by Gloria DiFulvio

The story is she was hanging up clothes when the aches and pains crept into her body. It was an unusually warm day, but she began to feel chilled — as if winter days had snuck into August. She felt weakness in her knees, started to sweat. She saw her neighbor working in her garden and called for her. Could she help her inside? Perhaps watch her three small children? Before she could take her first step towards the door, she collapsed, the morning’s labor of laundry now lying before her in the dusty grass.

Her neighbor was afraid. She took her arm, helped her up and walked her slowly inside. She undressed her and placed a cool cloth on her forehead. She shuffled the kids outside asking the oldest, only five years old, to watch the younger ones. She hoped she got them out of the house in time. She wanted to stay and care for her but knew she will only endanger herself. This flu left few survivors in its wake.

She lay in bed for three days, fever burning through her body. She wanted nothing more than to embrace her youngest son, held to her breast for barely a year. But she also knew she needed to protect him as his little body wouldn’t survive this virus. She heard him cry out for her from the neighbors’ window, each cry sending a shiver down her spine. “I will come for you, my baby boy,” she whispered as she took her last breath.

My grandmother, Umilta DiFulvio, died from the Flu in 1918, nearly 50 years before I was born. Her death was sudden and sparked a turn of events in my father’s life that profoundly changed him. I have always felt a curious kinship for this virus — like a dysfunctional family member you need to embrace because he is a part of your being. Not unlike my father, I often wondered how life might be different had she survived.

I imagine my father as a one-year old crying for those three days, searching for the warm breast of his mother. I imagine him wondering why she had abandoned him. I imagine him yearning for her embrace, which until this moment kept him safe and warm. I imagine him alone, with a hunger in his belly and a longing for a touch that would console him. If she had lived, she would have scooped him into her arms once the fever broke, held him close and reassured him of her love. She would have rocked him to sleep while he closed his eyes, tiny hands clinging to her dress.

If she had lived, my grandfather would have kept his mason’s job, laying bricks to build the city’s center. He used to labor knowing that the woman he loved so much would care for his children while he was away. He would welcome the ache in his back at the end of a brutal day because it meant he could feed his family. Instead, when the demand of caring for his children made him late for the work lines, they hired another immigrant to replace him. He would show up, desperate for a day’s pay, only to return home with empty pockets.

If she had lived, my grandfather’s despair would have subsided once she touched his face, her fingertips telling him she would stay by his side. Instead, he woke up to a tear stained pillow, wondering why she was crying, only to find the tears were his own.

If she had lived, my grandfather wouldn’t have talked to the nuns at the orphanage, “It’s just for awhile, until I find work. No, they cannot go up for adoption. I will be back for them.” His three children wouldn’t have cried at the entrance, with their arms outstretched, reaching for the remnants of the life they knew — if only briefly. My father, barely a toddler, would not have laid weeping, alone in his crib — thinking his mother would come for him, soon, soon — while the nuns attended to their many charges.

Instead, he learned the only way to ease his suffering was to withdraw deeply into himself, even though he might never find his way out. At night, when my father was lonely and afraid, he closed his eyes tight, hoping the bully would forget where he slept — terror paralyzing his body. His heart hardened with each passing day so that after 10-years inside those walls, he could barely feel its beat.

The day his father and new wife were to return, he was filled with anticipation. He took his siblings’ hands and waited outside for the family that would save him. If she had lived, his excitement wouldn’t have crumbled when he realized his father was not the man he remembered and his new mother was a stranger.

If she had lived, my father would not have carefully crafted the walls that barricaded his heart from the world. He would have felt he was worthy, would have fallen in love. Instead, my father walked through life as a solitary man. A gifted athlete, he never pursued his dream of baseball because he never believed he could. He drove aimlessly across the country seeking solace in his religion and searching for his purpose. He traveled to Italy and brought home a wife he barely knew. He spent the next 30 years wondering why his marriage still left him empty and alone.

If she had lived, I would have known a different man.

Instead of a withdrawn and broken man, he would have stood tall and confident. He would have accepted the missteps of his children with an empathetic, firm hand rather than punishing. His anger would have been more predictable. He wouldn’t have looked to his children for his happiness, but would have found it within himself.

My father longed for his mother until his death at age 70. The night before he died, he told me he saw her — she was waiting for him — a smile on her face. He wanted nothing more than to finally feel her arms around him again.

Just over 100 years after the flu crept into my grandmother’s body and took her life, I wonder what my father would have been like, if his eyes would have reflected contentment with his present rather than a yearning for his past.

If she had lived.

This story was first published in the anthology Family Stories from the Attic, edited by Christi Craig and Lisa Rivero and published by Hidden Timber Books.

Writer. Feminist. Public Health Advocate. Academic. Storyteller. @gdifulvio

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