by BRENDA BARTON*
This is a story about an American girl, who fell in love with Italy 30 years ago, and who over the years kept throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain so she could come back … just one more time.
Sadly, COVID upended her very last wish which was to open up the wonders of Rome to her children before she succumbed to cancer. She wanted nothing more but for them to see through her eyes the deep love she had for the city, the country, her friends and favorite corners of Rome. And of course, the food and the warmth of the Italian people.
That girl was Lisa Maksym. The New York Times wrote, just few days ago, about her story.
I first met her at Arizona State University in 1981. We immediately became close friends, also with her twin sister Camille. During my last year of university, we three moved into a small apartment together. Their passion and talents of Italian cooking trace back to those early days.
Back then, little did I know that three years later I would fall in love with an Italian man, Gian Paolo Aloi. It was 1984 and I was teaching windsurfing in Cancun, Mexico following university graduation. After a long distance romance, I moved to Rome in 1989 to marry. Lisa was one of the first friends to visit me. And that was when she also fell in love. With Italy.
That year in Rome - 1991 – changed her life forever. She moved in with Gian Paolo and me. She struggled but then succeeded to learn Italian. She eked out a living teaching English. She mastered how to wind through traffic on Gian Paolo’s beaten up motorino, her chariot to see the city.
We loved going to the open markets together. We would spend hours walking through the historic city’s cobbled roads, window gazing at all the beautiful Italian clothes and shoes that we dreamt of owning someday. We jogged in Villa Pamphili, pinching ourselves as our feet tripped over pieces of history that in North America we could only dream of visiting in a museum. We gazed up the Italian ‘Stone Pine’ trees which lined our path, which, we said giggling, reminded us broccoli stalks.
Lisa was a 6 foot tall blonde, beautiful, and unassuming, 28 year old woman.Her equally beautiful sister, Camille, happily came on frequent visits. Together, the girls explored and discovered the beauty of Rome and its people, like Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday”.
Over the years, whenever she could manage it, Lisa returned to Rome. She flew in for the baptism of our son, Matteo, for whom she was named godmother.
In 2016, Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. It was the worst news any of us could have ever imagined.
Lisa being Lisa, she was eternally optimistic and determined to beat it with experimental cancer treatments. She went from one chemo treatment to the next, absorbing the many painful side effects without complaint. Her courage was bolstered by her incredibly loving and committed sister, Camille, always at her side with family and friends.
During that time, Lisa and Camille, who were once again roommates, living together in Lisa’s Scottsdale, Arizona house, plotted all sorts of ventures. This ranged from a flower business “Sorella” with their elder sister, Celeste, and an idea and designs to fill a void they saw in the market for quality t-shirts, targeted at tourists returning from Italy.
In 2018, Lisa and Camille brought their 85-year-old father to Rome, so they could share the love of the city with him. But Lisa’s final and deepest dream was to bring her two children, Sam and Sophia, to Rome, to show them the places of her youth and all that she so loved. The trip, which I was to join with Camille, was planned for May 2021, coinciding with a 30-year Rome reunion of our long, beautiful friendship.
But COVID dealt a tragic blow to this dream. In November 2020, Lisa and Camille both got struck by COVID very seriously. Camille first got COVID pneumonia and on Day 14 of monitoring, Lisa discovered she too was infected. She spent three weeks in the hospital with pneumonia. She survived. But it was not without a huge cost. COVID interrupted for two months her last, 10-month long clinical trial that had been bringing hopeful results. And after COVID, her body was more weak than ever.
Still, we kept planning that May reunion to Italy, with bookings made at a beautiful villa at the Amalfi Coast. This dream was flame on a candle, on which we focussed our intense gaze and hopes.
It became a race against time. Would Italy’s COVID restrictions lift, opening doors to foreign travellers, permitting us to get there one more time?
As we watched every day for news, our window of opportunity kept shrinking. The cancer in Lisa’s body was spreading rapidly. She was told that she had - at most - three months to live.
This is when Camille decided to bring Rome to Lisa. She converted her bedroom (which had become a hospital ward) into her Roman dream. She printed a mural of Rome at night, and placed countless photos and notes from friends and family all over the walls. Signs said, “You are loved”. On April 17, Camille wheeled Lisa into her room to surprise her, with music by Amadeo Minghi, her favorite soundtrack from 1991, playing in the background. A “Roman Holiday”, her favorite film, was projected on the ceiling above her bed.
Lisa was overwhelmed with emotion, lovingly caressing the pictures while reading each and every note. She couldn’t stop saying ‘Grazie’.
As her days were clearly coming to a close, Gian Paolo and I arranged a Zoom call with Lisa and Camille, and read to her “Poesia Per Roma” by Erika Messa - first Gian Paolo in Italian, then me in English. We showed her freshly taken video of the little Monteverde apartment where we all lived and images of Villa Pamphili that our son Enrico had just taken, showing the ‘broccoli trees’ still standing tall and strong. Gian Paolo made her laugh like he always could. She wasn’t able to speak much and at one point, she said in Italian ‘Non mi sento bene’ (I don’t feel well).
Two weeks later, on April 28, Lisa succumbed to her five-year battle with cancer. She was hugging the embroidered ‘Roma’ pillow I gave her.
I know that somewhere, somehow, Lisa is now back in Rome, driving with joy down her favorite side streets in the little green Fiat she and Camille had recently bought, with its license plate – “Roma ’91” - proudly announcing her arrival.
(translated into Italian by Vichi De Marchi)
*BRENDA BARTON (She has worked for many years in Rome with the UN World Food Programme. She currently lives in Manila, Philippines. Matteo lives in Toronto, while Enrico - Brenda and Gian Paolo’s youngest son - is in Rome, close to his Italian family)
*VICHY DE MARCHI (Vichi De Marchi è giornalista e scrittrice per ragazzi. Per molti anni è stata portavoce per l’Italia del World Food Programme delle Nazioni Unite e oggi cura l’Atlante dell’infanzia a rischio di Save the Children Italia)