In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on. - Robert Frost
On February 21st, when he should have been expected to be in school, Luca Orsini was seeing the face of his sister, in person, for the last time.
He’d felt numb walking up to the casket to pay his respects, number still when he got close enough to see her pale face with makeup she never would have worn in life. Ciana hated the color red—had hated. He wondered who'd made that choice, and why they couldn't have picked a better foundation shade. He had to admit, the colors weren’t doing her any favors, not with her complexion the way it was. It stood out like garrish paint on her.
Ciana always looked tired, wasting away to skin and bones, smaller now that she was dead, and no amount of lipstick and blush would change that.
Luca looked away—he felt almost sick with the fact that this would be his final memory of her.
Fingernails dug into his knuckles, reminding him of who was holding onto him so tightly, he glanced down and grimaced. Rico clung to him, face pressed against his hip, probably getting his clothes wet with tears.
“Is it scary?” Luca asked quietly, almost absentmindedly.
Rico nodded, the movement jerky and a bit like he was using the opportunity to wipe some snot on him.
And what, just what could he possibly say to that?
Luca sighed, clapped the kid on the back, and gestured for them to move. “Let’s go, others will want to pay their respects, too.”
Rico nodded again and, while weighing Luca down and adding a limp to his gait, followed Luca’s steps towards their waiting father, who stood facing away from the crowd. The reason for that, it seemed, was because the old man couldn’t be bothered to stop crying.
The cramps in Luca's stomach tightened and he had to swallow his nausea. Ciana's face kept flashing with his every blink and seeing his father cry only made it worse. And to that, Luca felt helpless.
His eyes were painfully dry, looking at his brother and father.
“Really, Babbo? At least grab a tissue,” Luca chided, expression carefully blank. “You’ll get caccole on your suit, I swear.”
Pino dragged in a deep breath. “Fazzoletto, per favore?”
Luca rolled his eyes, dug into the breast of his suit pocket and pulled out his white, blue-lined handkerchief, handing it to his father and curling his lip as the perfectly good linen was quickly covered in snot.
God, funerals were such messes. Not least in part to the people in attendance.
“They’ll be moving her soon, won’t they?” Pino asked looking up from the soggy handkerchief, eyes red-rimmed and nose puffy, as if it had been enlarged two sizes. Additionally, his usually dark brown hair was peppered with white, and his five o’clock shadow, which is what he swore it was, would have been more accurately described as ‘caveman chic’.
No longer was he the rakishly handsome man that Luca had grown tired of hearing about from uninteresting people. Tonight he was going to be ubriaco fradicio—just like he’d been for the past week—and Luca was banking on him being too shit-faced later on to notice all the women sending the mourning single father those types of looks. No way was any of that a good idea.
“Where’re they moving her?” Rico asked, tentatively bringing his head up from Luca’s hip.
“Al cimitero,” Luca answered.
“Cemetery?” Rico swallowed, his already pale complexion growing paler.
“She’ll be buried beside her mamma,” Pino explained, and then had to take a deep, shuddering breath of air. “Lei avrebbe amato—”
“Babbo,” Luca interjected before his father could go into an unnecessary tangent.
Pino glanced towards Luca, his eyes narrowing. Luca’s shoulders tensed, he narrowed his own, and then—
“Mia bambino!” the gushing voice of Luca’s grandmother rang out, cutting through the heavy atmosphere. Pino’s expression instantly lightened, and he pushed past his sons to get to the elderly woman tunneling through the crowd to get to them.
“Così felice che tu sia potuto venire!” Pino cried, opening up his arms to his tiny seventy-two year old five feet tall mother. Luca blamed her that he turned out only eleven inches taller than that.
The mother and son duo exchanged rapid-fire Italian, too quick for Luca to pick up everything given his too American upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But having been raised by an immigrant who’s third language had been English, Luca could at least pick out a few words and phrases to get the gist of what they were saying.
She was heartbroken to hear the news, booked the ticket from Italy as fast as she could and was afraid she’d be late after an awful experience in the air. She was surprised she’d made it in time for the vigil. That story was quickly followed by assurances that Ciana was with God now, and that He’d be taking good care of her up in Heaven, which Pino agreed was a great relief given how much pain she had been in.
“I wish I could speak Italian like you and Babbo,” Rico muttered, looking on at the scene helplessly.
“Better practice then—niente nella vita è facile,” Luca reminded him, his lips almost pulling up into a smirk.
“Something about life...” Rico murmured thoughtfully to himself, “but I don’t know what else.”
“It’s never easy,” Luca helped translate, and spied from the corner of his eye that Pino and Sofia were finishing up as they turned towards him and his brother.
