By Sandro F. Piedrahita
At that time Jesus said, “I praise
You, Father…for you have hidden
these things from the wise and the
learned, and revealed them to little
– Matthew 11:25
It was a single word, but nothing else needed to be said.
“Alzheimer’s,” the doctor said in a professional manner, as if it was just another word, but in my mind his diagnosis was brutal and sadistic. How could a single word signify the loss of everything, the undoing of my mind? Me, a man who had always taken pride in his intelligence, professor emeritus of Italian literature, writer of many works of literary criticism and two acclaimed novels, now being told that in a few months – a year if I was lucky – I would not even remember my own name.
I had feared such a verdict – I’m using the right term – when my son demanded I visit a physician to find out what was wrong with me. I had been losing my keys, forgetting where I left my glasses, misremembering telephone numbers I had known for years. But what convinced my son Carlo that I needed to be checked out was the day when he found me sitting on a sofa, my pants dripping in urine because I could not find the bathroom in my own home. He offered to take me to the hospital himself, since he feared I could no longer drive without getting lost. I put off the visit to the doctor as long as I could, but finally Carlo was exasperated and told me I could no longer delay. He scheduled an appointment, irrevocable as death.
The doctor was a small, slight man with something of a lisp. I knew that he was going to give me the worst news of my life – worse even than the death of my wife Elena – and I detested him for it even before he uttered the devastating word.
“Alzheimer’s,” he said.
“Alzheimer’s,” he repeated.
“You suffer from Alzheimer’s,” he said a third time.
He spoke to me with a calm and even voice, as if telling me I was suffering from the flu. “It’s in the early stages,” he said, “but your cognition will soon deteriorate. There is no cure, but there are various forms of palliative care.”
“How bad will it get? Will I completely lose my mind? Will I even be able to read?”
I bombarded the doctor with one question after another, but he kept saying the same thing. “You could lose your sense of self in a year. You could lose your identity itself. I must be frank. Alzheimer’s is not a disease for the faint of heart.”
I thought I detected a macabre grin on the young face of the physician, but it was probably just my imagination. He probably didn’t even realize he was being cruel.
Then he suddenly left the room as if nothing had happened, as if it was just another ordinary day, when in fact he had given me a sentence worse than death.
“We are going to find a place for you to live, old man,” Carlo said as soon as we left the hospital and he began to drive. “A home where kind nurses will take care of you. You’ll see. You are going to be fine.”
“I am not going to be fine. Don’t talk to me as if I were a child.”
“That wasn’t my intention, vecchio.”
“I was thinking maybe I could move in with you,” I responded, hoping at least for a small reprieve before I was sent to a home for the hopelessly demented. “After all, Nino is off to college, and Margherita is recently married. I could just move into one of your two spare bedrooms.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Carlo replied in an even voice as he continued to drive. “I’m not going to make Lucia a slave to your disease. I hate to say this to you, old man, but things are going to steadily get worse. I promise you I’ll find a home where you’ll be taken care of well.”
“Fine, fine,” I replied. “But putting me in a hospice can wait. I’m still in control of all my faculties. I’m as intelligent as ever and haven’t forgotten old memories. I’ve never been more lucid, even if I lose my keys from time to time.”
“You’re a brilliant man, Giovanni. You always made sure everybody knew that. I remember when I was a kid and dreaded showing you my report cards. No matter how good my grades were, they were never good enough. I still remember your booming voice. ‘Don’t forget you’re the son of Doctor Giovanni Avitabile! Come back with better marks!’ And when I told you I was going to be a grade school teacher, you didn’t hide your disappointment. I guess you wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. Or an author and professor of literature, just like you.”
“I just didn’t want you to waste your intelligence. You never strived hard enough. Not everyone has to be a professional man, but that was definitely in your cards. You only had to make a minimal effort, but you refused.”
“And I’m glad I did. I’ve been able to raise a family. I bought a nice home. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. Now where were we? What do you think of the home for the aged run by the Carmelite nuns?”
“I’ll pay for a nurse to come to my home and take care of me if you don’t want to take me in. I still have quite a bit in my savings account. And I still receive royalties from the books I’ve published. So don’t think of burying me in an old-age home – at least not yet.”
“You can do whatever you want with your money. I’ve never asked you for a dime. But you are going to need round-the-clock care.”
“I’ll give you everything if you just let me stay in your home. I don’t want to be surrounded by drooling old men and women. I don’t want to be abused by some maid who doesn’t care a whit about me. Perhaps at some point you’ll have to put me in a hospice, but not yet. And then you can take all my savings. It will be a hefty sum. I was thinking of leaving my house to the university, but if you take me in I’ll throw that in as well.”
