My Nonno Had Alzheimer’s — Coronavirus Would Bring a Bittersweet End to His Pain
“I wanted to be the first to tell you that Nonno’s aide has tested positive for Covid-19.”
The last time I had lunch with him at his home was the first time my partner would meet him. He sat in his usual place, in front of the fridge, facing the front door, the clock, and those family portrait calendars from the late 90’s they still kept in the kitchen. His back was to the sink. My Nonna, his wife, was at the sink washing something, again.
“Put your bib on,” my nonna snapped at him in San Donatese, their childhood Italian dialect, without turning her head.
She repeated herself, then put down the carrots and began to turn.
He didn’t move. But he smirked.
He knew what he was supposed to do, but pretended not to.
This was early on. His Alzheimer’s was showing, but he still knew me, Rita’s son Richie, and his health hadn’t deteriorated much. He was weakened, but capable. He was milking it though, like the child that happens to cough at the exact moment he asks his mom if he can stay home from school.
My nonna came to arrange his bib, we ate soup, he drank the cranberry juice she told him was chilled wine, and as she cleared the dishes he stole an extra slice of bread and let out a single toot of laughter to let us know he got away with it. Nonna tried to feed us more, we declined, got up to leave and as I shook his soft hand and kissed her cheeks she placed a crinkled $20 in my hand “for the gas” before I drove back to my parent's house.
That was late November 2018.
“He seems to be ok, but they’re going to test him and Nonna anyway and isolate them as well to be safe.”
Everyone knows what it is and I wanted my nonno to get better long before he got it. A year ago, it would have been cancer, several decades ago AIDS, but today it was, well, it. The Coronavirus, COVID-19.
From the moment of birth, the only outcome humankind has ever known is death. Life is but a linear progression towards death, accelerating closer to it the older we get. Save the Pinterest quotes about it not being how long you live, but how you live, we all exit the same way.
Before it his health had been steadily declining. 10 years ago he was diagnosed with cancer, which he beat, and then 4 years ago he received the diagnosis of the cruel disease Alzheimer’s.
In his final years, the man I called Nonno, the Italian word for grandfather, shrunk. He, who used to chuckle as he’d steal Lima Beans from the center dish and pretend he never got bread at dinner, would now grunt to signal he wanted another bite. He, who used to ask me to bring him water then laugh when I brought him water because his “water” was his homemade wine, now didn’t recognize me, even when I tried my tongue at San Donatese.
He, my nonno, may have died Tuesday, but he’s been gone for a while.
“Hey hunny, Nonno and Nonna tested positive for COVID-19, but they don’t have any symptoms. They are still being kept in isolation. Will keep you posted!”
My mom and I speak on the phone about once per week, something we’ve developed since I moved out at 16. That was over a decade ago. We talked Friday while she was at work. I told her I qualified for Florida health insurance coverage beginning April 1st (I just moved cross country in early March), and that life under stay-in-place orders wasn’t much different. I was still writing, I was still reading, I was still creating from the same office I had been before this virus. She was relieved to hear that I had health insurance. My health has always been a concern of hers, not that I am unhealthy, just that I’ve taken risks before. She was going to wrap up her day and then head home to have dinner with Dad.
When she called the following afternoon, I knew something was up. To be honest, given the time we are in, I almost knew what she was going to say.
“I wanted to be the first to tell you that Nonno’s aide has tested positive for Covid-19.”
His aide, who has been caring for him 24/7, bathing him, changing him, feeding him, and keeping him from eating his empty spoon, tested positive.
My mind raced, and I let it. He’s 88 years old, he is immunocompromised, he has underlying conditions, his aide is with him every day, oh my god, my nonno is going to get COVID-19 and die.
“He seems to be ok, but they’re going to test him and Nonna anyway and isolate them as well to be safe.” My mom said.
I returned to my breath.
And then, 4 days later it happened.
The text from my Mom read “Hey hunny, Nonno and Nonna tested positive for COVID-19, but they don’t have any symptoms. They are still being kept in isolation. Will keep you posted!”
In The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, the late Carnegie-Mellon computer science professor, readers are reminded that “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
As a family, we handle things. We’ve been through tragedy before, we don’t allow speculation to cloud judgment, we find comfort in the present and do what needs to be done.
They’re in isolation, their temperatures are being tested 3 times per day, they’re being heavily monitored. Great.
In the silence before sleep that night I asked myself: Did I want him to die?
When I last saw him at Christmas, he was but a shell of the person I had lunch with that afternoon in 2018. He was suffering, confined to the 4th floor of a facility outside Boston, where yes, family members visited him daily, but what kind of life was this?
I experienced the emotional pain my mother wore every time she left him, and after years of that multiple times a week, it is impossible to remain unaffected.
