My mother in law, Lily, and I were very close. She was talkative, funny, magnanimous and always took my side. I’m an American expat living in Milan since 1982. My husband’s family left Egypt to move to Italy in 1953, after Nasser took power and before the Suez Crisis. Despite decades in Italy, I’m not quite Italian and neither are they .
When Lily was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 1993, it spread so quickly that we were preparing for her imminent death from November up to the early morning of New Year’s Day 1994 when she left us. The words that were never spoken in Lily’s presence were “cancer” or “death”.
In Mediterrenean cultures, speaking openly about death and disease is far less common. In Italian, cancer is referred to as quel brutto male–that bad illness, even though the words cancro and tumore exist. The American way of speaking frankly about terminal illness is not thought of as honest and forthright; it is considered brutal or maybe just showing a lack of imagination. I was given to understand that I should not follow my own way and say those words in front of her. This was a terrible burden to me.
Towards the middle of December, family members took turns spending the night at Lily’s house, along with a full time nurse. My husband, Yves and our 7 year old, Deborah came with me one afternoon–Yves and I moving around and sitting at Lily’s bedside, while Deborah wandered off to the living room to draw with her crayons. At some point, Yves gathered up Deborah’s things to take her home, but before leaving, my daughter handed me two drawings: one of our family–Mommy, Daddy and Deborah–she in her red skirt, standing next to a blue house under an orange sun. The other was of Lily–drawn in plain pencil, no colors at all.
I sat with my mother in law that night, occasionally giving her tiny sips of water, but mostly just holding her hand. It might have been 3 am when she squeezed my hand and looked straight at me. “Talk to me about love,” she said. I mumbled something about her great love for her husband who had died ten years earlier, and how I loved her son; after that I don’t know what I said. Finally I just stopped talking and stroked her forehead for a minute. I did not say “death” or “good-bye” and neither did she.
Lily died several days later. I wish we had talked more, but I think about how we shared a silence, perhaps left by those unsaid words.