“It’s not about the money, Giovanni. You’ll really be much better off in a special home. And Lucia and I can visit you from time to time. I promise you will not be forgotten. You should just pray about it, ask the Lord for guidance.”
“You know I don’t believe. I’ve always been an atheist. I know your mother raised you Catholic, but that was against my wishes.”
“And I’m glad she did,” responded Carlo. “If you were a believer too, you wouldn’t be so terrified now. You’d simply put your future in God’s hands. You’ve been blessed your whole life, Giovanni, but now is the time of the Cross. It happens in every man’s life. And it would be a good idea if you had the humility to let Christ help carry your Cross.”
“Well, I won’t have it. What kind of God would make me an invalid in old age, force me to lose the core of who I am? Either your God doesn’t exist or He cares very little about His creation. Why is there so much suffering in the world? If your God is loving and omnipotent all at once, why must humanity be martyred in a myriad ways?”
“Why don’t you go ask your niece Nennolina?” Carlo inquired. “She is a child, and she is suffering so, but she places her hope in Christ. I hate to say this, but at her age, she understands life so much better than you do.”
“She’s my goddaughter, always on my mind. As you know, I shall be at the hospital – how I hate that word – on the day of her operation. But her experience doesn’t inspire me to believe. How could a just and loving God let a little girl’s leg be amputated?”
“Do you understand what that means, that she’s your goddaughter? It means that you should be teaching her about the faith, not the other way around.”
“Don’t insist. Maybe your God wants me to grovel, but I won’t do it. I’ve lived a righteous life without needing to resort to prayer. If I were to meet Him, I would demand that He excuse Himself for causing humanity such constant pain.”
“You can’t demand anything of God, Giovanni. You just don’t get it. Don’t you think it’s presumptuous for you to think God has to settle accounts with you, that He has to give you a private explanation of His inscrutable will?”
“That’s the right word, inscrutable. What possible explanation could there be for punishing a five-year-old girl with cancer of the bone? What possible good could come from the amputation of her leg? No, your God is a phantom. He never existed and never will. And if God exists, I have no reason to trust in His munificence and grace. If he doesn’t care about five-year-old Nennolina, why would He care about an old man like me?”
* * *
We arrived at the hospital at eight in the morning. Nennolina’s parents were waiting for us, her mother Maria with reddened eyes after crying so much, her father Michele stoic as a rock. Father Giuseppe, whom I’d known for years as my wife’s confessor, was also there. Even at his late age, he still had the build of an athlete. Before he became a priest, he had been a professional soccer player. He probably knew of my flaws and virtues as well as anyone, and yet we never spoke about serious matters.
We were allowed to visit Nennolina in the room where the operation was to take place. When she saw me, Nennolina smiled her picaresque smile and exclaimed, “I was hoping you’d be coming today, Uncle Giovanni. Today is an important day for me. I’ll be giving up my little leg to Jesus.”
And then she gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek as if the day were one of celebration rather than pain.
I was barely able to contain myself. I didn’t want to cry in her presence, but the truth is her innocence appalled me. What priest had convinced her she’d be sacrificing her leg to Jesus? I felt rage and at the same time a great melancholy. She noticed when a single tear – just one thick drop – fell from my left eye and told me not to worry, that everything was in God’s hands. I was inspired by her bravery, but at the same time I felt her hope was deeply misplaced. The truth is she would be a cripple for the rest of her life. And that would be assuming her cancer didn’t metastasize and spread to the rest of her body, in which case she would die as a child. At all events, it was an unmerited punishment.
“You don’t need to cry, Uncle Giovanni. If God wants to grant me a miracle, I’ll grow another leg. And if He doesn’t, I’ll joyfully accept His holy will. You should know Doctor Uzzauto has told me they’ll fit me with a wonderful artificial leg. I’ll be able to walk and even run with the other children. And Jesus will be so happy. I’m offering this suffering to Him, and I will be praying for sinners. That includes you, Uncle Giovanni.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like hugging her tightly, ripping out that traitorous cancer with my very hands. But she seemed to be happy, oblivious to the tragedy she was living through. I wanted to tell her that God was a jerk if He existed. I wanted to scream out that the universe was unfair. But I knew her faith was getting her through this horror and to open her eyes would serve no purpose. In due course, I thought, she’d understand the amputation of her leg was not a blessing but a curse.
“I’m glad you think about me, Nennolina,” I said.
