Reflections On My Roman Girlhood
The day before John Paul II died, I ran down Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of Rome’s main streets, trying to get to the Vatican on time. Rumor had it that the pope was dying, and I figured my legs, which ran half marathons, were faster than a taxi on the jam-packed streets. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to miss his death: not just as a young reporter. I wanted to be able to tell my someday grandkids about this moment in history.
St. Peter’s Square was bathed in candlelight. Hundreds of people had gathered in vigil. The pope was still alive, but barely. He would die about 24 hours later, when I was, go figure, not at the Vatican, but eating dinner at a friend’s house. We dropped everything as soon as we heard the radio announcement and scurried down the Janiculum Hill, into a scene that looked like the circus had come to town. Journalists had set up shop along the Tiber River. Major media outlets had been renting properties above the Vatican for years in anticipation of this event.
I was working at the Wall Street Journal, which had a small bureau in the city center. For the next few weeks — until the new pope was elected — I helped the senior correspondents write the big stories, while writing my own color pieces about the city during the papal transition: a convent-turned-hostel, a troop of Polish boy scouts in town for the pope’s funeral, the incumbent pope’s ability to speak Roman dialect. It was the culmination of years spent stringing in a city and country reserved for veteran journalists. It also felt like the beginning of my own potentially glamorous career.
But life had other plans for me. As the pope took his final breaths, across the world in Iowa, my mother was facing her own death sentence. The Friday before the pope died — the same day I mused about witnessing history — my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She broke the news to me the day before Joseph Ratzinger was installed as Pope Benedict XVI. My reporter’s instincts kicked in as I scoured the Internet for treatments and survival statistics. I became a health reporter that day.
I formalized that position at a graduate program for health reporting back in the U.S. My goal that year was to save my mother, and I succeeded only in lifting her spirits. She died four months after I graduated.
After she was gone, I felt left in the middle of nowhere — even though I stayed in my hometown for a few months to regroup. But after a decade in Italy, America didn’t feel like home; nor did going back to Italy. I knew the truism that you can never truly go back to a place where you’ve been. Plus, I needed time to process that period in my life, which I’ve dubbed “my Roman girlhood.”
I also had an inner itch to figure out why my mom died, so I worked as a cancer reporter and editor for a few years, after which I held general health-care reporting positions. I liked the intellectual challenge of delving into medical issues, as well as the intimacy of telling peoples’ health stories. It was arguably more humbling and perhaps more real than living in Italy, which journalistically, can feel like a small town in a beautiful place.
Last year, I visited Rome for the first time in many years. I went for a translation conference, since I’ve maintained my fluency in the Italian language, the key to a renewed relationship with the country. Being back in Italy felt like both a pilgrimage and a rite of passage. An editor with whom I’d worked there remarked how much I’d grown during my decade of repatriation.
The comment caught me off guard, since I had been more focused on figuring out how Italy had shaped me than my experiences back in the U.S. But I had to concede that my editor was right. In making arguably the harder decision to stay in the U.S., and practice a trade, I grew in a way that I couldn’t have foreseen in the blinding lights of one of the biggest media stories of the century.