When I met Papi, my father-in-law, on the day of my wedding reception, he was seated on the white bench outside his home in northern Italy, hemmed by views of the Dolomites and a valley shrouded in a gentle fog. I felt I’d met a potential future version of myself. I’d once romanticized the lone woodsperson, monastic in pursuit of the day’s necessities: wood, food, dry camp. It was a life I’d long desired with childlike enthusiasm, always dreaming but fearful of action. Papi had such a life, in a 300-year-old stone house on a mountaintop, each day following that same kind of tranquil cadence. We moved in a year after the wedding, in the summer before the virus, awaiting the birth of my son in the autumn; our tiny family seemed a bulwark then, against time and age. But Papi died long before we would bury him.
In those earlier days, Papi stood over the newly-cut firewood grunting, coughing into the log pile. My wife worked upstairs on her books. I toyed with writing in a little woodshed, or imagined tramping down to the river with a rod and net; more often I’d leave my desk only to chop a load of wood to give to Papi, who would stack a pile near the stufa, our wood-burning furnace. He looked as he had since I’d first seen pictures of him: a burly man with a scraggly white beard, tough flannel shirt flecked in wood chips, a pair of oil-stained jeans. After we moved in I went about following him, keen to learn everything he could teach me. I learned how to clean the stufa, and how best to support the crossbeams of the writing shed I was building. We cultivated our hectares, ate wild chicory and dandelion greens. For lunch, Papi’d bring wild hops or porcini for our risotto. I’d become indignant if he didn’t invite me to come foraging with him.
“You need to show me—how will I find it on my own without you?”
“You know how to use the computer, but can’t identify plants.”
“Where’d you find those?”
He’d laugh and point vaguely in the direction of the forest.
Each day Papi arose in a fit of coughs, sneezes and grunts, stumbled down the stairs he’d built forty years before, and filled his red stainless steel coffee pitcher with water, the exterior burned and singed black from years of this routine; he reached for the lighter in his breast pocket and lit the gas stove, then went outside to smoke until the water boiled. He’d trace a path around the house, coughing and spitting as he went. I’d watch him from inside as my own coffee bubbled over in its moka pot.
When he returned he’d drop coffee into the water, Turkish style, then dump some sugar into a cup, also red, pour his coffee and sit down at the table. One by one he’d plunk a sugar biscuit into the coffee, waiting a moment before fishing it out with a spoon. The process was simple, gentle, and in a way everything I’d once imagined I wanted from this kind of life: routine as comfort, a recognizable swaddle for a world-weary soul.
As I built my writing shed—a project I’d undertaken to distract myself from the uncertainties facing a soon-to-be new father—I’d find building materials lying outside my worksite each morning: strips of siding, a tool belt, a pack of nails and an old hammer appeared alongside my sawhorse, which I’d made from a stepladder Papi had brought for me from the garage. Then he’d retire to his white bench and watch me work, offering insight from afar.
“Maybe one more here?”
He’d snort, satisfied, as he watched me put another stud beneath the roof’s crossbeam. We communicated in a mix of Italian and English, but understood each other in a way I liked to imagine as kindred. He’d rise and place both hands at the small of his back and trace another loop around the house, our hectares. Some days we’d drive silently down the mountain in my car to the hardware store, where everyone knew him by name, and he, leading the way into the store, would pull out our wedding announcement from The New York Times, which he’d asked a friend to print out so he could carry it with him on his rounds each morning, for Papi began each day at a local bar with a shot of vermouth and a glass of red.
Our son arrived that September, and the house grew smaller. Most days he slept, and after his coffee Papi would walk down the mountain into town, returning a bit happier around lunchtime, redolent of wine and sweat; he’d nap until dinner and take off again until late evening, when a friend—or, sometimes, the carabinieri—would drop him off around midnight.
As fall yielded to winter, we kept up our routine with wood chopping, chainsaw tearing, and the occasional rifle reports from across the valley sounding the arrival of the cold sweep. Papi took to building massive fires in the stufa, his contribution to our joint child rearing. In those days, when our son was awake, sometimes Papi might play with him, jabbing a finger toward his face; eventually my son began to grab it, and venture it into his mouth. Those hands gave me pause—blackened things, sullied over the years. Papi made little use of the shower in his bathroom. The light switch panels throughout the house were perpetually caked in a layer of dirt and god knows what else he had picked up along his treks to and from town. Within months of my repainting the walls, they were dirtied, the sign of a tenuous war of attrition between wanting to start a new life and fighting that which has persisted for years. I didn’t exactly hate him for this, but my patience wore thin.
