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Fleeting memories, and then farewell

Published October 18. 2013 4:00AM

My wife Carla was born and raised in Italy; she relocated to the U.S. after I tricked her into believing I was a good guy. She spoke no English and my Italian was good enough to communicate but not good enough to lie, so she thought I was a pretty honest guy.

For these last 27 years we've visited her family when money and time allow. Christmas, holidays, birthdays, weddings and funerals. Lately, it almost seems like a part of Carla doesn't want to go back. Her father no longer recognizes her.

Ernesto, my father-in-law, was "buono come il pane," an extremely generous and kind man who also was reserved and shy. He cried 26 years ago in the town hall of Padua when we were filling out papers for our upcoming wedding. It dawned on him that his daughter would be leaving Italy for good. He apologized to me, telling me that he was pleased she was marrying me. He said he was sorry that he cried and explained that he would miss his daughter. He shyly said I could call him "Papa" if I wanted.

Every time we went to see him, he always gave us an envelope full of money - money that he was too frugal to spend on himself - insisting we take it, even when, more recently, we did not need it.

Alzheimer's has interrupted the gentleness of his brain's synapses with its tangles and plaques in these last few years. Ernesto is now gaunt and bewildered. He sits in a chair or lies in his bed, struggling to find meaning in the cloth he's holding or the spoon in his hand.

Two years ago, when he was not as bad as he is today, Carla went to see him alone. From old pictures and from what people say, my wife looks strikingly similar to her grandmother, Ernesto's mother. When Carla walked into his room, he looked up, stared at his daughter's face a moment, and his face lit up.

"Mamma!" he cried.

"No, Papa, it's me, Carla, your daughter," she replied.

He turned his attention back to the sheet he held in his hand.

We visited him last month, and he is unrecognizably thin. He looked at Carla with the blank face of a stranger. On our last day with him, we walked into his room and he looked at us, mumbling something senseless. He was as polite, kind and reserved as he was with strangers. We talked; he stared or muttered. Empty. After a time, I said goodbye and he said warmly, "Ciao," shaking my hand and muttering. Then Carla held his face in her hands and kissed his forehead, staring into his blank eyes. Still no recognition in his, but her eyes sprinkled tears onto his face. She looked back at me and said in Italian, "I think this may be the last time I ever see my father." And she kissed him again on his head, on his cheeks, on his nose, her tears glistening on his face like ice.

She whispered something to him in Italian. Suddenly, Ernesto looked right at her as she was kissing him and a spark lit somewhere. Then he smiled, while his daughter continued to liven his face with tears and kisses.

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