Her mother looked at me askance, knowing I was an unbeliever. And I thought I detected some anger against me in her eyes for even contemplating that God did not exist. If God did not exist, her daughter’s suffering would be meaningless and brutal. In some dark corner of her soul, Maria hated me for even thinking that God was not with them in their pain.
Then the doctor appeared, with a big smile and a red balloon.
“Are you ready, signorina?” he asked in a mirthful tone.
“Ready to be like Pegleg Pete,” Nennolina joked mischievously. Her innocence amazed me.
“Or like the pirate Black Beard,” the doctor replied happily. “In no time we’ll have you fitted with a prosthetic leg. You’ll be tougher than the pirate.”
And I hated the surgeon for his joyful tone, even though I realized he was trying to make a difficult moment as easy as possible for my Nennolina. I felt angry at his deception, although I understood it was necessary.
“Why don’t we all pray now?” Father Giuseppe said.
“That’s a good idea,” agreed Maria.
As everyone kneeled, I said in a somewhat muffled tone. “I’d rather keep standing up.”
“Aw,” Nennolina cried. “Why don’t you kneel and pray with us, Uncle Giovanni? The more people pray, the more God listens. You should know I’d rather see you pray for me rather than a thousand angels.”
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll do it just for you, Nennolina.”
And then I knelt next to the priest.
“Don’t forget to say the words too,” Nennolina chided me. “After Father Giuseppe says the first half of the Our Father, then all of us say the second half. And we’ll do the same with the Hail Mary. Mary is the most powerful of intercessors.”
“Where did you learn that big word?” I asked her. She was a five-year-old, after all. “How do you even know what an intercessor is?”
“I learned it in my catechism course, Uncle Giovanni. I’m preparing for my Holy Communion, the most glorious day of my life. And Mary can be an intercessor for you too. Whatever worries you, put it in her hands, and she will take it from you and make it disappear. Is there anything that worries you, Uncle Giovanni, other than my little leg?”
I felt like saying, yes, yes, damn it, I’m about to lose my mind, but said nothing and instead got on my knees to pray. It must have been more than forty years since I had mouthed the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary, some time before I decided I was brilliant and had no need of God.
* * *
After about three hours of worry – three hours of prayer for everybody but me – the doctor came out of the room where the intervention had happened and ushered us into the room. When I saw Nennolina, I felt that I was about to collapse, seeing her missing a leg and yet with a broad smile on her face.
“The operation was a success,” she said in her little voice triumphantly. “That’s what the doctor said.”
“Does it hurt, my darling?” asked her mother.
“A little bit. It’s not that bad. Pain is like fabric. The stronger it is, the more it is worth.”
“Who taught you that?" I asked her. I could not believe they were the words of a little girl.
“Nobody taught me that, Uncle Giovanni. Is it not obvious? God never allows us more suffering than we can bear. I am sure He was with me during my operation, and that is why all went well.”
I was sure she was parroting the words of some nun or priest. How could she possibly say the operation went well? It was an amputation, after all.
“God allows suffering so that we can be closer to Him,” Nennolina continued. “That’s why I’m offering my little leg to Jesus. Sure, it hurts a little bit, but never as much as Jesus did when he was crucified.”
“Offer your pain to the Lord,” Father Giuseppe intervened. “It will be more precious to Him than a hundred prayers. You’ll be sharing in His own pain during the Passion.”
I thought the priest was a fool. The idea that Nennolina participated in Jesus’ Passion through her suffering seemed preposterous. I could never understand why there should be any suffering at all if God could prevent it all through the snap of His fingers. At all event, I said nothing. I knew the priest’s words gave some comfort to Nennolina and her parents. And I suppose it was just as well. The five-year-old would have the rest of her life to recognize the falsehood behind Father Giuseppe’s words.
“I want to go to the cemetery,” I told Carlo when he arrived. “It’s been a rough few days.”
“Sure,” said my son. “If it’ll make you feel better to visit Mom.”
We said goodbye to everyone, and I kissed my Nennolina.
“Promise me you’ll be good,” I said to her.
“I promise you,” she replied. “And don’t forget to say a little prayer for me, Uncle Giovanni. Maybe if everyone prays for me, I’ll grow my leg back. Or if it doesn’t, it won’t matter. It would be God’s will after all.”
“Yes, I heard you say it the first time. I shall say a prayer for you.”
But inside, I knew that I would not.
* * *
On the way to the cemetery Carlo and I were mostly silent for the first half hour. Then my son turned off the radio and looked at me.
