The wise teacher leads you to the threshold of your own mind (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet)

This short story is taken from a chapter in my novel In the Twilight of the Moon. It is an excerpt that many aging baby boomers who are now caregivers to elderly, infirm parents will identify with. Note: In the Twilight of the Moon is currently available at Amazon.com and at at Smashwords.

An Unexpected Gift From Pa

When another mini–stroke put my father back in hospital about a year later, the doctors advised us to consider placing him in a nursing home. At first, Ma would not hear of any such thing. Then one day she collapsed into a chair in my father's hospital room. A nurse gave her some first aid and called one of the interns to have a look at her. After his examination, the young doctor told Ma that he admired her ability to look after Pa in his extremely needy state, especially considering that her own state of health was not that good.

"I can't put him in a nursing home," Ma told the intern. "It would be the same as abandoning him."

"Mrs. Della Croce, I can honestly tell you that it would not be the same thing at all. In fact, it would be the exact opposite. He would have twenty–four–hour supervision by trained health care professionals, and you would be relieved of the constant pressure and stress, not to mention that you would be able to get some sleep at night. I think we both know that the best thing you can do for him is to look after yourself first, wouldn't you say?"

My mother gave a small nod, which confirmed how tired she must have felt.

"Besides, you could visit him as often as you want—every day, if you like. Believe me, there are people much healthier than your husband in nursing homes."

"I don't know …" Ma turned to me.

The doctor picked up on Ma's hesitation and, nodding towards me, he suggested that we discuss it in our family and to let him know if he could help out with the paperwork.

That young intern was pretty well sent from heaven, for after this conversation Ma began to realize that the better she felt, the more she could do for my father. Later that week, we filled out the form that put my father on a waiting list for three of the nursing homes of our choice. Nine weeks later, my father was a resident at one of the top–rated nursing homes in the city.

At first, my mother had difficulty with this transition, still feeling that she was somehow remiss in her duties to my father; but she went to see him every day, bringing him food, get–well cards from our relatives, and even recorded greetings from our extended family in the United States and Europe. None of this, however, made it easier for my father. He understood that he was in some sort of institution and he wanted to go home.

"Can I come home with you today?" he asked me on every visit.

"Not yet, Pa," I always replied. "You've had a series of strokes, you know, and the doctor wants to keep you here for observation."

"But I feel good. I want to come home."

"I know, Pa, and we want you home; but we have to do what your doctor tells us to do. We don't want you to get sicker."

"But I'm not sick—look!" he said on one occasion, and he raised his good right arm.

"That's good, Pa. Can you raise your other arm too?" I pointed to his paralysed side.

He tried to move his left arm but it did not budge. Then he grabbed it with his right hand, raised it and let it plop onto the wheelchair's restraining tabletop before I could reach out to catch it. His hand and forearm landed on the plastic restrainer and it tore my heart to hear that thump. My poor father couldn't feel any pain when the dead forearm hit the tabletop, but I was in agony at being able to do nothing more than stand by helplessly.

My voice quivered as I spoke. "You see, Pa? You've had a stroke. Do you understand what that means?"

He didn't respond.

"Do you understand, Pa, that half of your body is paralysed—that it doesn't move? That's why you're in a wheelchair. You're very sick and we have you here to try and make you better."

"Yeah?" he asked. "But I feel good, I swear to you." I felt sadder still to witness how much more of his rational thinking had left him.

Visiting my father regularly became a priority with me and I was privy to a variation of this scene on almost every visit. At first he was accepting of our assurances that his being away from home was only temporary; but as the weeks turned into months, he became more and more frustrated and began to lash out. He started telling me that if I wasn't there to take him home, then I should fuck off and leave.

