My earliest memory: I’m sitting on my father’s lap with a basil leaf in my little fist. The sun is coming in through the window casting a golden beam on the flowered tablecloth of the kitchen table. I’m watching in awe as he deals majestic-looking cards at lightening speed, scooping them under each other to flip them over. Then, I drop the basil leaf on the table and reach instead for a card that he’s discarded within my reach.
My father is quicker and thrusts the leaf back into my pudgy fist with a chuckle and pushes the card away from me. Then, he leans to the side so his eyes meet mine.
“Hai quattro anni oggi, Gaia, lo sai?” he asks, raising his thumb to stroke my cheek. Then, he takes my little hand in his and begins to hum as he traces the lines of my palm and I dissolve into giggles.
I get out of the lunch line and wander into the cafeteria. It’s bustling with chatter, none of which I can understand, so I choose an empty table in the corner and sit down with my lunchbox. I’ve barely opened it up when I hear my name. I look up to see a girl from my class waving me over. Timidly, I close my lunchbox and make my way over. She moves over to make room for me and I sit down, my eyes cast downward.
I open up my lunchbox again and pull out a mortadella panino and some cheese. A small note falls from the tin-foil-wrapped sandwich. The girl grabs it before I can.
“Bona gornada poosinella!” She reads in a high-pitched voice. Everyone at the table snickers.
I keep my eyes down. “Hai mal pronuciato,” I murmer.
She turns to me. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian. I speak English.”
“What are you doing, Gaia?” My mother asks as I pull a stool up to the counter and begin to climb on to it. I ignore her, balancing carefully on the top and reaching for the lazy susan.
“Gaia!” My mother’s voice rises.
“I want medicine! My head hurts!” I whine.
“I tell you already, you cannot take more now!” She grabs me at the waist and yanks me off the stool.
“But I need medicine! It hurts!” I’m wailing.
“Non si puo prendere la medicina così subito dopo l’altra!” My mother switches to Italian, as she usually does when she’s angry. Her hands are gripping my arms firmly to stop me from climbing back up on the stool. I try to twist away from her, muttering about her wishing pain on me.
“Non devi essere così, Gaia! Hai sette anni adesso,” she says calmly.
I glare at her.
“I don’t understand Italian,” I say slowly, emphasizing each word and speaking the last as if it were a disease. My mother releases me and instantly I feel the sting of her palm across my cheek.
I’m nervous as I pull into the long driveway like I had countless times before. But this time, it’s different.
Glioblastoma. My mother had told me over the phone last week. It’s aggressive. He’s losing his memory rapidly.
I see her now, leaning against the doorframe, smiling, but it seems forced. I get out of the car slowly, something I don’t think I’ve ever done at this house, my childhood home, and sling my duffel bag over my shoulder. My stomach is in knots.
I trail up the steps and robotically hug my mother, kissing her cheek hard so she knows I mean it. She’s aged more and he eyes are sad. I can’t tell if things are really different or if I’m just imagining it. I feel like I’m watching this family I don’t know from a distance. I feel as if we’re all just actors and actresses trying to smooth over the pain with tight smiles and bright voices.
We enter the living room, and there’s my Papa, sitting in his beige recliner, watching TV. My eyes light up at the sight and familiarity of him.
“Papa!” I shout, dropping my duffel bag and running to him. He sits up straight with a weak smile and faded eyes.
“Chi è?” he asks my mother. His voice is foreign to me. My mother explains that I’m his daughter, Gaia. I take my father’s cold hand in mine as the realization washes over me. He doesn’t know me. I’ve known him for forty-eight years and yet at this moment, I am no one to him.
“It’s me, your Muffin,” I manage between tears.
He turns again to my mother. “Non capisco,” he says, his voice raspy.
I can feel tears burning behind my eyes. I grip my father’s hand tighter.
“What do you want to say, Gaia? I’ll tell him,” my mom whispers.
I shake my head. I want to scream at him. I want to tell him that he used to tell me the best stories, that he taught me how to bowl, how to make meat sauce, how to play cards, how to be a good person. I want to tell him that I love him more than anyone. I want to apologize for being stubborn as a child, for rejecting his language.
I want to, but I can’t because I don’t speak Italian. And it’s no one’s fault but my own.