My Father’s Last Love Letter (…valentine)
2012 – a note
I have a letter to deliver. At least try my best to, anyway. It isn’t mine. My father wrote the words. Probably the last if not the last before that capacity, as others, left him.
There’s no address. I don’t know what’s written – I haven’t opened the envelope, and won’t. I’m not that way, and that’s not the point of it. But I now who it’s for. The words are for the two them. I merely have to carry something from one place, one time, to another. Connect them. You might consider it the other way around though, that the two places and times are the same, and all I have to do is ignore the space between. Depends on your point of view. What’s space, anyway? Or time, for that matter.
There’s a woman’s name on top of the envelope. Not my mother’s. Tina. The true love of my father’s life. I suspect the feeling is mutual.
I met Tina once, years and years ago. I hope she’s still alive. Neither she nor my father know that I discovered their story decades ago, long before I met her and long before the mitochondria in my father’s brain began breaking down, his mind fading dark.
- After high school graduation I travelled to Italy after a 7 year or so absence. I stayed in my grandparent’s apartment in Pescara, an ugly town on the Adriatic coast and the economic center of Abruzzo. The region is lovely and green and it was summer, ‘the beautiful season’ they call it, all those unforgotten scents, sweet salt breezes from the sea nearby, fried bell peppers, espresso. The waves. I went dancing with a friend on whom I had had a big crush. It’s not the same, that feeling, as love but it goes in a similar direction. It lacks that surprise, that moment or the story that begins in that instant, that one look – eyes are often the path through which everything leaves and enters. Time disappears. And you see paradise walk in – right through that door, in that room, in that photo… Alas it leaves though, after. You don’t see its leaving clearly, usually. You feel it. Anyway. We would get back around 5 in the morning or so, maybe later. By happy coincidence there was a good bar-pastry shop on the ground floor of my grandparent’s apartment building. My friend would drop me off and I would knock on the window, the baker would see me, he would grab a ‘bomba’, a bomb – a round, thin, fried sack of pastry covered in sugar that they make in Abruzzo. They look like Golgi apparati – with one hand and fill it with fresh cream with his other. Then up the stairs to sleep for a few hours before heading back down and eating another two for breakfast.
After hours of sea and sea and fish and sea, or a long ride on a delicious road bike that I bought – when bicycles were still bicycles and not fiber carbon feathers you can lift with a finger. You could see the hands of the bike maker in the little things, the holes beneath to lighten, the gracious curves of the welds, Columbus and Campagnolo, the artisan’s name (Rochetti) proudly on top not because of a brand or marketing but because he belonged to that last generation that identified themselves in what they did and made with their own hands. Honor. – sometimes after lunch I’d hop to the roof terrace and read or listen to someone practicing piano in a building nearby, the notes fluttering freely in the mid-afternoon silence of August. Sun. Dry air. Shade. Old things…
I found the box full of letters in those old things. I don’t remember if the box was made of wood o cardboard. Hundreds, beneath some layers of salty dust. From Tina. On every single one she began ‘tesoro amore mio per sempre’, (my treasured love, always.) They met soon after my father had gone to Rome to study medicine, their first time hidden behind a hedge row, in the open. At least it was written so in the letters. (some poems my father had written made more sense, then.) He and one of his elder brothers slept in the hospital at the time in unused beds – they were penniless, and she as well didn’t have any place they could be alone to hold one another.
And then in one envelope, pictures of them together, Lelio, my father – though always with a trace of sadness like Cesare Pavese, his favorite poet (bottom-up minds that always carry a bit of the fatigue of living, sometimes more than a bit in context – happy, in those photos. She, an Italian version, a little, of my mother. Pretty, maybe not on a par with my mom but…she had a more open gaze. Like water. Seeing them made me happy. I wished that my mother might also have such a thing in her past. Together, my parents were never…well, were. Never. They hadn’t touched each other since about 9 months before me, let alone anything resembling affection. Neither love nor desire was ever displayed. Add a first child afflicted with an unending motivation to feel affective social domination, a Donald Trump but dumber still and more pronouncedly psychopathic… I think the primary reason for my family’s not returning to Abruzzo came from my father also belonging to that generation filled with pride. He likely wanted to avoid admitting to his brothers that the family with his name on it was a… lemon. So, what happened between them, My father and Tina?
