It was the end of 2010, and I had just left my husband.
I wanted to love being married and sharing my life with someone, but my marriage only made me feel more alone. It was like waking up one day to realize you had accidentally taken over someone else’s life. Who was the person that wanted this life, and said yes to it in front of all her family and friends?
I didn’t know the answer to that question, so I packed a few suitcases and returned to my childhood home. My mother was working out-of-state at the time and not able to come home, so it was just me and my father on New Year’s Eve. We ate dinner in front of the TV while watching a Doctor Who marathon, which my dad called Dottor Vu because of his Italian accent. I tried to be hopeful about the upcoming year, but it felt too much like everything was ending, and I’d done nothing but hurt people. We watched the ball drop quietly at midnight, and then Dad gave a toast: “To everyone who hates us, go fuck yourselves!”
I felt better immediately.
Then I’d gather the dishes and give him a kiss goodnight. Buona notte.
Over the next few months, Dad and I settled into a routine. I helped around the house by doing the grocery shopping, and I’d always get our favorite dessert: lemon cake. In an Italian household, you can’t have dessert without a digestif. My dad’s favorite was Amaro Averna, a liqueur made from herbs, that’s bitter with a sweet aftertaste. Every night, I’d go into the kitchen to slice us each a piece of cake and pour the Amaro into shot glasses. We’d sit in his room and give a quick toast (Cin, cin!) and enjoy the end of our day together, watching sitcoms and chatting a little. Then I’d gather the dishes and give him a kiss goodnight. Buona notte.
I was applying for jobs in New York City during these months, and finally I got one just as my mother was able to move back home. Our nightly Amaro toasts were coming to an end, and as much as I wanted to get out of my hometown and into the city, I was sad to leave him too. Our evening ritual had become the highlight of my day.
Once I was in New York, any doubts I had about ending my marriage drifted away. A few happy years passed, but then my dad got sick and my aunt called to tell me it was time to go home. My father had been suffering from cancer for a while, but the illness had been brutal in the last few months. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I think it’s going to happen this week.”
He was unable to speak much, but he told Jon he was sorry they were meeting at the end of his life.
My boyfriend Jon drove me home from New York. When we arrived, my dad was wildly different from the person I’d seen a few weeks before at Thanksgiving. He was unable to speak much, but he told Jon he was sorry they were meeting at the end of his life. I tried not to cry, struggling to think of ways to make him feel better, the way he had done for me. Every night, I would say buona notte as I left, searching his eyes for recognition. You’re still here, I’d think. Don’t go yet. On the last night when he was still speaking, he said it back to me, quietly, as I left the room. Buona notte. After that he started sleeping all day. And after that he was gone.
After his memorial service, I was talking with my aunt about those months I had spent in limbo, hanging out with my father and trying to figure out what to do next. “That must have been so boring for you,” she said. “Stuck here with nothing to do.” I told her it wasn’t, really. When I told my dad that I needed to come home, I felt like a failure. But he said he was proud of me for doing what I needed to do and he let me sit there, quietly drinking an Amaro with him every night until I became myself again.
It would have made my dad laugh to see their faces twist at that first bitter sip.
And now I seek out Amaro everywhere. If I see it on a restaurant menu, I order it and make my friends try it. “This was my dad’s favorite,” I’ll say. “You have to taste it.” Not everyone loves it, but that’s okay. It would have made my dad laugh to see their faces twist at that first bitter sip. “This drink is Italian,” he’d say with a teasing disappointment in his voice. “And you don’t like it.”
A few months after he died, my mom and I traveled with some friends to Italy to bring his ashes back to his hometown. His wish was for us to climb the huge mountain that overlooks the town and scatter his ashes at the peak, looking down on the place where he grew up. We joked that he’d be laughing at us as we hiked — sweaty and miserable, but determined to make him happy.
It didn’t work out exactly as we’d hoped. We had to take a van and then a Jeep, the big group of us knocking shoulders as we bounced our way up the mountain. Finally we parked the Jeep and walked the last bit to the peak. The threat of rain hovered over us, but just before it started, we found a spot for him to rest and said our goodbyes. It was awful and beautiful at the same time.
All of us look like him; his brother has the same hands.
Later, we gathered with his whole family to share a toast in his honor. All of us look like him; his brother has the same hands. Each of our glasses was full of Amaro and as we raised them up, I gave his favorite toast silently so I wouldn’t have to translate it into Italian and swear in front of my relatives: “To everyone who hates us, go fuck yourselves.” I tasted the bittersweet drink and felt better.