Friday, March 15, 2013
This mortal coil: another tale from the 'hood
There have been times when this neighborhood of mine has frayed this old heart and brought me to the brink of an unfathomable well of sorrow, begging me to drink of its chill waters. I am talking about the stories: the sad stories of its inhabitants, the sad stories that are everywhere--not only here--but in all places should you care to listen, to perceive, to imagine what others carry inside, in those places deeper than marrow or bone.
I find the stories of the elderly especially poignant, for these are people of a generation upon which therapy, self-help books, talk shows, anti-depressants and such have no purchase. When they've opened the musty, dank, hidden chambers of their hearts to me I've felt a great swell of honor and awe wash through me like storm-tossed waves. And I've felt a grief so strong it nearly buckled my knees.
I have related or alluded to some of these stories before: the sadistic tale of Mr. Rabbit, for instance; the elfin lady known as Maria "La Sarda" whose husband used to beat her; the Medusa-haired lesbian whose lover died suddenly and tragically and who lost her mind afterwards. Another old signora of the neighborhood, Renata, once confided in me her bitter regret at having children: her husband was utterly cruel to her and, exhausted and depleted physically and emotionally, she would rock her newborn child in her arms and pace the house all night, praying her baby wouldn't cry and awaken the wrath of her husband.
Today, by chance, while on the way to the shops, I heard another story. Roberta is the daughter of a very close neighbor, Lisetta, who died a year ago at 70-something and whom everyone considered (usually good-naturedly but not always) an odd bird. She told me that her mother suffered from terrible depression, marked by severe insomnia, for more than 50 years. This poor woman--who used to sit in the garden in summertime, swathed from the top of her head to the tips of her fingers against the onslaught of mosquitos, and cluck banalities at my children--underwent a long period of debilitating electro-shock therapy from which, in the end, she was rendered unconscious. In her last years she took meds that wreaked havoc on her body, a body that was still harboring a secret which had clearly metastasized and was consuming her. After three sleepless, torturous nights, not long before her death, Lisetta confessed to her daughter that she and her sisters had been systematically abused by their older brother when they were young, and that as a child she was mortally afraid of falling asleep at night, lest her abuser insinuate himself into her bed. The shocking confession, spat out like poison in the shadowy hours of deep night, provided the poor woman but a mere sliver of deliverance, hacked as it was from the stake of a lifetime of expanding pain driven through her heart. It was, too--this sudden awareness of the source of her mother's suffering and the reason she couldn't be a fully functioning parent ("my father was my mother")--but cold comfort for Roberta.
Up to now Roberta and I have only ever exchanged superficial, neighborly pleasantries, but she told me all this--with wet eyes and hands trembling--after I had shared my own story (which I'd told her smack on via Faentina, in fulsome daylight, tears running down my cheeks and all--gone native in a big way), and after she had embraced me on the street and kissed me and invited me in for coffee. She told me over tiny flowered cups of hot, strong, sweet Italian coffee, in the snug dining room of her old house with its corner chimney spent and filled with cold, gray ash. I don't know what strange, alien impulse made me tell her my story, truth be told; it's not at all like me. And I don't know what made me accept her invitation; I had hesitated, feeling already small and spent. But I suspect that in spite of myself, and in spite of my being an inadvertent inhabitant of this neighborhood--or rather, because of it--this was one of the things that Italy was insisting I learn.
And it occurs to me that this swapping of stories, this laying bare of pain like taut tendons under the surgeon's knife, regardless of reserve or shame: this is the nature of empathy. The action of empathy. It cannot be a static thing, nor something abstract. You have to enter into it. Condividere. You have to let it cut you to the quick.
And yes, though I've listened to their tales and watched the denizens of my patch of Florence come and go, I have been guilty at times of reducing them to characters in a film starring me. I've held myself aloof and have been a reluctant player in the drama of their own lives. As I walked on from Roberta's, across the little bridge over the Mugnone and down along the path next to the low wall above the rushing water, the sun glowing warmly and the air on my face deliciously cool, I thought: it's not enough to merely acknowledge that each human being holds within her, like a hidden spring, an astounding, wondrous, fearsome and forbidding potential for joy and suffering alike, nor is it enough to merely write about it.
You have to go inside her house and sit for a spell.