On January 29th, my neighbour Francesco DeCaria died after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 87. He’d already had 2 major bypass operations when I met him 13 years ago, and he had many more procedures of different sorts performed on his ailing heart before he died. He fought death all the way, and he’d won a thousand small victories before he lost the final battle. He lasted as long as he did because he was a man who took a deep and fundamentally sound pleasure from being alive. He left behind a strong family, and a lot of people who loved him and had learned from him. I was one of them.
The first time I met him was the day I moved into the house we’d bought two doors south of his on Euclid Avenue. I was in the back yard hacking down the half-dozen three metre cedars some idiot had planted in the back yard, trees that are toxic to every other living plant, and the bane of every vegetable gardener—which of course every downtown Toronto Italian is.
He leaned over the fence with a small glass of espresso in his hand, and asked me if I believed in predestination. I accepted the espresso, and said, no, wondering what I was getting myself into.
“Neither do I,” he answered. “But let me tell you a story.”
During the next hour or two—I took down two more of the cedars—Francesco (or Ciccio—pronounced “Cheech”) told me his life story. He’d been a paratrooper in the Italian army, joining in late 1940 as a 18 year old, and made his first jump into Tunisia, I think, in 1942. He and his unit landed in the middle of a firefight, bullets flying everywhere, and his best friend was quickly wounded. Ciccio was helping him to cover, and at one point, with his arm around his friend’s waist, stopped and turned his head to look in the opposite direction. As he did, a bullet whizzed by his face, grazing his cheek, and killed his friend.
“It wasn’t my time,” he said, simply.
Of course, it wasn’t simple at all, nor were the several other close calls he related, each of which he explained with the same phrase. He told me that he’d been captured by the British, transferred to a POW camp in England, where he learned a little English, developed a permanent liking for the British to counter his dislike of Mussolini and the Nazis (and the French, as it turned out). When Mussolini was deposed in 1943, Ciccio was asked if he wanted to join an Allied paratroop unit. He said, yes, and eventually made another paratroop jump, this time behind the German lines in Normandy on D-Day. He survived that, too, offering the same explanation: it wasn’t his time.
I listened to these stories, entertained but not quite believing any of them. But they were very good stories, and Ciccio was even better company. I liked his way of making conversation, which had a leisurely sort of pace to it. Ciccio had learned to take his time with things, partly a learned response to having a bad heart, and partly his nature. He was following my excavation of the cedar roots with interest, clearly understanding why I was going to the trouble of digging out their poisonous roots, and encouraging me to be thorough about it without being supervisory. He was also taking in the spring breezes and the early April sunlight, telling me about the neighbourhood and talking about who my new neighbours were, and generally, welcoming me to his world.
It was Ciccio’s world, as it turned out. He was the semi-official Don of the neighbourhood. Not that he was a member of the Mafia or anything, just that he was the guy people automatically came to for advice or to settle small disputes—the kind of job competent and decent men acquire in any functioning culture, which is to say, the kind that most Anglo-Canadians do not have.
Ciccio, along with his wife Mimma and the neighbour between us, Vittoria, a tiny, sweet-faced widow who was the neighbourhood’s co-alpha female with Mimma, quickly adopted me, my wife, and my daughter (who was born a few months after we moved in) .
This adoption was no small matter. My daughter had full access to—and the protection of—three connected households while she was a toddler, and when either of the Italian households had a special event, we were included. We gardened together, sometimes ate together, made tomato sauce and barbecued peppers together in the back alley in the Autumn, and Ciccio and I made wine together each October until his doctors put a stop to his wine drinking. This sort of interfamily cooperation was familiar to me. I’d grown up with something similar in Northern B.C. in the 1950s, where cooperation with your neighbours wasn’t optional. But this went deeper, and it was, well, sweeter.
Part of my side of the cooperation came during the winter, when I shoveled the sidewalks for all three households. Since the total frontage was less than 20 metres, this wasn’t hard work, and if there was a serious snowfall, it always netted us two free dinners. On the first night, something delicious would come from Vittoria, and on the second, a huge dish of Mimma’s excellent pizza would arrive.
Over the years, Ciccio’s health slowly declined, and he slowed down, gradually and reluctantly. But he never really declined in the way that some elderly men do because he so much liked being alive. He continued to talk in the relaxed way he had, and he continued to patrol the neighbourhood, although from time to time over the last few years he’d outwalk his stamina, and we’d find him grey-faced with exhaustion on College Street, and either walk or drive him home.
Ciccio and I spent a fair amount of time sitting on his back porch drinking those small glasses of espresso, talking about making wine or growing tomatoes, or, sometimes, what it was like being alive. He had a physical gesture he used when words failed him: he’d smile, cock his head slightly, and wiggle his hand and arm toward the sky, as if to say, ah, here’s the sunlight, here’s the breeze, here’s the loss of my driver’s licence, here’s the difficulty of simply getting a breath, here’s my life, such as it is: more than enough.
During our porch conversations I came to realize that the war stories he told me that first day were all true, and that Ciccio had embellished very few of the facts, and then, only to make his point. He almost always had an interesting point to make, and some of them could be sharp.
One chilly fall day as I was walking our crippled Golden Retriever up the street, I heard Ciccio’s voice calling me from his porch. He was taking in the air, bundled up against the cold, and he had something he wanted to impart.
He motioned me to sit in the chair next to him. I sat down, settled the dog, and waited.
“You know,” he said carefully, “You’re an educated man.”
I shrugged, not sure what was coming, but pretty sure it was going to be a good one. He let the pause grow before he continued.
“So what,” he asked, “are you doing walking around behind a dog, picking up its shit?”
He said this without contempt or even judgment. It was simply a question that puzzled him. Since I had no good answer, I admitted that I didn’t know, and that I’d think about it.
Ciccio, of course, knew why I was walking the dog: because I’d accepted responsibility for it. Most of us accept such responsibilities. He’d accepted more than his share, and cheerfully. But he had the sort of curiosity that swiftly generalizes, and in the right way: why do we do the things we do? I’d shovel his walks until eternity for just the privilege of keeping those sorts of existential interrogations. (And no, I still don’t have a good answer for that question he asked, not the existential answer.)
One time, just as he was about to enter hospital for one of his many heart procedures, he called me on the phone and asked me to come over. “I have something for you,” he said.
I rushed over, sensing that whatever it was, it was important. He sat me down at the kitchen table, and handed over an intact 1970s bottle of Old Vienna beer. “I want you to have this,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the hospital, and someone needs to take care of it.”
I stared at the bottle of beer. The contents were murky, and the cap was beginning to rust. It certainly wasn’t drinkable, so something else was going on. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll take good care of it while you’re gone.”
“Okay,” he said, and struggled to his feet. That was all he was going to tell me, but he really didn’t have to say anything more. He was telling me that I was in charge, that I was, temporarily, the Don: in charge of protecting our three families while he was out of commission—and just maybe, if I was interested or capable, more than that.
Ciccio survived the procedure—it wasn’t his time. He survived it and a dozen other crises for the same reason. But he didn’t ask for the beer bottle when he came back from the hospital, and we never discussed it again. It is now the Sacred Beer Bottle, carefully kept in my house, and it will be passed onto one of my sons someday, along with the story and its charge: be a good man, and enjoy every moment you can, until it’s your time.
RIP Francesco DeCaria, 28 October, 1923-January 29, 2010