat only grapes for a week’ diet and then how you would give something up, like chocolate, and say “for me chocolate does not exist.”
There were times when you got quite fat, but you always carried it off, with that elegant stance and the ubiquitous Fedora hat. Now that hat sits on your bookshelf at home.
And talking of elegance, you still look like an aristocrat, even in a wheelchair. You hold your head high as you always did, and your eyes are still sparkling, intelligent. You don’t belong there. I know it’s not their fault, the staff probably try their best, but the smell of shit and death and OLD PEOPLE is stultifying. I fear if you stay, you will just sink further into that world, to a point of no return.
I hate seeing you like this. It makes me want to give up my job and move to Novafeltria to take care of you, I just believe that somehow if I could get you back to your work, you would be cured, because I’m sure not being able to write is literally killing you. You always told me never to go a day without writing; nulla dies sine linea, you once wrote on a scrap of paper, I have it framed on my wall at home.
You did talk about finishing your novel. I so hope you do. But maybe that’s unrealistic, because if we’re honest, only really about ten per cent of you is present. It’s so depressing seeing flashes of your old self; your humour, your brilliance, your intellect, and realizing that it is buried deep down now and may never surface again. I know your mind still works, but you can’t articulate as you used to. When I told you that I had done some writing at your desk, you said the longest sentence you had said to me during the entire three days; “Mi fa piacere.” You probably wouldn’t say that if you’d known what I was writing, another “shitting” novel as you would call it.
And when I told you that one of my books is going to be published in Germany, your face lit up. You know the importance of the German publishing market, something the cabbages around you (bless them) wouldn’t have known when they were compos mentis.
You reaction to Olivia was lovely. The way you stroked her face last night when we were leaving made me cry, and I cry every time I think about it. I suppose because you were saying goodbye. Her reaction has been surprising, she doesn’t really know you that well, and yet has wept and keeps saying she doesn’t want to leave you.
I have used many words to describe you, in books, in articles, to other people. Words like brilliant, bullying, egotistic, charming, larger-than-life, amusing. One word I would never have used is the word that best sums you up now; sweet. I have never seen you so affectionate and kind. Your smile is really sweet now, I don’t know what’s happened, I like it, but I would rather have the old Biologico who tells Olivia she speaks French “comme une vache Espagnol” and harasses me for not writing “proper” books.
But your new sweetness seems to have won you many admirers there, I have never seen a man made such a fuss of, you really are among friends. Carmela is a joy, as is Agostina, and I can’t believe the old woman with a hole in her leg up the hall was the chicken keeper at Carpegna, your old summer house.
Do you remember when we first went there? The chicken farmer said she remembers me being very brave on a vast horse. I wasn’t brave, I was terrified. Not only of the horse, but of you and this whole new family I knew nothing about. Now when I come back, especially on this trip, names and places like Perticara and Malatesta feel like they’re part of me, I get a sense of belonging from this part of Italy, which I suppose it what you were always trying to instill in me with all your talk of “radice.”
This summer when we were all with my mother, you told the children, when they asked why you didn’t have any eyebrows, that you cut them off and sent them to your enemies, who eat them and then die. Yesterday I cut your eyebrows, I can’t bear all that sprouting hair. There is plenty to kill all your enemies, though I think you have probably outlived them all, and now you’re so sweet, you probably won’t make any more.
When I had finished, I handed you a mirror. You looked in it and said “grazie” very firmly. It’s good to see there’s still a certain amount of vanity going on, it makes me hope that you’re not about to give up.
I am already beginning to regret that we didn’t spend more time together. I had a plan to come and see you at Christmas, to interview you and to have Bea film our discussions. There are so many things I want to talk to you about. I think you would make a great interviewee.
See you at Christmas I hope, biologico.
Con molto affetto
La tua figlia