“When did you last come to see Mom?”
“About three months ago. Before I started getting lost when I drive.”
“You can’t visit now, can you?”
“I’d rather not risk it,” I answered him. “Ever since I got lost driving to La Trattoria Veronese. I’ve been going there to eat for years, especially after your mother passed away. And suddenly I couldn’t find it. It took me three hours to get home.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“About as much as an amputated leg.”
Carlo guided me to the place where her tomb was found. I no longer remembered how to get there, a place I had visited more than seventy times in the last two years. But so it was with my disease. I was forgetting everything.
“That was a big blow, Carlo. You don’t know how much I loved her. We spent forty-two years together. When she passed away, it was as if a part of me had died. And that was when I decided finally and irrevocably that I would not worship your God. You don’t know this, but your mother was making inroads into my soul.”
“Really?” Carlo asked. “Did you ever go to Mass?”
“I had no idea how to help her through her clinical depression. I tried a hundred different things, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually I realized that the only thing that kept her from total and utter desolation was her strong faith in God. It was her faith that kept her from falling into the cesspit of despair. Perhaps it even protected her from suicide. She was so forlorn after her twin sister died that when she asked me to accompany her to church, I could not refuse. We must have gone to church together a dozen times.”
“Why didn’t you keep going? Why did you revert to being an atheist? Didn’t you realize that God was offering you His grace?”
“My lack of faith was entrenched when she was taken from me. I always expected I would be the first to die, never even thinking of the possibility that she would die before me.”
“If you had faith, your grief would lose its sting,” Carlo replied. “I, too, grieved for my mother, but I knew that she was with the angels. Lucia and I go to church every Sunday. Why don’t you start going with us?”
“Because I rage against your God. Your mother was as Catholic as could be, and yet she wasn’t spared. The last few years of her life were truly a torment. And then He took her from me, cruelty upon cruelty, leaving me desperately alone. And now look at what He’s doing to me! I am about to lose even my memories. I shall be the mere husk of a man. What do I have to thank Him for?”
“Those forty-two years you spent with her, for starters. The intelligence with which you were blessed. That part of your family which still remains. The books you wrote that are still getting read. I know it all seems bleak now, but it would help if you began to see everything with eyes of faith. Don’t forget in the darkness what God has shown you in the light.”
“I think faith in God is a crutch used by people in an effort to avoid facing the multiple horrors of life. I know it helped your mother. I know it’s helping Nennolina and her parents now. But I don’t want to be false to my inmost self and turn to God just because I’m afraid of what will come. ‘To thine own self be true’ and all that. I shall resign myself to my fate with courage and open eyes.”
“In some strange way, Giovanni, you’ve been given a blessing. You have the chance to make your peace with God before you lose your faculties. For others, death comes like a thief in the night. You have the opportunity to repent.”
“Repent? Of what? I never cheated on your mother, never struck her. I never stole a cent in my entire life.”
“How about your pride for starters, Giovanni? The way you treated people with disdain, the way you tyrannized my mother. You don’t need to be a murderer to run afoul of God’s Commandments.”
“I treated no one with disdain. I don’t suffer fools gladly, that is all. There are so many academics who are truly idiots. And how exactly did I tyrannize your mother? If you’re going to be making such an accusation, you should at least have some facts to back it up.”
“You never let her forget she was not as intelligent as you. You made her feel so small, so insignificant. I hate to say this to you – I know it will cause you pain – but you were a contributor to her depression. The way you would rail against her if dinner was not ready at six o’clock on the dot because it would force you to delay your writing schedule. The way you lashed out at her if your white shirt was not ironed perfectly every morning. She was your little slave, and you never let her forget it. Don’t you realize how unhappy you made her?”
“So now I’m responsible for her depression!” I cried out in anger. “When I did all I could to help her overcome it! I took her to I don’t know how many psychiatrists. I took her on long walks, tried to make her exercise. In the end, I even deigned to speak privately to Father Giuseppe, to see if he had any ideas as to how to improve her condition. So you are misremembering what happened.”
“Just use your Alzheimer’s as an opportunity to make your peace with God. Make a true examination of conscience. Throw yourself at the feet of His mercy now that you have the chance to do so.”
“I won’t abandon the certainties of a lifetime merely because of a moment of fear. I may end up a drooling invalid at the end, but I shall retain my pride.”
* * *
On the day of Nennolina’s First Holy Communion, I was among the first to arrive, accompanied by Carlo and Lucia. When the little girl first saw me, she approached me with joy painted on her face.
