Before she lost her to cancer, an AFAR editor spent five days in Rome with her mom, learning how to live a fuller life.
I didn’t cry when my mom called to tell me she had cancer.
I was in my junior year at George Washington University, 450 miles away from her in Boston. I’d tried to call her the day before to tell her about a city council meeting I’d attended for my journalism class—she was a political junkie who loved my stories about life in D.C.—but my younger sister answered and said she was at the doctor. In fact, my sister relayed, she’d been at the doctor’s a lot lately. I knew something was wrong, but all I could do was wait for her to call me back.
And when she did, her voice broke, but I didn’t shed a tear. Instead, I thought about whether or not I should still go to Rome. I was supposed to leave in two months for a semester abroad but, in that moment, I couldn’t imagine being even farther away from her. All I could think to do was go home, so I booked a flight to Boston, packed my bag, and left the next day.
I don’t really remember much about that weekend besides the “family meeting.” Crammed onto the couch in my living room, the five of us talked about how, after a routine colonoscopy at age 50, my mom had been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Never mind that she ate healthy and exercised every day. Or that no one in my family had ever had cancer. Or that she seemed perfectly fine, if a little small, sitting there next to my dad. She had the most advanced kind of ovarian cancer and, according to statistics, a 17 percent chance of living past five years.
Still, she wanted me to go to Rome. She was the kind of person who took language classes before my family went to Italy, so the idea of turning down a chance to fully immerse myself in another culture was out of the question—no matter how dire her health. I listened and booked a one-way ticket to Fiumicino.
I was home for winter break the month before I left, dog-earing the pages of The Rough Guide to Rome and wondering if I was making a huge mistake. On my last day, I took my mom for a walk around the perimeter of my house in her nightgown—she’d just had a hysterectomy, but she wanted to get outside together. The next afternoon, my dad drove me to the airport, dropped me at the curb, and told me to “spread my wings.” That’s when I finally cried.
I cried at the check-in desk when the British Airways woman told me that both of my carefully packed suitcases were overweight. I cried at the gate when I temporarily misplaced my passport. And I cried at my apartment on the outskirts of Trastevere when I had no idea where I was or how to get to my school. Then I called my mom. She told me to get a map and figure it out.
“The next afternoon, my dad drove me to the airport, dropped me at the curb, and told me to ‘spread my wings.’ That’s when I finally cried.”
The next few months were eye-opening, challenging, and some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I stood in front of Caravaggio paintings I’d only seen in slides, yelled “Basta!” at Italian men who danced too close to me in Testaccio clubs, and ended every day with gelato cioccolato. I surveyed the city from the Viale Glorioso steps on my way to class, explained to cab drivers in broken Italian that I didn’t like George Bush either, and celebrated my 21st birthday in Piazza Navona. Still, every time I saw a mother and daughter on the 8 tram, I had to hold back tears.
I didn’t talk on the phone with my mom much during my time abroad, partly because I’d racked up a $900 bill with my international plan and was no longer allowed to use my cell phone, and partly because I didn’t think she wanted me to hear how weak she sounded. Chemo was taking its toll; she no longer had hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes, and sometimes she was too tired to sit at the table for dinner.
Then she got better. About three months into my time abroad, she called to tell me she was in remission. And she was visiting me in Rome to celebrate.
I remember running down Viale Trastevere to meet her outside her hotel near the Ministry of Public Education. When I hugged her, she felt frail but strong at the same time. She was wearing a wig that was much darker than her usual hair color and her jean jacket hung loosely on her bony frame, but her smile lit up her entire face and she looked beautiful.
I remember our first dinner in Campo di Fiori, when we ate two servings of prosciutto e melone, plus bucatini all’amatriciana, plus pizza melanzana. I had an exam the next day so I wanted to go home afterward but my mom, drunk on vino rosso, ran into the middle of the piazza, spun around, and yelled, “Let’s get limoncello!” After a few sips at a nearby bar, we remembered we didn’t like limoncello, so we wandered the cobblestone streets instead.
I remember her posing for a picture in front of the Dr. Grossi farmacia near Largo di Torre Argentina (Grossi was her maiden name), getting gelato at San Crispino (she’d read about it in Eat, Pray, Love), and climbing the Giancolo for the best view of the city (she was impressed I knew about such a secluded spot but, really, it was just down the street from my school).
I remember playing hooky on a Friday and taking a wine tour of Lazio. When our bus stopped at Castel Gandolfo, we couldn’t stop laughing about how our guide kept calling it “the summer residence of the po-PA.” When she said it was raining “cats and kittens,” we laughed even harder. We were still giggling when we sat down for lunch at a charming osteria to taste Frascati wine, which we decided we liked much better than limoncello.
I even remember how, on her last night, she insisted we go to the Trevi Fountain so she could throw a coin from her right hand over her left shoulder into the water. Italian superstition says that doing so ensures you’ll return to Rome in the future.
Italian superstition is bullshit. My mom died a little over three years later.
I was living in New York by that point but had been going home regularly because my mom’s cancer came back and continued to worsen. She said she felt like her body was betraying her, playing host to someone she’d already kicked out. Finally, my dad called to tell me I should come home and plan on staying a while.
The next few days were nothing short of agonizing. My parents’ gorgeous, four-poster bed had been moved out of their room, replaced by a hospital bed where my mom slept all day and all night. When I first saw her lying there, I was struck by how skeletal her face looked, like she was already dead. I knew she wished she was; she never would’ve wanted anyone to see her that vulnerable.
My dad thought she was holding on until my brother and I got home to say good-bye. He urged me to take some time alone with her and give her my blessing to let go. I wasn’t convinced she even knew I was there, but I agreed.
“I told her that I’d always think of her as she was during those five days—happy, healthy, and full of an unmatched zest for life.”
I stroked her close-cropped hair and sunken cheeks, held her cold hands, and laid my head next to hers on the pillow. I was, for one of the first times in my life, at a complete loss for words. The only thing that came to mind was that I’d always think of her when I watched the snow scene in The Nutcracker. She never failed to cry at that part, even when I’d moved on to better roles.
And then I remembered Rome. I told her that I’d always think of her as she was during those five days—happy, healthy, and full of an unmatched zest for life.
Four years later, I went back to Rome. My sister was studying abroad in Florence so my dad, aunt, and now-husband went to Italy, with a stop in the capital before heading north to visit. We were also celebrating my dad’s 60th birthday so, our first night in Rome, we went out to a fancy dinner, not far from where my mom and I ate all that prosciutto e melone. There was lots of prosecco—including a half-full bottle that the table next to us insisted we share with them—so, afterward, my dad and aunt were ready for bed.
Instead of going back to the hotel with them, my husband and I decided to get one more drink. Without even trying, we ended up in Campo di Fiori. For old time’s sake, we ordered Peronis at The Drunken Ship, sneaked them out of the bar, and drank them while sitting on the steps of the statue in the center of the piazza—just like I’d done when I was in college.
In that perfect moment, I saw my mom twirling in the middle of Campo di Fiori, begging me to loosen up, stay out, and live just a little more fully. I took another sip of beer and hoped I was making her proud.