THE BLOG
12/08/2014 07:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Getting to Rome

If you are lucky, you will enter a city that enters you, a place that possesses you and makes you feel alive. Rome was like that for me. I was a graduate student in the 1970's when I fell in love with its ironic delights, its human tissue, its unkempt parks, the marble residue of its past glory, its pastel walls, its lazy river, the women's sling-back shoes and the sinfulness of fresh mozzarella in my mouth.

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Sculpture in the Wall at Villa Pamphili Park

I needed to live here. It was neither moral, nor powerful, nor particularly brilliant. There is no question: I suffered from a madness. Rome is a city that is hopeless and yet alive, the perfect place for somebody who thought he might be dying.

The red, hard lumps had first appeared on the backs of my upper arms after I returned from Tanzania, where, as a graduate student, I had conducted research on maize farming in the Iringa district in 1970. The Chinese were building a railway, the Americans a road. How would the corn farmers respond? The rats scratched across my floor at night, the stench of rotting fruit perfumed the night air. I drank maize beer from oil cans in wattle huts and wolfed down roasted goat wolf at the roadside. Worms chewed a resting place in my toes. I didn't feel right -- cotton-headed, listless, my skin periodically becoming hot and hived. The American doctors found nothing. But I had not been careful and I suspected that something had made its way inside, taking hold and inhabiting my skin.

Sometimes the lesions would rouge up and itch, but mostly they were just matching discolored swatches. When, more than a decade later, new ones appeared on my inner leg not long after our twin daughters were born, my wife Debra insisted I have them biopsied. I didn't want to go. Debra guards the bodies of our family, ever on watch for invasion and malfunction. She was right: Swarming with malignant cells, the experts at Stanford University hospital said I had a T-cell lymphoma. Mycosis fungoides is a cancer of the T-cells, the cells that build anti-bodies and combat infection. The disease starts on the skin and then invades the organs, killing you after twelve years or so.

When I found out all I wanted was to live as long as possible, to be there with Debra and our daughters, if I could, at their bat mitzvahs ten years on. Our daughters' marriage and motherhood seemed unreachable. I even sketched out the funeral for Debra -- a picnic with pork ribs, white corn and Bob Dylan music. "Lay, lady, lay," a song conjuring a passionate afternoon, suggested itself. If I was going to die, I wanted people to celebrate what made me happy.

And we decided to go to Rome. It was crazy and made perfect sense.

As we prepared to leave, I was under the care of a Dr. Alexandra Levine, a renowned diagnostician at the University of Southern California. I expected a button-down technocrat, hard-edged, brilliant but cool. She was rather a cheerful captain of a soft lifeboat. "Lie on your back," she told me, "I need to mush your tummy a little." She hadn't seen any organ involvement in the scan, she told me.

Sitting on the edge of the examining table, she traced my lymph system, kneading each point. The stethoscope between her breasts, she had her eyes shut tight. "You look like a Baptist faith healer," I told her. "And I found it, it's there," she laughed. "It's just a little one," she guided my fingers to a small nodule on my shoulder, "but watch it, just watch it. Chances are it's nothing."

"I have had a lymph node there all my life, too," she told me. "If I told the surgeon to biopsy it, he would laugh at me. And if there's one thing you don't want here, it's for somebody to laugh at you."

Dr. Levine was not convinced it was a lymphoma. It was, just not the one they thought they had found. The gene rearrangement study instead revealed a malignant B-cell lymphoma on the skin, a very rare condition that had been recognized medically just a few years before. B-cell lymphomas normally show up inside the body. There was almost nothing on its etiology; at the time exposure to insecticide was the only suspect. The profusion of T-cells they found were not the disease; they were the cure.

It was decided to radiate the tumor and right away so we could leave for Rome. Daily they laid me out on a hard, heavy metal table, after waiting with turbaned women, men in hats, adult children holding their father's hand, halting walkers, men and women who were enraged, defiant, defeated and sometimes very, very funny. Would I, too, end like this? The lesion site could heat up and become inflamed and infected, the radiologist told me. They gave me a salve. I imagined I might glow in the dark.

If we destroyed the lesions I would live a long time. I was to keep watch.