“I am so glad you’ve come!” she cried out. “That you will share this special – no, super special! – day with me.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I told her.
“I know you never come to Mass, Uncle Giovanni. I never see you with Uncle Carlo and Lucia when they come. So I prayed so hard that you would come to church today. I pray every night for your conversion.”
“Where do you learn about conversion, Nennolina?”
Given her age, the girl’s intelligence always surprised me.
“From Jesus, silly! Sometimes He appears to me in dreams. Sometimes I hear His words when I pray. I know you need to accept Him to receive His grace, Uncle Giovanni. So I always say a special prayer for you. Without His grace, you can do nothing. With His grace, there is nothing you can’t do.”
“That’s what the nuns taught you, right, Nennolina? You didn’t think of that on your own.”
“It wasn’t the nuns, Uncle Giovanni. I’ve already told you the Good Lord speaks with me from time to time. That shouldn’t surprise you. He’s so happy that I offered Him my little leg. Offer him your own sufferings too, and you’ll see that He will speak to you as well, even in the silence of your heart. I pray every night for the conversion of all poor sinners, but especially for you. I’ve kept that a secret from everyone. Even my mother doesn’t know.”
“And why do you think I’m a sinner, Nennolina?”
“Because we all are. Also, because you never go to Confession or receive the Holy Eucharist. I know that for a fact. The Holy Eucharist is God’s greatest gift to man; it is actually the body and blood of Christ. That’s why I am so excited today, because I’ll receive Communion for the first time. Without receiving the body and blood of Jesus, you won’t be able to resist temptation.”
That had always seemed to me to be one of the Catholic Church’s most baffling beliefs, that the bread and wine were literally – not symbolically – the very flesh and blood of Christ. I could understand a child’s belief in transubstantiation, but never in the mind of an adult.
At some point my goddaughter got in the line behind the other girls to receive the sacrament. She walked no differently from the other communicants despite her prosthetic leg. She had the slightest of limps, but if you did not know of her amputation, you would barely notice it. And suddenly I felt a frisson of hope. Perhaps her life would not be ruined after all. Perhaps what I had seen as a catastrophe was merely a challenge to be conquered. My little Nennolina radiated happiness, peace, tranquility. It was a special day for her – “super special,” she had said – and she participated in the celebration with reverence and joy, with none of the despair I had vicariously felt for her.
Yes, her face evidenced courage, but it was somehow more than courage. Yes, it manifested peace, but it was more than mere tranquility. Hers was a total surrender to her God, as if nothing mattered, a faith as solid as a rock, a belief that every suffering in life could have a higher purpose. It reminded me of a prayer my wife used to have next to her bed, which I read every night without giving it much thought: “Do not despair. Don’t send me a desperate prayer as if to demand that I meet your demands. Close the eyes of the soul and repeat in a calm voice, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’”
My Nennolina trusted in the Christ – trusted blindly, completely, without reserve – and that trust could turn adversity into joy. I wondered if I couldn’t do the same and simply trust that God would help me deal with the cross of Alzheimer’s. But I quickly turned away from such hopeful divagations. I was not about to lose a limb. I was about to lose my very mind, my identity itself, and I did not see any possible escape.
* * *
Zoraya started living with me, a buxom sixty-year-old woman that Carlo had hired to take care of me. Initially I had hoped that the woman would rid me of my solitude, but that was not to be. She had a job to do – to help an old man get through his day without disaster – and that is all that she did. She was professional, though. I can’t complain on that score. My meals were always ready on time, she would accompany me to the bathroom when I needed it, she helped me dress in the morning and helped me get into my pajamas at night. But when I tried to engage her in conversation, she was as reluctant as could be. I was astonished that a woman could spend the whole day playing solitaire without going mad. So I decided to try to finish a novel about a May-to-December romance which I had been writing when my Elena died. There was nothing else I could do. It was one of the ironies of my disease, that I couldn’t find my way around the house but could still write a decent novel.
Then the day came when Zoraya showed exactly what she thought of me, that I was a mere child or, worse than that, an animal. I had gotten up very early in the morning with a horrible need to defecate. Usually I first went to the bathroom at the same time, around nine o’clock in the morning, when Zoraya would come to my room to rouse me and take me to the bathroom. But for some unknown reason, there was once a morning when I woke up beset by a case of explosive diarrhea. I tried to find the bathroom, but it was not to be. One of the perks of being professor emeritus at Sapienza University was that I could buy a large house, and although the house had three bathrooms, it was impossible for me to even find one. So I soiled my pants and eventually found Zoraya’s room, where I told her what had happened.
