Wednesday, February 24, 2010

La Verna and Debbie's Dream

The first time I met my friend Debbie at work, the bond we felt was immediate. We were like sisters separated at birth or before. She was new to our company but already had heard about me and my love affair with Italy. Debbie's dream was to visit Italy.

She started coming to Alberto’s weekly Italian lessons, which he conducted at Francoli Restaurant. Alberto immediately accepted her into our fold. He was a Venetian, transplanted to the USA as a young man. Each Tuesday night he reserved a table for his students. Some ate dinner, some only dessert. Dinner was too expensive for me and besides, I concentrate best with an empty stomach. My shyness tends to cause stomach aches when eating in public places.

I have always traveled to Italy alone. I prefer to go not as a tourist, but as a person going home. Being an unpaid travel guide only causes me stress and takes me away from my passion: to speak Italian and discover a normal everyday life.

Since Debbie’s passion for Italy matched my own, I decided it would not be difficult to travel with her. For almost a year we planned a November trip. We purchased airline tickets and signed up to be students at my school, Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Firenze (Florence).

On day in September I received a call from Debbie. The previous weekend, she had had a fainting spell. She had been taken to the hospital where they performed an MRI on her brain. She had kept this hospital visit a secret. When I received her call, it was from a crying, shocked, hysterical Debbie. She cried out that she could not go to Italy! She was still in the parking lot, after having been seen in specialist’s office.  He told her she had a very large brain tumor and nothing could be done. The doctor suggested it was time to formulate a plan to prepare her family for the end of her life. Her shocked husband spoke to her about funeral plans.

I was sworn to secrecy at work. Debbie coped by working each day as if all was normal. She seemed her cheerful self to co-workers. I walked by her desk, more than several times a day, to check on her.

Meanwhile, I searched the Internet for information on her diagnosis. I joined a chat room for people with brain tumors. I had an on-line conversation with someone who passed me the names of several brain tumor specialists in our Los Angeles area. I could not accept the fact that Debbie would not realize her Italian dream. It seemed so unfair.  I often recall my son Jeremy, telling me that life was not fair. But this shattering of Debbie's dream without a fight, was just not right.

With her doctor’s diagnosis letter in hand, I quietly cancelled her Italian reservations and I knew I would need to go alone.

Of course many people at work had been following our travel plans.  Debbie decided it was time to share her news at work. Tears flowed as the shock wave spread.  People came to my desk to ask what they could do for her. 

Using the Internet, we continued to research names of specialists. After some major insurance trouble, Debbie was able to get appointments for some second opinions. This was her first miracle. We thank the many people at our place of work who helped make this happen.

Surgery was scheduled for December with Dr. Steven Giannotta, MD, Professor of Neurological Surgery and Chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at USC Medical Center. This opportunity was Debbie’s second miracle. (

Very early the morning of Debbie's surgery, our mutual friend Joanne and I drove to the hospital, in order to be as close as possible to her. We were certain that we could help by focusing our energy on her survival.

On the way, we listened to my CD containing the soundtrack of the biographical Italian film on San Francesco (English: Brother Sun, Sister Moon Italian: (Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna) 1972, Franco Zeffirelli.)

I had purchased this CD in the La Verna gift shop.

Debbie's third miracle was to visit La Verna herself, 18 months after brain surgery.

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