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Sarah and Hannah in Rome, age three

We arrived in Rome and put our girls in a nursery school. The tramontane, the frigid winds that sweep down out of the Alps, came early that year, the cats curling on car hoods to keep warm. Our girls' new teacher scolded us for sending them to school with cotton shirts. You are from California, she chided us, but here they need lana, wool. Our apartment still had no heat. We called the supervisor; our children are cold, I told him. He was sorry, but there was nothing he could do. Heating was controlled by agreements going back for as long as there has been central heating; there was a date for it to go on and a date for it to go off. Our landlord came over with a space heater to put in their room. Like others in the city, our apartment did not have a clothes dryer. Roman women hang their clothes on the balcony, out the window, on the roof. With the cold, wet weather, we had to choose a sunny window, placing the clothes rack in front of it and waiting for hours, even days, for things to dry. We followed the sun around the room. Our clothes came out stiff, the threads softening on our bodies.

We had been there just a few months; I had already had multiple sinus infections and influenza as well. Lymphoma, our ear, nose and throat doctor had told me, reduces the functioning of your immune system and makes you liable to respiratory infection. He had noticed it, he insisted, even if he could not prove it. Debra remembered this. I could tell she feared I might be on the way out.

Debra had found a healer who lived amidst the fields in a house in the countryside west of Rome.

I cleave towards reason and my senses as the basis of the real. My wife entertains a whole other set of possibilities: concordances, intuitions, vibrations, premonitions, energies above and below the normal spectrum. The logical does not necessarily yield the true. She senses people in her body; she looks into their eyes; she smells them like an animal. When she couldn't get pregnant the normal way she had no difficulty seeking out a Moroccan rabbi in Jerusalem who cast spells. Doctors, she liked to remind me, treat symptoms; they don't have anything to say about how to build the powers of your body, how to keep your immune system strong. There are other things besides medicine that help keep death at bay.

Just try it, she implored. "She cleans your aura. It is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon." I finally assented, more out of curiosity and placation than belief. It would make my wife happy. For me it was like Pascal's wager: What do I have to lose if I say a few prayers and God does not exist?

Our dear friend Giovanna maneuvered her red mini-truck over the rutted dirt road, soggy from the rains, towards a house set at the edge of a pine forest. Maria Elena, wearing a long white dress, white canvas slippers, gray bobbed hair, greeted us at the door. Married to a fruit wholesaler, she worked out of their home. She did not shake our hands, as is customary in Italy, only opening a wide, uneven toothed smile. I followed her up the stairs to a simple room with a massage table. I lay down on my back and shut my eyes. We did not talk and she did not touch me. I felt her presence over my body.

There was a huge clear glass vat of water below the table. She explained that the detritus from the cleansing process accumulates in the water. I was dubious. After about fifteen minutes, I began to disconnect from the noise of cars in the distance, the winds brushing the treetops, Giovanna's gravely cough downstairs. And then I began to float into a semi-sleep, as though I was in a trance, a waking dream. The session was over and I left the table feeling extraordinarily refreshed. The water in the glass vat was milky. When I got home, I told Debra that Maria Elena had never touched me. "Boy," she replied, "your aura must have been really dirty."

At our next session Maria Elena was agitated. Something was wrong in me; she felt it. She was not sure what it was; she did not want to alarm me if she were wrong. Perhaps, she suggested, we should call Giovanna up from downstairs. My Italian was not yet very good; a misunderstanding would be even more disconcerting. I had not told her about the cancer. I told her now. Yes, she said, a look of profound concern on her face, that was probably it. She would do some research, but I would get better, she was sure of it, she said. We would work together. I believed her.

Maria Elena did not like to speak about herself so it took me a while to ask how she came to her calling. "You mean, why everybody wanted to be healed by me," she laughed. Her father, an aristocratic monarchist, a boyhood friend of Prince Umberto, had been one of the four powerful sponsors of the March on Rome that had brought Mussolini to power. When her father later turned against the fascist dictator, Mussolini had him condemned to death and seized the family's wealth. Her father only survived because somebody hid him in a convent. Maria Elena fled to Turin with her mother to sell whatever jewels and silver the family had been able to spirit away. They lived on bread and lard; she remembered the hunger and her premonition of the diseases that would later follow.

