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Witnesses

The garden of lost children

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03 April 2021

In Romena, “orphaned” parents plant almond trees for their children. As Don Gigi says, there is no need for words, just a gesture. Like Jesus in Nain


Why? That is the first and only question. Unanswered. Even banging my head against it, tearing my heart out, losing sleep. Why did I let him go out that night and crash into that car?

Surviving a child who dies is an incomprehensible tragedy. Moreover, those who, in despair, ask why do not deserve a trumped-up answer, a babbling of useless words, says Don Luigi Verdi.

 “We cannot offend the pain of a mother or a father. You cannot. Don Gigi, (or Gigi as his friends call him), is the founder of the Fraternity of Romena in the valley of Pratovecchio Stia in Tuscany, province of Arezzo, repeats this like a mantra; “We cannot offend the pain of a parent”. This is what he thought twenty years ago when he met the first mother and father who, together with others, later founded the Nain Group. They had lost their son and were wandering through those green valleys in search of peace. They stopped at his parish church, built a thousand years ago and which today, as then, hosts “travelers of faith”. They told me”, says don Gigi, “about the mourning and about an imbecile priest who had tried to explain to them that their son was better than the others”. That is why God wanted him with him.

 “How can this have happened?” he asks himself years later, with the same passion, agitated and stubborn, that lies behind the commitment made up of his gestures and not words, alongside parents who have lost their children.

 “I named the group after the episode of Jesus entering the city of Nain and encountering the torment of a mother who had lost her son. Seized with compassion, he laid his hand on the coffin. That gesture is the only comfort. There are no words to describe the miracle of a son found again. What is needed is presence, listening, and a gathering of tears.”

Don Gigi remembers the tears from when “a woman arrived in Romena. I have her rigid, diffident [face] imprinted in my mind. She did not cry, she did not say a word. Little by little, she loosened up, the tears began to flow, and she wiped them away to hide them, ashamed of her suffering. At the end of our meeting, the tears came down unrestrainedly to her lips. She drank them in, took them in”.

Next to the pain of a mother or father who have lost a child, there are no words but presence, affection, eyes that look at each other and understand each other. Therefore, they try to overcome the minimum objective of surviving to reach that of living. A new, different life. In the name of, on behalf of, in memory of.

Anyone who has been to Romena and met the Nain parents, busy at the tables in the canteen, at the cooker in the kitchen, has heard them say, “I cook while thinking I’m doing it for my son”. In that demure but also joyful and incredibly soothed voice, he heard the strength and pride of this life choice. Instead of overwhelming themselves with work, of devoting themselves to activities that seek to remove, these parents have chosen to be reborn immersed in the memory of a son who is close by but not there.

A path “that is never a consolation but is the only road to Resurrection”. Like the garden that Don Gigi wanted to create in the large lawn around his Romanesque parish church. “There we decided to plant almond tree saplings to remind us of the children who are no longer with us”. And the choice of the almond tree is no accident: “It is the first to bear flowers and the last to bear fruit”. An esplanade of seedlings that will grow into adults: the Garden of Resurrection.

Don Gigi is clear about its meaning and proposed it to his wounded parents: “In Hebrew, the root of the word almond tree, shaqad, means to wake up, to be attentive. The garden - where hundreds of plants rest - has this meaning: instead of waiting to see it again, start to blossom. Instead of keeping him in that grave, try to bring life forward for him too. It is waiting for a change, for something new to come. The Nain parents’ group, as Fr Gigi wanted it to grow, is an open space. “I don’t want to hold people back. Those who come here can come here just once. Come back when they want. Or be, as it happens, the backbone of a fraternity of people who every day ask themselves a question: where do I start living again?”

by Elena Di Dio
Author for Tv2000