I’m not sure what I want to write about it, about the death yesterday of my old friend, Gian; except that I feel the need to write something. It brings to mind the opening piece I wrote for Una Storia Segreta (Heyday: 2001), which I titled after a line in Prospero Cecconi’s notebook, “Morto il camerata Protto.” Cecconi was referring to the death of his friend Giuseppe Protto, when both were domestic internees (yes, so-called ‘enemy aliens’ of Italian descent were interned during that war after being judged “potentially dangerous”) imprisoned at Camp Forrest, TN during World War II. Cecconi, too, felt the need to write something in his clandestine notebook, though all he could bring himself to write was that simple line, Morto il camerata Protto; ‘my comrade Protto is dead.’ It was enough; years later, we can feel the pain, the loss, the loneliness in that lone line.
Now, my friend Gian is dead. È morto lui. And though I have more time and more skill with language to write volumes about it, there really is very little to add. He’s dead. My friend Gian, whom I’ve known since the mid 1970s, and with whom I’ve laughed and joked and written and studied and cooked and celebrated our common heritage—we organized a little group we called the circolo in the early 1990s; and would gather once a month to cook together (they were sumptuous feasts) and laugh together and reminisce about our Italian parents and childhoods and the foods we used to eat—my friend Gianni is gone.
At first I took it rather philosophically. Yes, I knew he was ill and in hospital where I got to see him a week or two ago. Yes, I knew he had been placed on nothing but palliative care and was certain to slip into oblivion sooner rather than later. Yes, I had been expecting the call for days. And yes, I have more or less accepted the fact of death, the fact that we all die, that nothing is more certain than the death which is a necessity of our existence and often a blessing. But when it came, something internal shifted. I didn’t even notice it at first. I busied myself with finding some mementos I could contribute to an expected memorial service, some of his drawings, some writings about him and his vintage kitchen and vintage 1940s décor and vintage humor that kept me busy most of the afternoon yesterday. But in the night I began to realize that I was grieving, albeit not in the way we think of as grieving: no tears, no depression to speak of, no laments about the futility of life or the too-early death of this life, or how I would miss him. No. There was mainly this sense of drift. I suddenly felt unmoored. It was as if an anchor in my very life had come loose—but not a literal anchor; some inner anchor that was more like a void or an eraser that had left me, or part of me, vacant. Adrift. Easily blown away. This happens more, perhaps, when one is older and the friends and relatives that remain get fewer and farther between. I don’t know. All I know is that Gianni was my close friend, someone I could always count on to be in my imagined gallery of people to speak to or places like his unique house and kitchen to go to, to sit and drink a companionable glass of wine and complain or joke or laugh or cogitate about the follies of the world with. For instance, there was the time I had been on my zen walk and was heading home through Berkeley, and simply dropped in for a quick rest and a cup of coffee and he immediately saw something different in me, some spiritual light in me that no one else would have seen much less valued.
And now that real space, that imagined space is gone. Empty. The weight of it, that’s what strikes me most. The weight it provided in my life, the ballast that kept things secure and at least partly known—which is what a friend is, what a relative is, a known weight or quantity to keep one firmly in place—was gone; is gone. He is no more. Though I can still conjure up his looks and his speech patterns and his laughter, the man himself is no more. The weight of him. The solidity of him. The actual belly and blood of him.
And how peculiar it really is, this sense of another. We can imagine it sometimes. We can still find the outlines in our image drawer in the mind. But we know, after death, that it is only an image. It has no flesh to it. No bones to it. No scent or feel to it. No response to it because it can’t talk back. It can’t provide the answering weight of itself to our own presence because it has no presence anymore. And presence—what a person actually is in the flesh—though it’s almost impossible to express, is something we know. Know without any reflection or reason that that’s what a person is, really. That presence. And it is not captured in drawings or photos or films or any medium but itself. Part of it can be captured, the part that is analogous to what we can conjure on our mental screens. But the real fullness of it, the living presence of another human or animal or tree or flower—that is never, cannot be ever captured in any of our media. We are fooled that it is. We are fooled into thinking that we really know those we see on TV or on our computer screens or in our smartphones. We don’t. All we know is shadows, poor bereft shadows that have no weight, no depth, no life. Which is what we’re left with when someone dies. Shadows. I still have the shadow of Gianni. But his presence, his weight, his laugh, his life—that is gone forever. And in some terrible way, it makes me lighter, more fleeting, more adrift.
That is what we grieve. We grieve, I grieve the loss of that unique, indispensable, never-to-be-repeated presence that was Gian Banchero. That will never come again. So simple: È morto lui. So commonplace: È morto lui. And yet so deeply, unfathomably vacant, empty, weightless, gone.