Friday, March 2, 2018

Moving to Italy: Stranded--Part 1

Despite my fears, Marino didn’t die during that first night home from hospital.  

To our great relief, he was much better the next morning . In spite of coughing most of the night, he said it was the first time he had slept at all in ten days. It was a good thing he was no worse, because when we looked out of the window we saw that the river had risen dramatically.  The night’s heavy rain, combined with the run-off from the melting snow of the distant Alps, had been enough to overflow the riverbanks and flood the bridge. All that day, as I rotated the laundry drying on the radiators beneath the windows, I could see the large puddle of river slowly spread in uneven muddy swirls into the fields on either side of the road. At the place where the bridge should have been, a muddy torrent curved as it raced by the fields.

Once the river submerged the bridge, it meant the downhill road to and from the village was useless. There was only one other way to get out of Gabi, but it was difficult and dangerous. If we followed the road up the hill past the little hamlet of Bertola, we could make our way along a single dirt track. This narrow track meandered through a copse of trees to the hilltop settlement of Montaldo. From there we could take the paved road down to the main highway that ran along the center of the valley. We had traversed this back road often during the summer when we went to church in Montaldo, but when it rained the track became muddy and treacherous, so we avoided it. Our car, although small by American standards, was really too large for such a narrow road. After the heavy downpours of the last few weeks we knew the track would be impossibly soaked, and the mud could either suction our tires, or slide us down the steep hillside. The drop was enough to guarantee serious injury. We watched the rain as it stopped and started all day, hoping it would let up enough for the river to subside. I desperately wanted to see the bridge reappear, but no matter how often I looked out it remained hidden beneath racing muddy water. We were essentially cut off from the outside world.

By the following day my father-in-law had taken all of the medication the hospital had provided for his supposed airplane trip, but he was still coughing. On top of that, our food supply was getting low. Between our illnesses and the hospital visits, our customary daily trips to the village shop had been interrupted, and so we had relied on Zio Silvio to bring us a few things that we needed. As a result, we had not really restocked in two weeks and many of our food staples had been used up. However, it was still raining, and the bridge was still flooded blocking the road to the grocery store, and more importantly, blocking the road to the pharmacy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Moving to Italy: The Flu--Part 4.5

It had rained off and on every day since Marino had left for the hospital, and the little trickle of river under the bridge on the road to Gabi had swelled wider and higher. The rain was particularly heavy that day as I watched the road anxiously for our green Kadett. In the late afternoon I saw it splash over the little bridge and begin the slow climb up the hill. The boys and I saw it slip on the straight-away, slide near the vineyard, then disappear at the hairpin curve. It seemed an age later that I saw a pale green flash as it cleared the trees below the house. I let out my breath in relief and glanced down at the children's worried faces. They had been watching me. A moment later we heard the car round the corner and pull into the courtyard. 
I peered down the stairs and was surprised to see Marino walk in the front door. He was drawn and gray and had obviously lost a lot of weight. George and Rina helped him along the hallway and into his bedroom, then George came upstairs and explained to me all that had happened. Still suffering from the last stages of the flu himself, he fell into bed, exhausted, while below us I could hear my father-in-law coughing.

When I put the children to bed for the night, George was still sleeping, so I went downstairs to check on my in-laws. Looking distraught and distracted, Rina was walking around and around the kitchen, while through the open bedroom door I could see Marino sitting on the side of the bed, struggling to get enough breath to cough. He looked terrible. I glanced back at Rina as she pointed at bottles of medicine littering the kitchen table and said, “I don’t know which one is which. They told me everything so quickly I couldn’t understand it all. What am I going to do?”  

It was odd. All of the moments she had nit-picked and nagged and frowned in silent disapproval, seemed to fade. Suddenly she was a sick and confused woman, not my dreaded mother-in-law. When I looked at her worried face, I saw she was vulnerable, that she needed my help. Since my own mother had died young, I had never known the role-reversal that was then taking place. It was my turn to guide and advise. 

