Lambrate

Lambrate.

I find it on Google maps. It’s on the other side of Milan.

I’ve never been to a crematorium. The only picture I have in my mind of a crematorium is Auschwitz, and I know this is not going to be like that. But I know what happens in crematoriums and I know that my husband is there. His ashes are there. How is this possible?

I’ve waited for 29 days. 29 terrible days. First the sickness, over in 4 months. Then the death with the futile fight at the end. Then 29 days of waiting for ashes, for the legal papers that will release them to me for international travel. He told me and everyone that he wanted to go home to the ocean in Costa Rica after this was over, for the remains of his destroyed body to end in the ocean. So I wait.

I have an app on my phone that tells me how to get anywhere I want to go in Italy using public transportation. It tells me which buses and metros I need to take to get to Lambrate. The public transport system is easy. I’ve been in Italy now for 5 months–I’m not a beginner. I’m concerned about which side of the street to catch the bus on, but I have extra tickets so if I catch it going the wrong way, I can get off and wait for the same-numbered bus on the other side.  It would’t be the first time.  I am more worried about choosing the right stop to get off the bus. How will I know? And, provided I pick the right stop, how will I find the cemetery where the crematorium is located? I don’t expect giant signs to advertise it. Am I going to have to stop strangers to ask the way? What if I cannot speak?

I find the bus stop. It’s cold here on the shady side of the street. I’m early. I’m sick to my stomach–sick with fear that something will go wrong, that I’m supposed to bring some type of document that I don’t have. I have nothing in my hands except my passport. My brother-in-law told me that the funeral parlor said they have taken care of everything and all I need to do is go with my ID. Everything is ready. I do not have any faith that this is true. But I have nothing to bring. So I am empty-handed with an exploding heart and a knotted gut.

If they tell me I must leave without his ashes I will crumble to the floor and they will have to carry me out. I know it. I have nothing left. I can’t anymore.

My attention shifts back to the present. To the street corner I am standing on, to the thin stripe of sun I am trying to stand in, to the growing group of passengers around me waiting for the Lambrate bus.

Suddenly a chilly wave of relief sweeps over me, something warm like love kindles in the center of my frozen chest, and I know I am going to be alright. I will find the right bus and I will know the right stop to get off. I will find the cemetery and the crematorium.

I know this because I realize that I am standing in a growing cluster of old women. Furrowed faces, pea coats, gray hair, gnarled hands. In their arms, they carry flowers.

On this lost street corner in Milan on the last morning of October, my new tribe surrounds me. These are my people. Each of these grandmothers, one day, has done what I am doing–made her first trip to the cemetery at Lambrate. We are widows. We are waiting in the damp sun-striped shade to go to our husbands. I am the youngest, the newest. I have arrived earlier than usual to this place, to a bus stop on the route to Lambrate. There are men among us also, solemn-faced and wrapped in scarves, but largely, we are women.

The time is wrong. The place is right. I am in good company and will not be lost. I am not alone. My pain, perhaps fresher, belongs to all of us. I am home here in this unfamiliar place.

When the bus comes, I get on and stand in the aisle, allowing the seats for my elders. I stare out the window  at the ancient city as we travel, trying to breathe, envious of the serenity of the women and of the flowers. When the bus slows and the hunched passengers stand, I follow them out the door and down the street, through the gates of the cemetery at Lambrate, and follow signs to the crematorium.

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More di Gelso

i nonni stanno piantando
i fagiolini li
nei loro giardini al Parco
dei Fontanili
i pesci sono tornati
a nuotare nel fiumetto
sotto il ponte
la lavanda comincia a
fare i fiori violi, profumando
l’aria, chiamando gli appi
ma tu dove sei

eri qui, ne sono sicura
avevamo camminato qua
insieme a la mano
guardando i piccoli fiori del castagno
rubando le more di gelso

Plan C

Plan A was going pretty well. Nobody’s life is perfect, but we didn’t have a lot to complain about. After five years in the USA, we were back in Costa Rica’s endless summer, working our butts off and surfing. Making decent money, having a good time, riding around on the motorcycle, chilling in our hammocks. Something like that is worth aspiring to. That was Plan A, and it was a really good plan.

In Plan A, there are two of us, and we live in Costa Rica.

