Roman Beads

I loved living somewhere old. I loved knowing that there was more life behind me than ahead of me. The history of Rome was so perfectly captured in the beads I was selling. They were glass, blue and green in color, foggy and rough-edged, they were recovered from a Roman glass-makers trash heap outside of Kabul and had been brought to Rome by Pilgrims on their way to or from Mecca a literal thousand years ago.

I guess if you’re walking (for religious, or any purpose) thousands of miles, keeping your eyes out for interesting rubbish helps pass the time. These glass pieces had served many purposes in their time on earth, currently though they were beads for people to wear as accessories.

Just as the sea waves soften shells and seaglass, glass trash was softened by being buried in Earth for centuries. In downtime at the stand, I would sometimes just run my dry little fingertips along the strands of jagged beads and imagine the stories they’d been through. The glass trade has seen Mesopotamia, the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean, Roman Mediterranean, Asia, Africa, India, etc. There was no part of the world, seemingly, that hadn’t traded glass and suddenly here it was, my livelihood spread out on a small stand in the back of a market in Rome while I quickly died from kidney cancer. It felt beautiful to me. I would always be wearing the pieces that wouldn’t sell, I wanted to demonstrate the power of the glass beads.

Look at me, I thought, or shouted, to every shopper who made it back to my little corner, the entire purpose for these pieces is to make the wearer feel and look beautiful. It worked! Nobody thought I looked beautiful – I didn’t – but they saw that I felt beautiful and they wanted that.

If you can be dying, it’s best to do it in Rome while reminding strangers that feeling like a thing of beauty is more important than looking like one.

Wellness

These days spent in Rome, I would not say I was anything resembling well. I would get winded walking DOWN one flight of stairs. I was lightheaded after one glass of wine. I vomited up 80% of the food I was forcing myself to eat. My body was shutting down in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

My digestive system was barely doing its job and seemed to instead be sending the food my brain forced my mouth to eat straight out of my body one way or the other. So I was losing weight rapidly (my 23-year old self LOVED all the new bones becoming more and more visible!).

My skin and eyeballs were changing in color, which was very unattractive, paired with how dry my skin, nails and hair had become for some reason. I looked like withering birch wood. Everything browning and curling as it dried out.

My mental health was at its peak.

The text messages and emails had started to slow down by my ninth day in Rome because that’s about how long anybody’s attention span was anymore. They had sent a day or two all-consumed in their worry until a new worrisome event arose and they moved on. As far as I was concerned, it was better this way.

I sent a pretty detailed email to my mom and brother detailing my illness, my decision to move, and how I planned to spend my remaining couple of years. They both responded with anger which seemed like the opposite of an appropriate reaction. I told them both they were certainly welcome to come share my new life with me and then suddenly, so many reasons to stay home. Unlike me, death wasn’t looming for them so they couldn’t abandon all real life elements.

But death is looming for all of us and real life elements are invented. I was losing patience for the whole, “I can’t just pick up everything in my life and run away” mentality.

Norman

He looked like a stereotypical European gypsy traversing the continent selling novelties, gently robbing Westerners, being a citizen of the world and amazing dumb tattoos. I expected his stories to be of adventure and close calls, trysts and affairs, run-ins with authorities, escapes and arrivals.

His name was Norman and he was a former CPA from Boulder, Colorado who had a complete meltdown six years ago when his wife left him for her personal trainer. It’s all so cliché that he could barely say it aloud without rolling his own eyes at his own words. When did I become Ross Gellar, he wondered aloud, a sarcastic cuckold with a cheating wife before I was even 30!?

It was reassuring to see how many Americans escape American life to explore the world, but at the same time it was pretty disappointing to share the same story with most of them.  That said, most of them weren’t dying as rapidly or as soon as I was and I tended not to share this bit of information as it just never landed how I wanted it to. I tried to say it comedically, self-indulgently, apologetically, proudly, bombastically, resignedly, and I got the same reaction every single time. People acted as though “Ahh!! There’s the thing that brought you were here!” and I hated knowing that they were right. That I never would have chosen this life if I wasn’t dying.

I asked Norman why he had chosen Rome as I wasn’t sure of my own reason and thought his might shine some light on mine. He said, “I wanted to roam and I’ve never been great at symbolism.”

That was what I grew to love about Norman in our time selling overpriced beautiful goods to Westerners – he admitted his faults while somehow proving them wrong at the same time.

They began to notice…

Is there a mobile app yet that allows one person to thoroughly stalk another person or several people across several platforms? If not, it would have been useful for me to be blocked from it by my second full day in Rome. Not only was my voicemail box filling up, my text message tone was going off endlessly, my facebook notification number was crawling and crawling, people were even relying on Instagram messages and Snapchat to try to find me. And it was the same half-dozen people. They must have me flagged on every platform there is.

In the words of Liz Lemon and only about half applicable here: Man, there are just so many different devices for guys to not call you on now.  Except now there were so many different ways for people (so many of them who had spent the previous few years exchanging little more than a text message with me every now and then) to try to track me down. A bunch of Nancy Drews previously disguised as ghosts!

I left my phone at home and made my way to a little shop in a vintage market. A bunch of boutique owners had gotten together to mix into one big beautiful market. Glass objects, handmade jewelry, fashion racks, pottery, etc, this market was basically what Anthropologie is aiming to be but at prices afforded by normal adult human beings. At the end was one empty station where a former merchant had sold and left her beads.

Of course I was still having lots of back pain and other little side effects of the cancer that slowly killed my body, but I figured I could spend most of my time sitting behind my bead counter smoking hookah with the gentleman selling scarves next to me. While looking at this abandoned stall, imagining my whole life as a bead seller in a vintage market in Rome, I began to realize the most freeing thing that had ever occurred to me in my entire life on Earth: I can do the exact thing I’m fantasizing about doing!

