If I were a convincing liar, I’d tell you that I went on vacation back in December 2012. I’d recall my non-stop flight from Philadelphia, PA to Rome, and then a railway trip southward, and at the last a ferry ride across the strait that led me to Messina, Sicily, home of my ancestors. I might tell you some of the stories I wrote while sitting in my whicker wheelchair, letting the sun turn my skin Sicilian Gold, as I watched the sweet-scented mandarin oranges and the sun-salted olives growing.
My companion, Rosita, who wore Messina’s coat of arms on her apron, brought me fresh-squeezed lemonade each morning. On each Thursday afternoon, at 2:30 PM, my kind Rosita placed a blanket –warmed atop a summer rock — over my legs and pushed me to the university founded by Ignatius Loyola. There I studied the history of this very town, the wars, the couplings that made our blood darker and more stubborn than that of mainland Italians, and of course the earthquakes that saw our structures crumble and our people insist on rebuilding. Insistence remains one of our traits, that and a quick temper that oftentimes leads to war within our own famiglias.
But no one would believe that delicious fairytale, not any more than any one of my few readers ever believes the lies I tell in my fiction.
No. The lie won’t do. If I fib, I risk losing my next – that is my first – self-publishing contract with Crushedsyllables.com. Bram Cloaker’s assistant, Alfred Gorithm, discovers false memoirs after the first series of ones and zeros click leftward through his gullet. He then and there spits out the offending passages, and dumps the lot into the “Send To Oprah For Review” pile.
The truth is – should you lean toward the notion that Truth lies somewhere dwelling within the human heart – that I became dreadfully ill four years ago. By Christmas 2012, friends and lawyers began talking with me about getting my things in order.
“Things? What things must I focus upon? Isn’t focus on death itself sufficient?
In any event, I haven’t many things to set in order.
- Several score of first-edition books that will never sell on FootBook, where mediocre repetition –and lurid self-aggrandizement — reign.
- A few computers that I keep more well-oiled than I keep myself.
- Twenty identical pairs of over-washed under drawers, of various colors to match those of my frayed sweatpants.
- A silver coin or two.
- An ancient cat who poops wherever she pleases.
- A rain-wrinkled overcoat for those frequent misty days, when I draw the hood close and hobble toward the nearby bay, incognito and alone with my dark, poetic thoughts.
And yes, I possess a stack or two of yellowed manuscript pages, and a long run of secrets buried here and there in digitized form. A journal, it is. Break the Cloud code, Gene, should I depart before the cosmic forces whisk you away. I pray that you outlast me. I’ve lost too many friends and relatives since I’ve gone bent and creaky. The losses hurt more than any physical pain I suffer. I know you don’t believe in man’s description of Heaven, but dammit, I wish someday I could meet you there. Together we have a long story to write for the angels’ reading pleasure.
Still, the conversations about my soon-to-be end — though muffled, distant and gray as such conversations tend to be– held my stunned attention perforce. This was Anthony these people were addressing. It was Anthony, dammit, that they were trying to prepare and entice for sake of their inheritances and the second coming of their ersatz tears. The same Anthony that I named myself each morning as I came awake and shuffled toward the toilet. The thought arose that perhaps I should change my name, give myself a moniker like Tex Buffalino. Become a cowpoke born on the marshes that abound in South Jersey. And yet, only those who believe in magic would understand Tex.
NEWSFLASH: AVT, reclusive writer of no renown, found on Cloud # 427, there giving hell to Hemingway for leaving a mess behind.
“Your Advance Directive. Please sign here if you agree.” She held out a gold-plated pen. I’m sure I signed. A lawyer, yes she was – and my unappealing color at the time being more high-yellow than robust Sicilian brown meant I couldn’t flirt – but damn she was a knockout. A chick, a doll, a really tough broad. See, I might not have felt free to say those words, but now that my life was nearing its end, I could think them and smile without fear of repercussion. God would understand. After all, I’m sure He told Peter to open the gates for Bogart, Cagney and Edward G.
So I stiffened — my posture, that is — and I signed. I’m not sure that I hit the right line, but she seemed pleased. That much still mattered to me. Dirty old man. Sin in thought, word, and deed. Oh dear Lord, let me pray away my memories of lust-filled evenings.
By this time my stomach fluids were agitated, my body’s dew points became fragrant with the smell of rotting autumn leaves, and my mind heard voices as if they were echoes speaking through a desert wind.
Three and a half years later . . .
