La Pietà is a powerful image, thought Maria. She gazed at the sculpture and a knot formed in her throat. It occurred to her that the woman in marble who held her dead son was her namesake.
She wiped a small tear from her eye and turned away. She could not behold such an image for long.
Maria walked out of St. Peter’s Basilica and leaned against the pillar, her face in her hand. All around her was a hustle and a bustle of tourists, cameras, and languages, so many languages. She thought this might be the Tower of Babel, in reverse. Perhaps something would happen, a lightning strike, a meteor, a deep sleep, who knows, and all present would awake to find they could only speak one language, and all humanity would understand oneself and all troubles would be over. Like a gift from above instead of a punishment.
Maria sighed. She looked up and caught the Swiss Guard’s eye. He was a beautiful youth, lean and graceful, and he smiled, coy, since he wasn’t supposed to smile, when their eyes met. She grinned back and nodded. A grin, a weak smile was all she could muster.
“What a beautiful sculpture,” a woman talking to her husband paused beside Maria, “did you see her face? You can feel the pain and anguish in her expression!”
“Yes,” said the man, “Michelangelo was a great artist to have depicted Mary’s feelings so well, having never felt the loss of a child himself.”
Maria scoffed. She hadn’t meant it to be so loud, but it was, and the couple noticed.
“Do you disagree?” The man asked with a polite smile, but eyes that pierced.
“No, I do not. I agree with you about everything,” Maria’s lips quivered, “and I didn’t mean to sound dismissive, but I know her pain.”
She patted her chest and her voice broke.
“Oh,” the man gasped, taken aback and left speechless.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” the woman came to his aid, her eyes fixed on Maria’s and oozing sympathy, “what happened?”
“He was a soldier,” was all Maria could answer.
“Ah, yes, war is often the cause. So many people have died in war. My father died in Korea, and his uncle in World War Two—here in Italy.”
She put her arms around Maria whose sighs had turned into quiet sobs.
“My brother died in Vietnam,” the man added, his gaze and voice now soft, “what was your son’s name?”
“Michael.” The name soothed the sorrow that pierced her tongue.
“Ah, the leader of Heaven’s armies. Do you know the name means the rhetorical question: who is like God?”
Maria gulped and nodded.
“You know,” the lady interjected, “I believe that for every child He takes, He gives another. No death is in vain.”
“True,” Maria sniffed, “and She in there cries for all of us.”
The woman nodded and, after determining that Maria was all right, the couple bid her goodbye and walked on.
Maria glanced at the Swiss guardsman again. He was still looking in her direction and had seen her momentary breakdown. Maria adjusted her backpack, it weighed on her like Michael’s death, and stepped out into St. Peter’s Square. The Roman mid-morning sun shone bright on the statues that lined the hemicycles. The light in Paris shimmers with an enchanting pink glow, but Rome is alight with crisp brilliance!
Maria crossed the square and wandered away from the Vatican. She pondered the couple and wished she’d composed herself enough to ask their names. She wondered if the woman’s grandmother had ever stopped grieving her son, indeed, if any woman ever stops grieving her son.
Maria strolled aimless and found herself lost. She stopped to consult her map; a car sped by. It reminded her of the opening scenes of her favorite movie Il Sorpasso where Vittorio Gassman races around Rome looking for a telephone; the streets are empty and all the shops are closed for a holiday.
“Roberto spent his life on the outside looking in. To really live, if only for a weekend, that’s what it’s all about,” Michael had said when they’d watched it.
Maria’s throat knotted again; that eternal lump that waxed and waned like the moon which she could never cough out and tangled her words.
“Il Sorpasso means ‘the overtaking’,” she’d said, “I think it’s more meaningful than the English title The Easy Life. Bruno overtakes anything, even Roberto, and his ambush ends in tragedy. Never let yourself be ambushed like that.”
If only she’d eaten those words. Soon after he was gone under a blood sky and a blood earth.
Maria ambled on in a reverie, her mind full of memories of Michael. In Rome, there is always something to see, whether it’s the decorated parapet of a building, or the sculpture on a street corner, but Maria only half saw these wonders because everywhere she saw Michael, in all the stages of his life. A smiling cherub would morph into Michael’s baby face, or the curlicues that decorated a doorway would remind her of his elfin curly hair. At each pause she adjusted her backpack; slung on one shoulder it evoked Michael’s baby weight and when strapped on her back a thousand piggy-back rides galloped through her mind.
