Seeing the state I was in, maybe out of embarrassment or respect for my situation, Carlotta Prodi chose to ignore my tears and busied herself with the practicalities of getting us to ‘San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti’ hospital where she guessed Richard would have been taken. She explained that it was better to walk as it would take us about 15 minutes that way, instead of chartering a gondola which would take much longer to navigate round the winding and narrow canals.
I followed Carlotta like a lamb without questioning; my mind was trying to comprehend the situation I was facing before attempting to take control of my own affairs from the kind stranger. I was fearful for David, for myself and for all of us. I had flashbacks to our early carefree days together as students in London and images of his handsome face smiling impishly at me flicked in front of my eyes. I would suddenly remember the odd occasions when he was unwell, like when he had gallstone problems and the contortions of agony on his face, wondering if he had experienced a lot of pain when he collapsed earlier that evening. I also pictured him holding his newborn babies for the first time with sheer joy and pride. On and on the images flashed backwards and forwards as my feelings oscillated between cautious optimism and abject pessimism.
We walked down Calle Canonica, turned left on to Calle dell’Angelo Cannaregio, then right onto Calle Rimedio, up some steps, left onto Fondamenta Rimedio, left onto Calle Querini, left again onto Ruga Giuffa, then right onto Calle Lunga. All these twists and turns must have taken us at least 10 minutes so far and were making me dizzy as I struggled to keep up with a brisk Carlotta who was wearing elegant flat red shoes and grey trousers, with me wearing a full-length evening gown with high heels and adorned in my finest accessories. We must have cut a very odd couple to locals and tourists alike. Carlotta asked me what my husband’s name was and it was at that point I remembered my manners and introduced my husband and myself as Richard and Melanie Jackson from England. I felt a little awkward doing a formal introduction like that when all she wanted was the name of the person she was helping to search for.
We now turned right onto Calle Cicogna Castello, which turned into Calle Bressano and then up another set of stairs. Each stretch of street (which are more like little alleyways than streets) was no more than a 100 meter stretch before we turned left or right and I wondered how Carlotta could remember all these directions. We now turned left onto Barbaria Delle Tole and right onto Fondamenta Dandolo. Carlotta explained we were almost there now. I was now getting hot and flustered. I felt angry towards Richard for rushing out so quickly instead of waiting for me to be ready so we could go together to the theatre and collect our tickets, as most people would have done. Had he done that, I would have been there for him when he collapsed. I also contemplated the possibility that he had a temporary funny turn, which might have passed as he was stretchered by the paramedics, got up and walked away in embarrassment. I began to feel guilty for failing to be by his side at his hour of dire need. God, why did he do this to me, to us?
Fondamenta Dandolo turned slightly to the right and changed name to Calle Larga Giacinto Gallina, which takes longer to pronounce before it loses its name and become Fondamenta Mendicanti. I could see it was a long stretch of street running along a relatively wide canal with quite a buzz of activity. I could also see a couple of hundred meters ahead the cross sign signaling San Lazzaro’s Hospital. As we walked this final stretch, Carlotta began to chant some prayers and that spooked me completely. I was almost certain Carlotta was Catholic and it is the sort of thing Catholics do but still, I did not like the omen implied in her prayers; how dare she give up on my husband and soul mate?
We finally arrived at the San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti and headed straight to the front desk. Carlotta spoke to the nurse who listened to her explanation, said something and Carlotta asked me to repeat Richard’s full name. The nurse asked us to take a seat and with Carlotta’s urging, I reluctantly agreed. We sat down in full view of the nurse to make sure she could see us and not forget our urgent case.
Maybe it was her way of keeping me preoccupied as we waited for more information or, she felt I needed to know all the details surrounding your father’s collapse in front of the theatre, Carlotta related to me what had happened earlier that evening.
Carlotta had noticed Richard standing in front of her gallery studying a particular painting she had in her gallery window, an abstract painting of a female opera singer which she too had liked and was considering inviting him inside to inspect the painting more closely when her phone rang.
