Sometimes we have a person who comes into the little pool of our lives and creates, even if they are only there for a short time, big ripples that will never dissipate.
For over two years, Bernadette and Layla were a constant couple in Cianciana as they wandered the streets; Bernadette running her errands and Layla trotting alongside on the end of a leash.
Bernadette arrived in Cianciana, I think, in the spring of 2013 with the plan that she would live in our little town for a full year before leaving, even on holidays. And, except for small forays to the market in Ribera and to the bank in Sciacca, she did exactly that.
If you measure in actual time, I really only spent five months in her company but if your measure is friendship, her impact on my life was much larger – this is what the impact of the “expat experience” is often like. And while I really only dabble in being an expat, Bernadette was the real thing. Friendships are telescoped by experiences and frustrations. Every foreigner residing even part-time in Cianciana (or any other small Italian town) has stories of outrageous line-ups at the bank or frustrations with Telecom Italia, or sitting nervously in the notaio’s office with two translators side by side asking if you are sure you understand as you sign away tens of thousands of euros and then walk away knowing you’ve bought a house but with nothing in your hands because in true Italian bureaucratic style, the deed won’t be ready for months. Such was the case with our friendship.
In early July 2013, I was walking down to the realtor’s office, probably to borrow their WIFI when I passed a tall, very thin woman walking a little terrier. As I passed, I smiled but didn’t say the ubiquitous “Bon giorno” as she was very obviously not Italian. She stopped and said, “Hey, aren’t you that woman that writes the blog?” And as quick as that, we were friends.
That first summer she and I were glued at the hip. We saw each other almost daily for coffee, gelato, to go shopping or just for a walk. She was living in a rental flat while the work went on in the little house she had bought a couple of months before. Nick and I had her over for dinner or just wine in the evening and we offered to let her stay in our house for free until her’s was done. After one trip up the four flights of stairs she replied with a breathless, “No fecking way! Do ya want ta kill me?” Her little house wasn’t done until after we left that summer but Bernadette moved in before it was exactly habitable. If I remember correctly, she had no power for the first little while. Or perhaps it was water.
Even though, at the point we met, Bernadette had only been in Cianciana a couple of months longer than we had, through Bernadette, Nick and I met many of the cast of characters who were to become our neighbour and friends, comrades in arms; Sav, Tony the Marxist, Marta and Fabrizio the film-makers, Diane J with the house next to the clocktower bar, Robert who lives near the pool and so many others. She showed us the markets in Ribera and in Cianciana. And she entrusted us with the “secret” location of her favourite beach and made us swear we would not reveal it. And in the end, it became my favourite beach too, not just because it was that rare thing – a beautiful Sicilian beach with no commercial enterprise anywhere in sight but also because it was Bernadette’s beach and we went there together.
When our second summer in Cianciana started, Bernadette was a little aloof – stand-offish and I was afraid that I’d offended her. But in Bernadette’s inimitably blunt way, she told me that she wasn’t happy when I’d “buggered off” to Canada and left her behind. Yes, yes, she knew why and that I’d had to go but she didn’t like it and there it fecking well was. Did I mention that Bernadette was blunt? Actually, what I saw in Bernadette was less blunt and more honest. She saw things in a particular way and spoke her truth about them. More than once I listened to a conversation – a conversation that Bernadette would call a discussion but the other party would call a heated argument. One day I sat with Bernadette and Diane J at the Bar Trieste with my head ping-ponging back and forth as they discussed/argued the Palestine situation. That day I disagreed with Bernadette but I had to give her credit for the tenacity with which she argued every point.
I became very fond of Bernadette. It always brightened my day whenever I bumped into her and Layla as she wandered about the town. She loved maple syrup and she asked us for a jar every summer and every summer we complied. I loved sitting with her in the piazza, or in her lovely little kitchen finally finished, or just outside her door in Via Marconi. One of us would make a joke and she would laugh her infectious raspy laugh as smoke from her cigarette curled up from one hand and a glass of wine came precariously close to sloshing over in the other. And Layla, her beloved Layla that she alternately swore at and called ‘my love’, completing the picture.
