Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Harvest, a Burial, and a Resolution

My first return trip to Italy to visit Paolo occurred in September of 2008. Though we'd already pledged our love to one another, during the two short weeks we'd been together in July, we did what most new couples do - we drank a lot of wine and had a lot of sex. So there was a lot riding on this first visit back. We'd already discussed linking our destinies together, but talk is one thing and action quite another. There were 4,000 miles and an even larger language gap between us. Could this relationship evolve into more than just kissy faces exchanged on Skype?

A week into my two week stay with Paolo in Allerona, I still wasn't so sure, nor, do I expect, was he. We were getting along, but there were awkward moments and often too much silence between us. (See paragraph #1: language gap.) We'd spent a night or two with his cousin in Rome, whom I found too rough around the edges (I now have great affection for him), and I felt Paolo reverted to a teenager in his presence. Back in Allerona, Paolo was working so I was alone in his apartment a lot, sending emails and Facebook posts to friends back home. Inside, I was wondering if my Italian honeymoon was already over.

Then on a Thursday afternoon, Paolo came home from work early and told me that he feared one of his friends was dead. I hugged him because I didn't know what else to do, and because I sure couldn't, at that point, offer any comforting words in Italian. I was able to discern that his friend Stefano had not come home the night before, hadn't been seen and was not answering his cell phone. Paolo set off with three other friends to go look for him. I think they knew what they were going to find.

Stefano had parked his car on the side of a gravel road in the forest above Allerona. His dog (very much alive) was in the car, I guess because he did not want to spend his last living moments completely alone. Leading into the woods, he left plenty of clues for his friends to follow: his jacket, his cigarettes, his phone, his car keys. He had hanged himself from a tree limb. His friends took him down, called the carabinieri, and waited for the ambulance to come and retrieve his body.

Afterwards, I was again at a loss for words (quite literally) to comfort Paolo. I hugged him again, but my gesture felt impotent. The distance between us seemed even larger, made more so by our lack of a shared language.

That Saturday, we did the vendemmia, or annual grape harvest. Paolo had a fever but he carried on with his usual good cheer, though the memory of what he'd seen just days before must have been impossible to shake. Stefano's funeral was that afternoon. Paolo offered that I could attend the funeral with him, or continue the harvest with his family. I did manage to say, in Italian, "My place is with you."

The afternoon turned cold, and we waited in the open piazza in a biting wind. The vans from the funeral home were the first to arrive. The drivers pulled out bouquet after bouquet of flowers, each arrangement wrapped in crisp cellophane. The entire town was gathered in the piazza but no one spoke, and the only sound I remember was the crackling of that cellophane in the wind.

The hearse arrived next, and Stefano's family assembled to walk behind the coffin. I remember seeing his mother, so small and sad, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The rest of the mourners fell in step behind them, and we all walked up the Via Centrale, where the tolling churchbells beckoned us to enter. The church was filled to capacity, so we stayed on foot in the back. It was warm inside, and I felt myself swaying and nearly sleeping on my feet as Paolo's fever took hold of me during the long funeral mass.

With the mass over, the mourners filed out in silence, and again I heard the crackling and crinkling of cellophane as the flowers were removed from the church. The bells tolled again as we joined the cortege for the long walk down the cemetery. Our priest, megaphone in hand, recited the five mysteries of the rosary, timing it just so the fifth mystery was read as the casket arrived in the cemetery chapel.

Paolo opted not to file past and give the casket a final kiss goodbye, as is often the custom here. He told me he would visit Stefano later, in private. On the steep walk back up to town, he had his arm around me. While I think his intention was to shield me from the cold, I felt him lean into me for support, as he told me how Stefano had been looking forward to meeting me and of how they'd talked of their next cook-out at Villalba, the park very near where he took his own life. Now, Paolo said, he never wanted to have another cook-out there again.

The day before I left, we went to check on the wine, which was already working down in Paolo's cantina. The crushed grapes were in two immense barrels, one for white and one for red. Paolo had me climb a short ladder so I could see the surface of the grapes, which was slowly bubbling and percolating with the fermentation process. It made a crackling noise, quieter but not dissimilar to the flowers from Stefano's funeral. 

Paolo harvesting the grapes

I don't know what changed in those few days between Stefano's death and funeral, but there was a palpable shift in the dynamic between us. Maybe Paolo realized the potential of having a partner to lean on, literally and figuratively, in bad times. Maybe knowing that Paolo needed me made me focus less on how much attention I was or wasn't getting from him, and instead on how I could comfort him. Maybe Stefano's death and Paolo's vulnerability made us each more sweet and tender to the other. But whatever it was, I left Italy knowing that we wanted to be together, and that we were both going to give our all to make that the reality. 

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