There was sadness here.
But, to answer the question, no, I didn’t want my grandfather to die, I wanted him to enjoy life. A wish that could never come true.
So then, I asked myself a second question, did he want to live like this?
“They’ve called the family in, so I’m walking to your sisters and Dad is going to come pick us up and we’re going to go see him. I’m not asking nor expecting you to come home, but they don’t think he’ll make it through the night.”
His name was Domenic. He was born on January 30th, 1932 in San Donato Val Di Comino, Frosinone, Italy. A town you’ve never heard of that you won’t visit unless their mayor decides to sell abandoned properties for $1 in an attempt to bring tourism back.
These were the foothills. He spent his youth in these hills herding sheep until he met Cesidia Salvucci, my nonna, his future wife. Well, I guess she was his future wife before she was my nonna. His days then were spent tending to the sheep and sneaking in visits with Cesidia when he could leave the herd for a moment.
Until he killed her dog.
Let me explain.
He returned from a week in the hills expecting a warm welcome from the woman he was falling in love with, but instead he was greeted with a complaining teenager. My nonna, who was just Cesidia at the time, was complaining about her new puppy barking all night, keeping her up and unable to sleep.
My nonno communicates his love through acts of service, this was his love language. I think I learned this from him. So, when he heard this, he went and found the puppy that had been irritating his beloved Cesidia and threw it against a wall until it died.
This shit was gruesome, but it was also the 1940’s in Southern Italy.
My nonna got him back by drowning a litter of kittens his cat bore several months later.
If his childhood was a black and white picture of hard work, his adulthood was the American Dream.
In 1956, after completing his required military service, he emigrated to the United States, became a naturalized citizen, married Cesidia, and settled in Brighton, a neighborhood inside Boston’s city limits with enough community pride to still say you were from Brighton, not Boston, as my generation would claim.
Professionally, he was a tradesman, initially working as a day laborer and training as an apprentice, before being promoted to foreman and specializing as a cement finisher. He spent weekends with people from the old country as part of the Sons of Italy carving wheels of Parmigiano and tossing bocce balls in between sips of homemade wine and hand arguments. Opinions that often ended with grunts of “Boh” or “Eh” and a slightly upwards arm motion.
He raised 4 children, and at the time of his death had gotten into real estate, owning 5 or 6 properties that he rented out to the community. He laid bricks, hid money in shoeboxes, sipped wine, stole cabbage from behind the grocery store for the chickens, and, oh wait, I never told you about the chickens.
Their home was the bottom apartment of a triple-decker they owned, with a two-car garage turned into one due to hoarding tendencies. On the back of the garage, my nonno built a chicken coop that over the course of his life kept chickens, rabbits, cats, ducks, and once a goat. These animals were not pets. They were dinner. The ducks only lasted a little while, same with the chicken’s my Nonna was suppose to watch for a friend during the winter, both slaughtered and eaten because they didn’t get along with her chickens.
Next to the garage was a vegetable garden and a fig tree, both bearing fruit and produce each harvest, and constructed to shade the upper part of the driveway was a grape vineyard, whose grapes each year would be turned into my nonno’s infamous homemade wine in his wine cellar underneath the kitchen.
The house was on a main street connecting Brighton center to the Charles River parkway, blocks from the Mass Pike which delivered daily commuters to downtown Boston. At the end of their driveway was a bus stop that would bring you to Harvard Square, and on a winter afternoon, you could see people working in the windows of Boston’s Prudential Center. It was that close.
I share this to let you know that they were as Italian American as one family could get. Chickens, rabbits, vegetables, grapes, and wine directly in the chaos of a major US city.
My nonno’s wine was his connector. Offered as gifts at the holidays and reserved for special occasions like lunch, just lunch. Having a glass of homemade vino with “ming” as his friends would call him, an endearing nickname, was worthy of bucket lists. Come for the wine, stay for whatever would happen. Something would always happen.
He was protective of his wine too.
I was young when this happened. Honestly, I might not have been born yet, but as the story goes, one night during dinner my nonno heard them. “Che cazzo, di merda, the raccoons.” He knew they were after the grapes so he violently pushed up from the table to rush outside, bringing my late Uncle Bobby with him.
Two of them. Adult racoons sat perched on top of the vineyard, now frozen from the explosion that came from the front door of the house they were trespassing on. My nonno raced to the garage, the door still up, and grabbed two hockey sticks. One for him, one for Bobby, to be used to scare off the raccoons, or so my Uncle Bobby thought, so he started banging them on the poles and the ground. My nonno had different plans.
He didn’t scare them, well I mean he definitely scared them, but he also killed one. First knocking it from the top of the vineyard, then hitting it enough times on the pavement that it died. He picked up the raccoon’s corpse and put it in the trash barrel to dispose of. The grapes were protected. The excitement was over.