I asked the hookah-smoking scarf-selling tan gentleman covered in different turquoise accessories how to take over the spot, he responded in perfect English that I just could. So I just did.

Would I feel bad selling somebody else’s beads knowing that she’d disappeared? Nah. Minutia.

The Decision

I woke up the next morning, on my couch, still in my clothes, still waiting for an emotional collapse that hadn’t come. I expect it’s because I hadn’t said the words aloud yet. I had a few missed calls from my parents, I didn’t call back.

While two more years of life could be ok, I didn’t want to spend them watching Sex & the City, eating pizza and McDonalds and trying to decide how to tell people about this new development in my body – and by new I mean, a rotting that had gone undetected for long enough for it to spread everywhere.

I went online, applied for several credit cards. It’s miraculous how quickly they’ll approve anybody who requests one, and how they ship them immediately so that you have them the next day. I spent this day doing life as usual, got up, went to work, did that for eight hours, came back home, ate some dinner, went to the gym, came home again, went to bed.

The next day the credit cards arrived and I immediately set to maxing them out. The first one covered airfare to Rome. The next one covered indefinite stay at an AirBnB. The next three, I would take with me to live on.

And then I packed a small bag, got on the bus to the train to the airport, went through security, sat at the gate, boarded, flew, walked off the plane at Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Rome, took the train to the Monti neighborhood, and started my new abbreviated life!

The neighborhood is pretty cool – some might say quirky – as it hosts most of the creatives living in the city. There’s not much of a nightlife but the vibe is one of acceptance and community. I picked this area mostly because when I googled “Boho Rome” it was the first hit and I rapidly found an AirBnB longterm rental that my new credit card limit could afford.

I went to the small restaurant downstairs, ordered myself a ricotta with truffle honey, a meatball red sauce dish, and a carafe of red table wine. They were playing soft piano music while the evening’s performer plucked away at his mandolin. I was the only person in the restaurant and had I spoken Italian, I likely would have noticed that the restaurant wasn’t – by definition – open yet. But because they knew I was their new upstairs neighbor and because I looked pretty tired (from travelling AND from cancer) they obliged me!

I posted nothing on Facebook besides a change in my “Lives in….” section.

The Drive Home

had spent years of my life counting calories, exercising regularly, drinking 60 ounces of water a day, not smoking, drinking a little bit too much but feeling like it was well-earned, sleeping eight hours a night, being a productive member of society, taking care of myself, taking care of people around me in need of care, and here I was: dying of fucking cancer anyway.

The radio was blaring pop hits and I was singing along. Life as usual, just another day, driving home from a doctors appointment.

I went through the drive thru at McDonalds and ordered a Big Mac, a large fries, and a large Coke. I ate all of it, barfed out the foot-opening between my half-opened door and the door frame, and then drove the rest of the way home. My phone still wasn’t ringing.

I reached my home, parked my responsible car in its parking spot, nodded to the doorman on my way in to the lobby, checked my mail, took the elevator up to my modest apartment, unlocked my door, walked in, and sat on the door with my back against the inside of my door.

There were lots of people I should be telling. Stage 4 Kidney Cancer has about an 8% 5-year survival rate, so asking for prayers or being told to fight would seem crude. Should I post something vague about it on Facebook and wait for people to follow up? Should I not tell anybody and just disappear soon? Should I call? Or text? Should I SnapChat it with a cute little doggy filter on?

I went into the kitchen to look for some Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – knowing I didn’t have any – and ended up settling for a pizza ordered from GrubHub with garlic bread and a 2-liter of coke on the side.

I’m dying, I thought, I can do whatever I want.

I turned on Netflix and watched Sex & the City until my pizza arrived.

The Diagnosis

All of the sudden, I was really tired all the time. I would wake up every morning and go to the gym (like usual) but every time I’d walk back home, I found it more and ore challenging to climb the stairs up to my apartment. I would shower and then sit on my toilet to catch my breath. My coworkers began to comment on how tired I looked, even when I was wearing make-up. My neighbor Francesca used to invite me on walks in the evenings but when I couldn’t keep up, she stopped inviting me.

My 1500 calories a day became harder and harder to consume, as I was never hungry, food most of the time made my stomach turn, to even think about it. I started noticing I was consuming at least a third of my daily calories in just beer.

There was occasionally blood in my pee but it was so infrequent that I assumed it was my eyes deceiving me and some menstrual spotting or something.

It wasn’t until extreme right side lower back pain forced me to get a standing desk at work and my boss insisted I see the doctor that an MRI was done to rule out kidney cancer. This imaging confirmed what google had told me the morning of my appointment – I had kidney cancer. They didn’t know it was stage 4 until they opened me up to take it out and saw that it was all fucking over inside me – specifically my liver.

The doctor told me really gently, I expected it to be a cold, clinical delivery. I knew it was coming and I repeated it over and over and over in my head all fucking day so that when the doctor said it aloud in a closed room, I would react by simply nodding my head once and saying, “Ok doctor, what do we do next?” I never wanted to be in a situation where my own reaction surprised me.

The doctor looked at me, handed me a tissue (so dramatic) and said, “Carol, you have cancer, it’s the latest stage of cancer, it’s probably been in your for many years, and there’s very little courses of treatment available at this point. You have some options that will severely impact your quality of life and will allow you about 4 years rather than, best guess, 2.” And then she just looked at me, unblinking. I was also not blinking. We were having a staring contest while she waited for my emotional collapse that never came.

I texted my mom from the car in the parking lot: Please call me. And then I sat there for twenty minutes staring at my unringing phone.