Pina’s full name was Pina Pasquantonio. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants who had moved to Canada. At some point in her thirties, she decided to move to Italy and spend the rest of her life there.
Pina was in her early sixties when I met her, and she was the assistant director of the American Academy in Rome. The “Academy,” as it was known, was a shining marble palazzo that sat on the summit of a leafy hill in Monteverde Vecchio, a tony neighborhood known on the western side of Rome’s Tiber River. Every year, the Academy invited thirty artists and scholars to be Rome Prize Fellows. Fellows lived there for 10 months to eat organic food prepared each day by cooks in the Academy’s kitchen, share ideas with each other, and meet visitors who cycled in and out of its tall, beautiful walls every few weeks. We were there for a variety of reasons: some of us received Rome Prizes to finish novels, others to compose scores, still others to create vast and beautiful paintings.
I was there to finish my dissertation. You see, though I’m a musician by night, my day job is something else entirely: I’m an academic in the field of classics and ancient history. My year in Rome was supposed to be my last academic year as a graduate student — the end of a long and often terrible march towards the letters P, H, and D.
I’m an ambitious person. I’m just going to come out and say it. When I learned I had won the Rome Prize, I was thrilled. The Rome Prize was going to let me live in the most beautiful city for a year. It would boost my career as a classicist. It would prove my worth to my department at the University of Chicago, which had never supported me. And I was going to have a year to reset after the demise of a messy, six year relationship.
I met Pina on my first day at the Academy. She was poised and beautiful, with dark brown hair and shapely glasses perched on her noise. Pina had been the assistant director at the Academy for over thirty years. What did she do as assistant director? The real question was what didn’t she do. Pina made all the room and studio assignments for fellows. She taught us where the emergency exits were. She kept us on track with our visa applications so we could live in Rome legally for a full year. She selected the wine for our group lunches and dinners. She knew where everything was and how to get everything done at the Academy and, it sometimes seemed, in Rome.
She did all of this with unwavering firmness and grace — she had to. The responsiblities of her job were immense and infinite. She was the most organized person in the world. There was no arguing with Pina, no breaking rules. So while we Fellows may have been in our thirties and forties and fifties, we regarded her with a mixture of fear and love, the way students would a headmistress. Pina was the best, and we didn’t want to disappoint her.
My first few months at the Academy were a struggle. I’m not nearly as social as I am ambitious, and living in a building with 30, fairly cliquey people didn’t suit me. I was also struggling to finish my dissertation. My advisor and I had agreed that I would finish my dissertation during the fall so I could defend it in April and graduate in June. But my advisor wasn’t happy with the writing I was turning in that fall, and he wasn’t willing to give me the guidance I needed to finish and polish it.
Nothing was more important to me than getting the hell out of school, so I did everything I could to get the dissertation in shape. I got up at 6 everyday. I went for a run in Villa Doria Pamphili, the lush, statue-strewn park just outside the Academy’s walls. And then and I wrote and wrote and wrote without a break till dinnertime at 8.
I didn’t make any music. I didn’t make any friends. I was miserable and I hated myself and my life. In January, after 5 months at the Academy, I learned from my advisor that I was not on track to defend in April. “Maybe,” he wrote in an email, “We can move your defense to May.”
I lost my shit when I read that. May was the month I had planned to tour Europe and promote the album I had released the previous year. I’d already committed to appearances at festivals in Austria and Germany. I didn’t want to give up something that mattered to much to me — my art — for something I hated anyway.
I started having panic attacks. I felt nauseous all the time. I couldn’t sleep. And the rage — I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such white hot searing rage. After a week of this, a few days before February, I decided to take a few days off from work to cool down and come up with a plan that would let me defend my dissertation that spring without canceling my tour dates. I made plans with a friend to spend a day looking at Renaissance paintings and then go to Florence for the weekend.
