remain viscerally suspicious of Italian doctors. I pay little attention to degrees, whether from Kansas or Cambridge. I am unimpressed with honorifics.
In November 1973 my father entered a Rome clinic called Savior of the World. Doctors there dismissed his bloated stomach was a gastric flare-up.
Go home, he was told. Rest and take antacids. He had peritoneal cancer and died eight weeks later. The bloating was liquid produced by tumors multiplying and spreading. His body was letting liquids loose.
My mother went instead to Saint Catherine the Savior of the Earth. It made no difference. Her doctor announced she had pleurisy, a lung infection. This, he told me by phone, accounted for her swollen limbs. The infection’s binge was overflowing into softer tissue. I was in New York City.
When will she be out? I asked.
She’ll be dancing by New Year’s, he said. He told her the same. She was immensely pleased.
I flew to Rome immediately.
Once at the clinic, the doctors escorted me to a conference room in which they announced gravely that my mother had bone marrow cancer as well as cardiac amyloidosis. Misdirected protein was ballooning her heart, muzzling its functions. The cancer, meanwhile, waited patiently in her bones.
Such “calamitous” situations — two killers at once — were not for a patient to know. Specifically, they wouldn’t tell her. That was up to a family member. Bad news was a choice, not a necessity.
They discharged her and gave me a prescription for Alkeran, an early form of chemotherapy. I had to tell her about the drug after picking it up at a pharmacy.
Since the doctors refused to surrender the myth of a New Year’s Eve Dance, the truth was mine to tell.
But she’d promised a coming dance, she told me. She’s been told she had a lung infection. All would be well. She began sobbing.
It would all be fine, I lied. She endured a year.
Now, my Rome doctor scans my MRI and my CAT scans. There’s a curvature in a central artery leading to the brain. It has what he calls a “curious” contour. All’s well for now but if it bends abruptly blood oxygen would be strangled, meaning a stroke. Otherwise it’s quaint. An anomaly, he says.
“Dai … revediamo le cose tra dieci anni …” — “Let’s have a look again in a decade.”
Denial is central to Italian life, which romances away bad news. Passion includes talking down harm’s way. Many family members feign ignorance.
The lies we tell for love are those we teach ourselves to like.
Lucky you, say my friends: You live in such a romantic country.
And lucky I am, until one day I won’t be so lucky and someone will need to tell me a hard truth — or barring that, pick a fable or, if it’s bad enough, promise me a dance.