Then, two months ago, Plan A crumbled in a major earthquake. Pio wasn’t feeling well. Medical tests revealed a malignant stomach tumor that had metastasized to his liver—and had already made a wreck of it. It is impossible to guess how long all of this was going on without giving any indication except for disturbing premonitions that I refused to listen to, because, how can you tell a premonition from paranoia? (And what do you do about it anyway? Say to your perfectly-healthy husband, “Honey I think there’s something wrong with you?” Probably not.) We got on a plane and came to Italy. Things were sliding quickly down a slippery slope.

So I had to wrap my head around Plan B. In Plan B, there’s only one of us. It’s me, and I am a widow. The doctors wouldn’t say anything more than, “This is very advanced,” and “It’s a shame you’re so young.” For about 6 weeks, I worked on that one. Slowly. In very small increments. One dreadful piece of the puzzle at a time. Just because you think about something doesn’t mean it will happen. But it doesn’t do you any good to refuse to think about the possibilities. So I went there. And sat with that for a while.

I have something to say about Plan B. If you haven’t thought about this before, here’s the newsflash:  in general, women live longer than men. Most of us will become widows. Sooner or later. Tumors aside, there was always every chance that Plan B was going to follow Plan A. I’m not being morbid–I’m being observant. Part of me said I knew that someday this was going to happen, and another part answered that I didn’t expect it NOW.

And then the slide down the slippery slope suddenly slowed. So Plan A is still lying in ruins, while Plan B is also indefinitely delayed, thank God.

Which brings us to Plan C.

Plan C is better than Plan B, because there are two of us. But one of us is sick, so it’s not a happy plan like Plan A. It has happy days, though. It has happy moments. It has scary ones and sad ones too because the ghost of Plan B has been introduced to the scene and stands quietly in the corners. In Plan A, you decide things together. In Plan B, you decide them all yourself. Plan C has some of each. In Plan A, you get to do what you want with your life. In Plan B, you do what you want with what’s left of your life (if you can think of anything). In plan C, you stay in Milan and wonder what’s going to happen to you, how long you’re going to have to stay there. You don’t know if it will be for months or for years, and you don’t know which of the other two Plans this Plan C is going to give way to.

But you know it will be one or the other. Sometime. Whenever that is. Whatever is required of you in between.

Rainbow over Corsico, July 2017

Who Would Have Thought

Who would have thought that being tired could be a symptom of something so sinister?  It seemed so normal, especially for someone who works as hard as my husband does.  Especially in Costa Rica where it’s so hot.

Who would have thought that the pain in his shoulder wasn’t a strained muscle or a pinched nerve?  Who would have thought that it was a reflection of things going wrong in an organ that can’t feel pain–his liver?

Who would have thought?

But then pain started under the right side of rib cage, and the tiredness grew into a constant sort of pallor and an uncharacteristic exhaustion.

Who would have thought that when that ultrasound showed something that the doctor would refer to as “metastasis” in my husband’s liver, I would be the one having to lie on the floor with my feet up because of the dizzy spell that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go?

Who would have thought, or even begun to guess, how many things were silently going wrong?  But blood tests don’t lie.

Who would have thought I would find myself sitting at my desk on a Thursday afternoon, refusing tears, buying plane tickets for Italy two days later?

Not me.

But that is exactly what happened.  As an Italian citizen, his medical care will be nearly free here, and let’s not compare the doctors in Milan with the ones in Liberia.

Who would have thought that it takes 10 days to get the results of a biopsy?

Who would have thought 10 days could take so long?  When you watch your husband become weaker by the day and all you can do is smile and try to breathe, it seems like 100 years.

Who would have thought I could put on my shoes in the morning, go outside for a run, and could run 7 kilometers before I was tired enough to stop?  Not me.  I don’t even like running.  Although I like it better than waiting.

I keep reminding myself of what I wrote a few months ago about being fearless vs being brave.  Right now I am being brave.  Because I am scared to death.  I’m afraid of what might happen.  I’m afraid of what might not happen.

Who would have thought that exactly two years after my husband and I came to Italy on vacation we would be back in the same city, staying with the same brother at the same time of year, but with for the purpose of saving his life?

A month ago, he was complaining about being tired.  He thought he had dengue.  Two months ago he had a sore shoulder.  Three months ago we were getting up at dawn to go surfing.

Who would have thought life could unravel this far in two weeks?  I guess, really, all it needs is a minute.