I woke up the morning of our museum date, stumbled to the bathroom, showered, put in my contacts. Abinadi and I headed for the bus, and as we walked, I noticed a small blurry patch in the lower right corner of my vision. I blinked a few times, it didn’t disappear. I figured I must have gotten some moisturizer on it. I spent the rest of the day blinking awkwardly at Caravaggio and Michelangelo paintings, looking forward to getting back to my room and tossing my contacts.
Only, that didn’t help. I left for Florence the following day, baffled at my right eye. I just couldn’t see out of it that well anymore. The small blurry patch had grown to a sparkling stain, and my eye hurt. I shelved my worries and focused on enjoying a weekend in Florence, away from my computer and worries about school. Several cathedrals and river walks later, I was back in Rome and panicking: I could barely see out of my right eye.
My friend Michelle, who spoke Italian better than I did, accompanied me to the ER. A grave opthalmologist looked at my right carefully. She translated: “I think, he said, “You may have a problem with your optic nerve. But I don’t have the equipment here to do the necessary tests.”
That’s when I turned to Pina. She made an appointment for later that with an opthalmologist named Doctor De Arcangelis who had the right medical equipment.
The intervening days were excruciating. I could hardly see out of my right eye. A black cloud had engulfed it. My eyes struggled to work together — I tripped on Rome’s ancient cobblestones, missed the lock of my door with my key. In the mornings, when I tried to line my eyes, I found myself with a mess on my face. Few of the Fellows at the Academy interacted with me. My invisible disability was confusing. Aside from Michelle, only one or two other people spoke to me regularly, checked in on me, made sure I emerged from my pool of depression for long enough to eat.
Pina accompanied me to the doctor that week for the next round of tests. We spent most of that cold winter evening in Rome in a waiting room filled with patients and their families. She laughed when I observed this. “Italians never go alone to see the doctor,” she said, “they always bring family.”
When the new tests also suggested a problem with my optic nerve, she reminded me not to waste my energy on panicking. “Let’s see what the doctor recommends.” Doctor De Arcangelis spoke to Pina who translated for me: he recommended an MRI, but added we didn’t need to hurry.
My family thought otherwise. Upon hearing my news, my mother spoke to an optometrist she knew, who recommended I get an MRI immediately. When I heard the urgency in her voice, I was terrified, and I called my brother, who’s a doctor, to explain. “No one wants to scare you,” he said, “But I think you need to know: they’re worried you may have a brain tumor.”
The next day, I knocked on Pina’s door. In her special Pina way, she managed to secure an appointment for an MRI that very evening at a nearby hospital. “I’ll take the rest of the day off and go with you,” she said brusquely.
In the car on our way to the hospital, Pina told me about her late husband. They had met when she was forty — her first marriage, the second for him. He died from cancer just a few years later. “It was hard,” she told me quietly as we pulled into the hospital parking lot. “I waited my whole life to meet him, and lost him so soon afterwards. But I’m so grateful I had the time with him I had. Every moment was a blessing.”
As we sat in the waiting room at the hospital, I pondered how swiftly life could change. What would happen if I had a brain tumor? Would I have to have surgery? How long did it take to recover from having your head cut open?
After about an hour of waiting, a tech called me in for my scan.
The room containing the MRI was ice-cold, and I wondered how I was going to stay still in that sterile, white tube when my body kept spontaneously convulsing into shudders. The machine pulled me in. I tried to focus on the clicks and clacks and groans of the machine.
After forty minutes I rejoined Pina. We sat for an hour, waiting for the results. Pina held my arm and I thought to myself, after my mom, this the next best person for me to be with. Then I realized, no, wait, she is so much better than my mom. My mom would be panicking and send me into an even bigger panic.
When the tech stepped into the waiting room, my heart leapt into my throat. Only, instead of asking us to meet with the head neurologist, she said, “We need to redo part of the scan.”
That’s it, I thought. I have a tumor and they need to get a closer look at it. As I lay inside the machine again, my brain jumped from thought to thought. Should I bother finishing my degree? Clearly it was a mistake not to have focused my life on making art. Thank god I broke up with my boyfriend.
