My father's death

My dad is dead. It seems impossible. 
Is dead.
He didn’t die after a long disease, which at least gives you some time to talk about it, to learn to accept and get used to the idea. No. He just suddenly died - like that.

This morning he was here, we had breakfast, he took a shower with the radio on, he shaved in the bathroom full of steam, with a towel wrapped around his big belly, he went to his room to get dressed, and then back to the kitchen.

We talked about our plans for the following day, for my cousin Fabio's birthday.

"What can we get him?", he asked me and my sisters, leaning against the chest of drawers in Anna and Serena's room. Maybe some clothes from Giorgio Livi's new store, the one that sells clothes for kids. Anyway, we decided we would figure it out the next day.

"We have a beautiful house" he said sipping yet another coffee. He placed the cup in the sink, took his address book crammed, as always, with papers, put on his jacket, grabbed his cigarettes, and he left, leaving from door that led to the stairs. We were supposed to buy a present for Fabio, to go over to their house, and celebrate.

Instead, he died. Died forever; I would never see him again.

I answered the call from Carlo Sassi, since I was home doing my homework with my friend Angela. "Your Dad is sick, where’s your mother?" She was at her sister Milena's house, getting ready for the party. I gave Carlo Milena's number, but I don't remember being particularly alarmed. I thought maybe my dad had had, I don’t know, a stomach pain or something. I went back to the living room, and kept chatting with Angela.

I became alarmed only when I heard Milena's voice; when she called a few minutes later to tell me that we would be having dinner at her place, because my mom was in the hospital. It was her tone, more than her words, that scared me - and her face, when I arrived at her home. We ate in her kitchen. Bruno, my uncle, was in the States on a business trip, and he was scheduled to come back in a week or two. He had no idea that he would be arriving the next day, to attend my father's funeral.

Paola Boni, our dear friend and neighbor, came that night to stay with us. I was fourteen, Renata was fifteen, Anna twelve, and Serena three. My Mom was forty one and my dad would have turned forty three, nine days later.

The evening news had already made it clear that it wasn't a question of a stomach pain, and I had already figured that out on my own. No one had yet said anything to us girls; my mom never called, Milena didn't say anything, and Paola either.

"Our thoughts go out to Beppe Viola, rushed to the emergency room at Fatebenefratelli Hospital suffering from a stroke" A stroke? In Italian the word is ictus, which to me sounded like cactus, the plant I always associated with my family, as it was the specialty of my botanist relatives in Bordighera. What’s a stroke? Is it serious? Yes, Paola finally admitted. Very serious. Well, I thought, at least someone is telling us what’s going on.

In the meantime my dad was already in an irreversible coma, even before Carlo Sassi had picked up the phone and called my house. Clinically he was already dead, his brain filled with blood. My mom told me years later that when she had found him lying in a hospital bed, in a coma, he was wearing a sort of smile. She took his watch off, while his arm was still warm, and put it on hers. Still now she hates it whenever she has to take it off.

I remember writing in my diary, that night, that I was lucky to have my boyfriend Giorgio. He would be close to me, he would give me the strength to understand. Which is true. To this day Giorgio is a wonderful person. Instead of being sad for my father, I decided that I’d be happy to have Giorgio, at that moment of my life: I didn't yet have the tools to deal with death; evidently, they form inside you at a slower pace than love.

The next morning our house felt like Grand Central Station; but my memories are a bit shadowed by time. I clearly remember Zia Pupa, my dad's sister, who had already had to deal with so much death in her life; her brother was the only one left in her family. Zia Pupa, I was saying, called me into a room and said, "Your father is dead. Do not delude yourself. He’s already gone". She said this with rage, as if it was all my fault, or as if, like me, she was trying to understand it, to take it in, to say it.

I also remember that my mom, who suddenly looked very small, called the four of us into the living room, closed the door behind her to isolate us from the confusion, and, without noticing that Loredana Cecchini was standing right there, sat down on the couch in front of her four daughters. "Dad is dead". Her pain was already deeply impressed on her face, on her hair, on her clothes. She had seen him dying, and then, dead. She was able to stay alone with him; with the machines that kept his heart pulsing. She was able to touch him while he was still alive, even if he was in a coma. Mom. Now it was her and us – we with our new pain, and she with hers; the unknown challenge of everyday life without her partner, without the person who had been part of her life since she was three. Mom. And us. Alone, from now and forever. I remember I farted at that moment, and focused my thoughts only on that.

Then the funeral, the thousands of people, the articles on the newspapers, our defeated mom; incredulous, always in a hurry, with no time to stay with us. There were people I had never seen making coffee in the kitchen, the phone rang constantly, the doorbell. Even our teachers came to our house. It was total chaos. I remember that at a certain point I locked myself in the bathroom and I secretly lit a cigarette; I thought to myself, “now you can see me, Dad. Now you know”, even though truthfully, I had already told my Dad that I had tried to smoke.

