The Best Advice I Ever Got From a Gynecologist
8 min read
Abruzzo is a region in Italy. Although Abruzzo is technically considered Southern Italy, it’s smack-dab in the middle of the beautiful boot and known for its numerous National Parks, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine, potato export, and historical earthquakes. It spans over 4,150 square miles, has four major principalities, three-thousand small towns, and a population of 1.32 million people. I picked a random spot on the map that was a short bus ride from Rome FCO airport...Avezzano, Abruzzo here I come.
“Why the hell did you come all the way from Chicago…here!?” Dr. Renata bluntly exclaims as she gestures to a desolate bus stop; a rickety shopping center plastered with cheap, rain-stained ads; and electric posts with tangled wires that were definitely not up to code.
Dr. Renata is one of the few doctors in town. She practices gynecology and internal medicine. A sixty-seven year old woman living with her family in a mezzanine of the luscious, hilly nook between Castelnuovo and Avezzano city center. I stayed at Dr. Renata’s home for four days as an Airbnb guest.
“Well, my grandma’s parents come from Abruzzo. I don’t know the name of the town they’re from, so I chose a place on the map…and here I am!” I explain in broken Italian.
“Do you know anyone here? Do you have a car? What do you plan on doing?” each question followed by a raised eyebrow.
“I don’t know anyone here, I have no car, and no plans at all,” I say giddily. Excited to have complete freedom for the first time in my life.
“You know my house is on the side of a mountain? It’s a two-hour walk to town and a two-hour walk back. It’s not safe, it’s the wild, there’s no sidewalks....And how do you plan on eating?”
“Oh, it’s fine. I have all the time in the world. I can walk to town and buy groceries,” I say gently.
“Dai, come on! At least I can help you find your family,” she pleas.
“No, no, no! I wouldn’t ask that of you,” I reply.
“Well, if the last names are Abruzzese, I can often hear a last name and know what town it comes from. Dimmi,” she commands.
I sigh, “Alright, well my great-grandfather’s last name is ‘Fulgenzi’”.
She looks at me with bulging eyes, “Ah, si! You found the right town! ‘Fulgenzi’ is native to Avezzano, there’s a ton of Fulgenzi’s here. And your great-grandmother’s surname?”
“Bucci, Bucci is the last name of my great-grandmother,” I practically squeal with excitement, unable to believe how small the world is.
“‘Bucci’ comes from the town just over the mountains,” she points to the distant snow-dolloped peaks of Mount Salviano. Then with an enlightened smirk and low-tone says, “The town I am from.”
We continue to walk down the street towards her car. “Brava, Theresa, Brava,” she says as she pats me on the shoulder. Senza parole, both of us now regard each other as “pretty much family”.
When we arrive back at her home, Dr. Renata and her housekeeper, Anna Maria, insist on feeding me all my meals while I’m there. They explain the schedule:
Breakfast: 6:30AM on the nose, chocolate chip panettone and espresso.
Lunch: 1:00PM spaghetti made by Anna Maria.
Dinner: 8:00PM with Dr. Renata and her husband, Giovanni.
They finish explaining the meal routine, and hand me a jar of aged zucchini with garlic to snack on. That’s around the same time I receive a long-distance phone call from my family.
“Grandma’s kidneys shut down. It doesn’t look good. But don’t drop everything and come back to Chicago. Enjoy Italy, that’s what she would have wanted,” my mother explains on the other line.
Ya see, my grandma promised her father, Great-grandpa Fulgenzi, that she would return to his home town in Abruzzo before she died, and never did. Out of her eleven children, twenty-eight grandkids, and twenty-six great-grandkids, I happen to look the most like her and speak the most Italian. Now she’s at death’s door. So here we are.
My sister suggests that I plant a wildflower in a nearby field in her honor before she passes, to wish her spirit a peaceful departure.