When I rejoined Pina, I started crying. “I don’t want to leave the Academy,” I said, “I don’t want to leave Rome.”
“You’re going to be fine,” she said firmly. “You’re going to be fine.” Then, she started asking me questions. “I love your nail polish, Lakshmi. Where did you get it from?” I laughed through my tears. “I know what you’re doing,” I said. “Doesn’t matter,” she responded, smiling. “Answer the question!”
It took nearly an hour to get the results, and they didn’t come from the doctor in person: instead, they arrived on a sheet of paper, typed in Italian. Pina read it to me.
According to the letter, I didn’t have a brain tumor. I did, however, have a problem with my optic nerve: it was inflamed. “This,” the letter concluded, “is likely to be due to a demyelinating disorder.” It provided an example of such a disrder: multipla sclerosi, it said. Multiple sclerosis. I started to cry — in horror, with relief, I’m not sure. Pina hugged me. “We’re going to figure out how to fix your eye,” she said. “I promise.”
Over the next few weeks, I learned that I might never regain my vision in my right eye and that I was, almost certainly, going to develop multiple sclerosis if I didn’t already have it. I would frequently stop by Pina’s office to say hi and collapse for a minute while she reminded me that I was lucky to be in such a beautiful place while I healed from this horror, that I was going to lead the life I’d always wanted. She accompanied me to the doctors’ every single time, calmed me with sane and soothing conversation, allowed me buy her a cappuccino as paltry expression of gratitude.
I managed to tour Europe after all, but I did give up the idea of finishing school that year. My ex came to join me in Rome and I spent my days reading or sleeping, thinking about how my life had changed forever. On my birthday, Pina emailed me from her office downstairs. “Ciao, cara, happy birthday!” she said. “Stop by and let me know how you’re doing.” She was happy to see I was doing better.
And I was. My vision in my right eye slowly improved over the the months that followed, though it remained jarringly weird compared to my left eye. In July, I said goodbye to Pina and, like the other Fellows, left Rome. Before I left, I gave her a handmade shawl knitted by an artist in Spain. She squeezed me hard. “You’re going to be okay, cara. Stay in touch.”
I moved back to Chicago to finish school and Pina wrote a few months later to check in and see how I was doing. I didn’t respond right away. I was busy with finally finishing school, I was dating someone new… There was too much to process, too much to say after that terrible year in Rome. I kept thinking, I need to respond to her email. But then, I never would. I forgot about it entirely.
Earlier this year, my friend Michelle sent me an email to let me know that Pina had cancer and that she’d taken time off from her job for chemotherapy. I need to write to her, I thought. A knot of anxiety formed in my stomach. I am such a bad person, I thought. Pina had pulled me through the darkest days of my life, through the worst moments of illness. And somehow I hadn’t stayed in touch with her. What was wrong with me?
I pondered what to write, how to start that email. I came up with nothing. And I didn’t write. Instead, I texted Michelle, who was up to date on news about Pina. “How is Pina doing?” I asked. “Pina’s doing a lot better,” she said. “She’s wearing a wig, but in great spirits.”
Life moved on, and I moved from Chicago to Northampton, MA to be a professor. A few weeks ago, on November 28, while scanning Facebook, I a photo of Pina popped up. She was speaking — firmly, I assumed — to a group of well suited Italian men. Clearly she was telling them off. I smiled and thought, okay, I really need to write to Pina.
A few minutes later I saw an email in my inbox with her name in the subject line. I opened it. “I’m sorry to tell you all that Pina passed away today,” it read. “As you know, she had been battling cancer. The funeral will be tomorrow at 2pm at the Church of San Damaso in Via Monteverde.”
When I think of Pina, I think of what I should I have said. A thousand words bubble in my brain. And yet I am mute and filled with regret. Why didn’t I write to Pina? Why didn’t I thank her every day in the months after I moved from Rome? Why wasn’t I there for her illness as she was for mine? Everything I’ve said tonight about her — it feels like nothing, too.
Thank you, Pina. I hope I see you again some day. By then, I hope, I’ll finally have the words.