We were stuck in traffic in Viale Argonne, just the two of us. I don't remember where we were going." Dad, I have to tell you something". A pause. "Actually, never mind".  And him, "No, tell me, what's up?" “It's not an easy thing to tell a parent”. "You better tell me now, in case I die tomorrow, and then you’ll lose your chance". We laughed. "I started smoking, but I know it's stupid." "You’re right, it is really fucking dumb; if I were you, I would quit right away", he replied, flicking his Merit out window, with a nonchalance which screamed that he really would have preferred to finish that cigarette.

Anyway, the funeral. I remember, going into the living room to get to the elevator, I passed the bathroom and I heard Enzo crying loudly, like children cry. Enzo, my dad and my mom grew up together, in Piazza Adigrat. Enzo and dad had worked together and written together, and shared their entire lives. Then an argument tore them apart for a while. But the friendship was too rooted to stay dormant for too long.

Enzo had just come back from the hospital. As a doctor, he had stayed with my mom and dad through the night. Then, finally, he locked himself in the bathroom to cry. Lucky him, I thought. I still haven't managed.

Coming out of the elevator I found myself in the middle of thousands of people; so many that I could not even get to the door. My eyes met Renato Pozzetto's eyes, and he too was crying hard.

I, on the other hand, almost felt like laughing; I was so happy to see everybody there. So many familiar faces, but especially how many faces I had never seen before. They’re all here for my dad, because he was great, admired, and so his funeral is full of famous people. Lucky him. I don't remember my mom, and I don't remember my sisters either. At the church I was sitting next to Enzo, who had stopped crying and was holding my hand tightly.

It was the same church where I had received my first Communion, my Confirmation; where I would go confess about all the bullshit I told my parents, or because I had played doctor with my cousin Fabio, even though we knew it was a sin. In that very church I saw for the first time the shiny, wooden casket. And in there, inside, was my dad.

Oh my god, it's true. How the fuck is he going to get out of there? He really is dead. I started holding Enzo's hand even tighter, and my throat tightened, and finally the first tear, warm, slow and full of pain and loneliness, my soon to be daily companions, that I had just met right there, although they still felt uncomfortable inside of me; that tear finally fell and landed on my shirt. I felt a great sense of heaviness that threw me in another dimension completely; as if at that very moment someone told me, from now on you are an orphan. Orphan, without half of you, missing half of your DNA. That half is inside that shiny, shiny casket in front of you.

I would never again hear his voice saying "who is this?" when I pick up the phone, or experience his smell in the elevator, or his presence, a presence capable of filling an entire stadium. His laughter, or his funny way of dancing with his hands on his knees.

I would never again see the melancholy in his eyes when he told us about Nonna Cicchinina, his mom, who like him had died very young, poor woman, and from whom he had inherited his irony, his way of teasing people and his unusual take on life.

We never would again sing the folk songs that he had taught us in the car: Quel mazzolin di fiori, Gli occhi bianchi e ner, Oh donna donna donna lombarda, se vuoi venire al ballo con me... he had also taught us the song about Cerruti Gino, and he would always clap his hand between the part of the song that says "il suo nome era" and " Cerruti Gino”.
He would never again ask us, "What do you guys do to me? " And we would never answer, "drive you crazy", and burst out laughing.

I would never again have a dad.

The trip from Viale Corsica to the cemetery seemed eternal. Behind us there were hundreds of cars; even some busses full of curious people wanting to see Beppe Viola being buried. What a fun trip.

I remember, as I arrived at the cemetery, running into a cousin from Genova, and slowing my pace so that we could talk. When I arrived at the place where my dad was buried, my Mom yelled at me: "Where the hell were you? We’ve been waiting for you!"

Then, finally, there was silence. The hole was deep, long and narrow. The undertakers were diligently doing their job, making sure that the casket would be placed in the right position. Then, slowly, it went down. My mom had a rose in her hands; she threw it down into the hole, on top of the casket.

"Ciao, Peppi", she whispered.

I can still hear that "Ciao Peppi" in my ears; an echo that never settled and continues to ring. Like a stab wound that cannot heal. Like a stigmata. Actually, even more than that. Like death.

It wasn't a farewell. No one was ready to say farewell. It was a 'Ciao', a 'See you later'. Almost like a hope. An illusion that this was just one of those jokes he would often play on us, and that he would come back, and we would all laugh.

It often happens to me, while waiting in line at the bank, or when I’m stuck in traffic. I say to myself "Now I’m going to turn around and in the car next to me I’ll see my father, who will be looking at me, smiling”. Or sometimes I think, “now the phone is going to ring and he is going to say that so many years have gone by, and that we should meet, just for coffee".

So many times I find myself telling him that now I'm all grown up, I have three children, that I live far away, but that mom is still there, waiting for him, and that Serena would like to talk to him, and maybe have someone take a picture of the two of them together. We are not angry, but the game has gotten old now; he can come out of hiding.

But there he is, still hiding. We treat him like we treat children - we pretend not to see him. And he still believes it.

I have the feeling that this time, though, the joke was on him.


  1. Straight to my heart, with resonance and poetry. Thank you Marina for articulating so beautifully, so fully what I know in my bones about love and loss.

  2. What a vivid and moving account, Marina. I feel so glad to hear from you how you experienced this, and to know and understand you the better for it. -Dmitri