Dictionaries, Cats, Encyclopedias

By Marco Peano

Marco Peano was born in Turin in 1979. He works for the Italian publisher Einaudi. He won the Volponi Prize for his first novel, L’invenzione della madre (The Invention of the Mother, minimum fax, 2015), in which Peano shares the intimate realities of dealing with a mother’s long illness, and learning to say goodbye. He shares some of his experience here. This story was republished in Italian in the popular literary blog mimima & moralia on December 5, 2015.

Lest someone tell it to you, you don’t know that you are a caregiver. My father and I, we didn’t know. Before cancer broke into everyday life through my mother’s body, we had no idea what this word – caregiver – meant. It was one of the many new terms I would discover through my mother’s illness, words that would make up a new reality for all of us.

It was 1996 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast: she was 45, I was 17; she worked at the post office, I went to high school; she was well aware of her medical situation, I was confused about what “mammary carcinoma” meant.

At the time, we didn’t have the Internet on our family computer and Google did not exist. If I’d had an Internet connection, I would have looked for information online. I always found it amusing that the two most popular Italian search engines were named after a mythological character, Arianna [1], and a poet, Virgilio [2]. I had to be content with the more mundane medical encyclopedia to extract data and percentages that did little to clear the fog in my brain.


A few months prior to my mother’s diagnosis, we welcomed a kitten of blaze colored fur into our home. I named it Socrates. This little animal, which ended up in our family almost by chance, would keep me and my father company during the hospital stay of the woman we loved the most in the world.

A mastectomy, two courses of chemotherapy and a rather brief convalescence followed. My mother returned to work, but not before undergoing a preventive mastectomy on the left breast.

After all is said and done, everything seems to get back on track. I finish high school, the kitten grows up, but above all my mother is well.

Until 2002 when the cancer returns, this time in the cerebellum.
Doctors speak of “cerebellar neoplasm” and there’s me, the one who thought he knew everything about cancer. I quickly find out how much I have to learn. And so we begin again: MRI, hypotheses about surgical treatment and possible permanent damage, fluctuating hopes, tormenting doubts, removal of the mass with no complications, radiotherapy and then, life once more gaining the upper hand.

It is precisely during the radiotherapy sessions that I start, more or less consciously, to reflect upon my role as a companion.

Before being a son, my mother’s son, I am the person driving the car. My father works until late in the evening, and even though he had taken a permit from his job, I know how hard it would be for him to haunt the hospital. I willingly spare him this difficulty. Besides, I’m 23 years old now. I want to demonstrate that I’m grown up and aware, and I gladly attend to such duties.

I drive from the small town where we live to the city where the hospital is located, and I stay in the waiting room, holding my mother’s hand until her name is called. While she receives treatment, I think of her irradiated body. I realize that what is happening inside her is a very powerful narration. I know I will deal with this narration sooner or later, but for now I am here in this waiting room. I look around to see other sons, wives, siblings and friends who, like me, have accompanied someone, a loved one, to this place of waiting. I don’t know that it will take thirteen years for this unfolding narrative to take the form of a book.

In less than two years from that daily trek to the hospital, my mother will fall ill for the last time. Meningeal carcinomatosis [3], two words I never wanted to learn. It is a fulminating, inoperable disease, so the doctors say, and this is how one evening – while I am feeding Socrates – I suddenly understand that the cat will survive my mother.

The day I decided to try to tell this small human parable, the first attempt to put it on paper was on April 29th, 2005. She was 54 and was ill; she died within nine months. My father and I – medically and emotionally supported by a charity – set up an area of our home so that my mother could be with us, watched over day and night, during that last stretch of our life together. We had shifts sleeping at her bedside. We had become two helpful and caring nurses. In the meantime, my father had retired and I still didn’t have a stable job. This time, donated to us, gave us a chance to talk to her. She wouldn’t be lucid for long, as the stronger and stronger doses of morphine forced her into a drug-induced oblivion. This was without doubt the most intense time of my life.  

April 29th, 2005 was the date everything changed. I know, for I still have that first file in my computer, containing just few lines in which I try to describe how my mother, forced to bed, was snoozing in front of the television. It would take another year and half before I could begin to write seriously about her. But those were the words, that day in April that sowed the seeds of my novel. I haven’t stopped writing about my mother, and maybe I never will.

As I wrote about my mother I struggled to understand that, although I was building up facts based upon reality, I wasn’t betraying her memory, but I was engraving it on the page forever.

LInvenzione della madreThroughout the writing process, it was hard but necessary to dig out personal and intimate recollections and transform them into narrative material, to devise a plot, develop characters, create dialogues. I was turning a private testimony into a public story that could reach out to as many people as possible.

In the seven years I needed to shape my novel – obsessively erasing and re-writing – other losses followed, including that of my cat, Socrates. My daily duty was to stay planted with my imagination in that room next to my mother, accepting that she had passed away, and knowing at the same time that nobody could take what happened away from me.

Both my father and I, each in our own way, have been caregivers. But we never thought about ourselves in that way until after my mother died, when others used the term to describe our role in those years. We didn’t grasp such a word at the time.

What I have come to understand by writing, page after page, is that my mother’s body was a dictionary in flesh and blood already containing, since the beginning, all those words.


1 Called Ariadne in Greek, whose thread helped Theseus to find his way out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

2 Who appears as Dante Alighieri’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy.

3 Cancer in the brain and spinal cord.

Photo Credit: Socrates, submitted by the author.

Translation by Grazia de Michele

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