By David Gershan
Concetta sagged in her wheelchair as kitchen staff placed lunch trays for the residents in the dining room. Although she didn’t remember where she was, she wasn’t afraid, for the familiarity of her orange and green pureed food, the sparsely decorated walls, and enfeebled company gave her comfort. She knew she was supposed to be here—in this place and at this table—where she could look out and see the cream bricked terrace, flower gardens, and towering pine in the distance.
Dressed in a cable-knit sweater and oversized slacks to accommodate her pull-ups, Concetta was finally warming up after a cold night. Beneath her slacks, a chronic throb crept across webs of varicose veins, and the soft flesh of her shins squished through the tears in her compression stockings.
It was her hands, however, that most revealed the hardships of her life. Seventy years ago, a bullet took a finger off her left hand during the Nazi occupation of Rome. Now, after a career of dressmaking and decades of osteoarthritis, her hands had become tremoring masses of bony knuckles and distended fingers, warped and unworkable.
A nursing aid donned in a baggy maroon uniform approached Concetta and encouraged her to eat, forcefully wedging a fork between two crooked fingers and pointing to the plate. Heeding the command of this towering, blurry authority figure, Concetta moved her arm over the cream tablecloth, but her nails caught the linen and she dropped the fork. The man had already moved on.
Concetta ignored her tray, gazing instead upon the gardens outside. Sunlight escaped the clouds and poured onto her shock of white hair and pallid face. She sat idle, soaking up the spring sun and watching the purple coneflowers dance in a light breeze. They reminded her of Italy, when she and her sister would pick violets near the steel factory, waiting for their father to emerge from work. Italy was still clear in Concetta’s mind, untouched by her advancing Alzheimer’s.
Most vivid was the nine-month nightmare of the German occupation. Concetta remembered everything—her family nearly starving, her brother joining the resistance only to be imprisoned and never heard from again, her mother stalling the Gestapo, her countrymen fleeing Rome for the hills and leaving everything behind, the hundreds of allied warplanes, the bombing of the railway yards in summer, the mass deportation of Jews in the fall of 1943, and her train ride to Southern Poland. It wasn’t until Concetta was liberated, however, that she learned that her husband and two daughters didn’t survive the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of Rome.
A nurse unlocked Concetta’s wheelchair and moved her to the nursing cart, where she fed her pills in applesauce.
“Now it’s time for your bath, Mama,” she said after Concetta swallowed the last pill.
Concetta felt her wheelchair jolt. Someone was taking her away, pushing her quickly down a long, sterile hallway toward two strange doors. She didn’t remember this place and started to whimper but was promptly hushed. She was dropped off at the elevator among a group of nurses in blue uniform.
“Don’t you see they will take the little ones? They will kill my babies!” Concetta screamed in Italian, searching with wide cloudy eyes.
“English, speak English,” a nurse said, the others smirking.
Concetta tried to stand from her wheelchair, but a nurse calmly held her down by her forearms, one hand wrapped around the tattooed number. In a moment, Concetta’s strength was gone, and she sat in her wheelchair knowing they would kill her now. She looked at her skeletal hands. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t even sort.
“This is the routine before her bath,” the nurse murmured. She pushed Concetta in the elevator, locked her wheels, pressed a button and left with the others.
The elevator doors made a thud and closed slowly, leaving Concetta alone, cutting off the sounds of her weeping from the world.