My brother Gianfranco didn't visit him as frequently so he wasn't chastised as often. Nevertheless, when he stopped by, he received his earful too. It was my mother, however, who got the worst of it. For a year and a half she had been putting up with his verbal abuse and now he was beginning to escalate his attacks. Pa started blaming her for locking him up, as he put it. His short–term memory was failing him and he didn't realize that she was with him every day, all day long. When she wheeled him out of the chapel after daily Mass, he often yelled out to the residents gathered in the lobby things like: "Hey everybody, this is the bitch who doesn't want me anymore." Many of the residents had gotten to know my mother and they sometimes interceded.

"No, Luciano, she's your wife and she's here with you all the time."

"Don't talk like that, Luciano. Pina is a good woman who loves you."

"Like hell!" he typically replied.

Many of the ladies gave my mother hugs of support. "Pina, we all know it's the illness talking, not him."

But my mother still felt mortified during those scenes and you could see her breathing intensify, her face flush, and her heart race. Gianfranco and I kept reminding her that Pa's dementia was only going to progress and we told her over and over that she was being exemplary in dealing with his trying temperament. As my father became more and more abusive to my mother, I even suggested that she not go visit him as often—but she paid no heed.

"Well what do you want me to do?"

"Ma, you're going to burn out at this pace."

"I can't leave him alone—what's the matter with you?"

Our interactions rapidly became predictable, and on one occasion I put my hand on her shoulder like I used to do on the veranda when I was a kid. "But Ma, you gotta look after yourself; that's just the way life works."

"No, you just don't understand."

"Oh but I do, Ma. You have to do what you feel you must, but understand that you're doing it for you, not for anyone else."

"Nicky, it's not that simple, and one day you'll appreciate what I'm saying."

"Ma, do you think it's easy for me to speak like this? Have you forgotten what the intern told you when he suggested Pa should be in a nursing home? He said that the best thing you can do for the people you love is to look after yourself first."

"You have no idea how your father must be suffering."

"But neither do you, Ma, that's just it. You know only how much you're suffering as a result of what you think Pa is going through."

She pulled out her hanky and dabbed at her eyes. I crouched beside her and grabbed her hands. "This is hard for me to say, Ma, but I don't think Pa is suffering all that much."

"Don't be disrespectful, Nicky. You'll have to answer to God."

"All I'm saying, Ma, is that his shell is the same—he looks the way he always did, albeit more infirm. But the reality is that he is no longer the parent we knew—he is only what remains of his body."

"Nicky, don't—"

"Please Ma, I'm not being disrespectful. We're the ones suffering because we're watching him deteriorate further, and even though deep down we know that his life is really over—"

"No Nicky, I won't hear this." She pulled her hands away from mine and placed them over her ears.

"No Ma, you have to hear it. It's not easy for me to say this, but death is a part of life, Ma. Death gives meaning to life and it preserves some sort of functional balance too. The day is going to come for each one of us when we are so infirm that the best thing will be for us to pass away—"

"No Nicky, stop—"

"Yes Ma, yes! We're just feeling too guilty right now to think it, so we go on suffering and torturing ourselves."

She reached for her hanky. "I want to go visit Aunt Sofia. Help me up."

I eased my mother off the sofa, grabbed her cane, and helped her with her sweater. "I'm gonna check in on you later to see how you're feeling."

"All right son." My mother reached up to kiss my cheek and I watched her hobble out the door, clutch the railing as she descended the veranda steps, and slowly make her way to Markham Street, leaving me alone to ponder the cruel reality behind the conversation that had just taken place—a conversation that left me riddled with guilt for several days.

At the nursing home later that week, however, I happened in on the geriatrician's rounds on my father's ward and he was addressing my mother's queries.

"In a strange way, Mrs. Della Croce, there is actually some good that comes out of these inarguably difficult circumstances—so much so, in fact, that the elderly become more and more accepting of their condition."

Seeing the confused look on my mother's face, the doctor went on. "I mean that when we get old and sick, this type of illnes forces us to look at our life from the perspective that not only are we now handicapped, but we are also running out of time—and nothing puts a person's priorities in their proper place as those realizations do."

