2. On the Road to …

My sister was driving me in her old cinquecento (Fiat 500) to a new doctor in Naples, and she was unfamiliar with the city. She had never driven there, and if you know Naples, you know how big, congested, and confusing it is. I’ve never driven, so the best I could do was read the directions someone had written down for us.

We needed to get onto a particular street from a traffic circle. Well, not really a circle, more like a U. On the first try, we didn’t see the street sign in time and missed the turnoff. This meant driving a couple of kilometers before being able to turn around and approach the U again.

On the second try, a truck blocked our view of the street sign. On the third try, a showoff in a larger, American car cut us off, honking his horn like it was our fault. On the fourth try, I guess my sister was so nervous about missing the turnoff that she did just that. Finally, finally, we made it on the fifth try. We were both nearly in tears.

I guess that’s what my wife calls an existential nightmare.

Not sure what this “existential” thing is, but life sure is a head-scratcher to try to figure out. Take one road or take another. Go south, west, north, east. Stay single, get married, have children or not. Work for a company or for yourself, or chose the life of a musician, artist, or bum.

Some people seem to be born knowing exactly what they want or need to do in life. They seem to intuit which roads to take to get to where they want to end up.

Most people I know are not like that. Most people, I suspect, ask themselves: how the heck do I choose?

I say, why choose at all? I mean, can we really map out our lives as if there are destinations? Even those praised as “successful” do not stop moving; once they reach their goals, they keep setting new ones for themselves.

Like most kids, I had little choice in what happened to me. Except the situation was a little more extreme. With age 3 in view and me still not walking or even crawling, my parents could no longer hold back their worst fears, that there was something wrong with me. So began the long journey on the road to cure me.

My mom cried a lot and was as sweet as can be to me. My dad was desperate to find out what ailed me and what could put me right. He took me to this doctor, that one, and yet another for answers. They all had different ideas, yet not one of them had any idea. One of them even said I’d be dead by age 10.

Weekly, they poked my arms with injections of cortisone, vitamin Bs, who knows what else. My dad ran around to find horse meat to feed me; it was pricey but loaded with iron. I hated its metallic taste.

My dad did all he could to help me, to help ease his shock/shame over fathering an imperfect child.

Then a lady with La Croce Rosa (The Red Cross) urged my dad to send me to a place that was for messed up kids like me. She didn’t say it that way, but I call it as I see it. So off my dad shipped me to Rome, to a school for disabled kids who needed special instruction and physical therapy.

It was awful. I made the best of it, got into scrapes with the nuns that ran the place, made a few new friends, and secretly cried for home, my mom, even my dad. The things that happened there, that I saw there, killed my happy-go-lucky view of life and filled me with a dread that even now, decades later, rears its monstrous head at times.

Four years in Rome. Four years lost to me. Four years of my childhood I could have spent in the countryside with my many cousins and school buddies, eating my mom’s cooking, picking apples, cherries, and figs right off the trees. Walking barefoot in the black, volcanic soil, drinking cool, clean water from a natural underground spring. Being present to attend the funeral of my favorite uncle.

Finally, when I was 12, I abruptly insisted on leaving Rome for good. My life depended on it, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t explain why to anyone. When my father scoffed over the phone, I swore I’d run away, never to be seen again. It was one of the few times as a kid that I ever stood up to him. He must have heard the urgency in my voice because the next day, he arrived to take me home.

Maybe “all roads lead to Rome,” but it was sweet to turn around and find my way back home.

No regrets here.

near Look Rock, Great Smoky Mts Nat’l Park, TN
courtesy of “Mrs. Anton”

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