My grandmother’s last months

By Gaia Squarci

Chiara Micheletti helps her mother Marisa Vesco take a shower in Cossato, Italy, June 7, 2015.
Chiara Micheletti helps her mother Marisa Vesco take a shower in Cossato, Italy, June 7, 2015.

My grandmother’s life and mine overlapped for 27 years. I always called her “Nonna.”

Our age difference and profoundly contrasting values and way of thinking did not prevent us from developing a strong bond and a relationship punctuated by mischievous games and moments of tenderness and humour. We were amused by our differences.


“You know, I was still young when you were born,” she told me a few weeks before she died. “It’s a little like we grew up together.”

At a lunch table a few months earlier in Milan, I learned from my mother, her daughter, that Nonna, 85, suffered from incurable liver cancer. Years before, she had already survived two bouts of breast cancer.


Nonna would tell me time and time again that the news of my birth had given her the strength to fight.

When I learned that she was sick again, I had just landed in Italy, where I would be for only three days before flying back to New York.


Even more heartbreaking than the fear of saying goodbye to her was the fact that my grandmother did not know how sick she was. My mother and aunt believed she could not bear the thought of a third bout with cancer, this time, affecting her liver. Nonna was told by family members that her liver was ill.


No one ever mentioned the word “cancer.”

Because of this, one question haunted us until the day she died: Did we have the right to know the truth about her condition when she did not?

Marisa Vesco embraces her nephew Luca Squarci.

Nonna spent most of her last months at home, surrounded by family. She reconciled with the idea of death and said she could slowly feel it coming.

Doctors felt that surgery and chemotherapy would be pointless.


In the midst of all this, I realised my mother was losing her mother.

After moving back to Italy for a few months, I witnessed the range of my mother’s emotions and the energy she devoted to the time they had left together.

Nonna’s world shrank to a few walls and fewer streets. In this narrow existence, every detail and daily act took on deeper meaning.


One of the things my mother treasured most was giving her mother a bath. She did not hesitate to touch her old body, and she did not want others to do it on her behalf.

I joined my mother and grandmother in the bathroom to quietly observe them with my camera.


As I experienced those precious moments, I imagined myself at an older age and thought about how time changes one’s perspective on being a woman.

As my grandmother faced my lens, completely naked, her body bearing the signs of past and present illnesses, she did not show the slightest bit of shame – only trust and pride.


If you spoke with people in Nonna’s town they would say she never left the house without being enveloped in a cloud of perfume, her white hair perfectly coiffed and her face tinged with makeup.

I was surprised by the way she confronted being ill without losing her femininity. She was able to poke fun at herself. More than once she asked me, “Am I going to end up on Vogue or Marie Claire?”


On Oct. 11, 2015, the day Nonna died in Biella, Italy, I was across the world in Brooklyn, New York. I had spent five months with her, celebrating her life instead of mourning her death.

I remember taking a walk through the Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brooklyn and staring for a while at kids competing in a race. I was unable to come to terms with the fact she was no longer a part of the world around me.

I struggled with the concept of death and the abstract emotion we call grief. I found peace only when I returned to Italy to spread Nonna’s ashes.


My family and I walked to Nonna’s favourite place in the mountains not far from Cossato in northwestern Italy, the town in which she had grown up.

Her ashes felt heavy in my hands. I threw them far up into the air, and they fell all over the grass, and all over me. My mother, brother and aunt did the same, again and again.

In the end, we were covered in Nonna’s ashes and so was the field around us.

Months later, my mother sent me a photograph of that field. It was completely covered in flowers.

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