Nostra Signora Dell’Ambulanza

One late afternoon in May of 1995, the sound of an ambulance siren tore through the narrow streets of  Monserrato and ricocheted off the tightly packed buildings.  I was in the loft of the studio working on an oil painting when I first heard it, faint and far off.   “Someone’s in danger”.  The thought came unbidden, and I dismissed it quickly.  As the sound grew closer and louder, that thought became harder to push away.  Gianni, the artist who owned the studio, had graciously  taken me on as an apprentice.  He was so generous, so kind to me.  I’d heard he had a history of heart problems.  Had he  collapsed in another part of the building? Was the ambulance coming for him? No… that couldn’t be…

That’s when I realized the truth: they were coming for me.

During my last several months spent as an exchange student in this Italian town, depression had crept over me like the fog creeping in off the Mediterranean before dawn.

I had lost weight.  Lots of weight.

No one knew how serious it was.  Yet.  I suspected I was in danger, but still hadn’t found a way to give voice to my fears.  Hearing the ambulance stop outside the studio, I felt like a criminal about to get caught.   Gianni appeared to open the massive wooden gates for the paramedics.  I felt a mixture of relief  and dread as I saw that he was safe, and realized for the first time I wasn’t.

I had no way of knowing  I would soon take my own ambulance ride through those same streets.  No way of imagining the months of agony that would follow.  It was like reading  foreshadowing in fiction, and wanting to cry out to warn a character in the story, yet knowing you’re powerless to save them.  They can’t hear you.

Foreshadowing or no, nothing prepared me for the sight of the body when the ambulance doors opened.  She was flanked by paramedics, strapped to a stretcher, and wrapped in blankets, but I could see her pale face, covered in flaking paint.  It was a statue of the Virgin Mary, transported from a nearby church to the studio,  so Gianni could restore her.

I guess it was an emergency.

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