Last summer we arrived to find Bernadette struggling with eating. This was not an unusual thing as she had been battling with troubles with her teeth for many years. At first I didn’t worry but when she refused to go out to dinner at all and I didn’t see her out and about, the niggles of worry began in my mind. I dropped by her house to bring her the maple syrup and she told me a tale that was going to occupy a small corner of Cianciana constantly over the next month. Bernadette had been suffering with a sore throat for five months by the time we arrived. It had not improved, only worsened in that time. She couldn’t eat without choking. She’d been to the doctor and was told it was all in her mind. This is when one discovers who the true friends really are, and Bernadette, as caustic and opinionated as she could be at times had other qualities that drew people to her and made them love her in spite of her rough exterior. Not to be clichéd, but Bernadette had a heart of gold and was as sweet and tender inside as she was tough on the outside.
Right away she was surrounded by those of us that loved her. Diane J, Pat and Maria took the brunt of the responsibilities – driving her to appointment after appointment, holding her hand, hugging her when she cried, listening to her rail against the gods when she was angry. And behind these three, supporting them was a small community of people; me, Franca – our dear British/Sicilian friend, Joey – Diane J’s son, Teodora – Maria’s daughter, and Nick. And beyond that was a network of people in this very Catholic village who kept her in their prayers.
This is not to say that there weren’t people who let her down, the medical community in particular. It is hard to say which doctor failed her the most from general practitioners to ER doctors to lab technicians, they told her it was all in her mind, it was acid reflux or they blamed her over and over when they couldn’t get the scope down her throat. Finally she met Dr. Scarpe, an internist in the hospital in Sciacca. What a kind and compassionate man. It was Dr. Scarpe who listened to what she had to say and took her seriously. It was Dr. Scarpe who finally diagnosed her with stage 4 esophageal cancer – inoperable and terminal. It was Dr. Scarpe who told her to go home to Dublin, a city with one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. I met Dr. Scarpe once when I went with Pat to pick up Bernadette’s medical records for her to take with her to Dublin. He spoke to us slowly and gently in Italian, explain to us that the cancer had metastasized. It was everywhere. I was so grateful that if she had to hear such devastating news at least she heard it from someone with such compassion.
In the three days before her flight, Maria, who had translated everything, even the distressing news, stayed with Bernadette through those first terrible hours. I have no words to express my awe and gratitude at the selfless gift Maria gave to Bernadette.
Before she left, I saw Bernadette once more. We sat with her at the Bar San Antonio late in the morning before she flew back to Dublin. Some of her closest friends from Cianciana sat with her. We laughed and cried and finally it was time for her to go. We walked slowly across the piazza and I hugged her emaciated body, told her I loved her and wished her a safe trip. As I watched her bone-thin body walk away, Layla, as always, by her side, I knew that would be my last glimpse of Bernadette…
True to form, when Bernadette got settled in Dublin, she began to post on Facebook. Always a talented writer, her words took on a bitter poignancy as she shared her journey with her typical rapier-like ability to get to the heart of the matter. She called her cancer “Katapus” – a one hundred-legged octopus that wrapped its tentacles around her, squeezing tighter and tighter until she entered the hospital for the last time and her computer was silent.
Bernadette died on Tuesday, November 10th and her funeral was on Friday, November 13th, what would have been her 61st birthday. At her funeral, her son, Michael, said, “Well one thing I can tell you for sure, most people who met her never forgot her. She always made an impression. Always shot from the hip.
She valued honesty and strait-forwardness above all else. She certainly had no time for pretentiousness or fakery, always telling it like it is…. no matter who’s feathers she ruffled along the way.
Her cutting wit and humour was quite legendary. I know her friends loved her for it. She even made a name for her cancer, for her nemesis, she called it Katopus. The hundred tentacled creature that had wrapped itself around her these last months.
She really was a great writer.
As a mother to her three children Bernadette was one of the most giving and kindest mothers. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for her children. I’m going to miss that. That special kind of unconditional love that only a mother can give.
As a family we’ve all been thinking a lot about my mother these past months as she battled this horrible and all too common disease. It’s been a hard few months, but it’s brought us together. She dealt with her illness with a surprising amount of dignity and courage. She managed to do things her way till the end.
Her battle with Katopus is now finally over, she’s free again.”
What tremendous words from her oldest boy. Her daughter, Anna, shared with me later that Saint Mary’s Priory was packed to the rafters with people who had known and loved her. At the same time there was a network of friends all over the world – in Italy, in Greece, in Canada, in the US, in Britain, and elsewhere who had, at that exact moment, Bernadette in their hearts. I cannot think of a better final birthday party and I’m sure that Bernadette was watching it from above – cigarette in one hand, glass of wine in the other – laughing her infectious raspy laugh.
Good-bye Bernadette, I will miss you.