38 – bedfellows in medicina generale

Then at the beginning of May, Mamma was once more admitted to theMedicina Generale” ward.  She was found again to be very anaemic, her blood pressure perilously low.  She was placed in a small room, which was hardly big enough for the 2 beds.  Some French doors opened out onto a small balcony.   These confined quarters she shared with a lady named Adalgeisa, who strangely enough was born in the same year as Mamma, in 1920.

At the end of the corridor was another shrine, this time with a statue of Our Lady, with a halo of electric fairy lights, bountifully decorated with fresh flowers and pot plants. 

photo by ben woods

According to Italian law each hospital room was adorned with a crucifix, and sometimes also a picture of the Madonna, or some other religious image depicting suffering and imploring hands.

There was an elderly nun, dressed in traditional white veil and robes, who seemed to rule this ward with a rod of iron.   This brought to mind  memories of my youth when, I had been dispatched to a strict Catholic convent school.

During the day Paul and I took it in turns to stay at Mamma’s bedside during her prolonged stay.  At first the nun had seemed quite kind, however one day she turned on me when she sternly chastised me, like a little school girl, for walking in the corridor and disturbing patients.  I had just taken a short break to stretch my legs, to get a breath of fresh air, and to clear my head, having been sat for many long hours by mother’s bedside.  The hospital had no canteen as such where you could get something to eat, just a couple of vending machines with snacks of crisps and chocolate, and an automatic drinks dispenser in the reception area.   I tried to remonstrate and reason with the beady eyed Sister, but she was utterly unrepentant. Feeling extremely tearful, humiliated and alienated I returned to my mother’s side and sat quietly as commanded.  God forbid if I felt the need to use the loo, I thought.  So much for humanity and compassion !!!

Then, paradoxically, just ten minutes later, a noisy procession commenced in the very same passageway, as the Church Padre, a flock of fluttering nuns and a huddle of devout widows loudly recited the rosary prior to Mass being said in the ward.  After further chanting,  hymn singing, guitar strumming and tinkling of bells, the priest circulated around the ward, distributing Holy Communion and blessing the afflicted.

As a rule the ward was by no means quiet  !!!  The bell to summon a nurse gave out a startling loud squeal, just like a siren going off at  a fairground ghost ride.  It would surely waken a poorly patient who had only just succeeded in dropping off to sleep.  Indeed there was no respite from the relentless hullabaloo: the banging of doors, clip clopping of shoes, the ringing of phones, the howling of patients, the heated discussions, the noise of the busy traffic, the wailing “nee naah nee naaaaaah” of the ambulance sirens, the builders working outside.

The nursing staff were reasonably efficient, but evidently overstretched.  There was one particular nurse who was sour faced and singularly terse.   There were no foreign nurses, with the exception of one petite Philippino nun, who was especially caring and good natured.  There were two young male, trainee nurses who generally skulked about, trying to do as little as possible.  Periodically they tried to appear to be busy, by briskly walking up and down the corridor carrying something in a purposeful way before scuttling off to a quiet alcove where I would often observe them hiding from view, chatting to their girlfriends on their mobile phones.

● public domain image – wikipedia

My mother’s fellow bed companion was evidently not very well, suffering from a severe chest infection.  For days the elderly signora hardly opened her eyes, just wheezed pitifully, as the oxygen supply bubbled and gurgled its way to her mask.  Her daughter, Matilde, stayed with her every day, including the nights, only taking a few hours break during the day to rush home for a couple of hours sleep, and a quick shower.  During these short absences her sister Giulia, would take over, but not before Matilde had delivered a prolonged debriefing of the day’s events, right down to every minute detail.

Giulia told us that  Matilde had selflessly sacrificed her life to the care of her mother, thus she had never married, so was a “zitella”“What else was there to do?” said saintly Matilde.  She  herself had a horrendous racking cough, and would sneak out periodically onto the veranda, for a few crafty drags on a cigarette.  Sometimes on warm days the little room would get unbearable stuffy, however if I tried to leave the French window a little ajar to catch the breeze, Matilde would instantly protest, for fear of the aforementioned life threatening colpo d’aria”.

Being originally from Naples, both Matilde and Giulia spoke in loud, penetrating voices. The fact is they just couldn’t help this, it was just in their blood, indeed it seems practically impossible for any Napolitano” to do anything quietly and calmly, it would go totally against the grain.