The first thing she did was slap me in the face. And hard.
“I wasn’t hired to clean your merda,” she cried. “If you need to take a shit, you can call me before your ass explodes. My room is right next to yours, so there’s no excuse, you dirty old son-of-a-bitch.”
Then she undid my pants and cleaned my butt with a wet sponge, all the while cursing at me, completely disgusted.
“If you ever do this again, I swear I’ll strike you like a child. There is no reason for me to have to go through this. Do you understand?”
I said nothing.
“Do you understand, son-of-a-bitch?” she repeated.
“I do,” I said.
From that day on, Zoraya started treating me with cruelty. She didn’t strike me again, but she acted as if it were a terrible chore to take care of me. She constantly cussed at me, told me what a burden I was. One day she pushed me into a wall because I was late to dinner and she had to reheat my cold soup. On others she forced me to stay in my room as a punishment, sometimes even taking my typewriter away so I couldn’t write. I wondered whether madness would take me even before I succumbed to Alzheimer’s, for such was the horror of being locked up in my room all day without even having the palliative which was my writing. I thought of reporting her conduct to Carlo, but decided against it. At least with Zoraya I had the benefit of staying in my own home, where I still retained such pleasant memories. Yes, indeed, they hadn’t been ripped away from me yet! I dreaded the thought of being left to die in a hospital for the aged and the infirm, forgotten by everyone, surrounded by nobody but dying people. I could accept a certain level of abuse from Zoraya, suspecting I would not be treated better in a hospice and knowing there was no better place to slowly die than in my own home, where everything still reminded me of days of wonder.
And the more I remained silent, the more emboldened became the cruel Zoraya.
I had heard of elder abuse in the past, but had never realized it could be so demeaning.
* * *
Then came a monstrous day, absolutely monstrous. Carlo came by the house and told me Nennolina’s cancer had metastasized, that the doctors were still administering some tests but that they seemed to be fairly certain of their diagnosis. The news couldn’t have been more dire. Nennolina’s cancer had spread to her hands, her feet, her throat, her mouth and head, all in the space of a few months. And they couldn’t amputate her mouth, her throat or her head! No, they couldn’t! There was no cure for her condition, and all everyone could do was wait, hoping at least that she would not greatly suffer as she “carried her cross,” as my son Carlo put it. Oh, how I hated that expression! I felt God was playing His last cruel joke on me, letting me be predeceased by my five-year-old goddaughter. And in a perverse way, I even desired that my mental condition would be worse, much worse, that I would be so mentally infirm that I wouldn’t understand the great and undeserved tragedy of my little Nennolina.
I had learned a new word, perhaps more frightening than Alzheimer’s. It was osteosarcoma, and it was decimating my five-year-old niece’s body. High-grade osteosarcoma to be more exact, a disease which attacks children much more than adults. Oh, the injustice of the universe! Despite the amputation of her leg, Nennolina’s tumor had somehow spread to the rest of her tiny body, probably through her bloodstream. Her immune system had simply been unable to fight the malignant cancer. I felt like screaming, ranting, railing, but it was useless. I felt nobody could hear me and knew there was no magic pill to restore her martyred body. The doctor had admitted with a stern face to Nennolina’s parents – no red balloon this time! – that osteosarcoma has one of the lowest survival rates for pediatric cancer. When Michele and Maria told their daughter she should expect to suffer through greater physical pain in the near future, she had responded in a calm voice, “May each step that I take be a little word of love. I will offer all my suffering to the crucified Jesus.”
Carlo took me to Nennolina’s house as soon as she was discharged from the hospital. It was clear that she was already suffering a lot of pain, and Maria told me they would be praying a novena to Saint Therese de Lisieux, asking that her disease be as painless as possible. I responded, “You know I don’t believe, but I shall join you as an act of solidarity. I wish I could believe, truly I do, but I simply can’t.”
Maria responded, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I realize that you feel you’re compromising your beliefs, but are doing it because you cherish Nennolina.”
“That’s quite all right,” I responded. “If it will make you and Michele feel a little better…If it will somehow soften the girl’s pain… I swear to you that I would gladly trade places with your daughter.”
“There’s something I want to show you, Giovanni. Every night my Nennolina writes a love letter to God. After writing it, she places it at the feet of a small statue of the Infant Jesus in the expectation that He will read them during the night. She never refers to you by name, but I’m almost certain she prays for you often. I’m going to get those letters for you. She must have written about a hundred of them, directed to Jesus and His Mother. Perhaps by reading those child’s letters you will receive a response to your existential anguish.”
