My grandmother’s last months

Sep 05, 2016 05.00PM |
 

GAIA SQUARCI/ REUTERS

Marisa Vesco eats ice cream in her bed in Cossato, Italy, June 30, 2015. Marisa suffered from liver cancer and a loss of appetite during the last months of her life; eating ice cream was one of her few pleasures. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMRF
LIFE PLEASURES: Marisa Vesco eats ice cream in her bed in Cossato, Italy, June 30, 2015. Marisa suffered from liver cancer and a loss of appetite during the last months of her life; eating ice cream was one of her few pleasures. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

MY GRANDMOTHER’S life and mine overlapped for 27 years. I always called her “Nonna.”

Our age difference and profoundly contrasting values and way of thinking did not prevent us from developing a strong bond and a relationship punctuated by mischievous games and moments of tenderness and humour. We were amused by our differences.

“You know, I was still young when you were born,” she told me a few weeks before she died. “It’s a little like we grew up together.”

At a lunch table a few months earlier in Milan, I learned from my mother, her daughter, that Nonna, 85, suffered from incurable liver cancer. Years before, she had already survived two bouts of breast cancer.

 

Old family photographs are seen on Marisa VescoÕs bed as she works on creating a family album with her granddaughter, the photographer Gaia Squarci in Cossato, Italy, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMSH
PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY: Old family photographs are seen on Marisa Vesco’s bed as she works on creating a family album with her granddaughter, the photographer. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

Nonna would tell me time and time again that the news of my birth had given her the strength to fight.

When I learned that she was sick again, I had just landed in Italy, where I would be for only three days before flying back to New York.

Even more heartbreaking than the fear of saying goodbye to her was the fact that my grandmother did not know how sick she was. My mother and aunt believed she could not bear the thought of a third bout with cancer, this time, affecting her liver. Nonna was told by family members that her liver was ill.

 

Chiara Micheletti helps to bathe her mother Marisa Vesco in Milan, Italy May 21, 2015. Marisa suffered from incurable liver cancer and in the last months of her life needed assistance. Her daughter Chiara cherished the time she was able to help her mother. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMS3
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER: Chiara Micheletti helps to bathe her mother Marisa Vesco in Milan, Italy May 21, 2015. Marisa suffered from incurable liver cancer and in the last months of her life needed assistance. Her daughter Chiara cherished the time she was able to help her mother. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

No one ever mentioned the word “cancer.”

Because of this, one question haunted us until the day she died: Did we have the right to know the truth about her condition when she did not?

Nonna spent most of her last months at home, surrounded by family. She reconciled with the idea of death and said she could slowly feel it coming.

Doctors felt that surgery and chemotherapy would be pointless.

 

Marisa VescoÕs perfume bottles, almost all of which were empty, sit on the edge of the bath at her home in Cossato, Italy, February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMSD
A WHIFF OF THE PAST: Marisa Vesco’s perfume bottles, almost all of which were empty, sit on the edge of the bath at her home in Cossato, Italy, February 5, 2015. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

In the midst of all this, I realised my mother was losing her mother.

After moving back to Italy for a few months, I witnessed the range of my mother’s emotions and the energy she devoted to the time they had left together.

Nonna’s world shrank to a few walls and fewer streets. In this narrow existence, every detail and daily act took on deeper meaning.

 

The pills taken by Marisa Vesco to alleviate the symptoms of liver cancer are photographed on her bed in Cossato, Italy, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMSF
DAILY SUSTENANCE: The pills taken by Marisa Vesco to alleviate the symptoms of liver cancer. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

One of the things my mother treasured most was giving her mother a bath. She did not hesitate to touch her old body, and she did not want others to do it on her behalf.

I joined my mother and grandmother in the bathroom to quietly observe them with my camera.

 

Marisa Vesco reaches for a magazine in a bedroom of her apartment in Cossato, Italy, June 7, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMR1
REQUIRED READING: Marisa Vesco reaches for a magazine in a bedroom of her apartment. She joked about the photos taken by the photographer appearing on the magazine covers. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

As I experienced those precious moments, I imagined myself at an older age and thought about how time changes one’s perspective on being a woman.

As my grandmother faced my lens, completely naked, her body bearing the signs of past and present illnesses, she did not show the slightest bit of shame – only trust and pride.

 

Marisa Vesco embraces her nephew Luca Squarci during a visit to Cossato, Italy, June 22, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMSQ
HUGS: Marisa Vesco embraces her nephew Luca Squarci during a visit to Cossato, Italy. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

If you spoke with people in Nonna’s town they would say she never left the house without being enveloped in a cloud of perfume, her white hair perfectly coiffed and her face tinged with makeup.

I was surprised by the way she confronted being ill without losing her femininity. She was able to poke fun at herself. More than once she asked me, “Am I going to end up on Vogue or Marie Claire?”

 

Chiara Micheletti embraces her mother Marisa Vesco in her room at a hospice where she stayed for a month and a half before her death in Biella, Italy, August 21, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMR5
BY HER SIDE: Chiara Micheletti embraces her mother Marisa Vesco in her room at a hospice where she stayed for a month and a half before her death in Biella, Italy, August 21, 2015. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

On October 11, 2015, the day Nonna died in Biella, Italy, I was across the world in Brooklyn, New York. I had spent five months with her, celebrating her life instead of mourning her death.

I remember taking a walk through the Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brooklyn and staring for a while at kids competing in a race. I was unable to come to terms with the fact she was no longer a part of the world around me.

I struggled with the concept of death and the abstract emotion we call grief. I found peace only when I returned to Italy to spread Nonna’s ashes.

 

Marisa VescoÕs ashes are spread by her nephew Luca Squarci at her favourite location where she grew up near Cossato, Italy, December 16, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMRC
FAREWELL: Marisa Vesco’s ashes are spread by her nephew Luca Squarci at her favourite location where she grew up near Cossato, Italy, December 16, 2015. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

My family and I walked to Nonna’s favourite place in the mountains not far from Cossato in northwestern Italy, the town in which she had grown up.

Her ashes felt heavy in my hands. I threw them far up into the air, and they fell all over the grass, and all over me. My mother, brother and aunt did the same, again and again.

In the end, we were covered in Nonna’s ashes and so was the field around us.

Months later, my mother sent me a photograph of that field. It was completely covered in flowers.

 

Featured image by Gaia Squarci/ REUTERS.

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