Jennifer O'Connell: ‘He conquered the mountain and his grief, one faltering step at a time’
People began to notice the old man with the neat white hair, paint-spattered cuffs and the cotton bag that held his sketchbook
“There are no real shops, and I have no car, and the restaurant is unexpectedly closed for holidays.”
I count the conversations I’ve had with someone other than myself today. There are three, if you include the one with the woman who leans towards me with a face etched in laughter, and demands to know why I am taking a picture of a horse. All I can manage in reply is “it is nice”, before she walks off, cackling to herself. But I include her anyway.
The tally of evidence that I am still alive also includes my brief conversations with the bread man. He arrives into the village like a minor emergency, leaning on the horn of his Volkswagen, careening to a stop outside the restaurant. Our conversations consist of me pointing at some focaccia, and him telling me it’s 90 cents. He is included, because four days into my experiment with solitude, even that much human contact is precious.
I also include Rosie, my next-door neighbour, who is a daily lesson in fortitude as she waits for me to formulate something approaching a coherent sentence. When what finally emerges is “We are only here”, she nods graciously, as though the Dalai Lama himself has spoken. What I meant to say was: “I am here alone.”
It has been four days since I had a face-to-face interaction in English; five since I’ve seen my husband and children, though we video chat every night
I am here alone.
“Here” is a beautiful medieval village on the side of a mountain in the Apuane Alps in Northern Italy.
There are no real shops, and I have no car, and the restaurant is unexpectedly closed for holidays. It has been four days since I had a face-to-face interaction in English; five since I’ve seen my husband and children, though we video chat every night.
On the screen of my phone, the four-year-old hides her face and refuses to look at me, as though I’m a scary shop Santa Claus. One night, she cries into her fists because she only got to colour in the “We” on the “We Miss You” poster they are making as a surprise for me. That’s just two letters, she sobs. I want to cry too, but I’m meant to be the grown-up one. And I chose this, though for the moment, I can’t remember why.
I remind myself: to clear my mind, to write, to walk, to be. And when I’m not feeling consumed by the idea that I am here alone, that’s what I do.
I write for hours every day, and then I pull on my boots and hike up the green mountain, a 2km vertical climb to the 16th century monastery above. I scramble along the shale track used by the partisans at the end of the second World War. Even though it’s after 5pm, it’s still hot. A plaque on the wall of the monastery celebrates the “self-denial and patriotic impetus for the freedom of Italy” of the resistance fighters who sheltered here. Heroes, it says.
I force my aching legs up the track, and think about heroes. My grandfather came here, to this same village, 20 years ago, during the desolate summer of my grandmother’s death.
He wore his grief quietly. He slept a lot at first, and didn’t say much. My parents worried that taking him away had been a mistake, that it was too soon. But then, one day, he announced he was going to walk to the monastery. It was too far and too steep for someone in his 80s with angina, but he was determined.
He started walking, stopping frequently to lean on his cane and look out over the thick folds of the valley. In this way, he managed a little bit further every day. Other people began to notice him, the old man with the neat white hair, paint-spattered cuffs and the cotton bag that held his sketchbook, slowly conquering the mountain. They silently cheered him on.
I sit at a table outside the monastery, now a fancy restaurant, and think about all the things my grandfather taught me
Sometimes my brother or his friend would go with him. Sometimes my parents followed, just in case. But mostly he was alone. He would stop for a while to draw or paint, and then he’d walk slowly back down the mountain.
When, one day, he got as far as the next village up, word came down the valley before he did. I saw your father, people said. Up there. He’s looking good.
Eventually, after a few weeks, he made it to the top. Then he came back down, and said he was ready to go home.
I sit at a table in the anaemic evening sunshine outside the monastery, now a fancy restaurant, and think about my grandfather conquering the mountain and his grief, one faltering step at a time. I think of all the other things he taught me. When I was little: how to hold a pencil, tie my laces, mix paints. When I was older: to ask the question without fear. That art and books are an excellent way to make sense of the world. That courtesy and grace are more powerful than anger.
And now, 15 years after his own death: that the only way through anything is one foot in front of the other. That grief is the price of love, and strength is the reward for grief. That humans persevere, and the sun always rises.