My mother continued to stare at the doctor.

"And perhaps more importantly, Mrs. Della Croce, our unfettered core self emerges. Did you know that your husband, when you are not here, has actually taken on a leadership role with the other residents?" The doctor nodded when he smiled at my mother, seemingly wanting her to understand that he was saying something good. "Luciano sometimes starts singing sessions, he always goes to the exercise classes and brings other residents with him; and when our staff takes them on excursions, he has talked several people into going along—people who would otherwise spend the day in their room brooding and feeling sorry for themselves."

"Really?" Ma said, while I leaned back to ponder the geriatrician's words. It seemed I was learning something special about my father every day.

"Yes, Mrs. Della Croce. He's a very good example to a lot of the people in here."

The geriatrician was describing something I had never considered and I didn't know how to react. Instead, I withdrew into my own head, taking the doctor's words with me and feeling more connected than ever to my father. In that instant, I understood fully how much thicker than water my Calabrian blood was. Physically, my father was half–paralyzed, yet his presence seemed to be more dominant and vibrant than ever. I was bursting with pride at being Luciano Della Croce's son, especially so in the knowledge that, notwithstanding the tribulations of our family's early years, my father's illness was binding us tighter than many families ever dream of. The Calabrian moon never shone brighter than it did at that moment, and at its center was the image of my frail, elderly father standing as tall as any beacon at the top of a lighthouse on Newfoundland's coast peering vigilantly across the Atlantic Ocean.

"Well, I'm so glad to hear what you're telling me," my mother concluded. "Aren't we, Nicky?"

"Oh yes, Ma, more than I can put into words."

I left the nursing home with a hop in my step that day. To see the sense of relief in my mother after that conversation, knowing how much she had on her emotional plate, gave me reason for optimism. We were getting through this difficult situation and the universe seemed to be plotting a means of endowing my mother with additional fortitude—something she would need plenty of in the weeks that followed.

Note: In the Twilight of the Moon is currently available through either Amazon or Smashwords.

Emotional Intimacy, Unrequited Love & Mireille

One year in university, between classes, I sometimes hooked up with a certain Calabrian girl who had married young. It seemed that our conversations always managed to find a route back to the issue of emotional intimacy, or the lack thereof in many male–female relationships. In particular, we questioned the role that one's bond with his/her parents plays in determining the level of intimacy that a person is capable of reciprocating. We hypothesized on all the permutations: father/son, father/daughter, mother/son, mother/daughter, and we speculated on how those bonds (or lack thereof) can affect the behavior of the child as an adult. It seemed to us that most of the people we considered incapable of being emotionally intimate had some sort of abandonment issue with at least one of their parents. Interestingly, we classified those kinds of relationships into three main categories that involved some sort of codependency:

  • One party was emotionally distant and the other person passively put up with it. In some cases the relationship lasted a surprisingly long time whereas in other cases it inevitably ended. Of course, if it did last, we then had to consider if the submissive person was sticking it out due to a need to try and 'change the distant partner'; and if so, was his/her self–esteem linked to the outcome?
  • Both individuals were emotionally distant. In this case, we concluded that the couple could only remain together if one person's so–called (for lack of a better word) 'dysfunction' could feed the other person's codependency.
  • Both people were initially attracted to one another but the emotionally distant one quickly noticed that his/her partner was drawing out extremely uncomfortable feelings that he/she spent a lifetime running away from. Hence, this individual became emotionally unavailable and the pursuing partner would either leave or else suffer the painful pangs of unrequited love. On this point, the Philip Carey character in Somerset Maugham's famous novel Of Human Bondage came to mind, as did the principal character in the famous George Jones' song He stopped Loving Her Today.

