Things We Cannot Say

By Kylie A Hough

For Karolina Nada Califano


It’s a humid Monday evening when I rest my fingers on the metal handrail of the hospital bed and watch my grandmother sleep. Once, she was my everything. Now, looking at her lie there, I wonder if something ever really ends once it begins. Nonna stirs in her sleep, the lines on her face soft, her skin a mask that covers the hole in her heart that runs deep and long. I’ve watched it separate, swoop and swell with every year she refuses to mention my grandfather. She misses Nonno, but the things we cannot bear are the things we cannot say. Of all the lessons she has not-taught me, this is the one that cuts me at an angle, like a knife between a too-small ribcage, the one I must now un-learn.

When I was four, I brought home a lamb from kindergarten. Everybody in the class got to take it for a weekend. Nonna warmed its milk and steadied my hand as we sat on a pine sleeper in the backyard and watched the lamb mouth a rubber teat. It chugged formula which ran down the sides of its mouth, and it wagged its tail like a puppy. I chased it in circles around the yard because I wanted to catch it and cuddle it. Nonna laughed and told me to stop. The lamb pooed everywhere. By Sunday afternoon the backyard was blanketed with little black balls. Nonna helped me pick up the droppings and deposit them in the garden.

‘The flowers love poo,’ she said. ‘They use it to grow big and strong, the way we use spaghetti and antipasti.’

My grandmother turns her head to one side, then the other, and I wonder if we are separate or merely a mishmash of each other’s thoughts. Is she thinking what I’m thinking? I take a wrinkled hand in both of mine. She winces, and I start. I soften my hold on her. I question whether part of us stays with those we love when we pass into whatever comes next. I hope it does. I hope she does. Her eyelids flutter, her frown lines deepen. She mumbles, ‘Va bene,’ and waves a hand in the air.

What is going well? I wonder. She knocks a pair of nasal prongs from the bedhead and they slither to the floor like snakes on a sunlit hearth. No words. I hold my breath, Nonna sinks further into the mattress. I close my eyes and exhale.


In my second year of primary school my mother started full time work and Nonna moved in with us. She would deliberately forget to pack my brother’s and my lunches one day every fortnight so she could use it as an excuse to visit us at school. Sometimes she brought us homemade meatball lasagne. Other times she brought us raspberry and choc-chip muffins with chocolate milk or cheeseburgers and French fries with caramel ice-cream sundaes. She stayed until we finished eating, then she wiped our mouths with wet wipes, walked us to the playground and kissed each of us four times, once on the forehead, once on each cheek and once on the chin.

‘Complete,’ she used to say.

Nonna always wanted to be with my brother and me. I understood that feeling. Then I grew up and forgot.


I walk out of my grandmother’s room into a flurry of beeping machines, buzzing buttons and nurses in blue skirts and white sandshoes hovering over a medication station. They empty pills into paper cups and pour liquid onto measuring spoons. The air is thick with the aroma of artificial fruit when I pass them in the corridor, almost unnoticed. The tallest of the two nods then smiles a half-smile, exposing coffee-stained teeth and bunched crow’s feet.

‘Hello,’ I say. ‘How’s this weather?’ Her eyes drift to the bottle in her hand then back to me.

‘Bloody awful,’ she says and adjusts her glasses. I put my head down and quicken my pace. I have to catch the lift or risk walking five choked flights of stairs to the car park below where my Audi is waiting. I want to miss the peak-hour traffic, I tell myself. I could have picked a better time to visit. I’ll come back tomorrow.


When I was twelve my family moved interstate for Dad’s work. Nonna opted to stay behind in Melbourne. She told me it was because she preferred the cooler weather. I knew she really meant that she would miss us, but it was okay that we move to Queensland without her. We left at 6AM, a month before my thirteenth birthday. Dad wanted to get a head start on the highway traffic. I strapped myself into the back seat of our Corolla and wept. We were on the outskirts of Sydney when I fell asleep convinced I had morphed into a puffer fish somewhere between leaving Melbourne and getting to the Holiday Inn. I overheard my mother on the telephone and begged her to hand it to me.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s late and you need to rest. Nonna is fine.’

‘Are you sure?’ I said.

‘Bed,’ she said and pointed to the fold-out lounge. I huffed, then did what her index finger dictated.


I blast the air-conditioner onto the front windshield and use the inside of my forearm to make circles, like a wiper. It slides back and forth, up, down and around, over fog-filled glass. I don’t know where the storm came from. It wasn’t here when I arrived. I leave the carpark at a crawl and drive home bent over the steering wheel, looking through a haze of falling drops as big as grapes that pelt the car from all sides. I think back to when Nonna got the diagnosis six months ago, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have been to visit her since then. She never told us, but Mum suspected and made enquiries. I blink away tears and think back to when I was at work and Mum phoned to tell me. I took the rest of the day off wishing she hadn’t said anything. I imagine Nonna passing in and out of dreams and remember how it feels to want to be with someone all the time. Tomorrow.

I said tomorrow, but tomorrow doesn’t come. Everyone in my family seems to know this but me. Tuesday comes. Wednesday comes. Thursday and Friday are a blur, but they come, then it’s the weekend again and I’m sitting in my home office at eight on a Sunday night sipping a glass of The Full Fifteen. I am supposed to be writing reports.

‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,’ Nonna said. I know she’s right and she’s phoned. The Missed Calls sign lights up the screen. I pick up my mobile, bring up her number and stare at it. I put the phone on silent, place it face-down on my desk and climb the stairs to my bedroom. My husband is already asleep. I plant a kiss on his cheek and shuffle to the bathroom.