“Sure, I’d love to read them,” I responded, knowing it was no time to argue. “Nennolina’s faith and courage are exemplary.”
“Good,” said Maria. “Maybe that will reduce your fear as well. I know you’re also suffering from your own private pain. Through a special grace given to her by God, Nennolina understands more than most adults the true value of suffering. She has a deep wisdom beyond her years. She swears the Infant Jesus has given her this knowledge directly. You might find solace in her writing.”
Then I added, in a somber voice, “I doubt I’ll be moved from my atavistic atheism by reading the letters of a child. And the fact that soon I won’t even remember her name adds nothing to my faith.”
Then I went into Nennolina’s bedroom. As a result of her condition, she could not leave her bed, and she was in constant pain.
“How’s my favorite niece?” I asked, trying to seem as cheerful as possible.
“Not that great,” she said in a small voice. “It hurts a little. But if it’s the will of God, I won’t complain. I only pray that souls will find Jesus, a lot of them. I ask Him every night that He makes them good so they can join Him in Paradise.”
And then she started coughing uncontrollably. I was alarmed and called her mother Maria.
“Just let her be,” she said. “It won’t last long.”
“I brought you a book,” I said, as soon as she stopped coughing. “You know how to read now, don’t you, Nennolina?”
“Most certainly,” she replied.
“It’s the Italian translation of a Spanish book called Marcelino Bread and Wine. I thought that you would like it. It’s about an orphaned boy who lives with a group of monks. They forbid him from entering a certain room, but he goes there anyway and finds a large crucifix. At some point, Jesus comes to life and speaks to the little boy. Every night, the boy brings Him food. At the end of the story, the boy asks to join his mother in Heaven, and God grants his wish.”
“That is just lovely,” Maria said. “Especially coming from you, Giovanni. We’ll read it together tonight. What do you say, Nennolina?”
“Thank you, Uncle Giovanni. It sounds like a great story. I too have been told by the little Jesus that I shall soon join His mommy in Heaven.”
I was perplexed.
“So the Infant Jesus has spoken to you?”
“A lot,” Nennolina responded. “He speaks to me often, especially at night when the pain gets worse. He tells me, ‘You will suffer a little, my little bride, but soon you will be with me in Paradise.’ It’s God’s grace filling my spirit, Uncle Giovanni. Let’s say that my soul is an apple. In the apple there are those little black things that are the seeds. Then inside the skin there’s this white thing. Well, think of that as God’s grace. Jesus is making sure that His grace will always be with me. The Lord’s grace is like the kiss of a rose. And don’t forget we are also protected by the Madonnina!”
* * *
I took the letters Nennolina had written to Jesus and His Mother. They filled a big pouch. Many of them were repetitive expressions of love for Mary and the Christ. But there were some that may have been referring to me, although my name did not appear in any of the hundred letters. In one of the missives, dated October 15, 1936, Nennolina prayed, “I want to be good and pray that that man who does not wish Jesus well might convert.” Of course she might have been thinking about anyone, but I was intrigued and continued reading. Other than myself, I couldn’t think of any other person to whom she might have been referring. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why she would think that I didn’t wish Jesus well. I wished Him neither good nor ill. I simply questioned His divinity.
Nennolina was insistent. I found more than fifty letters asking Jesus for the conversion of “that person whom you know.” In a single month, there were more than seven letters asking for the repentance of some unnamed sinner. On October 29, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, help my parents and all the world, and I entrust to you also that sinner whom you know.” On October 30, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, protect and bless all the world, my parents and that person that you know. I will pray a lot for that person.” On November 2, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, make it so that all sinners convert, and I entrust to you also that person that you know.” On November 3, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, make it so that all sinners convert, and I entrust to you also that person that you know.” On November 6, 1936, she petitioned on behalf of “the man that has been entrusted to you.” On November 11, 1936, she made a lengthier plea: “Dear Jesus! You must do me three graces, the first that I be always good to make my soul always more beautiful, the second that my heart be all full of light and of love to receive you in Holy Communion, the third to help that person whom you know.” On November 16, she prayed for “that person that I entrust to you very much.” On November 18, 1936, she pleaded, “I wish that they all come into Paradise with you, and especially help that man that I entrust to you.”
