We’re at Milton Evergreen Cemetery. It’s noon but you could swear it’s dawn by how gloomy and muted it is. It’s May but the flowers haven’t bloomed yet, and seeing everyone in black, heads hung, doesn’t help the mood. Pastor Mike is speaking about my Nono, indirectly of course, in the polite third person way that all pastors seem to. I wonder what day in the curriculum you cover how to preach at a funeral; do they break you early or is it one of the last things you learn? Either way, I don’t listen to it. All I can hear is the breath of others, their sniffles, the unmistakable sound of tissue being rubbed against skin.
Chantal is directly across from me on the other side of the coffin that’s being lowered into the ground and we make eye-contact. I think I make her cry by the look I carry on my face. As the casket makes reaches the ground, nestled in its earthy bed, we are all asked to bow our heads in respect. A horrible silence comes occurs that I don’t feel comfortable with when, suddenly, the sun emerges from between two dark clouds. I can’t see this happening, but I feel it. My back burns it’s so hot and, looking up, I catch my mother and aunt casting each other the same look.
We all feel it- his warm hug-, and we all smile a sad smile, choking on our tears.
Pastor Mike finishes, making a light remark about the sun and the crowd breaks up and the funeral is over suddenly. No one seems to know what to do. Chantal walks over to me and gives me a hug, laughing when she releases me. She says I have white pieces of tissue all over my face, stuck to my eyelashes, and we laugh, unable to stop.
I don’t recall the drive back to Holy Rosary Parish but I remember the food, of course- what else would expect at an Italian event- but mostly I remember my cousins, young and naïve, running around, and this makes me happy. That we can all enjoy and celebrate his life, doing things he would have loved to de; being surrounded by good food, family and music.
A man plays the accordion- a distant uncle perhaps, or a friend. The room is full of people I don’t know who treat me nicely because I’m the granddaughter of Severino, my Nono. People tell stories that I half listen to about how gentle he was, how kind. It’s the first time I’ve had someone close to me pass, and it doesn’t feel okay.
I’ll never forget that morning. It must have been 7:00am when I heard it. My mother, frantic and exasperated, talking to my Nona on the phone; What? what?!, seem to be the only words I remember her saying, breathy and shocked. I think I was the first to emerge from my room, nervous and scared, my stomach in my throat. Nono’s dead…she says.
From our backyard I can see my Nona’s house down Court Street, the police cruisers already there. He passed in the early morning in his sleep. I’m told that, rolling over, he says to my Nona, I’m ready and lets out a deep breath and that’s it. Years later, my family jokes about how my Nona changed the sheets before the police got there, to their inquiry and confusion. Nona jokes about it the most, her loud booming laugh bringing a smile to all of our faces.
Over the next few months we see more cardinals fly in and out of our backyard than I ever have, both before and since. My mom says it’s him, swooping up and down in front of the bay window, showing off, letting us know he’s okay.
Later that summer my Nona, mom, Jessica and Elyssa and I make a trip to Jasper, Alberta. It’s my mom’s idea, saying that It’ll be good for all of us, especially Nona- and it was. In the fresh mountain air we keep busy and relish in those activities that my Nono loved. He spent most of his life outdoors, making friends with his cows as a child farmer in Trieste, Italy, and- later in life-, the rabbits and birds that scowered the property on Court Street.
I always found his stories about his youth intimidating- they made me nervous and embarrassed at their rawness, which was a cause of shame for me for the first year. It wasn’t until I was older that I learnt to appreciate them, realizing the weight, meaning and emotion behind them, and I was able to forgive myself. I was young then, how could I have known?
One night in Jasper, I had a dream that I’ll never forget. Sitting in a circle, my close family surrounds me, including my Nono. He stands up and places his hand on my head, his palms emitting an intense heat. The actual dream was more profound than it sounds, as they always are, but I kept it a secret from my family. I didn’t tell anyone about the dream for a few weeks, afraid to bring it up.
Now I know better. If there’s one thing my Nono taught me it’s that wearing your emotions on your sleeve isn’t a bad thing, but something to be proud of.
In Jasper we spotted even more cardinals. I can’t be certain whether we were just partial to noticing them at that point or there truly were many more, but I like to think he’s in them. Even now, wherever I happen to spot one; driving, hanging out with friends, on a walk, I am comforted by their presence.