As she finished her telephone conversation she looked up to see if the gentleman was still standing in front of her gallery but he had gone, or so she thought. She walked up to the front door of the gallery and noticed that in the minute or so she was on the phone, the gentleman had collapsed and was lying on his back with a middle-aged couple attending to him. She immediately picked her phone up again and called for an ambulance and observed the scene from inside her gallery. I suppose being the artistic type, with an eye for detail; she painted a vivid picture of how the scene began to unfold in front of her. The square was very busy with theatregoers who gradually became aware of what had happened. They would look at the small cluster of people on the ground, mutter something, and then avert their gaze. This went on for about 10 minutes. When I asked her she said she was almost certain Richard was not in pain as he appeared to be fast asleep and the two people tending him were not trying to resuscitate him, which she took to be that he was still breathing. The man attending to Richard had placed his light summer jacket over him to maintain his normal body temperature. Gradually, mainly out of discomfort with the scene unfolding in front of them, the theatregoers began to drift inside the Teatro La Fenice somewhat too early for the performance, leaving their partly consumed drinks on tables and theatre steps.
The square was now empty, save for your father, the couple tending him and two waiters from Ristorante Antico. She guessed that the woman must have been a doctor because she was talking to Richard and was clearly in charge of the situation by giving instructions to her companion on what to do in terms of maintaining the right position for the patient’s comfort. Apart from the chair cushion brought in from inside the restaurant, the two waiters standing a few paces away, were not really involved other than to talk amongst themselves, presumably speculating what was wrong with him.
Finally, two paramedics turned up at around 7:35, carrying an old-fashioned stretcher, spoke to the lady and then indicated they would take it from there. The couple walked up the theatre steps and disappeared inside but the woman kept on looking behind her to see her patient was looked after adequately.
The nurse called us over so we got up with Carlotta slightly ahead of me in reaching the counter. The two women spoke and from the gestures, I could see that the conversation was not going well. Finally, Carlotta turned around and explained that they have no one admitted by the name of Richard Jackson so I explained to her that Richard had no means of identification on him so, unless he told them his name, then they wouldn’t have it on their records. This struck a cord with Carlotta and she turned around and resumed her discussion with the nurse.
I didn’t know Carlotta well then but when I got to know her better, I realised that she was an exceptional and persistent person who was capable of taking a difficult situation and analysing it carefully and logically; not quite in accordance with the stereotype we associate with passionate and temperamental Italians. Carlotta urged the nurse to make inquiries based on the admission of someone with no name. Reluctantly, the nurse picked up the phone and presumably used this line of questioning. This internal investigation went on for far too long for my comfort since I was unable to participate in the proceedings, I wished they would hurry and for Carlotta to turn around and explain to me what was going on. The two women concluded their exchanges and finally Carlotta explained that they had not admitted anyone without a name that evening but their best guess was that he might have been admitted to a nearby hospital called ‘Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo’.
While Carlotta was briefing me, the nurse picked up the phone and rang a number, had a short conversation, looked at a pad in front of her and read out Richard’s name, listened for a while. She made a few notes on her pad and finally hung up. She then spoke to Carlotta who nodded and then reached over and touched the nurse’s cheek gently before saying grazie.
‘Your husband was taken to a nearby hospital and we must go there straight away’, instructed Carlotta. ‘Is he okay, did they say what was wrong with him?’ I asked. Carlotta was already out of the hospital turned right and began her brisk walk again. My questions left unanswered, I resolved to follow her and wait until we got there. We turned right again along the Grand Canal and right again. Mercifully, this time the journey between the two hospitals was much shorter than the one from Teatro La Fenice; I would say no more than 5 minutes in my high heels. I caught up with Carlotta inside the hospital and she was already engaged in a conversation with another nurse on another reception desk. After what seemed like an eternity, Carlotta turned around with shoulders slightly tense; I had a sinking feeling deep in my stomach. She looked at me with her warm grey eyes and said: ‘Melanie, I am sorry, your husband died outside the Teatro La Fenice before the ambulance arrived. The paramedics tried to revive him on the way but he did not respond’. A tear trickled down her cheek and she reached out and touched my left hand. I felt cold, and so very empty inside. My throat was so tight and narrow I could neither cry, nor breathe comfortably. My legs began to shake and I needed to sit down. Carlotta led me by the hand and we found a couple of seats nearby. I tried to form a thought and make up a sentence but could not. How could our 25th wedding anniversary we planned for so long and had begun so promisingly suddenly turn so horribly wrong? Saturday 8 September 2012 was going to be our romantic Silver Wedding Anniversary spent in glorious Venice and crowned with an opera performance.