Bilbo Baggins told Frodo to be careful of stepping out onto the street since he’d never know where his feet might take him. Maria understood now what he meant. Her feet took her to the Piazza Navona, where she sat down at a café for a rest, and set the heavy backpack on the chair next to her. She fancied she saw Michael playing among the fountains and statues.
The ping of her phone brought her to the present. She answered her sister Rosa’s text and moved on, the backpack slung onto her back once more.
She ambled though the city and came to the Colosseum. Michael had wanted to see it so much. One Halloween he’d dressed up as a gladiator, she and Rosa had made the costume themselves—they’d made all his costumes—complete with a cardboard sword. The next year he’d been a medieval knight, and the year after that a dragoon in Washington’s continental army. War had always fascinated Michael.
Maria met Rosa for a late lunch of Fettuccine Alfredo on the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. They spoke little, Rosa glanced now and then at the backpack Maria set on the adjacent chair. Maria enjoyed the meal, despite the nagging notion that Michael should have been there with them, Fettuccine Alfredo being his favorite dish.
Afterwards, they took a cab that neared them to the Fontana di Trevi and slowly made their way to the Piazza di Trevi on foot, arm in arm with Rosa’s oxygen mask trailing behind them. They marveled at the majestic fountain and sat for a while, admiring every detail of the great statues. Michael would have loved this, he always dreamed of wading in the Trevi fountain like in La Dolce Vita. Rosa was tired and took a cab back to the hotel (she took a sip of the fountain water first, hoping she might return to Rome one day per the superstition).
Maria wandered about by herself and, lost in reflection, strolled on looking but not seeing, her direction as random as her musings, until a child’s delighted laugh, that sounded much like Michael’s pre-school giggle, brought her back to the present. She was at the Tiber, Tevere in Italian, the river that flowed through Rome. How many wars had it seen? How many sorrows? How many lay at its bottom?
There was a story of a famed film director who had swum in its waters, brimming with thousands of years of humanity, and had later died from an infection, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember who. Was it Pier Paolo Pasolini? “No, Mom,” Michael had said when he’d googled it, “someone murdered him, but not there and there’s no mention of him swimming in the Tiber.”
Maria sighed and leaned against the stone guardrail of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, her cheek resting on her hand. She reminisced about all the Italian movies she and Michael had watched together. She loved classic Italian cinema and Michael had inherited that love, or perhaps she’d taught it.
This would have been their first trip to Rome together, he would have been on furlough and they would have met here. The Roman Catacombs had excited Michael but she couldn’t bring herself to visit them yet, maybe tomorrow. He always had a taste for the weird and macabre, and warcraft had always fascinated him. He hadn’t played with Hot Wheels, he’d preferred G.I. Joe. Neither of them had realized that if you live by the sword, you die by it. Maria, at least, had never believed it would be Michael’s destiny. It was wishful thinking on my part. She wondered, not for the first time, if Michael had known what he’d gotten into. Did he die in fear? Pain? The image of her beautiful boy torn to pieces rattled her and that knot in her throat expanded until she could barely breathe. The hot afternoon surrounded her and she covered her mouth with her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her gasps turned into sobs and soon she was wailing, gripping the stone to pull herself together.
Perhaps she should have canceled this trip, Rosa had certainly considered it. But no, Maria wouldn’t have it, and Rosa, pulmonary disease and all, came along. Maria wiped her face with her sleeve and turned to go, not noticing which direction.
“Mom,” Michael’s voice rang out in the Roman afternoon, clear as a bell and stopped her in her tracks; she’d crossed the bridge and was at the Castel Sant’Angelo, and Michael Archangel watched her from above, bronze and triumphant, the sun setting all around, “remember, for every death there is life anew. I lived and died by my choices. Let me go.”
Maria broke into tears again and swung the backpack forward so that she now hugged it. She stood like that for a moment, then composed herself and took out her phone. Heavy tears fell on the screen as she texted Rosa her location. Michael had taught the sisters how to track and find each other with the phone. Newfangled technology baffled both, but Michael insisted on this one thing before he deployed; “so I know you’ll never be lost,” he’d said.
Rosa arrived by taxicab in the Roman twilight, minutes before the sunset. Maria helped her climb out with difficulty and, arm in arm, they made their way to the stone guardrail of the bridge and stood beside an angel that lined the bridge.
The last rays of the sun splayed out on the water with blinding intensity as if setting the city ablaze.
Maria leaned on the stone and took the urn from her backpack which had laden her all day. Together the sisters opened it and spread Michael’s ashes over the water. They glimmered in the twilight as the wind blew them skyward.