Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Carlo Valentini, M.D. -- R.I.P.

My friend Carlo died last month. If you've been with us for a while, you've seen mention of him here on occasion, although nothing in detail. I've been trying to remedy that lack of detail for a few weeks now and not very successfully. In the end, I don't have the talent to bring him to life on the page.

So this will have to do.

I've known Carlo Valentini since I was three years old. When we moved to California, my parents asked at the local parish for a referral to a Catholic doctor. Fr O'Connor recommended Carlo and so for the next 30 years or so, Carlo did his best to keep my family on this side of the grass. He wasn't entirely successful in that; there was nothing he, nor anyone else, could do about my father's death on duty with the Navy. My mother and I continued to bring our infirmities to Dr Valentini until he retired.

I don't know what anyone else's visits to the doctor were like. Ours lasted a while. Rather unfortunate for the sick, sore, lame, and disabled cooling their heels in the waiting room. With my mother, there were five or ten minutes for examination and diagnosis and forty-five minutes for arguing politics. An argument like nothing else on earth. In the first place Carlo's Italian accent was as thick as a plate of risotto. In the second place my mother became progressively deaf. It would have been a bizarre conversation at the best of times. But there was no way Carlo's politics could be understood by an American. Perhaps not even by an Italian. He considered himself a Democrat. But no Democrat known to me would recognize the description. Imagine a sort of communist monarchist with personal libertarian tendencies. Got that? Well, it's wrong. Mostly. It was indescribable. And it would have been salted with quotations from Cicero, Horace, Vergil, an ancient Greek or two, and perhaps a French poet all in their respective original languages. I remember once sitting in his office looking at his book case. I suppose most doctors have Merck on the shelf. How many have the multi-volume set of Henri Daniel-Rops' “Histoire de l'Eglise”?

It was only after he retired that my mother learned how much other doctors actually charge for a visit. It was a bit over four times what Carlo charged my widowed mother (who would have insisted on paying if he had attempted not to charge her at all.) My family was not the only beneficiary of his goodness. Nor even of his house-calls. (Do you know what "house-calls" are? In another age, doctors would visit those too sick to come to them. Carlo did so often.) I'm sure there were others. I know that Carlo treated a good many of the clergy in this area without charge. And, of course, the Salesians at St John Bosco – an Italian congregation, and so a step above the general run – were on the list, too.

Carlo was born the son of a bricklayer in 1915 in a little country place near Verona in Italy. From a poor family, he was a scholarship boy at a school run by the Don Massa fathers. According to his obituary the school's watchwords were silence, obedience, and reverence for the Greek and Latin classics. His diligence and intelligence enabled him eventually to study medicine at the ancient medieval university at Padua.

From there he was drafted in 1938 and became the battalion doctor of an Italian Alpine Corps. His son put his wartime experiences into this paragraph:

He finished medical school and was rushed through internship only to be placed in the Alpine division where the Army was positioned in support of the Wehrmacht who were hunting down the Communist partisans in Montenegro. His division was then redeployed to Vichy- held France. Shortly thereafter Italy quit its association as an Axis power. His division was quickly rounded up by the Germans and sent by rail to Germany. Since he was a medical officer and wore the insignia of a doctor on his shoulder, the German guard treated his former ally with some measure of respect. While the train was moving in the area near Grenoble France he was allowed to use the toilet used by German officers which happened to have an open window. Sure enough, he jumped from the moving train and roamed the French countryside where he was given shelter by French farmers in exchange for doing various jobs, including field work. After several months of this he crossed on the Eve of Christmas night 1943 into Switzerland by fording a river that separated war time France from politically neutral Switzerland. He had obtained false ID papers which, with the ability to speak French convinced the Germans that he was Swiss.


He told us some other stories over the years, some of them harrowing. While on the run, he was once stood up against a wall by a German patrol who were on the verge of shooting him for reasons best known to themselves. A German officer happened along who told the patrol to get moving, that they had more important things to do. He was left standing against the wall.

After the war he married an Italian-American woman that he had actually met before the war and courted throughout as best he could by mail routed through truly labyrinthine ways. They moved to California where Jean's family lived and he went through the whole process of licensing and internship again (talk about labyrinthine ways).