I picked up the nearest bottle and looked at the label. There was writing on the front, just like the ones I was used to, but it was in Italian. I asked her to translate. It said to take every four hours for cough. We picked up the next bottle and she translated the label again. Then I noticed a sheet of paper with the doctor’s instructions. As she slowly translated those, I helped her determine which pill was which, and when they, and the shots, should be given. It required that she get up several times during the night, so I showed her how to set the alarm clock to do that. Really, she needed more help. She needed someone to take over for her. I felt badly that I couldn't do that, but I'd already spent three wakeful nights with the torn ligaments in my back followed by long days caring for the children. I knew I wouldn't have the stamina to haul myself out of bed every couple of hours. I also knew that George was out for the night. He too was wiped out, and even when in top physical condition, he could sleep soundly through babies screaming next to his pillow. I had watched him do it many times. Besides that, neither of us had experience with injecting medication. Since Rina had been trained by the nurse, she was now the family “expert.” She would have to take care of Marino, no matter the outcome.

Before I left, I went into the bedroom to see Marino. He, too, looked vulnerable. Gone was the powerful authority figure who had forced my husband to work clearing the land for twelve hours each day of the summer. The face that could register kindness as quickly as anger now showed only pain as with every cough his shoulders trembled and he leaned forward to struggle for breath. He glanced at me briefly, and I saw a face drained of all color, except for the almost-black circles under his eyes. When Rina brought him a pill, I watched her help him steady the cup of water to his lips. He looked even worse than when the doctor had ordered him to the hospital. I was sure that he was going to die that night. 
I said good night and hurried upstairs. Deep inside I was terrified at the thought of witnessing his death as I had my mother’s. So much for my yearning for the natural life. When it came time to face up to the ultimate act of nature—death—I turned away.
I was awake most of the night with the pain in my back, the sounds of pounding rain outside, and constant coughing inside. Physically and emotionally I was completely drained.

But it would get worse.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Moving to Italy: The (Endless) Flu--Part 4

While Marino was in the hospital, his condition deteriorated. George and his mother drove there every two or three days to take him water and food, but neither of them was well enough to endure an all-night stay. Marino complained that he wasn’t receiving the medication prescribed by the doctors. When he asked the nurses for it they would say “Later,” and then never come back. Because he was so sick, it was hard to tell how much of what he said was true, and how much he just couldn’t remember. There was no one present from the family to check on what medication he was receiving and when. To make things worse, between the noise in the hallway and his persistent cough, he wasn't sleeping at all. He stayed for ten days and then insisted on leaving. When the doctors refused to discharge him because he was so ill, he made up a story about having to catch a flight back to California the next day.

When George and his mother arrived, the doctor gave them a supply of medication and syringes along with a list showing when to give what, covering every couple of hours that day and "on the plane" the day after. He also gave them a sealed letter for the doctor in California. A nurse even trained Rina how to give the injections by practicing on an orange. George told me that when he saw all the directions and the needles, it scared him badly.

He described what happened when the doctor left Marino's hallway bedside.

“Papa, I think you should stay here. They know how to look after you…” George had said.
“No. Those damn nurses never give me what I need! If I’m going to die, it’s not going to be here. You take me home now, Giorgio.”
In his anger he choked, started coughing, and clutched at his chest in pain, scaring George even more. At that Rina picked up Marino’s case from under the bed and swept his few things into it. She knew there was no use arguing.
When George realized his father had made up his mind to leave the hospital, he said, “OK, then how about we drive to the airport right now, and I put you both on a plane to California? We can call Olga and Willis to meet you in Los Angeles, and they can take you straight to St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
This time it was Rina, “No, no, I’m too sick. I can’t travel and also take care of him.”
Marino added: “You heard what the doctor said, I’m too sick to fly. And what about the smallpox shot?  They won’t let us back into the States without it. Stop talking, and help me get dressed!  I’m going home.”