The call came at about 6:00 AM on Thursday, July 4, 2013. A four to five hour drive from where I live to the hospital, where a team of doctors would spent six hours splitting open my body and giving me a complete tune-up, including the installation of a new carburetor. The risks were numerous.
If you’ve been through major surgery, then you already know the routine. I woke up in the ICU, several tubes inserted into odd regions of my body: one into each side of my neck, two into my right side for drainage purposes, and one up my private part (a shriveled penis, once potent and proud, now given to embarrassment). I was unable to talk because another tube ran up my nose, so I wrote through the morphine and to the nurses.
“Where am I?”
“Stanford Medical Center.”
“What’s the day and date?”
“Saturday, July 6, 2013.”
I’d lost two days forever. That’s the first thought that came to mind. Only afterward did I think to tell myself, Anthony, your body is messed up, but you’re still alive.
And the beautiful nurses, male and female, ran that highly regarded hospital. I fell into helpless love with them all. Watching the mad runs they made from one ailing patient to the next, covering us in warm blankets, washing our sweaty and stinky bodies, medicating us when called to do so; all of that caused me to gulp down several smiles in spite of my discomfort. I made a point to say thank you to each angel. If by chance a nurse is reading this, know that I admire the way you work so hard and yet maintain a positive attitude and share a sense of camaraderie with your colleagues.
Three months later . . .
I’m home, but most days I’m bedridden. Physical pain and depression, along with a healthy dose of self-pity, froze my writer’s mind. I became at first rusty, then blocked and finally convinced that my writing owned no purpose. So why not just sleep?
The problem – beyond the pain, physical and mental – was that as I slept I continued to create intriguing dreams, recollections, specific memories of places and atmospheres. Most often these memories were of my Sicilian family. I knew that I had to write through my brush with death before I could tell you stories about mi famiglia.
La Famiglia Toscano: Introduction
So here, today, I begin the saga of my famiglia. There they are, in that sepia-colored, old photograph. They stand erect. Their expressions are formal and serious. A family photo taken in 1924 was a grand, expensive and formal occasion, an assurance that this famiglia would be remembered after every member died.
My dad is the young boy front and center. Notice that his father, my grandpop, places a hand on each of his only son’s shoulders. I, like my dad, was born the oldest son. And so on our shoulders one day would sit the kingdom’s responsibilities. Number One Promise was that we sons would take our parents’ places at the table once our parents passed on.
The blond-haired girl on the right is my dad’s sister, Carmella, who died of consumption not long after this photo was taken. As an adult, my dad and I visited Carmella’s gravestone many times Each time brought tears to Dad’s eyes as we prayed. I suspect that Dad never came to understand why and how his well-loved sister could waste away and disappear.
Grandpop Antonio Toscano looks austere, maybe even severe in this photograph. He had to show that he was the masculine head of a household. He did issue orders to his family, but in a soft voice; and no order was ever mean.
His wife, Sarah, was all about work. She spent the majority of her time each day cooking on a wood stove. Chickens walked the alleyway along the house’s left side. She boiled the hens’ eggs, snapped the necks of a few, plucked them in a tub-sized sink, and boiled them for soup and sauce.
I and my then two brothers, in private, giggled over the size of her breasts. We watched as she leaned over the railing that surrounded the house’s top level porch. She was there to wave goodbye and to throw us kisses. And I suppose that we were so young that the possibility of lasting hurt never entered our minds as we waved back at Grandmom’s watermelons that had fed six children.
So, because the doctors and nurses gave me a second shot at life, maybe I’ll someday make my fairytale come true. I’ll take that non-stop flight, and make that railway trip southward from Rome, and at the last take a ferry ride across the strait that will lead me to Messina, Sicily, home of my ancestors. I’ll write stories while sitting in my whicker wheelchair, letting the sun turn my skin Sicilian Gold, as I watch the sweet-scented mandarin oranges and the sun-salted olives growing.
I’m sure to find somewhere close by a companion named Rosita. I’ve seen her smile in my dreams. I’ll give her an apron that declares Messina’s coat of arms. I’ll beg her to bring me fresh-squeezed lemonade each morning. And on Thursday afternoons, at 2:30 PM, I’ll ask kind Rosita to place a blanket –warmed atop a summer rock — over my legs and push me to the university founded by Ignatius Loyola. There I’ll study the history of that very town, the wars, the couplings that made our blood darker and more stubborn than that of mainland Italians, and of course we’ll review the earthquakes that saw our structures crumble and our people insist on rebuilding. Insistence remains one of our traits, that and a quick temper that oftentimes leads to war within our own famiglias.
More to come . . .