I really got to know him and to call him "friend" after he had retired, although I never quite stopped being in awe of him. As a child he was “the doctor” - as if there were only one – and in my child's eyes, all-powerful and perhaps even all-knowing. That's not a feeling you get over in a minute. But in the 1980s we both started showing up at the local indult Mass. After a few Sundays, we started driving to Mass together. And so for the next fifteen years or so we drove all over southern California to the traditional Roman Rite Mass in whatever venue our Most Reverend Fathers in God were permitting it on that day.

Followed by lunch. An outstanding lunch. This was prepared in Carlo's kitchen by himself or Jean or both. A bowl of bean soup, a glass of wine, some pasta, a glass (or two) of wine, some Italian bread, maybe some sautéed peppers, another glass of wine, and the salad. Never without the salad. He grew it himself. The tomatoes were from someone else's garden; I forget whose. His son's maybe? But everything else, all the lettuce, the radichio, the barba di fratelli, the arugula, what-have-you, was all from Carlo's garden. Add a little oil and vinegar and there you are. In season there were string beans and assorted other fresh vegetables, also grown out back of the house. After a good rain, he'd go hunting for mushrooms, which might end up in the salad or perhaps sautéed in a little oil. I enjoyed these tremendously. I only learned later of his earlier, uh, miscues in the mushroom identification process. Finished off every Sunday with eye-crossingly strong Italian coffee and an hour or two or more of conversation which solved most of the problems of church and state.

After the first few years, our Sunday duo became a trio. One Sunday I couldn't make it and Carlo made the forty minute drive to St Mary's by himself. After Mass, his car wouldn't start. A member of the congregation came to his rescue. And every Sunday afterward, Carlo made sure that his rescuer came to lunch with us. Gary has had lunch with us ever since. (And we still have Mass and lunch, even though we're now back down to only two.)

Ten years ago Jean died and he lost a lot of his interest in life. The lunches got a little plainer, and eventually we just went to a restaurant. His hearing became progressively worse. (And our conversations progressively odder; sometimes hilariously so. I'd have trouble deciphering his accent and he couldn't hear me properly. It's a wonder we weren't arrested.) And his health went down hill. Although, some of us still thought him indestructible. One cold in twenty years. (And those mushrooms I mentioned? It was everyone else who got sick. He ate the same batch and never even blinked.) Two years ago he wasn't able to go to Mass with us any more. He now had Ella, a live-in caretaker, which he resisted having every step of the way. In the end, he couldn't do without her. The past few months he was bedridden and largely unresponsive until a few weeks ago. For a few days he was his old self again. His granddaughter read to him from Dante's Divina Comedia and he finished the stanzas as she began them. At school he had memorized huge amounts of Dante. His last words were the first few paragraphs from Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi. He was shriven and anointed the day before his death. Twice, by two different priests. He died at 4:20 in the morning, three days before Ash Wednesday. Ten years before, at 4:20 in the morning three days before Ash Wednesday Jean had called their son to take her to the hospital for what would be her final illness.

There are so many other Carlo stories I'd like to tell but don't quite know where to fit them into the narrative. He made his own excellent Italian sausages. He loved to cook calamari but Jean wouldn't have them smelling up her house so he'd be out in the back garden, grilling them on a barbecue in all sorts of weather. He always took his hand Missal to Mass. Mine is in Latin and English, as yours probably is, too. His was in Latin. Period. I have a "Little Office of Our Lady" in Latin and English. He had one in Greek. Aside from Latin, Greek, Italian, and English, Carlo also spoke Spanish and French, a smattering of Serbo-Croatian and more German than he would admit to. The old Alpine soldier retained a love for the mountains. He hiked and climbed mountains all over the world. You should see some of the pictures of the places he climbed. The pictures alone would make the palms of your hands sweat. In his eighties he was still hiking and climbing. There's a “rifugio” somewhere up in the Dolomites called the "Rifugio Carlo Valentini". Was it named after him? He claimed it was, but with that sly smile and glint in his eye. . . . His war experiences made him an unrepentant pacifist. Seeing his sons, and in the last decade his grandsons, going off to war was profoundly disturbing.

He had a grand liturgical send-off the week before last. A solemn, sung requiem Mass at his old indult parish of St Mary's, celebrated by Fr Alphonsus, one of the Norbertine canons from St Michael's Abbey. The Mass sung was Fauré's Messe de Requiem, Opus 48 with the Gregorian propers and some beautifully sung hymns and motets by Duruflé, Fauré, Mozart, and Bach.

If you have a moment, a prayer for Carlo's soul would be appreciated.