My wife Elettra had long ago given up on trying to change this man, her father, whom she kept at a considerable distance. She cursed under her breath each time he’d dump rotten vegetables on the kitchen table, or leave cigarettes lying around outside, as they invariably made their way into our curious son’s mouth. She relocated shovels and pickaxes and knives he left outside, but often she’d let the vegetables accumulate, let Papi’s dirty clothes dry on the kitchen furniture, resigned to living with the father she’d always known, his presence like a heavy, burdensome fog.
Over time, local law enforcement became a staple in Papi’s life. They’d arrive with word of the car he’d misplaced on a bender the night before. Once they brought him two pairs of new boots for the winter ahead. Passersby, hiking the trail that intersected our place and the town road, would often tell my Elettra how lucky she was to have a father like Papi. It was irritating to hear what he was like to guests, when he was perpetually absent from us. He reserved his time, attention and charm for others, never for his family.
This exasperating man, who’d pass gas and turn to me, shocked, and say, “What are you doing?!” Who’d race his lawnmower, sending pebbles flying toward where our son was playing; who’d get too drunk and misplace the Sunday family-night pizzas that would later be found frozen to the footwell of his car. One Friday night, after lighting the shabbat candles, I put my son to bed, returning to find one of the candles out; Papi had taken it outside to light his cigarette. On another night, the stufa exploded; after trying to extinguish it with salt, Papi took a shovel and tossed the ash and embers outside, next to a canister of gasoline.
Papi worried about slipping in the shower and falling, though he wouldn’t say so outright. This left me mystified. How could a man so plainly bent on drinking himself to death fret over which way he might depart this world? He felt old and tired, he said, and I replied that he was not old or frail, but tired and miserable because of the way he treated his body. He’d always felt that way, he said, trailing off into a story about how he was avoiding the taxman. He hadn’t paid a cent in two decades. After the story he’d pour himself more wine, placing the glass on the armrest of his white bench, which, too, had become blackened and stained with wine spilled from numerous shattered glasses.
I knew I needed to adjust to his fallibilities and eccentricities, but it became increasingly clear that time, and his dependency on alcohol, were slowly enveloping him; the world he’d once known, and the man he’d once been. Eventually Elettra would bristle at my daily complaints, tired of hearing or perhaps even thinking about the father who routinely dismissed her with contemptuous, offhand slights like, “You have no concept of time”; who called her Ivy League education a farce, and compared her unfavorably with her dead mother. They’d yell at each other, not infrequently. Still, she often asked him to help with certain things, like building a baby gate to keep our son safe from the stairs (he did so, after nine months of strife), or fixing the plumbing or electricity, which were in ruins. The home she’d known since birth had become a prison, and she wanted out.
“I’m a naughty man,” he’d say as we sat smoking outside, he on his bench, me nervously pacing as I did back then, complacently convinced that I’d be nothing like him as a father—that for all my smoking and past drinking, I’d never become like him. Even so, I felt compelled to include him in things like Sunday pizza night, at lunches, seeking his advice as a proxy in raising our son as a village should. The way he’d been with his family—absent, abusive, neglectful—was in the past. I assured myself he was more capable now, despite the drinking. My wife cautioned me, reminding me of various misdeeds and the aggression that had marked Papi’s past and, sometimes, his present. But, I told her, I’d known men like Papi all my life. They’d been my closest friends, responding to hardship by choosing an existence devoid of both reason and ambition. In their cores they were good men, well-meaning, overflowing with uncontrollable emotion. But I had forgotten that these men were always good until the moment they turned bad.
For those first few months of late autumn the world was circumscribed by the cries and whimpers of our son. Outside this bubble, Papi’s constant cursing, coughing, and the sound of a small glass tumbler repeatedly filled with wine provided an emotionally tormented soundtrack. Whenever my son played outside, I kept a careful eye for the trail left behind by Papi: broken glass, cigarette butts, axes and chainsaws, knives and hatchets.
The New Year came and I boarded a plane once, twice, then not again for some while. The world was shutting down in response to the virus. Military patrols prevented the Italians on our mountain from leaving their homes for anything other than groceries. Then one evening in the maw of winter, my wife took the car into town where she was teaching English classes. I was reading in my room on the third floor, my son asleep upstairs, when I heard an earsplitting bang in the kitchen. I checked first to listen in on my son. He hadn’t stirred, his breathing steady. I went downstairs, taking the stairs by two until I reached the kitchen, where I found Papi.