That is until two weeks later when he returned home one afternoon with a present.
My nonno hadn’t disposed of the raccoon when he put it in the trash barrel that night. The next day he fetched it and brought it to a local taxidermist. When my nonno unveiled the present, it was the dead trespassing raccoon mounted on a piece of tree bark that he then hung on the wall outside his wine cellar, his trophy.
My nonno kept chickens and rabbits, grew vegetables, grapes and fruit, made homemade wine, raised 4 kids and stuffed the raccoons he killed to hang on his wall, all from an apartment in Boston.
He made it.
“I didn’t make it in time. Nonno passed.”
I wasn’t sure how to navigate our now daily conversations. I could hear my mom’s voice tremble despite her attempts to hide it from me so as not to scare me, but she didn’t know my secret. And, I didn’t have the strength to share it with her.
Still, it didn’t prepare me for the call on Tuesday.
At 2:14 pm my Mom called. “They’ve called the family in, so I’m walking to your sisters and Dad is going to come pick us up and we’re going to go see him. I’m not asking nor expecting you to come home, but they don’t think he’ll make it through the night.”
I walked downstairs.
Then back upstairs.
Then back downstairs and went outside for a run.
When I went back upstairs I had a missed text.
“Can you chat?”
It was from a friend. I called him back, and when I hung up my phone rang again.
“I didn’t make it in time, Nonno passed before I got there.”
He was gone.
This past week and a half has felt like I was keeping a secret. Like I knew my friend was going to get broken up with, but I couldn’t tell him. Maybe my grandfather knew. Maybe he was prepared.
I cried. I wish I had cried more, and I’m still hoping tears find me so I can have a deep release. Writing helps.
But, my sadness isn’t for me.
It’s grander. It’s a feeling of defeat against an immovable force of life that no matter how badly I wanted him to get better he never was going to which then made death the best option. No more suffering, for him, for my Nonna who lost the love of her life, for my Mom, my aunts and uncles who lost a father, for my sister and my cousins who lost their Nonno. No, I wasn’t sad for myself, I was sad for them. I was relieved. For me, his death brought a bittersweet peace. No more suffering.
“Hi Hunny how are you? I wanted to let you know there will be a small service this weekend, but only 10 people are allowed to go to the cemetery. Once it’s safe again to travel and gather we’ll have a larger celebration of his life.”
Everyone who has ever lived knows or will know death. What makes death an experience is our intimacy, our relationship, and our human connection with the dead. We all mean different things to one another, this is why we react differently. We mourn heroes we’ve never met yet are unaffected by the deaths of others. It’s not a measurement of value, we all respect death, we just all have different capacities to care.
The death of my grandfather is no different than the death of anyone else, but what makes his more special to me is our relationship.
In the days since his death, our family, unable to gather, has found comfort in group texts where we share stories, pictures, and videos. This morning my aunt shared a poem, that I read as if my nonno wrote, broken English and all.
“Don’t grieve for me, for now, I’m free; I took his hand when I heard him call; I turned my back and left it all. If my parting has left a void; then fill it with remembered joy. My life’s been full. I savored much; Good friends, good times, a loved one’s touch. A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss; Ah yes, these things, I too, will miss. Perhaps my time seemed all to brief; don’t lengthen it now with undue grief. Lift up your hearts and share with me. God wanted me now, he set me free.”
I’m not much of a believer, but it’s true his life has been full. And mine has been full because of him. My nonno lived the American dream. He came as one of the first to take advantage of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, after decades of restricted immigration, under the category immigrants with special skills or who had relatives who were U.S. citizens. With a bag and by boat, my nonno turned a Shephard from the foothills with an Italian dialect, into a business owner, real estate investor, husband, father, winemaker, chicken keeper, gardener, friend, and Nonno.
He was proud of his work and continued with it as an expression of love. Being a provider, someone to lean on, to rely on, he was proud of. He wasn’t fooled by growing American attitudes that showcased wealth and attached importance to acts of consumerism. That was never an indicator of fulfillment to him. He had morals, he valued hard work and indulged in the things you can’t purchase. He taught me all of this. Lessons learned through observation. The seats next to him at a Sunday dinner were the most coveted.
But, what he was most of all, up until his last breath, was happy. He will forever be known for his smile.
Over these past few years, I’ve joked with family and friends that knew him, that with his upbringing, had he been able to forecast this was going to be his life from ten years ago, he would’ve taken actions into his own hands to avoid this suffering.
Today, I’m just glad he isn’t suffering anymore. I’m not grateful that he got COVID-19, but I’m grateful he isn’t in pain anymore.
Nonno, I Love You.
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