In the ensuing months, she was no less relentless, praying constantly for my conversion. I came to the conclusion that she must have been thinking about me when she wrote about the wayward sinner, for she didn’t refer to me by name in any of her letters. It would have been strange for her not to remember her uncle and godfather while remembering others who were not as close to her as I was. At all events, I read all her letters in a single sitting, and at the conclusion I collapsed on my bed and cried. I was awestruck and deeply moved by the generosity of the little girl. Instead of praying for a remission of her cancer or for a cessation of her pain, she prayed incessantly for her uncle’s metanoia. And after all my weeping, I was left with a single question. Who was I to confound her expectations?
So I left the house while Zoraya was in the bathroom and started walking. I didn’t want to give her the opportunity to restrain me, for I was a man with a purpose. I hadn’t been to Father Giuseppe’s church in years, those few times when I went with my dear Elena as she grappled with her clinical depression. To my amazement, my condition didn’t preclude me from finding the church. Soon I found myself kneeling on a pew close to the altar beneath the crucified Christ. I didn’t pray. I just kneeled there silently. I owed my Nennolina no less. If she desperately wanted my conversion, then I would give her God a chance to convert me.
Suddenly someone patted me on the shoulder. It was Father Giuseppe.
“Good afternoon,” I said. “You must be surprised to see me here.”
“Not surprised at all,” replied the priest in a jovial manner. “I’ve been expecting you for a lifetime.”
“I must tell you I haven’t converted. I’m hoping for some sort of miracle. After all, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Thomas – all of them doubted and were saved through outlandish miracles. I learned that with the Jesuits in my distant adolescence, when I first started breaking away from the faith. Saint Peter walked on water, Saint Paul recovered his sight after being blinded, Saint Thomas only believed when he could touch the wounds of the crucified Christ. And I came here to see if could also be a beneficiary of a marvelous miracle. I owe my Nennolina no less. I know she expects a miracle, that she has fervently prayed for it, that her old uncle’s conversion would be the miracle which she has sought relentlessly.”
“Miracles are commonplace,” said the priest. “We just need to have the eyes to see them. Often we’re hoping for something grand, something impossible, when all we need to do is trust in Jesus and relinquish all our troubles to Him. Jesus will come to your aid in His own way and in His own time, even if you don’t immediately realize it.”
“I want a miracle so badly,” I said as I began to softly weep.
“Pray and you shall receive one. I can assure you of that. God can do the impossible, so start praying for Nennolina. She may die despite your prayers, but you can ask the Lord that she suffer less on her journey to Heaven. And what greater miracle can there be than her ascent to Paradise? You can also start praying for yourself, Giovanni, that you be delivered from the ravages of old age. Your son has told me all about your condition. Don’t be surprised if God grants you lucidity for a longer time than you might think. And if He doesn’t, it will be because He wants you to be more open to God’s grace. Perhaps in your suffering you will find Him closer than ever. Pray only that the will of God be satisfied, and know that His deepest will is your eternal salvation.”
“I didn’t get lost on the way to church,” I confided. “It’s a small miracle. I find it hard to find the bathroom in my own house.”
“Well, there you have it,” said the priest. “Un miracolo piccolino. Every difficulty and suffering in life must be embraced as an opportunity for you to increase your trust in God. Put your future in God’s hands. There is no better place to put it.”
And then I collapsed into the arms of the old priest.
“I believe,” I cried out amid my tears. “I believe in Christ. It is my Nennolina who has taught me to believe.”
* * *
My Nennolina died on a Friday, four years ago, with myself, her parents, and Lucia and Carlo at her side. She had told her mother ahead of time that she would die that Friday. Somehow the Lord gave her that knowledge. She attributed it to Saint Therese de Lisieux, whom Nennolina had asked for more time on earth, but who had told her she would not live past that Friday. For most of my life I would have doubted such an apparition, but I have learned that miracles are ubiquitous and happen every day. As some wise man once said, the person who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.
I know every day is a miracle for me. I have lived with mild dementia for years, but somehow have managed – through my prayers – to avoid lapsing into severe dementia. That means that I can reason and hold ordinary conversations with people, that I’m not a constant burden to others, that I can even write. The nuns at the home for the aged treat me with great care, unlike Zoraya, who had been let go after my son Carlo learned of her abuse.
And the greatest gift of all? Although I may forget what I’ve had this morning for breakfast, I haven’t lost the memory of my dear Elena. I remember our glorious wedding day, the marvelous day our son was born, our voyages to distant places like Morocco and New York City. In a word, my dearest recollections are largely intact. I don’t know when I’ll turn into a doddering fool, but this I know for sure: when all is done, the love of my life will be waiting for me.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 2 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
God Alone Suffices (Fiction, June 2023)
Salvifici Dolores (Fiction, July 2023)