Daily, as a captive audience, we would witness the strange goings on.  Each time Matilde set about operating the adjustable bed mechanism, she somehow managed to violently catapult her mother’s almost lifeless torso into an bolt upright position. Then she would proceed shouting “Mamma, Mamma, Mamma!!!” whilst pinching and slapping Adalgeisa’s cheeks, in an attempt to get her open her eyes.  Even though the poor lady was barely conscious, Matilde would then proceed to force feed her.  First she would tempt her to open her mouth with a piece of dry biscuit.  Then she would lever open the old woman’s clenched teeth, and start shovelling in generously laden spoonfuls of soup and puréed food, which frequently resulted in the old dear gagging and spluttering.  On more than one occasion Matilde succeeded in slicing the old woman’s lips so badly that they bled.  Then, just when we thought that the torture session had finally come to an end, she would try to get her to swallow her pills, pillole” by tipping mouthfuls of water down her throat, causing her to almost drown.  Sometimes the old dear would cry out in protest, yelling obscenities and did her utmost to fight back by ferociously by scratching at her daughter’s hands and forearms.  Even when the poorSignora” was finally allowed to rest, Matilde would endlessly fuss around, forever tweaking and fine tuning things  by reorganising the pillows, changing her mother’s position, adjusting her mother’s nappy, smoothing the bed clothes, ringing for the nurses to come for no real reason at all .…………. This farce went on and on, day after day, – it was exhausting, not to say most distressing to sit and witness.

On the other hand,  during Giulia’s visits, there was a lot of clucking and cooing, kissing, hugging, praying, and last but not least  – singing of Neapolitan songs.  Well I say singing, it was more like a loud discordant wailing.  The woman was clearly tone deaf !!!  Every night we cringed as we were put through these live “heart rending” performances.

The song “Mamma” was her favourite:

Mamma, son tanto felice, perché ritorno da te.

La mia canzone ti dice ch’è il più bel sogno per me!

Mamma son tanto felice… Viver lontano perché? 

Mamma, solo per te la mia canzone vola,
Mamma, sarai con me, tu non sarai più sola!
Quanto ti voglio bene! 

Queste parole d’amore che ti sospira il mio cuore forse non s’usano più,
Mamma!, ma la canzone mia più bella sei tu! 

Sei tu la vita e per la vita non ti lascio mai più!

“Mamma” by Beniamino Gigli

Giulia’s husband was normally on hand to transport the sisters to and from the hospital.  One evening Giulia was obviously fuming and she tearfully opened up her heart, declaring that she had recently discovered that her husband had been helping himself to “forbidden fruit”, he’d been having an affair with one of her mother’s home carers, a pretty, blonde 23 year old signorina”.   Giulia said that she had thought it somewhat peculiar that of late he had been so eager to go over to Matilde’s apartment to help out with things.  It seems that while Matilde was out, and the old lady had been sleeping, he had been carrying on this illicit relationship.  Giulia said she was suing him for divorce, and that she was going “to take him to the cleaners”!  She had made him sleep in the car in the garage for 3 nights, until a friend who was an officer in the Carabinieri” had paid her a visit, to proffer some friendly advice.  He explained that by law she had no right to lock him out their flat, until the divorce papers had been officially served, and that if her husband contacted the police, she could find herself in very deep water.  So for the time being she had been obliged to let her errant husband back into the family home, but the atmosphere, as you could well imagine, was particularly fraught.

Over the days, it became noticeable that Adalgeisa’s condition was deteriorating, the doctors forewarned the sisters that this was a great cause for concern, so more of the family were summoned from Naples.  The subsequent morning three more of the seven daughters crammed into the little room and clustered round their mother’s bed.  They began shouting at her, tapping her, shaking her, in a frantic effort to rouse her from her comatose state, in the hope that she would recognise them.  It seemed that the family were reluctant to allow their mother’s life to come to a dignified, peaceful end. The tension in the room augmented as in dialect they all began to raucously squabble and bicker.  “Why hadn’t the family from Naples come to see their mother before?” Giulia screamed. “You could have helped so much more, instead of just turning up now when she was on her death bed. “Aha, It’s clear, you are just after her money !!!”  Things turned very nasty and after more screaming and shouting Giulia stormed off saying she wanted nothing more to do with any of them.

However in the early hours of the following morning Adalgeisa quietly slipped away from this life and was able to find peace at last.  Matilde and Giulia were distraught of course, as the body was taken away. “Surely the doctors could have done more!”, Matilde wailed.  Now, what on earth would  Matilde do to fill her life, we wondered ?  Needless to say, this was all particularly disturbing for my Mamma, who herself was so very poorly, and powerless to find an escape from the disturbing scenario.

