JEN­NIFER O’CON­NELL

He con­quered the moun­tain and his grief, one fal­ter­ing step at a time

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

Icount the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with some­one other than my­self to­day. There are three, if you in­clude the one with the woman who leans to­wards me with a face etched in laugh­ter, and de­mands to know why I am tak­ing a pic­ture of a horse. All I can man­age in re­ply is “it is nice”, be­fore she walks off, cack­ling to her­self. But I in­clude her any­way.

The tally of ev­i­dence that I am still alive also in­cludes my brief con­ver­sa­tions with the bread man. He ar­rives into the vil­lage like a mi­nor emer­gency, lean­ing on the horn of his Volk­swa­gen, ca­reen­ing to a stop out­side the restau­rant. Our con­ver­sa­tions con­sist of me point­ing at some fo­cac­cia, and him telling me it’s 90 cents. He is in­cluded, be­cause four days into my ex­per­i­ment with soli­tude, even that much hu­man con­tact is pre­cious.

I also in­clude Rosie, my next- door neigh­bour, who is a daily les­son in for­ti­tude as she waits for me to for­mu­late some­thing ap­proach­ing a co­her­ent sen­tence. When what fi­nally emerges is “We are only here”, she nods gra­ciously, as though the Dalai Lama him­self has spo­ken. What I meant to say was: “I am here alone.”

I am here alone.

“Here” is a beau­ti­ful me­dieval vil­lage on the side of a moun­tain in the Apuane Alps in North­ern Italy.

There are no real shops, and I have no car, and the restau­rant is un­ex­pect­edly closed for hol­i­days. It has been four days since I had a face- to- face in­ter­ac­tion in English; five since I’ve seen my hus­band and chil­dren, though we video chat ev­ery night.

On the screen of my phone, the four- year- old hides her face and re­fuses to look at me, as though I’m a scary shop Santa Claus. One night, she cries into her fists be­cause she only got to colour in the “We” on the “We Miss You” poster they are mak­ing as a sur­prise for me. That’s just two let­ters, she sobs. I want to cry too, but I’m meant to be the grown- up one. And I chose this, though for the mo­ment, I can’t re­mem­ber why.

I re­mind my­self: to clear my mind, to write, to walk, to be. And when I’m not feel­ing con­sumed by the idea that I am here alone, that’s what I do.

I write for hours ev­ery day, and then I pull on my boots and hike up the green moun­tain, a 2km ver­ti­cal climb to the 16th cen­tury monastery above. I scram­ble along the shale track used by the par­ti­sans at the end of the sec­ond World War. Even though it’s af­ter 5pm, it’s still hot. A plaque on the wall of the monastery cel­e­brates the “self- de­nial and pa­tri­otic im­pe­tus for the free­dom of Italy” of the re­sis­tance fight­ers who shel­tered here. He­roes, it says.

I force my aching legs up the track, and think about he­roes. My grand­fa­ther came here, to this same vil­lage, 20 years ago, dur­ing the deso­late sum­mer of my grand­mother’s death.

He wore his grief qui­etly. He slept a lot at first, and didn’t say much. My par­ents wor­ried that tak­ing him away had been a mis­take, that it was too soon. But then, one day, he an­nounced he was go­ing to walk to the monastery. It was too far and too steep for some­one in his 80s with angina, but he was de­ter­mined.

He started walk­ing, stop­ping fre­quently to lean on his cane and look out over the thick folds of the val­ley. In this way, he man­aged a lit­tle bit fur­ther ev­ery day. Other peo­ple be­gan to no­tice him, the old man with the neat white hair, paint- spat­tered cuffs and the cot­ton bag that held his sketch book, slowly con­quer­ing the moun­tain. They silently cheered him on.

Some­times my brother or his friend would go with him. Some­times my par­ents fol­lowed, just in case. But mostly he

‘‘

Peo­ple be­gan to no­tice him, the old man with the neat white hair, slowly con­quer­ing the moun­tain. They silently cheered him on

was alone. He would stop for a while to draw or paint, and then he’d walk slowly back down the moun­tain.

When, one day, he got as far as the next vil­lage up, word came down the val­ley be­fore he did. I saw your fa­ther, peo­ple said. Up there. He’s look­ing good.

Even­tu­ally, af­ter a few weeks, he made it to the top. Then he came back down, and said he was ready to go home.

I sit at a ta­ble in the anaemic evening sun­shine out­side the monastery, now a fancy restau­rant, and think about my grand­fa­ther con­quer­ing the moun­tain and his grief, one fal­ter­ing step at a time. I think of all the other things he taught me. When I was lit­tle: how to hold a pen­cil, tie my laces, mix paints. When I was older: to ask the ques­tion with­out fear. That art and books are an ex­cel­lent way to make sense of the world. That cour­tesy and grace are more pow­er­ful than anger.

And now, 15 years af­ter his own death: that the only way through any­thing is one foot in front of the other. That grief is the price of love, and strength is the re­ward for grief. That hu­mans per­se­vere, and the sun al­ways rises.

jo­con­nell@ irish­times. com

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