He was standing, a bit bewildered, over the stove. He looked at me, communicating as he most often did through teary eyes and frustrated hand gestures, as if wondering what that sound had been, too. Then I could not see. My throat seized. I checked the stufa, but the fire simmered lightly. No smoke there. I could not stand in the kitchen and ran outside. My eyes opened, my throat cleared. I ran back inside, opened the windows, and rushed upstairs to place a damp rag at the base of the door into the nursery. I found Papi outside, a cigarette hanging off the cliff of his lower lip. He looked at me for a lighter, patting his chest in search of the one he kept in his breast pocket. It was him, the bastard fuck, I thought. He nearly killed us. I ran inside and opened the oven. Inside, Papi’s plastic Bic lighter had been reduced to a bubbling goo. I threw the lower tray outside and ran upstairs to grab my son, thinking we’d flee down the mountain to the home where my aunt stayed. Instead, I left the windows open to clear the kitchen and waited for my wife to return. Papi laughed as I later closed the windows, vowing between chuckles to never use the oven again.
In time, what happiness remained with us increasingly met a smothering force. One evening Papi fell in the middle of the street and someone found him passed out where he fell, between the lanes of traffic. He fell again sometime later, his arm swelling and turning a vascular mauve. We drove him to the hospital. The doctor tried once more to get Papi into a substance abuse rehabilitation program. He simply grunted in response.
The wine boxes took up more space, inside and out. Walks into town were reserved only for drinking. He smashed his car into one of the trees nearest the garden, which now lay fallow. Noel, my cat of twelve years, escaped, never to return, because Papi hated his smell and had let him out. I searched the woods for weeks. Then Papi nearly fell, several more times. Only those times, I didn’t find myself worried. I felt something more like relief, a sense of revenge swelling inside me, the sense of an ending.
Beneath that unpleasant sense of satisfaction, I sometimes wondered if it was my fault, our fault, that Papi had deteriorated so much. After what had happened with my cat, I couldn’t bring myself to engage with him, leaving the room when he came in, if only to prevent my shouting at him and giving in to rage. Elettra was always fearful of Papi lashing out at her, but maybe we just needed to be more patient? At any rate, I feared it was too late to reverse course. We’d invited him to lunch each day, but he stopped coming, complaining about my cooking (he preferred boiled meat). Then, as we were having dinner one night, a friend of Papi’s arrived. She was there having him sign a few documents. We didn’t know what for. He wouldn’t say, and the two of them remained outside. The lady knocked on the door and asked Elettra, “Do you have any bread or cheese, or he’ll go to bed without dinner tonight.” What stories about living with us Papi had told her, I could only imagine.
We heard her ask him, “I thought you were gonna stop drinking.”
“I am,” he said, “after I finish this box.”
Then she left, and Papi drove to the bars.
Winter warped into the next year; it lasted twelve months and more. I virtually stopped writing, my shed an isolation chamber into which all my fears and anxieties and hopelessness ballooned. I had become one of those men. I was Papi. Papi and I by then felt a certain loyalty to unhappiness, as though that’s where we really belonged. He was not stricken by madness in his pursuit of liquor; rather, he was a profoundly dishonest man, sunk in complex evasions and recriminations known only to himself. I understood this unhappiness now, Papi’s displeasure with life, the burden of abandoning oneself, as I too awakened each morning as if from a dream in which I had committed a crime.
One day I found Papi walking along the snow-crested road from town, lugging a large TV in a box. I pulled next to him and blared the horn. We exchanged no words. He stepped in. I drove back home. He set up the TV in his room and thereafter he would hardly emerge from that room.
One day he was stopped for drinking and driving and lost his license, the last of his freedoms. He took to driving halfway down the mountain and stashing his car, walking the rest of the way for wine, or, with a yellow jerry can in hand, for gas. His morning coffee routine went unchanged, only rather than going into town, he’d recede into the frigid darkness of his room, illuminated only by the glowing, dancing images on his television set.
Then, like the arrival of a new season, on a blistering day in December, my daughter was born. The house would become more cramped, but my life was beginning anew. The Dolomites were rose-colored, as they tend to be on perfect mornings. Clichés concerning the joy and love I longed to offer rippled through me as light from the valley shimmered up the stone-flecked facades.
Papi never again looked at my wife or me or his grandson, or if he did, I wasn’t sure he saw us, only the faint silhouettes of his ever-distant family. He never once really looked at his granddaughter. Perhaps he never looked at her because she looked a lot like her grandmother, his ex-wife, and his daughter, people that reminded him of that very distance.
Papi didn’t die in the way most people understand death. His death was a process that we became a small part of, and we lived it with him. And there’s nothing worse than being with someone who is dying, wishing them a painless death, only to stand so long by their side in death that you, the resentful living, begin at last almost to welcome their suffering.
Between trips to the hospital, I returned one day to find a funeral procession snaking its way slowly up the mountain; the hearse and cars took the road back down, passing the announcement board, a sight common in small towns across Italy. The boards bear obituaries for locals, and during the pandemic space had been limited; there are fewer death notices now. As the procession passed I thought of Papi’s living death up on the mountain, as my daughter took her first breaths in the hospital in the valley below.