Every spring on my birthday I arrived home from a day teaching my first-graders to find flowers at the door. My husband, Joe, working late, made sure that if he couldn't be there to greet me, a bouquet would. And so it went every year in the Italian neighborhood where we had lived for more than 20 years. We had become as much a fixture as the street vendors or the candy lady or the old men sitting out in front of the cafe for hours on end. Still, the neighbors referred to us to as "the Americans."
Joe, a director of a small language school, had studied Italian and devoured the culture, but I never learned much; chatting with the neighbors and shopkeepers was all I really needed. I didn't have to speak Italian well in my job at an American school, and Joe took care of most everything.
It all changed that afternoon in late October when I was told that Joe had died at work. We thought that he had thrown off the shroud of polycystic kidney disease when he received a kidney transplant six years before. Years of taking powerful antirejection drugs had weakened his heart, and when the autopsy showed that it was twice its normal size, I remember thinking how appropriate for my partner of 30 years.
During the funeral and with the multitude of arrangements that needed to be taken care of, I felt almost like a robot. Our three children needed me to take care of them and everything else. I had to be strong, and that meant not giving in to self-indulgence or self-pity. In the months that followed, however, I was able to let go, often crying out of frustration as much as out of loss. I had no idea how to pay the rent or electric bill in Italy, where these things were done in person and only on certain days of the week at certain hours of the day, each bill having its own unique day, time and place. Keeping up the house and car was another challenge. I thought I had been the one to do all the housework, but I had no idea what to do when the pilot light in our water heater went out. And I needed to learn how to run our old Italian washing machine with its wash cycles that could be set for soaking hours in boiling water, and hoses that needed to be drained after every use.
Perhaps worst of all, the mail became a relentless source of anxiety. Most of it looked so official, and it frustrated me that I couldn't always understand it completely. Then there were the letters from organizations to whom Joe had regularly sent donations. Although his generosity and compassion were qualities that had endeared him to me, I would often pester him about giving money to the "Little Sisters of San Gennaro" who sent him holy cards asking for money for their "female orphanage" down in Sicily. (How did he know that wasn't a scam?) And the leper colony in North Africa? (Did that disease even exist anymore?) I drafted a form letter with my regrets to all, explaining why he would no longer be able to support their worthy causes.
Then there was the letter from Yoshi. Years ago, I had read a personal ad in the International Herald-Tribune from a Japanese man who was looking to practice his English with someone who shared his passion for the music of the folk trio of Peter, Paul and Mary. Joe had always been a fan, and since his job was teaching English as a second language, it seemed like destiny asking him to answer the ad. Apparently, Yoshi was a big fan of "PPM," as he called them.
So began a 10-year correspondence, though they would never meet in person. Through the years, along with several beautiful Japanese gifts, we would get news of PPM concerts and videos, where they were traveling to next, their charitable causes, even photographs of Yoshi sitting on his living room couch between either P and P, or P and M. After hearing that Joe was diagnosed with kidney disease, Yoshi had even gotten them to write Joe a letter, pleasing him to no end.
I sat down to write. I would finally introduce myself to Yoshi and let him know why Joe wouldn't be writing to him anymore. This was the task I'd put off the longest. It wasn't until late winter that I finally sent the letter to Japan.
The school year was coming to a close, and I had decided that we would be leaving Italy soon and began making plans for leaving a place that had been our home for 20 years. One day in mid April, my children and I arrived home from school. Soon after, a knock came at the door. There stood the florist whom I had seen many times before, this time holding an enormous cloud of white lilies entwined with ivory silk ribbons and a scent of heaven about it. I thought of my mom. She must have sent them for my birthday, but what extravagance!
Then I read the card.
I am grieved by news of death of Joe
— Condolences, from Yoshi
He had received my letter and, to honor his pen pal's death, had sent flowers. They had arrived, as always, on my birthday.
Donna LaDuke teaches third grade at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg and works part-time at Huntington Learning Center.