Ours was purely an academic, armchair analysis, but it did prompt us to explore the psychological literature of that era. Three of the books that we spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting were the earlier editions of: (i) The Intimacy Struggle, (ii) It Will Never Happen to Me, and (iii) Women Who Love Too Much. Several themes emerged from those talks that I would revisit as I got older; and some time later I ended up writing a song that eventually gave rise to the Mireille character (Nicky's love interest) in my novel In the Twilight of the Moon (click here for an excerpt that details the awkward beginning of the relationship between Nicky and Mireille). Twenty two years have passed since then but I believe the thought behind the words are every bit as valid today. Times may change but the dynamics of human behavior seem to remain the same. Here are the lyrics:

Mona Lisa, Go Away

Copyright © 1991 by Dominic Spano

He had named her Mona Lisa,
Said her smile could steal the day;
And for three years he was papa,
He'd read stories, kneel and pray
... continue reading ...

Dysfunction, Calabrian–Style

My interest in family dynamics stems from my belief that, for most people, the familial bond is perhaps our strongest emotion. Indeed, primatologists have indicated for decades that familial loyalty can also be witnessed among other species that share our phylogenetic Order (see, for example, (i) Kinship and Dispersal, (ii) Kin Selection, (iii) Allomaternal Care). Hence, the analysis of familial situations in my writings, whether those situations be of the turbulent variety or of the kind that generate the proverbial 'warm fuzzies', ultimately connects with people who share my beliefs and interests—and hence my appreciation for the emotions at play when family dynamics are thrust into challenging circumstances. Two famous films that illustrate this point, for example, are: Madame X, and An Affair To Remember. Inevitably, viewers of those movies fall into one of two categories: (i) the ones whose throat chokes up, whose eyes well, and whose nose starts to leak like an old tap; and (ii) the ones who show no discernible reaction. I cannot say whether or not people in the first group identify more personally with the characters in the film since several studies indicate that genetic and environmental factors contribute to a person's physiological response to situations (see, for example, Stress-Risk Factors, or Physiology and Neurobiology of Stress and Adaptation). Nonetheless, I believe that, for people in the first category, those kinds of scenes trigger emotions that are personal and relevant to their own lives, although some would argue that it is merely the difference between empathy and sympathy at play. Regardless, it is the existence of such a dichotomy that tells me that each of us shares similar feelings and emotional reactions with a substantial number of our fellow human beings; hence, people with the ability to put their emotions and experiences into words will often be sharing something valuable with their readers. It is that belief that served as motivation for me to write In the Twilight of the Moon, as the following paragraphs might suggest.

I suppose that, first and foremost, as a Calabrian male raised in an English–speaking country, I have always been fascinated by the notion that, according to some of my elders, certain members of our clan have allowed non–Italian issues to seep into our Calabrian household. A typical example would be a character with the following traits:

  • dropped out of school
  • has diffuculty holding a job
  • disappears for days at a time
  • attracts unstable friends
... continue reading ...

Who Said Mama's Boys?

Calabrian sons have somewhat of a reputation for being their mama's favorite child. In fact, many of us have sisters who swear that is the case. But it really isn't, and there are countless non-Italians who will argue that Italians do not have an exclusive hold on special mother-son relationships. The late singer Townes Van Zandt, for example, alludes to this in his famous song Pancho and Lefty, which gained wide popularity with the versions recorded by EmmyLou Harris and subsequently by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The very first verse ends with the following lines:

You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems;
She began to cry
When you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams.

No sirree! The bond that Italian males have with their mothers is no different than that of their non–Italian peers, even though unmarried Italian sons are notorious for living at home well into their adulthood. But this is, in fact, to keep the family unit together. Indeed, many an Italian parent has said to a son, upon expressing his need to move out: 'but why do you have to leave? This is your home. This is where you belong'. Furthermore, there are always reasons for why that bond develops the way it does. Sometimes it is as simple as the emotional needs of the mother; and sometimes it is based in the son's response to his mother's needs; or it can also be rooted in the complex psychological and emotional structure of a son raised amidst the pull of two cultures competing for his attention—a situation for which an immigrant mother is usually ill–prepared. The common factor, of course, is always the basic instincts of love and loyalty to one's family—and this dynamic can sometimes express itself in 'creative' ways (although the parent would probably label them 'rebellious'). ... continue reading ...