George figured he’d raised his father’s blood pressure too much already. Defeated, he did as he was told, dreading what might lie ahead as he drove them back to Gabi. 

(Note: The story of our move to Italy starts with "Arrival" on the June 26, 2017 blog post.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Moving to Italy: Reflection on Language

Visiting the doctor’s office in Italy left a permanent change in me. The doctor was a kind man, and we were treated well, but my inability to convey to him the cause of my pain and how it had happened left me frustrated. But I was relatively lucky in that I had an adult fluent in Italian to translate for me.
When we returned to the U.S., I developed a new respect for immigrants who were disadvantaged in not speaking English. Not only did they have to adjust to different customs and expectations, but they had the huge handicap of not being able to listen to the local populace and learn from what they heard. Just like me in Italy, they had to struggle to understand what was being said and then grope for the correct words to communicate with the natives.
If they were parents they faced, as I had, the prospect of losing verbal contact with their children as those children soaked up the language and merged into the new environment. Some of these parents were told by teachers to forbid their native language being spoken at home so that the children could learn English more quickly. In Italy no one told me to stop speaking English around our home, and if they had, I would have objected loudly. Even so, my boys were so young that they absorbed Italian, and as I have mentioned, they began to forget English.
After that visit to the doctor, I appreciated even more Cousin Luigi’s patience with me, his willingness to wait for me to find the right words, and his ability to fill in what I might have misspoken. When visiting Gabi later in life, I found this same kindness in another of George’s cousins, Rosemma. She too speaks no English but is always patient with me. Between hand signals and my recall of words I thought I had forgotten, we have always been able to communicate somehow. (Although I am not certain how much of what we say gets lost in the gaps between us!)

Cousin Rosemma on the right.

My encounters with Luigi, and later with Rosemma, were to shape my responses to others. When the company I worked for in California hired three Hungarian engineers for six months, they spoke English with heavy accents, and remembering my struggles in Italy, I went out of my way to communicate with them. But I watched what happened when the Hungarians tried to start a conversation with others in the company. Our employees would be polite enough, smile, and answer questions, but at the first opportunity they slipped away. Perhaps it was shyness, perhaps it was a fear of not understanding the foreign accent, but when my co-workers hurried off, I recognized the Hungarian’s look of bewilderment. I had felt that same way in Italy.

I understood then, twenty years later, what had happened when we interacted with Italians in social gatherings. I had tried to join the conversation, but when they didn’t understand me, or I didn’t understand them, the back and forth flow of words was blocked, and it was difficult to continue. At an early age we learn social language skills: I say something, you reply, then I reply to your comment, and so on. If your reply doesn’t fit with what has gone before, I have to try to understand where you have taken the conversational thread.  For instance, if I ask what you had for lunch and you reply, “Mel’s Diner,” I might stop, interpret, then say, “No, not where did you go for lunch, what did you eat for lunch?”  Usually we can restart the rhythm without too much effort. Not so when one of us is struggling with the language. When misunderstanding constantly interrupts communication, the rhythm never gets established, and it becomes frustrating for everyone. Most people don’t have the time or patience to keep trying. In social situations in Italy, it was far easier for the Italian to turn to George and let him translate, or easier for me to simply listen and not try to enter the dialogue. Learning a new language as an adult is hard, much harder than it would appear if you’ve never tried it!

I encountered a similar dynamic when teaching university writing to a diverse population of students. Often they were the children of immigrants, the first ones to attend college, and they wrote of being the family translator from a young age. With a limited child’s vocabulary, they were forced to translate to bureaucrats, while their parents silently listened not understanding the words that flew past them. I would feel for those students and the responsibility they bore for translating correctly. And I felt an affinity with their helpless parents, as I remembered the same sensation with the doctor in Italy.

The story of our move to Italy starts with "Arrival" on the June 26, 2017 blog post.