Sempre Avanti

by Mark Chmiel

Sempre avanti, Italian. “Always keep moving forward.”

I first learned this expression from Helena, a friend who typically signed off her letters with this expression, or else with Coraggio. A historian and a convert to Catholicism, she worked with me on peace and justice issues in the 1980s and kept in touch over the years. Several decades older than me, Helena took a lively interest in my academic work on Elie Wiesel.

In later years, she was afflicted with breast cancer and severe arthritis, but she remained lucid, gentle, and passionate. The year after Mev died, one day Helena came home to find a note from her husband, an immigrant “self-made” businessman millionaire. He had to leave her, he had written, because he had so much life he still wanted to live.

Just weeks before this happened: My friend Simone and I had dinner with Helena and her husband at their posh home. With her usual grace, Helena made us feel like royalty. At one point after dinner, her brusque and brilliant husband (he knew nine languages) interrupted our conversations and declared peremptorily, “I think we should all acknowledged how heroic Mark was throughout his wife’s illness.” Simone and I glanced at each other, stating silently with our eyes, “Where is this coming from?” We had not expected such a profession of sensitivity or sentiment from him, since he often looked suspiciously at us, we felt, judging us as way too liberal for his Catholic belief system.

Two months later, Helena was alone. Her husband could not be “heroic” and stay with her throughout her aches and physical diminishment. Although he had retired, he had so much he wanted to accomplish, so many projects he wanted to bring to completion. He had returned to the South and left Helena well provided for, financially.

Throughout this period she faced a dizzying shock akin to what I had experienced: A loved one, gone just like that! Well, not at all the same: I had twenty-one months to prepare for Mev’s passing. She had no inkling that her husband was not going to be there that evening for supper.

Once trained as a canon lawyer (long before he made his vast fortune), her husband later got an appointment in an archdiocese as a consultant on annulments. He eventually sued for divorce from Helena. He remarried, to a woman younger and evidently livelier to his tastes.

Occasionally, she still managed to write to me, encouraging me to get a full-time teaching job, where I could savor the joys of academia, and always managing to sign her increasingly difficult-to-read notes with a sempre avanti.

Thich Nhat Hanh once made the famous utterance that the miracle is not to walk on water or on air, but to walk on this beautiful green earth.

The miracle for me was Helena being able to write sempre avanti.

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