You Can Take the Boy Out of Calabria, but ...

My past couple of postings have alluded to my fascination with Calabrian customs and traditions, with special mention of its idioms as expressed both behaviorally and through its artists. To a remarkable degree, these traditions seem capable of living on, even after emigration—at the very least for 2 or 3 generations after Calabrians leave their fatherland. To be sure, some of the customs, such as the wailing and chanting at a funeral, die off within the first generation or two. But these are, for lack of a better word, the phenotypic expression of the ancestral tradition. The deep respect for the symbolic meaning seems to live on. For example, my clan is now in its fourth generation of North American born offspring, and even the great–grandchildren of the original immigrants are still attending funerals of paesani they barely know, as representatives of the family. In other words, the family surname still appears in the Guest Book for the relatives of the deceased, as a sign of continuing respect.

I often ponder these dynamics, although I admit to not fully understanding their etiology. Still, the time invested seems to be something I need to do and I devote regular attention to it. Perhaps it is a means of remaining connected to my roots. Or maybe it is something more—a mysterious power that is in our genes, passed on to us by our ancestors who instilled a strong sense of family in us—a tradition that most of us still wish to pass on to our progeny. This latter thought gave rise to an interesting perspective for me recently. I was listening to the late Mino Retiano's version of Calabria Mia, a song in which Calabria is personified as a mother, complete with the emotions that accompany that role. The lyrics speak directly to Calabria about her missing offspring: ... continue reading ...

Calabria's Customs Live On

Previously, I alluded to my fascination with some of the idioms and expressions that were passed down to me by my Calabrian ancestors. But our ancestral culture is rich in many other aspects as well. Over the centuries, its music and its folklore have certainly made their presence felt; but there are many customs whose rural qualities link them specifically to Southern Italy. Furthermore, I have always suspected that the Calabrian psyche has been at play during the evolution of these traditions. For example, the wailing ritual that I have seen at many Calabrian funerals has always struck me as an incredible phenomenon. I mean, no one sits at home practising such a ritual in order to be prepared to perform their duty the day a member of their household dies; yet, when the time comes, the womenfolk always seem to wail and chant with a remarkable, emotion-provoking similarity. Indeed, many a stoic soul has approached the family of the deceased with the intention of lending courage and support only to find himself/herself sobbing uncontrollably moments later. In my novel, In the Twilight of the Moon, one of the characters, a youth raised in North America, has difficulty witnessing these dynamics, for the first time, at the funeral of his grandmother. Here is an excerpt: ... continue reading ...

Calabria in the Western World: its idioms

I have recently completed a novel entitled In the Twilight of the Moon. The story was loosely inspired by the life and times of an uncle of mine, now deceased. In particular, my uncle was a jovial fellow who often concisely captured the essence of what he wanted to say by resorting to expressions he grew up with in his native Calabria. As a child, many of those phrases seemed quite colorful to me and I absorbed their meaning mainly through osmosis after hearing them over and over again.

One of those idioms, 'nta 'stu lustru di luna, eventually gave rise to the title of my novel, although not a direct translation. My uncle, who never got angry, used that particular phrase metaphorically as a means of expressing his frustration through sarcasm. Literally translated, it means 'in this light of moon', which refers to the fact that even in the dark of night the moon is there to light our way. Hence, during moments of frustration, rather than admit that it may be time to throw in the towel, my uncle always whipped out that phrase, drenched in sarcasm, to cynically state that the situation at hand did not appear to have a solution.

There were many other Calabrian idioms and expressions that I learned from my uncle, not all of which are common to all the Calabrian provinces. Indeed, some were specific to my uncle's village. For example, ... continue reading ...