I always thought that your father would outlive me and now felt cheated that he beat me to it but much sooner than I or he would have imagined or hoped. I have no idea how long we sat there with Carlotta holding both my cold hands not saying anything, just letting me process and comprehend my new awful realities. Finally, I managed to form a thought I was able to express to Carlotta: ‘Where is Richard now?’ I asked. ‘He would be in a private room waiting for formal identification in front of an official. After that, there will be some formalities before they can allow him to be buried. That last word did it. It was like an enormous electric shock had coursed through my body. I stiffened up then broke down crying uncontrollably. Carlotta must have cursed her bad luck. That was not exactly her idea of a relaxed Saturday night at home after a long day at her gallery shop. If that was how she felt, she did not let on; she just kept holding my hands and waited for me to go through the first wave of realisation that I lost the man I so loved for so long.
The outpouring of emotions seemed to have helped me think a little bit more clearly; at least in so far as practical matters were concerned. A number of questions began to suggest themselves. What do I do now? What do I tell the Children? Can I repatriate the body? Oh no, Richard is now a body! What if they made a mistake and it is someone else and not Richard? Do they ask you to prove you are next of kin in Italy? Will I have the courage to say: ‘yes, this is my husband’? Will I have to get a different air ticket for a casket? Did he feel pain in his final minutes? What happens to his business now? What will happen to me and the children? Did he leave a will? On and on the questions pushed and jostled one another to my consciousness, seeking answers I had never prepared for. It is strange and somewhat disloyal to the one you love to begin to think of life after they had gone so soon after you realise they are no longer there. I tried to ignore or deny the questions that suggested practical matters and preferred to promote the ones that wondered if his death was painless. The one question I really wished I could have an answer for was: What was the very last thought on his mind as he drifted to his final sleep? I felt I needed to know this and I wanted that thought to be a beautiful, wonderful, romantic and loving one. I determined to somehow find out what that thought might have been.
It is a small consolation to say this now but, I truly believe I know what that thought was and I promise to share it with you later.
Needless to say I could not go to bed that night. Carlotta took me back to the Duodo Palace Hotel at around 11:30 that night and promised to come round first thing the following morning. Our hotel bedroom was littered with Richard’s belongings and I felt the need to tend his things with care and attention by folding each item carefully and packing his toiletries, his laptop was put back in its leather case, his formal dinner suit he brought over for the opera was put back in its case too. I found his wallet and passport so I put them in my handbag knowing I would need them the following day. When I had tidied up all his things, I took off my own evening dress and accessories, removed all make up and looked for the most sober clothes I had brought with me, I could only find a grey T shirt and khaki trousers. I paced up and down the room wondering if what had happened hours earlier actually took place or was I in a middle of a nightmare.
Feeling exhausted, I finally sat in the armchair in the corner of the room and had fitful sleep for sometime. I woke up when daylight crept through the hotel room window. I ran to the bathroom, quickly freshened up, gathered my handbag and rushed downstairs to wait for Carlotta. It was only when I got to the reception area that I realised it was only 6:15 on Sunday morning but, I chose to stay downstairs and wait for Carlotta at Reception. Incredibly, Carlotta arrived an hour or so later and explained she could not sleep last night, guessed I wouldn’t either so she came early to have breakfast with me and plan what needed to be done. We went to the hotel small dining room and ordered coffee and toast. Carlotta explained there was a limited amount we could do on a Sunday but we should start at the hospital, see how much progress we could make, and the rest could be done on Monday. She asked me if there was anything I wanted to do and I said I wanted to visit a church. She was a little surprised and asked me if I was catholic so I said, no I wasn’t but explained that Richard was an architect and he loved the grand Saint Mark Basilica so it would be appropriate to go there.
We got to St Mark’s Basilica at around 8:30 on Sunday 9 September and even at that early hour of the morning there were more than a handful of tourists around. We walked in and I chose a central position for the pew I wanted to sit on so the view of the wonderful architecture would be at its best, I felt sure Richard would appreciate that more. Carlotta sat in a pew behind me to allow me time for myself, I sat for about 10 minutes contemplating the situation, my long life with your father, our ups and downs, our happy times with you and the rest of the family, our holidays together, our disagreements, especially in the early days, but above all, how much we have accomplished in those years, the crowning glory of which was having three wonderful children any couple would be proud of. All of a sudden, I felt like praying and the only thing I could think of was the Lord’s Prayer which I sang out in my head at first then with my voice growing louder with each line, enough to be heard by at least Carlotta behind me:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.
for ever and ever.