The Tale of Two “Sisters” That Spans An Ocean
By Anne Bacigalupo Driscoll
One never knows how life will play out or how love and a close friendship can sadly, yet, joyfully be combined. That is what happened to Velia De Angelis and me, Anne Bacigalupo Driscoll.
It all began in 2004 when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. At the time, I was working as an Associate Principal at an elementary school in Bristol, Vermont. In January I experienced numbing symptoms in my legs, had an MRI and was informed that it was indeed MS. I had a big attack that left me weak and barely able to walk. After a month, my strength returned but the nerve damage was left. And from that moment on my calves and feet were numb. I could walk just fine but after many minutes the discomfort was such that I had to sit to rest my feet.
It happens that just a month before the diagnosis, in December 2003, my husband Dan and I decided to return to Italy in April for a second time. Our first trip was in 1999 to Rome and Florence with 8 siblings and cousins and we loved Italy. We met with a travel agent and planned a trip to Positano Italy, a beautiful hillside town leading down to the aqua blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, at the beginning of the Amalfi coast. We were to fly to Naples, be met by a driver and stay at Villa Rosa Bed and Breakfast for 10 days. Everything was planned and looked forward to with great anticipation! Then MS struck a month later.
As I was recuperating it seemed impossible to me that I would be able to make the trip. