First trimester of my Masters is done and dusted!

As part of my final assignment for the subject creative nonfiction, I was asked to write a story about anything I wanted- so long as it was true.

Here is my personal essay celebrating the life of one of the most incredible men in my life, my Nonno.

I hope this story gives even just a small insight into who he was and also raises much needed awareness for the terrible disease, dementia.

-tgfs x

—————–

Tick
Tick
Tick 

The hands on the clock strike with such power.

Tick
Tick
Tick 

Why are analogue clocks so loud?

Tick
Tick
Tick 

I catch my sister’s gaze and we offer each other a consolatory smile.

Tick
Tick
Tick 

When will this end?

Tick
Tick
Tick

Does he know it’s ok to leave?

Tick
Tick
Tick

“Dominique, come look at these lettuces I grew,” he said, pointing and smiling, as we stood in his garden. “Bloody beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Very nice, Nonno,” I smiled back, half interested. Lettuce is lettuce, right? I thought. 

I think until you’ve lived a life without worrying about food you can’t really appreciate an ability to work and grow your own. My Nonno, Vince, was born on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily, called Panarea in 1932. The eldest of four, the island was his paradise. Surrounded by picturesque sea, neighbouring volcano islands that shot plumes of smoke into the sky and mischief aplenty. Growing up, he frequently reminded me this idea of paradise was ripped away when World War II was declared. Being a tiny island, off the coast of a small island resting near the mainland, food became somewhat of a scarcity on Panarea.

“Love, you better not be wasting that, did you know I used to have to eat grass?” he’d remind me when I’d leave some food on my plate.

Throughout the war, regular supplies were not made as available as during peacetime and after the allies landed in Sicily in 1943, the islands fell down in priority.

“One day we were so hungry,” he’d share, “we lowered my little brother Johnny by his ankles down the side of the cliff to steal the eggs from a bird’s nest to eat.” He usually said this with a cheeky smile, but with sadness in his eyes. He arrived in Sydney at just fifteen years old. He quickly adopted an Australian accent that hid his origins. But if you’d catch him speaking Italian, you’d think he never left. I still look at his vegetable garden, now overrun with weeds, and think I’d give anything to see one of his lettuces sitting proudly there once more.

Tick
Tick
Tick

I never realised there were so many of us.

Tick
Tick
Tick

The room was so stuffy and warm with the entire family there, and the air was stale, but there was still an iciness present. I guess that was Death’s way of letting us know he was in the room. It was around eight o’clock in the evening when I first heard the inner grumblings of my stomach. 

“Should we maybe order some pizzas?” I ask, as my eyes dart around the room doing a mental count of its inhabitants: aunts, uncles, cousins and partners.  How many pizzas would we need for sixteen people, I wonder, and how did sixteen people even fit in this tiny room? 

“That’s a good idea, Dom,” my mum responds, as she hands me her wallet. “Just order a mix of everything.”

I reach for my phone, open the website to look at the menu: twelve pizzas should be enough. As I stand to leave the room I am relieved that I will have some momentary freedom from the clock’s symphony of time passing by.

Tick
Tick 
Tick

When you live with someone, it’s easy to pick up on a shift in their behaviour. When my Nonna passed away in 2001, she left behind a man who didn’t know how to cook, which bank his money was in, or what it took to run a home. My parents decided to temporarily move our family to downstairs in my Nonno’s split two-level home to help him adjust to being a new widower. It was meant to be temporary, but it lasted nearly two decades. 

It started quite slowly several years after we moved in. Losing keys, asking the same question three or four times in one conversation, or double checking directions on routes he’d driven for over fifty years. Progressively, it got worse and in addition to lost keys, we found steaks in cupboards, stoves left on, and we were awoken in the darkest part of night by him standing at the end of our beds fully-dressed with a bag of his clothes, telling us it was time to leave. We couldn’t ignore it any longer. My family decided, on the feedback from his GP, to take him to be assessed for dementia. Is it ironic that we can’t quite remember what year this was? 

When I ask my mum today, we predict it was around 2010, but we’re not absolutely certain. All she remembers is she took him to Concord Hospital in Sydney where, after several tests, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The most common form of dementia, it would wreak havoc on his brain, first stealing his memory and later his ability to walk, talk, feed himself and even breathe. Doctors told us the main cause of the disease was a result of an abnormal build-up of protein on the brain. We weren’t surprised by this diagnosis, but it didn’t make it any easier to have it confirmed. 