‘I will call her, tomorrow.’ I say it out loud to the woman in the mirror, like a promise I make with a stranger, that cannot be broken.


I was eighteen the year my grandmother moved to Queensland. No one was happier than I was when after five years of badgering her she decided that living in The Sunshine State might not be such a bad thing after all. We shared the apartment in Brisbane that she bought but she wouldn’t let me pay rent. We liked to spend my free afternoons watching The Bold and the Beautiful, her with a Marlboro in her hand, me with a cup of Moccona in mine. She cooked and cleaned, I learned the law and took us for lattes and biscotti at Luca’s Café Saturday mornings. Austudy didn’t stretch far enough to include the fortnightly club-hop with my cohort of budding-lawyer-friends and Nonna sensed the importance of play amidst the work. She left a twenty dollar note under a Popeye paperweight every second Friday, knowing I would appreciate a beer-break from the colossus that is law school.


My mother calls between Monday night and Tuesday morning. I don’t usually pick up once I’m in bed, but something tells me it concerns Nonna. I switch on the night light, rub my eyes, and hear a garbage truck reverse outside my window.

Hello,’ I say. Silence. ‘Hello?’ I say again. My mother coughs. I know her sounds.

‘It’s me, Katie. The doctors have given Nonna a few days, maybe a week,’ she says.

I swallow and inhale, remove the phone from my ear and hit the red space to end the call. I breathe out, kick the sheet off my legs and get out of bed. There is nothing to say. I pick up the mobile in case the right thing comes to me. I hold the phone, I pace the floor. I replace it on my bedside table. I walk to the balcony, slide open the glass door and climb the ladder onto the roof.

The sun is making its ascent from the bottom of the ocean. I can make out faint rays throwing shimmering lines onto apartment blocks. When I was little Nonna told me that’s where it went to sleep at night. When I asked her about the moon she kissed me, called me her clever girl and asked me to help her with the Napoli sauce. The slate feels cool against the underside of my knees and, with the sun rising to meet me, suddenly I am full. I close my eyes, and I am eight years old, holding a cup of warm milk in one hand and fresh biscotti in the other. I am seated on the lounge next to Nonna. I’m wearing my Minnie Mouse pyjamas. We are watching The Wizard of Oz. Singing Munchkins, Glinda the Good Witch, and ruby slippers. I am grinning from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It’s The. Best. Day. Ever.

I hear the glass door slide open then shut. I see my husband’s hands, and he climbs up to greet me. He smiles. I try and fail. He places the woollen jumper Nonna knitted me over my shoulders, kisses the top of my head and sits down beside me. I touch his leg. It’s how we say ‘thank you’.

‘Put it on,’ he says.

I can’t. He puts an arm around my waist and draws me closer. We sit for a while in silence and the sun climbs high in the sky, over and above a jerky sea. My skin starts to itch where the wool touches. He kisses my head and goes back inside. I remove the jumper and scratch red circles on my arms, before I lift it to my nose and inhale my childhood.

I walk into the robe and replace the woollen jumper in its box on the shelf, take a step back and watch it. I don’t expect it to grow legs and run away or sprout a foul mouth and abuse me for neglect. It isn’t like that. Nonna would tell me I did nothing wrong. I miss her so much. I decide to do nothing for the rest of the day. I walk to the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water, call the office then take myself back to the cool, dark room my husband and I share. I flop onto the sheets. A house-warming gift from Nonna. She placed a bundle of Egyptian cotton in my hands and smiled.

‘At the end of a long day you need a good rest,’ she said. ‘These will help.’ I lie down, squirm, roll over, stretch my hands above my head, roll back, change pillows, pull the sheets up, kick them off. I am running in circles, like a dog chasing a not-there tail. My phone vibrates on the floor. I know it’s Nonna and pretend I am asleep, though no one is here to see me.


Two days later, I am seated in my car in the car park at the nursing home and the stereo, in cahoots with Ed Sheeran, shouts the lyrics to Castle on the Hill. Together they conspire to burst my eardrums. But silence is louder. I thump the steering wheel to the beat of the tune and chant with the windows closed. Beads of sweat appear on my chest. I swallow a lump in my throat. I know what I have to do and I cannot do it.

I cannot bring myself to walk into her room and say good-bye. I am not ready. I cannot put an end to early morning chats over lattes, and Spaghetti Bolognese with Vino Rosso at midnight. I cannot give up giggles watching Gilligan’s Island reruns and hand-written love notes just because. To say I am ill-prepared is to make a mockery of the ill-prepared. She cannot leave me; I cannot let her. Maybe if I sit here long enough she will get better or The Cancer Foundation will find a cure. Every day we aren’t together my heart grows heavier. I start the car and drive away. I cannot change a thing.


It is five days since my mother called to tell me about Nonna. I sit on a chair next to the woman who loves me absolutely. Her eyelids flitter like butterflies in the spring. Does she know I’m here? A drip in the crease of her left elbow feeds her a solution of something-or-other and nasal prongs deliver a steady stream of oxygen. She’s been here five months. I’ve been here five minutes and already thoughts of leaving circle my mind like a cat’s paw in a fish bowl. I wonder if she knows I’ve come to fare her well. I let her sleep and remember how she was and think to myself how life seems like one big, recurring loop, the love between us the music that fuels it. We come from nowhere and go somewhere, a merry-go-round of beginnings and endings orchestrated by a God no one knows exists. I squeeze Nonna’s hand, her eyes open to meet mine, and the hint of a smile plays on her lips. She knows I love her and that it’s okay that she moves away without me.



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