My brother-in- law Graham had flown in to Buffalo from New York City with his girlfriend Keiko. He was to spend three days with my in-laws, Marilyn and Liam, in Niagara Falls,Ontario. He’d been estranged from them for almost five years after a Christmas incident which, in retrospect, amounted to a silly misunderstanding. The details have faded over time. That it went on for five years will forever perplex me. I couldn’t imagine holding a grudge against a family member for that long. But I know it happens.
It was an overcast October morning when my wife Karen and I drove down to the Falls from Toronto. We’d rented a room at the Hilton for two nights because her folks’ townhouse was small and Graham, suffering from late-stage colon cancer, needed space. He’d just turned fifty. He should have been in palliative care, and had ignored the advice of his physician, who warned he was too weak for air travel. But, determined to make peace with his parents before he went out, he took the trip.
Graham’s state of emaciation shocked me. The shaved head and skinny jeans didn’t help. I hadn’t seen him in five years. Not my choice, I might add. I’d always liked and respected Graham. We shared an interest in film and had caught a few together during the Toronto Film Festival—for which he flew in every year. But when he fell out with his folks, my wifewas forced to pick sides. She chose her parents, and cut off her brother. I stood by that decision, even though I felt bad about it. I had no beef with Graham.
I don’t think any of us thought it would go on for five years. At least I didn’t. But time has a way of evaporating.
When Graham told my wife he had inoperable colon cancer, a few months back, she flew out to New York to spend a week with him, during which time they came to some kind of understanding. “We’re good now,” she said, weeping inconsolably for days after she returned.
Now he was here, with Keiko, his young Korean girlfriend, and not looking well. He gave me a firm but moist handshake and put on a brave face, but he could barely stand on his own, leaning against Keiko as we met in the in-laws’ foyer. Karen hugged her brother with tears in her eyes. The reality of his illness and imminent death was a bitter enough pill to swallow, but her guilt for five years of meaningless estrangement could not be assuaged.
My in-laws stood there, subdued. Although Marilyn smiled in her tight way and spoke affably enough, her sharp blue eyes betrayed an undercurrent of counter- emotions—at once sadness and anger—but one could never be sure with her. My senescent father-in- law, sporting a new Don Cherry goatee, said little, though I saw him rest his hand on Graham’s neck at one point, albeit briefly.
We sat in the parlor, exchanging banalities. What do you say to someone who’s doomed? Notwithstanding the fact we’re all doomed. There’s the rub.
“How was the flight?” Karen asked.
“No issues,” Keiko said.
“Had to empty my leg-bag midway,” Graham said with a terrible smile.
“No, I did,” Keiko said, with a note of impatience.
The in-laws nodded and listened. I couldn’t read them. Never could. Emotional sphinxes, they remained inscrutable even under duress. I couldn’t fault them for that. Emotionalism can cripple and shame the spirit, given all the setbacks and sorrows it will inevitably suffer in a lifetime.
Marilyn served coffee and sandwiches in the dining room. Half past noon, menacing rain clouds made it feel like evening. While we ate, Graham told us that he planned to be cremated, with a modest memorial service, and wanted each of us to have a vial of his ashes.
“Must we talk about this now?” Marilyn said, rattling a china creamer and radiating uneasiness like a siren.
“Mum,” said Graham, tightlipped, “no better time than the present. I’m sorry it’s hard for you. But I’ll feel better if I can settle these things now.”
She didn’t like it, but let him go on. Graham wasn’t morbid at all. He spoke calmly enough, now and then wincing and shifting in his chair. A fine film of sweat lent his face a dull shine that, combined with his grey pallor and sunken cheeks, aroused my pity. I hated myself for feeling this way. I’m sure he didn’t want my pity.
“Look,” I said, “if there’s anything I can do, Graham, anything.”
He closed and opened his grey eyes.
“There is one thing, Sammy,” he said, smiling.
I had made it once for him. He was visiting Karen and me shortly after we were married, during the Film Festival.
“Make me some Bolognese and I’ll be eternally grateful.” He smiled at his emphasis.
The request elated me. What better gift for my dying brother-in- law than a plate of my Bolognese? It was the one thing I never fucked up. The in-laws cheered the idea. Liam, who had lived in Rome during his bachelor days, loved Italian food and my take on it.
“Wait till you taste Sammy’s Bolognese,” Graham said to Keiko. “You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Karen and I drove off to Commisso’s down the road to grab the ingredients. Marilyn slipped me some money as we headed out. I told her it was the least I could do, but she insisted. She wanted to contribute. Even sphinxes feel remorse, I guess.
