When Nona Passed

The bedroom smelled of alcohol and too many people. More family arrived from Boston and Philly, to edge their shoulders into the room, great grandchildren pulled behind. Rosa came early and stood pressed against the foot of the bed.

Nona lay still, her head on two pillows. Mama and Aunt Alina each held a hand. Nona breathed steadily through her mouth, slight snoring sounds on the inhale, an audible sigh on the exhale. Her eyes were closed, and Rosa didn’t know if she was asleep or aware.

The priest arrived from St. Anthony’s. He led the Lord’s Prayer and read his own blessing from a small black book with different color ribbons hanging off it. With his thumb, he pressed oil into her forehead, moved to a new ribbon and read another prayer. Pulling a different vial out of another pocket, he touched her forehead again. Mama and Aunt Alina held Nona’s hands open so he could touch the oil to her palms. Another ribbon, another prayer, and he turned toward the family.

He raised three fingers of his right hand, and the crowd erupted: “Hail Mary, full of Grace….” On the way out he shook hands with a few of the older men. The women, their attention back on Nona, ignored him once he’d done his job.

In her ninety-five years, Nona had led the death watch for her own parents, her husband, and four of her twelve children, the little ones from measles and flu, the teens from a motorcycle crash and a do-it-yourself miscarriage. Now for the first time Mama held the dying hand.

Nona’s eyes opened for a minute. She looked at Mama and said, in a breathy whisper, “Better…where I am than…where you….”

Mama whispered to her two younger sisters standing alongside, “It’s time.” One after the other they bent over to kiss Nona’s cheek. Aunt Alina pulled Uncle Lou forward to kiss the cheek on her side. Soon it was Rosa’s turn, and her brothers and sisters, and all her cousins. Though the room was packed, people jostled to follow the correct generational order without attempting to make a line. Italians don’t do lines.

Adults finished their good-byes kisses—time for the children to come forward. A few older ones stepped up. Others had to be coaxed. Little ones weren’t tall enough to bend over and graze a cheek, so their papas lifted them up. Some would not look at Nona. They wriggled and turned around to reach for their mamas. Parents petted and soothed the reluctant ones. No hurry. They’d be ready by the next time, or maybe the time after that.

Nona’s eyelids fluttered. She said, with more strength than the last words. "When I…. Sh…some respect. Go.” Her eyelids fell shut and her mouth pursed. She breathed, but no longer tried to talk.

Rosa struggled to understand what she said. When she passed, of course they’d leave. Why was that respect?

The breaths continued as before, one long in-and-out followed by another. Nona no longer made any other movements. She did not speak again. The younger children were released. A couple young mothers slipped downstairs to make them pasta. More of Rosa’s cousins arrived, from Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Grateful they weren’t too late, they kissed Nona’s cheeks and asked what happened so far. The mysterious “respect…go” request was the main news. And the priest had come.

Nona took a breath like all the others, then didn’t take the next one. Rosa only noticed what happened because Nona’s face turned dead white. Mama and Aunt Alina placed Nona’s hands together on her stomach. Mama wrapped Nona’s Rosary beads loosely around the two hands.

Silence no longer necessary, the noise level rose as people told Nona stories. The family had spread across the northeastern U.S., but she had kept them together. After her funeral, would the whole family ever again come home as one?

The smell of excrement and urine filled the still-packed room. Nona had passed and nobody had gone. One request she made, one respect she asked, and her family didn’t….