After a quick change of sheets, the nurses wasted no time in finding a new patient to share the room with Mamma, by the name of Anna Maria.  I’d say she was in her early 70’s, with dark furrowed walnut skin, a pronounced hooked nose, and a tangle of crooked teeth.  Yet her eyes were strikingly beautiful, especially when she smiled. When Anna Maria first arrived she was quite poorly and rather subdued.  We learned from her relatives that she had recently been widowed, and had since been unable to manage on her own.  Therefore she had been taken in by her brother Genario, sister-in-law Filomena and their two daughters.  They were simple county-bumpkin folk, who all talked together at breakneck speed in an exceptionally strong dialect.   They explained that one daughter was getting married at the end of the month, so they were busy with preparations for the wedding day, whilst also struggling to get the upstairs apartment of their house ready for the happy couple. They lived quite a distance from the hospital, and only had one car, and consequently could only manage to visit once a day. We exchanged phone numbers, and every so often Filomena would ring to see how Anna Maria was faring.  She kept asking was Anna Mariacalma”“Yes of course”, I replied. “There’s no problem, she’s fine”.

My mother was greatly relieved, as for the first few days Anna Maria was as quiet as a church mouse, hardly uttering a word, just lying there, as if resigned to her hospital fate.  I, having being almost a permanent fixture in the hospital for the last few weeks and having learned many of the ropes along the way, tried in little ways to help Anna Maria.  I ensured that she always had a drink to hand, assisted her at meal times, and rang for a nurse when she needed attention, for which she seemed to be most grateful.  However, over the days, presumably as she had started to feel more herself, I managed to get her to talk a little, but soon found that it was a real challenge to understand what she was saying. At first I considered that this was  due to my inadequate skills in comprehending the local patois, however it soon became clear that many of the staff were also having trouble understanding her.

She then began to grow extremely agitated and restless, and started yelling and screaming at the top of her voice.  She seemed to be getting very confused and disorientated in this alien environment, surrounded by so many strange faces.  Sometimes she believed that she was back in her old home, and was calling for her late husband’s relatives.  She kept calling for a “Michelangela”, who supposedly lived downstairs. “She must be there, go onto the balcony and have and look !!!” she implored.  Then she called for Pasquale, her late husband. We tried to calm her, and to explain that there was no one there.  Sometimes she had mysterious conversations with imaginary people, and laughed and chuckled to herself.  She had an impish smile.  However, she was making such a nuisance of herself that the nurses were rapidly losing patience with her.  She seemed to be getting more and more bewildered, and her ranting caused my mother numerous disturbed nights. Then she ripped out her drips and catheter, and developed a sudden compulsion for escapology.   She rattled the protective bars on her bed and attempted to thread herself through them until she succeeded in getting herself well and truly stuck.  The nurses were repeatedly summoned to try and unthread her back through, and urged her to be tranquilla”.  She would lie quietly for a few moments, before making an renewed attempt at breaking out.  Then she went on hunger strike and finally truly disgraced herself by soiling the bed several times.  Her family came in and started reading her the riot act, saying that she must behave herself and stop annoying other patients and the staff.  The tyrannical nun was far from amused and continually scolded and chided her.  Eventually Anna Maria had to be sedated, and then she would curl up at the foot of her cot like a frightened little bird.

Once again, my long-suffering Mamma found this all very disturbing, but somehow remained so patient and kind in the circumstances.  By this time she had become very poorly herself, she had had endless rounds of drips and injections, until her arms and her hands were bruised black and blue.  The doctors appeared concerned that the anaemia had returned so rapidly and seemed to be somewhat on the defensive, as they huddled and muttered mysteriously to each other using incomprehensible Italian medical terms.  At times they seemed very unhelpful and unresponsive to our questions.  Fortunately this had not been the case on other wards of this hospital, as there had always been at least one doctor who we felt we could talk to and trust, who would do their best to explain things in simple terms so that we could generally understand the situation.

For the last 3 weeks we endeavoured  to stay with Mamma as much as we possibly could. Paul would normally do the early morning shift and return home to look after “Ugo”, whilst I would generally remain with Mamma from mid morning until 7 or 8 in the evening.  Of course my father was greatly concerned about his dear Tina, so we used to take him to visit her most days, pushing him around in the wheelchairs, so that he didn’t over tire himself.

Eventually the results from the tests arrived back, and showed that my mother was suffering from a Lymphoma.  The prognosis was not good … there was nothing that could be done.  By now she was becoming increasingly weak and was in a good deal of pain and discomfort, but she kept battling right until the end.  During the final days and nights we kept a constant vigil at her bedside, so that she would not feel alone.  So sorrowfully we watched over Mamma until she quietly slipped away in the early hours of a May morning.  She looked so peaceful, as if she had just fallen asleep, at last her spirit was freed from that tired, old worn out body.  It was with heavy hearts that we had to break the sad news to “Ugo”, but we had all been preparing ourselves for the eventuality.


Chapter 38  –  an italian funeral


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