The usual. Nothing normal. A dinner with friends, food, wine, talk and laughs, an accident, my father in the back seat, bam!, woke up 2 months later. It was before MRI’s. He didn’t know he’d lost the majority of his left pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in cognitive control and updating information, in the impact. And for the little but an important little he really could be have been called a ‘bottom-up’ person, big intellect – we call it mind, what’s beneath intelligence – massively connected non-self representations, internal mechanisms of inference facilitated. So from the outside everything seemed normal. Kind of like Martini or what’s his name, I’m not sure, the jazz guitarist who was able to recuperate and play pretty much as he had before losing much of his brain. Comprehension and its expression need and contain more information than mere articulation. Time. But something had changed.
…ah, culture. Not my father’s. But the not uncommon narrowness springing from poverty’s resentment. My uncle, another short ambitious physician but reeealy short. (Like a smurf, for which he has no blame of course. Not much animal protein in the house as they grew. Still, Lord help us. Ah, not the brother who also had to use the hospital as a dorm for awhile. That other brother was short to but proud, as in intrepid, bold, satisfied with how he lived and who he was. Macho in a warm way, like that super-strong flea in an old Looney Tune cartoon. My father… stood just over my chest, more or less, and he was the tallest of the bunch. His spinal tuberculosis in adolescence guaranteed that when there was any meat to eat, he got the largest helping.) Whether it was my uncle or his resentment that slammed the door in Tina’s face during those months doesn’t matter. She’d come at least twice from Rome to visit her sleeping love – back then the trip took most of a day – only to be turned away. Which would have caused doubt as it was. (My father was very attached to family.) But it was likely less any closed door than all that unpleasant non-verbal and verbal communication that certain men like my uncle use all the time, stuff tied to dominance, command… irritating – maybe more so coming from a smurf. Sigh. All of us live in one equivocation or another.
After coming out of the coma and returning to Rome, seeing how corrupt the health care system was already back then, political, nepotistic… he decided to take a trip to the US before starting in, with the intent of returning and marrying Tina but Tina… was pretty. And small. And not rich. She wasn’t Penelope and Lelio wasn’t Odysseus – even if in his way, he wasn’t so far from that. Then, like any couple let alone the impact of what must have been going on in his brain – they likely had problems. No one knew. She said yes to someone else. The obliterated look on my father when I asked him years later ‘why didn’t you ask her to marry you before you left?’ He: ‘It didn’t come to mind.’ Sigh. If weren’t for so many other examples that might have been hard to believe but for my father…it was pretty much par for the course. Only he could have taken a ship emigrating back to Italy instead of the other way around. He wanted to return a champion, instead…
Sigh again. Decades later I met Tina, just an hello in her entranceway before going out with her daughter. My father had asked me to meet her. He couldn’t have known that I, to, was making a similar ridiculous mistake. And that mine, to, would the usual. Nothing normal.
But I have to deliver a letter.
…a few years later. What was left of my father had passed on (2014):
…. I met her, Tina. Strange – it was like we knew each other for a lifetime. A little maybe because my father had spoken to her about me – I didn’t know that they’d met and spoken regularly over the years. Her house, that I’d never seen in daylight… looked as if my father lived there. Outside in back – fig trees where, knowing that’s where he would have stepped to, I went over…to touch.
After she sat me down at the kitchen table in same chair my father sat in in from time to time. Wine, fruit and small pastry. She in not a bit of physical pain, severe arthritis, but sweet, kind eyes, a lively Roman sense of humor, smart. Small. And a little tired of living.
O didn’t know that she was only 15 when they’d met, that he’d been her first and maybe vice versa, that it was exactly as my father had written in his poems. And she, to, had made a mistake, maybe, a choice years after the accident, after her husband passed away and my father had asked if she would want them to get back together after such a long pause – long? – She said no. Because of me and my brother and mother. The right thing to do. Blind morality, not having any idea what a disaster my family’s house was. What heartbreak, to loose each other uselessly twice in one lifetime. Still, what love, and what beauty.
She took the letters, the last written by my father, with her oddly bent fingers and when the sun began to set, time for me to leave, kissed them, tears in her eyes.
We are so foolish…