When the war ended Maria Elena had wanted to go to university to study, to become a psychologist, a professional healer of some sort. Her father had forbidden it: A woman belonged at home. She married and had two sons. It was her sons who finally convinced her she had a gift. When they would get sick, they would ask her to put her hands on the headache, the stomachache, the sprain. And once, when one of her sons broke his arm, he had been x-rayed and an appointment made for the next day for the arm to be set. He was in great pain and Maria Elena had held her son's arm for hours. By the next day, the arm no longer hurt. The doctor was stupefied: The fracture had substantially healed. Several years later she started healing a few friends without charge. Word got out; more and more came. She started taking paying patients. It was not a job; it was a calling. "I am a strega," she told me. A witch.

Maria Elena wanted me to take a healing potion made up of aloe, whisky and honey. Giovanna had snuck into the botanical gardens, on the slopes of the Pincio, with a knife to get the plant. Maria Elena had heard about it from a Brazilian Franciscan priest, Romano Zago, then teaching student priests philosophy in Bethlehem. Zago learned it from the poor in Brazil where the aloe plant is ubiquitous. The aloe leaves exudes a powerful, curing cream. With this and prayer, the priest cured many of cancer in Brazil, Maria Elena told me. The alcohol opens the blood vessels; the honey carries the "healing powers" of the aloe. Take a large table spoon a half hour before each meal, Maria Elena told me as she handed me a juice bottle filled with a dark green fluid, a thick ugly-looking mix, slimy garden cuttings. I took it regularly; it was sweet.

Once Maria Elena spied my bright red socks. It is a good thing they are just ankle socks, she warned me. Knee socks would have been too much. I should not have too much red, she explained, because such energies, coming from the earth, activate the cells. Someone with cancer does not want to activate the cells. I did not tell her that new lesions were just then emerging on my inner thigh.

I returned each week to Maria Elena's country retreat, drifting into trance, waiting for and then welcoming her imperceptible energies. Sometimes I felt myself rage, involuntarily, indecent, at this woman who seemed to get inside me without ever touching me. Her body was irrelevant; it was her breath, the energies from inside her, the blue in her eyes that opened on an endless sky. I had been to a psychoanalyst, an object theorist, who had gone over and over the contradictory pieces of me that are father, mother and child, my quest to put abstraction and expression -- my mother and my father -- in one voice.

But here on her table, I felt other forces pushing, billowing up out of my mouth, always a last itching on my face, and then out, as my corporeality dissolved. I was inside a wash of birds and crickets, of the winds brushing the small pines outside. The world was inside me. I was one and nothing and I felt her breathing understanding; its housing in a language of esoteric knowledge was irrelevant.

It was the last session. I was soon lost on her second-floor table of hers. She touched me one last time, a punctuation mark indicating the session was over. She came back in the door and handed me an amethyst egg, heavy and clear, "viola chiare." "When you feel down, put this in your hand and then carry it in your pocket. I have had it many years with me. It means more than a gift I could buy. This way we will never be apart."

I kissed her on both cheeks and she turned away to take away the paper sheet covering the table. I could not leave the room. She was crying; so was I. I stood at the door and stretched out my arms and took her in them. It was a soft and yielding embrace, not the ritualized Roman kiss, demanding nothing, just saying good-bye.

Maria Elena did not cure my cancer. The lesions did not go away. Indeed I have had another rare cancer and they had to amputate my big toe. But I still have that amethyst and take it with me on my travels. I once had a waking vision of Maria Elena in an oak tree; the same day a small band of wild parrots swept over my head on a walking trail in the shrub hills of southern California. I still don't believe in these things, but they did happen. I remain a reasonable person. I still occasionally wear red socks.

By whatever means, I have been given a great gift: I am still alive. Ten years later, I returned to Rome with Debra and our daughters. Twenty years after I first went into trance on Maria Elena's table I finally finished Amore, my memoir about our time in Rome.

I have no explanation for still being here. But I suspect that what I learned in Rome has had something to do with it. Maria Elena did not cure my cancer; she did, however, show me a life force that has helped me stay alive.

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If you want the details read: Amore: An American Father's Roman Holiday
http://www.harpercollins.com/9780062325587/amore

To see my Amore blog: https://www.facebook.com/rofriedland