Sofia stepped forward, the dangling necklaces on her chest swaying as she came closer, arms outstretched.
“How has my boys been? Luca been taking care of you, Rico? You been taking care of him?” Sofia asked in accented English. Given she’d spent ten years in America, she wasn’t nearly as bad as most of Luca’s cousins and uncles, who mostly pretended to know English and were just bullshitting the entire time.
“Did you have a nice trip?” Rico asked evasively, trying for a smile which had the lifespan of half a second.
“It was hard on me,” Sofia said with a pout, placing her hands over her heart. “There were so many delays, and a rude man kept poking me in my side with his, mmm—non conosco la parola—his gomito—”
Rico blinked. “His what?”
“Elbow,” Luca supplied.
“Sì! His elbow.” Sofia gave a grand, self-pitying sigh, and laid her eyes on Luca’s. “Does your nonna not deserve a big hug for her troubles?”
Luca loved his grandmother, that was for sure—she was the only one in his extended family who remembered to get him something for his birthday every year—but Luca also loathed hugs with a fervor that was not often outmatched by anything.
Luca glanced down at the grip Rico had around his thigh and had to acknowledge that, if he’d made exceptions for his little brother, he should make exceptions for his nonna, too.
He opened his arms up, watched her eyes light up, heard the crack of Pino’s laugh in the background, and felt her thin, but warm arms embrace his middle. He awkwardly wrapped his much bulkier arms around her and gave her shoulders a careful pat. Rico, caught in the middle, couldn’t seem to help his giggles.
“I have missed you both,” she whispered, a tremor in her voice. “All three of you, I have missed you.”
Luca swallowed but he couldn’t seem to dislodge whatever had just gotten stuck in his throat. Rather, his eyes felt so painfully, painfully dry and for a moment, he had to let himself close them. Just for a moment.
“Mie nipoti, mie bellissimi nipoti,” she whispered in an almost musical tone, rubbing circles into Luca’s back with one hand and leaning down to kiss Rico on the head. When she finally pulled away, tears had pooled in her eyes. “You boys are good boys.”
“Ti amo, Nonna.”
She reached up to squeeze his cheek. “Ti amo, Luca.”
With a sniffle and breaths that edged on being sobs, she reached into the purse dangling from her side and proffered travel-size packages of kleenex, handing both Rico and him one before taking one out for herself. She slipped out a tissue to dab at her eyes and Luca awkwardly clutched his in his hand, having no use for it.
“They’ll be moving her soon,” Pino reminded them, reaching over to muse Rico’s hair.
Rico, thankfully, took that as permission to latch onto their father instead, to which Luca was grateful for as soon as he felt the wet stains on his jacket. He wanted no more of that. Given his suit was black though, no one could even tell they were there.
“Quale cimitero?” Sofia asked.
“St. Mary’s. It’s about a ten-twenty minute drive,” Pino answered distractedly, pulling out his phone to take a look at an email. “Come with us, Mamma, so you don’t get lost.”
“Va bene,” she agreed readily.
Luca sighed. That meant he’d have to sit in the backseat with Rico where his little brother would assuredly return to clinging to him. More snot, yay.
Pino looked up towards Luca. “Will you drive, cucciolo? I have some business to take care of.”
Luca wasn’t surprised. Pino, otherwise known as Giuseppino Orsini to his clients, was an IP attorney so successful, he could be seen working at all hours in the day, no matter the day, from breakfast at dawn, all the way until dusk, at night. Today would be no different, apparently.
“Yeah, I’ll drive,” Luca said, masking his eagerness to.
“Topolino and me will be in the back then,” Pino said, patting Rico on the head, a smiling cracking itself on his face which could barely be seen through the beard. “Or should I be calling you polpo now?”
“Octopus,” Luca answered, his lips twitching into a smile.
Rico wrinkled his nose. “Nooo, don’t call me that.”
Pino chuckled, softly said, “Sbrigati—out to the car, boys. Looks like they’ll be moving her now.”
Luca glanced back at the casket, watched men from the church close it, and saw just a fraction of her face again before the dark mahogany wood covered her completely. He felt his stomach lurch at the sight and for a moment, felt un-buoyed in the world, as if there was nothing anymore that could keep him afloat.
“Luca?” Rico called, nudging his arm. He'd never seen him look so scared. Simply unable to follow Luca's gaze and look in the direction of her casket. His voice had a shake as he whispered, “Hey, let’s go already.”
Absentmindedly, Luca nodded and in a reversal of roles, felt himself being guided out of the church by his little brother, whose cold hands were slick with sweat and tears.
And Luca found himself holding onto them for dear life.