I search for the prettiest purple flower I can find and a location that I would want to figuratively spend eternity in. I discover a calm place between two larger-than-life trees with a panoramic view of mountains. I dig a small hole in the dirt, and transplant the flower and its dangling roots. With each methodical press of the clay-like dirt, I think to myself: you can let go now, Grandma. Then pour the last of my water canteen on the soil.
I sat there for a while. Feeling the warm breeze on my face and the comfort it brought.
Back at the house my Italian was rusty, however Dr. Renata and I were able to understand each other well enough. She’d give me big wooden walking sticks to use on my hikes while she was at work, because it was “the wild” and there were “wolves and snakes lurking”. Which I thought was just her way of scaring me, until I came across wolves and a large snake on my hike.
One day, Dr. Renata swings by the house when I was reading in the sun and asks if I want to go on house-calls with her. “I have some elderly patients who live up the mountain in a sad, sweet abandoned town called, Castelnuovo. I need to give them medication. Want to come with?” Dr. Renata inquires.
“Si, certo!” I exclaim.
In the car ride I stare out the window at the beautiful scenery with a light smile and a presence of peace. She looks over at me as she drives up the winding mountain road and exclaims, “You seem like a very patient person. I wish I was more patient.”
Not being able to take a compliment I laugh and say, “Oh, I don’t know, that’s very nice of you. I’m just content, no matter what I’m doing.”
She smiles, “That is very good. Always be that way. That is the secret to a happy life.”
We drive another ten minutes then park. Dr. Renata explains that I can’t come in the homes to visit the patients with her, but I can walk around and explore.
“Here,” she hands me a wad of biscuits. “Take a few of these. Per i cani randaggi (for the stray dogs).” Winks, and off she goes with doctor bag in hand.
I stroll up and down the streets and feed a couple dogs. Very sad, very abandoned, and very old people living in this tiny town. Dilapidated brick buildings, rotting wood barns, hungry animals, and silence. The youth have fled to Northern cities with hopes of jobs, Western tech, and want-fulfillment.
I take a few photos, then we drive back home.
I’m due to leave.
I depart Dr. Renata’s on a Wednesday morning. We eat our traditional breakfast of chocolate chip panettone and espresso.
She inquires about my career and when I’ll be back in Italy. She could tell how stressed I was. I was practically shaking with anxiety as I spoke about my job, and explain that I won’t be able to get away for many years.
She nods her head, as if she understands. “Yes, work is busy for me too, but I almost never take vacation days. And if I do, I don’t go anywhere,” she says with a sigh, and points at the window in her kitchen—a view of velvety green landscapes and distant blue mountains. “I stay here,” she explains. “I have created a life that I don’t want to leave. You understand what I’m saying? Build a life you don’t need to escape from.”
Those words were left ringing in my ears and echoing in my heart as Giovanni drove me to the center of town to catch my train to Pescara, my next destination. He walks me to my stop and waits with me until the train arrives; he says this part of town isn’t safe because some the African migrants are known to cause trouble.
I hand Giovanni thank-you cards for him and his wife, expressing my appreciation for their kindness and generosity in poorly written Italian.
I get on the train and stare out the window with a feeling in my gut that rung out like the sound of flicked-crystal-glass. I can’t categorize the feeling. It’s unfamiliar, liberating, and joyful at the same time. The feeling of unlocking your own freedom, and realizing the key was in your hand the whole time. I have never been so sure of anything: I need to destroy everything I’ve built. I need to quit my job, get rid of my apartment, and sell my material possessions.
It’s pressure and time. The still mountains of Abruzzo finally cracked me like the earthquake of 1915.
As soon as my airplane wheels touch down at ORD, my phone shivers and shakes with Facebook messages notifying me that Grandma took her last breath ten hours ago—precisely when my plane departed Italy.
Either she was using her last bit of strength to bring me to lay her soul to rest in a wildflower field in Avezzano, fulfilling a whispered promise she made decades ago, or maybe it was just a coincidence.
But that day I ran back to my apartment and started packing up the bricks of anxiety I had built my life with, and began building a palace.
A life I don’t need to escape from.