Good night, Brother-in-Love

I wrote this in 2017, but a friend found it on the web today, and I’ve decided to post it here.

On a Tuesday night, my husband called his brother in Italy. We were a few days into a long-anticipated tour of India. Sal shared our first impressions of the exotic land with Lauro. They joked and laughed. Lauro had seen his cardiologist that afternoon. The doctor had given him the go-ahead to go to Capri the next day. He pronounced Lauro in fine health.

Sal and his brother are closer than any two people I have ever known. They were born in Capri, Italy, and now Lauro lives in Naples and Sal lives in New York. Sal was nineteen when he left to make a new life in America. The distance only strengthened their bond. They spoke on the phone every day and saw each other several times a year. The last time was less than a month before, for Lauro’s ninetieth birthday.

On Wednesday morning, Lauro called to his wife from bed, took her hand, squeezed it and expired.

Sal received the call from Lauro’s son, Giovanni, halfway through a five-hour bus trip from Agra to Jaipur. Sal was beside himself, so much so that I feared for him. I kept telling him to breathe deeply so he would stop shaking and jerking involuntarily. I was thankful to be among friends; they took turns hugging Sal, trying to comfort him. The shock and the urgency to get to Naples were tearing him apart. Some hours later, we left the hotel in Jaipur at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, the best we could do.

The trip was long and stressful: from Jaipur to Abu Dhabi to Rome to Naples by Thursday evening. In Naples, very sad and very difficult. Giovanni met us at the airport, visibly distressed by the shock of his loss. At home we were greeted by the red eyes and tear-stained faces of the grandchildren. Their parents, aunts, and uncles were trying to calm their grandmother, who was crying uncontrollably.

The funeral had been postponed to Friday morning to allow us to arrive from India. The church was filled to capacity. Lauro wasn’t bashful; he had made himself known and was loved by many. Even the greengrocer, the barista, the pharmacist, and the other merchants he saw every day were there. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years: young people (our contemporaries) grown old; children, no longer children, now with children of their own.

There was no eulogy. Lauro’s cousin was prepared to speak, but the mass was just beginning as he arrived from Capri. The priest was grandiose and phony and really annoyed me. He spouted platitudes and rarely mentioned Lauro by name. Finally the service ended, people began to leave, and then Sal rose and walked up to the mic. He did what he has always done: Sal found the words to speak for everyone. Earlier, he had told me he would not say anything, but he changed his mind as the priest pontificated. He felt the need, he told me later. Sal was amazingly eloquent, raw, and moving, and I was very proud of him. He provided the humanity the priest was incapable of expressing; he never stumbled or hesitated. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

After saying good-bye to the many friends and relatives, Sal, Giovanni and his older daughter, Lauro’s son-in-law, and I set off for the crematorium in some God-forsaken town in the boonies outside Naples. (Cremation has been allowed by the Church only very recently, but there is still no cremation in the city.) There was a smell in that place that I won’t soon forget. They asked if we wanted to watch. We saw a screen on the wall. “No!” we said as one. While we waited, I could hear the furnace roaring for an hour and a half until the ashes were ready for us to take them away.

The next day, Lauro’s daughter Olimpia, her husband, Sal, and I took Lauro back home to Capri for the last time. Watching in Anacapri’s cemetery filled with flowers and birdsong as the tombstone on the family crypt was slid open and the small box lowered into its depths was even harder than the cremation.

In truth, Lauro died in the best possible way. We are suffering, but he didn’t. He always called me “sister-in-love,” because, he said, “sister-in-law” is too cold. Just a few weeks before, he had had a beautiful party for his ninetieth birthday. The whole family was there—joy and music, laughing and singing. As it happened, we couldn’t have had better closure. Alberto, Olimpia’s son, took terrific pictures and organized them into a beautiful book that he had given to his grandfather a few days before. He also made one for his Uncle Sal. Alberto told us that Lauro had immediately procured a padded envelope to send the book to his brother so that it would be waiting for him upon our return from India. The following day, Lauro took the book with him as he did the shopping, showing it to the merchants and everyone else he knew.

He will be missed.

Photo (Sal on the left, Lauro on the right)

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