“My brain doesn’t work too good, you know,” he’d say. “I’ve got dementia in there.” He’d gesture toward his head as if to point blame at his brain that was starting to fail him. I don’t think he quite understood what this meant, or what was coming. And to be fair, neither did we.

Tick
Tick 
Tick

There’s nothing my Nonno loved more than seeing his family around him. He’d often comment on how beautiful a thing, but was the assembly of us all in this room beautiful or tragic?

Would he take peace in knowing we were here?

I guess we’ll never know.

Tick
Tick 
Tick

There are three things that are synonymous with my summers: sunbaking by the pool, mangoes, and the Australian Open. Nonno and I were the only two in the house who loved tennis, and on evenings in January, you’d find us both planted in front of the TV, with all the windows open, praying for a breeze to offer some relief from the heat. His symptoms of dementia were more pronounced these days, and when you’re watching a three-hour-long tennis match, you tend to hear the same things constantly. If you’re a fan of tennis, you’ll be familiar with Rafael Nadal’s pre-serve ritual. He’ll tuck his hair behind his ears, touch his nose, and pick at his shorts while bouncing the ball. “Look at him, look at him pick at his bum,” he’d say, as his belly rose and fell with child-like laughter. 

He thought it was the most hilarious thing he’d ever seen, over and over again and I couldn’t help but laugh that he’d forgotten this ritual by the time Nadal came around to serve again. When you’re watching a match where a player can serve over one hundred times, you can deduce that’s a lot of time spent laughing. 

Tick
Tick 
Tick

The nurse would come in often to check in on us and my Nonno. I was so frustrated there was nothing she could do, as the sound of his breathing worsened. She told us the gurgling was a result of aspiration, which essentially means he was slowly drowning on his own saliva. Although each breath was taken between long pauses, each one made me more angry and more helpless. At least it was interspersed with the familiar sounds ticking.

Tick
Tick 
Tick

In 2014, the family decided it was no longer safe for my Nonno or us to live in the same home. He was at the stage of needing full-time care. Moments of misplacing keys and directions were replaced with outbursts of anger and paranoia; one evening we found him wielding a knife out of fear of potential burglars. We opted for a nursing home only ten minutes from home and I visited him at least once or twice a week, every week, for five years. After watching a documentary on dementia on SBS, soon after he moved out, I learned the part of the brain that processes music is one of the last areas impacted by dementia. I made a playlist of classic 1950s and 1960s music and with the help of Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, we took our visits and turned them into dance parties. His confused and question-filled moods were forgotten as he’d transform into a man twenty years his junior, twirling me around, twisting and singing with such joy. 

In those moments, his brain forgot it was being eaten away by a disease and we found him again, for even just a song and a quick spin. 

Tick
Tick 
Tick

Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, starvation, sitting in this room: all forms of torture of equal severity at this point. I think we’d only been sitting for three or four hours, but it felt so much longer. The old cliche says the Grim Reaper comes to collect those whose hourglass empties the last grain of sand. I think Death must not have been listening when I divulged I wouldn’t tell anyone there were still a few grains left in the glass, and to end this suffering and take his soul from his body. It was either failure to listen, or he has a morbid sense of humour.   

Tick
Tick 
Tick

First he stopped talking. His walking slowed, and eventually he took up full-time wheelchair use. His ability to feed himself went next, and then he was moved to use a chair that resembled more an armchair on wheels- all as the doctor predicted years prior. I still visited and played him music in hope some part of him remembered behind the blank face staring back at me. I liked to believe that he’d recognise me, even for half a second, a kind familiarity in his eyes that was gone just as fast as it appeared. When we received the call from the nursing home his last days were upon us, we hit pause on life to be at his bedside, ensuring he wasn’t alone in his final moments. 

I spent nearly three decades hearing stories of eating grass, watching tennis and dancing. I took comfort knowing these were my memories and I could sit in the room and reflect on them. The irony of it all is he died the following morning, alone. The nurse asked if we could all leave the room for her to change his bedding and in the several moments between the nurse leaving his room and the family coming back in, he took Death’s hand and departed. 

He didn’t want to take his final breath before us and was probably impatiently waiting for us to get the hell out of the room to give him some privacy. Whilst I am still incredibly sad to have seen such a strong, vivacious and funny man reduced to the shell he became, I’m so grateful for all he taught me. I learned never to waste food. I smile each time I see Nadal on TV, and dance with my husband down the aisles of the grocery store.

It’s all an ode to the life of such a special man.

2 Replies to “Forget Me Not”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: