Nonno Is Dying
Illustrated by Anaïs Ranger
“Nonno is dying.”
These are words that still reverberate in my earliest recollections of my grandfather. With an overbearing conviction that weighed down constantly upon his tattered back, permanently angled as if to connote the years of unspeakable hardship that had come to engender his deteriorating health, he would utter this string of words as if recounting the day’s weather or something uneventful he had heard on the news, of a mundane, factual manner. And myself, an adoring granddaughter to a man I saw as the best, the strongest, the most perfect in the world, I would respond, obstinately, “That’s not true. Nonno will never die.”
“Nonno will miss you,” he would say, clenching my cheeks with his rough, textured hands, reminiscent of battles he had long ago reluctantly fought in the war. He always had a habit of forcibly pinching me in these emotion-filled moments, as if to ease the growing worry in my adolescent heart by substituting it with an acute, yet short-lived pain. “All Marias are up to no good,” he would scoff, a playful grin beautifying his otherwise stern face, manifesting like a wrinkle in fine silk. “But you- you’re special.”
This was our relationship- characterized by the incessant mocking of one another, as if of the same age, followed by the subsequent affirmation of our vehement reciprocated love.
“Nonno can’t do this anymore.”
Some days, it seemed like the weight of the world pressed down upon my grandfather. He would claw at his ribcage, feel himself collapse from the insufferable tension in his worn-out joints. But how could a man who inspired so much beauty possibly fall subject to decay? For me, my grandfather was, in fact, the fundamental essence of every season. The summertime carried in its sweet breeze connotations of warm laughter at his country-place, and fall was a comforting, albeit pungent odour of laboured winemaking in the basement. Winter was scorching chestnuts and sour tangerines at Christmas, playing card-games with the family until the loudened snores that echoed in the small kitchen were indicative of his third nap of the evening, and Spring was excitedly rushing to greet him, muddied in the garden, every Saturday morning. And every season, for him, was marked by pain.
“Nonno is dying,” he would say, more and more adamantly, as if trying to come to friendly terms with the fact himself. He retained his indifferent, nonchalant composure that he had upheld in my youth, but the inexorable worry that disclosed itself in his reddened eyes spoke a truth louder than he could’ve ever possibly vocalized. And still, unaccepting, unbelieving, I would quiet him in his tracks and proclaim that my nonno would never die, as he couldn’t possibly leave me.
“Nonno is in pain.”
Perhaps it was the misdiagnosis, the not-targeting-the-problem-quick-enough. Soon, marks began to paint themselves upon his skin. And I refused to see it. I cancelled out the worried conversations in the kitchen at lunchtime, and I ignored the fear and apprehension that came to characterize Nonna’s prolonged prayers in the living room. I grew wary of simply asking him how he was doing, as I did not covet the bitter truth that he buried beneath the growing layers of heavy wool blankets that his thin body increasingly necessitated for warmth. And despite his pain, he still loved me like no other.
“Who are you,” he uttered, sprawled out on the hard, hospital-issued bed that smelled faintly of urine and cheap disinfectant. These were some of the last words I heard from the mouth of my grandfather, before the age-old prophecy was ultimately realized on that frigid January night.