Until last spring, the only time I had ever been to Italy was the summer after college graduation. Two girlfriends and I backpacked through Europe for two months in the summer of 1985. We were twenty-one years old, steeped in English and French literature, art history and American Studies. We would visit every church, trudge through every museum, trace every sculpture and eat our way through all the great cities, but in Italy we were stunned. I still remember waiting for hours in the line to see Michelangeloís David
in Florence. Once inside, you had to pass through a hallway lined with the sculptorís unfinished "bound captives," their marble muscles tensed in stone, not fully carved and bursting to free themselves. I remember glancing up and toward the end of the hallway, toward the light where the David stood. I remember glancing and then quickly looking away, blinded. I wanted to wait and face it full on. Despite the enormous press of people, I felt alone when I stood in front of it, stunned by the gleaming stone, the towering force of it above me. The sun poured through a skylight above, illuminating David and washing out those of us around him. I donít remember voices; it seemed as if the light coming in and the light reflected off the white marble was the same and loud enough to drown us out.
When my mother took me to Italy last spring, I was at the tail end of one of my daughter Sophieís worst crises. Probably the worst, at least since her diagnosis ten years before of a severe seizure disorder of unknown origin. She was already losing weight rapidly, a loss that would peak later that summer at 25 or so pounds, and at ten years old, more than a third of her weight. While the rare seizure syndrome that she had been diagnosed with earlier that year had responded successfully to the intravenous infusions of immunoglobulin, she continued to have terrible tonic episodes and had lost her ability to walk and eat solid food. We were in a holding pattern with Sophie, and since my husband Michael had left his job a couple of months before and was able to take care of Sophie and the boys with the help of some very capable babysitters, I reluctantly decided to go with my mother and her two elderly sisters. It seemed like a less than perfect way to travel to Italy , but I felt spent and no one let me refuse.
As soon as we arrived in Florence , my anxiety and worry about Sophie really did disappear. I donít know if it was the literal distance or the sudden immersion in a city that I remember as my favorite, but as I walked through the winding, dark streets of Florence , I felt as if I were twenty-one, again. My aunts and my mother took hours in the morning to get going, so on the third day or so I decided that Iíd wake early and strike out on my own. I would meet them by noon at our hotel where we would catch a taxi that would take us to the train station and onward to Rome and the rest of our trip. When I set out that morning, it was barely past dawn and the streets were quiet. I intended to visit the David, again, as well as my favorite painting, Fra Angelicoís fresco at San Marco.
I went to the monastery first and quietly walked through the tiny cells, each adorned with one beautiful Fra Angelico fresco. I marveled, again, at the suddenness of the painting The Annunciation, up some stairs and around a corner it surprises you, shocks you, really, with its hundreds of years old color, its strange perspective and haunting subject. The Angel has descended and kneels, his hands folded over his chest, his face intense with the news he must deliver. His remarkable wings are like some strange birdís, each feather tipped with color, spreading out from yellow to red to blue and back to a rich burgundy before tipping out in a celestial blue. The Virgin sits on a simple bench, her hands folded similarly, her deep blue robes pooling at her feet. Her face, though, is pale and heavy. The Angel has just told her, I believe, that she will bear the son of God. This is unimaginable to us, but Fra Angelico has painted the scene with a painful intimacy, the colors and clearness speak of belief. I am silenced by this painting of a mother who will know incredible sorrow; her narrow, rounded shoulders seem to have already accepted the burden.
Once again, the Academia, where Michelangeloís work was, was swarmed by tourists, but given how early it was, I waited in line for only a half hour or so and made my way toward the David in much the same way as I had twenty years before, idling before the unfinished captives and stalling the mom ent when I would gaze fully on the remarkable statue at the end of the corridor. This time, though, my concentration was broken by a loud thud, a scream and a rush. A man lay on his back several feet away, his eyes closed and his fists clenched by his sides. His elderly companion bent over him, moaning, while other people yelled for help in various languages. Quickly, though, police arrived and what were probably Italian paramedics to attend to him. The crowd grew louder and thicker with gesticulation; I wondered if the man was dead. I couldnít bear the crush and slipped away, out into the Italian morning.