In the car, Karen squeezed my hand and thanked me.
“I truly appreciate this.”
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“No, Sammy, it’s something.”
We hadn’t talked for a couple of days, or barely. Can’t recall why. I’d slept in the spare room last two nights. We had driven to the Falls in near silence. She was good at the silent treatment, brilliant. I didn’t fight it anymore. Over the years I realized that fighting it only made me seem fatuous and needy.
Commisso’s carries quality Italian products and premium ground veal. I didn’t want to skimp. I’m fully aware of the ethical quandary of veal consumption. I rarely eat it any more. But Bolognese minus veal doesn’t fly. And, honestly, making a plate of food for a dying man suspended any ethical considerations. Maybe it would be the last time I made it, I wasn’t sure. But it would probably be the last time Graham ate it. I needed to make it memorable.
Back at the in-laws, Graham was napping in the guest room with Keiko. Marilyn and Liam sat in the living room on opposite sofas reading newspapers.
“How did that go?” Marilyn asked.
“Good,” Karen said.
“The kitchen’s all yours.”
It was two o’clock, raining at last, a real downpour. I switched on the kitchen light. I figured the sauce would be ready for dinner. No rushing a good Bolognese.
I diced an onion and chopped up two small carrots and two celery ribs. After heating some butter and olive oil in a saucepan, I sauteed the vegetables, added three crushed garlic cloves, a dash of chili peppers, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. I let the mix soften and meld then added a strip of finely chopped panchetta and let it do its thing for a while before tossing in the ground veal. When the meat browned I deglazed the saucepan with a cup of white wine, cooked that down, added half a cup of milk, a good squirt of doppio concentrato tomato paste and a hit of nutmeg.
Karen entered the kitchen.
“Need any help?” she asked.
“I got this.”
I didn’t know if my gesture of cooking the meal had softened her stance—at that point in our ten year marriage she hated everything about me—but she didn’t offer a hug, and didn’t seem receptive to getting one. So, I continued cooking.
I added a can of Marzano tomatoes, broke them down with a wooden spoon, lowered the heat to simmer and half-covered the saucepan with a lid. Purists, who favour a drier, meatier sauce, argue against the tomatoes, insisting solely on doppio concentrato for their tomato component. I favour tomatoes. I’d eaten my grandmother’s and mother’s Bolognese from infancy, and I’d been cooking it since my university days; I’d sampled a million variations, studied recipes, and dined on Bolognese right in Bolognia, city of its birth. My Bolognese was the story of my life.
“Smells fantastic, Sammy,” Marilyn cried from the living room.
“Yes indeed,” chimed Liam.
“Thanks, honey,” Karen said, perhaps gratuitously.
The sauce simmered away, filling the house with its perfume. I stirred now and then, and when it began to really thicken up near supper time added some water, then tore in fresh basil leaves.
Graham—God bless his soul—slept till six o’clock. Keiko stayed with him, even though she later admitted she couldn’t sleep at all. She hadn’t been sleeping much. But she’d have plenty of time to sleep.
We sat down to eat thirty minutes later. The Bolognese turned out perfectly, I must say. I served it on beautiful artisanal spaghetti with grated Parmiggiano. Karen opened a bottle of Chianti from Liam’s wine-rack. We started in stony silence. But after some wine and pasta, the dam broke. Keiko proved quite the chatterbox and ate with good fork. We all did. Liam gave me a thumbs up as Marilyn wiped his chin with a napkin. Graham looked serene.
There was laughter. I won’t call it joy. It wasn’t joy. But we ate and drank and laughed and for a moment put aside all our troubles, past and present. A good Bolognese can do that.
Karen leaned over. “Thank you,” she said again, squeezing my hand hard, as if she knew it would be the last time she ever thanked me for anything and wanted me to remember that moment. I do. But what I also remember is Graham’s broad smile and his reddening cheeks as he struggled to twirl the spaghetti and eat a few bites.
“Too spicy?” I asked him.
He laughed and shook his head. “No, Sammy. It’s perfect. I’m happy.”
And his words made me happy. The look of contentment on his and everyone’s faces made me happy. It was the happiest I’d felt in a long time, and—though I didn’t know it—the happiest I’d feel for a long time to come.
Salvatore Difalco’s work has appeared in many print and online journals. He currently splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.