Hot outside and glaring bright, the softness of the morning had given way to high noon, and the streets were full of people. I regretfully made my way back to my mother and my aunts, picking my way through the swarm of tourists around the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The piazza that surrounds it is enormous, the cobblestones rubbed smooth and hard by centuries. There arenít any trees or flowers or plants of any kind there, only stone and the enormous cathedral rising out of it, the tower one of the most familiar in Florence . I remember bells ringing the noon hour and still feeling spell-bound by the art that I had just seen. I felt like a speck, insignificant, and I was glad of it. My troubles and grief felt distant, and not just literally. Thereís something about visiting such ancient places and knowing that millions of lives have been lived that takes away the terror of my own.
And then, in front of me, a woman fell. Right to the ground with a smack on the hard stone. A pool of blood seeped out from under her head, immediately. Pigeons, startled, flew up and away, their wings flapping like a scene in a movie. Someone screamed and then more people screamed. I looked down and saw the girl begin to jerk, her head banging on the stone, her legs jerking and spreading, her skirt hiked up and her crotch revealed, her white underwear. For a second I stood there as people ran up to us, a man crouched down in front of her. I think I heard the whistle of the police.
"A seizure!" I thought. I might have said it aloud. "A seizure! Sheís having a seizure!" I watched her head again as it banged up and down on the stone, her mouth a stiff grimace, saliva bubbling out and down her chin, thrust upwards, and I knelt to pull her dress between her legs as they thrashed. In the same moment, I yelled for someone to help, to put something under her head, but police had arrived and they stuck their shiny, metal whistles in their mouth and screamed for everyone to back off, to get away. When I stood, the seizure had already ended and the young woman lay, spent, her eyes closed, her head turned to the side, her legs splayed. The police continued to scream at us and I wanted to say,"ďNo. You donít understand. I know this. I know what to do. This is what I do. I can help." But I donít speak Italian, so I turned my back and stumbled away, my eyes blurry with the light and tears.
I think that I practically ran back to my mother and her sisters at our hotel. I ran, sobbing, and then collected myself before I went in. I took the elevator up to the roof where they were eating their breakfast, buttering croissants and stirring sugar into their cafť americaines. Aunt Marlene had laid her cane next to the chair and I bumped it when I sat down. I must have looked pale because my Aunt Yvonne remarked that I looked tired and maybe shouldnít have been "gallivanting around by myself so early in the morning." I told them that I had just seen a girl have a seizure right in front of me. Wasnít that weird, I said, that I had come all this way to escape it and it happened anyway? My aunts shook their heads; my mother was upset.
"I canít believe that you had to go through that," someone said.
Really, most people will go through their entire lives and never see anyone have a seizure. I have seen tens of thousands of them. Six thousand miles from my home, I had attempted for a few hours that morning to lose myself in the art that had defined me in my early twenties. Looking at one painting and one sculpture, I had felt my perspective for the moment recede, become blessedly unimportant. The woman who fell before me, though, was immediate. She might have been Sophie. I felt as if I knew her and I stooped to protect her, to fix her legs, to cover her and protect her dignity.
I am still not sure of what to think of all of this. On the one hand, I wonder if I am just plain haunted by epilepsy. What the hell, I think, maybe Iím just cursed or, at the least, fate isnít going to let up. On the other hand, I see great symbolism in it all and it gives me pause. I am attracted to the deeply religious, the mystics of every religion, those who live in solitude and feel small in the scheme of things. I feel enraptured by their art, their poetry, their devotion to the ineffable. I have written of the woman I saw fall numerous times on campus when I was in college, and I wonder if she and the woman who fell in front of me in the piazza in Florence keep me bounded, frame my life and bring it back to me as it should be. If I were a painter I might draw that scene in Florence, the duomo, the stones, the small circle of blood, the womanís turned head, quiet after the seizure, no one else there and light blurring out toward the edges.
©2008 by Elizabeth Aquino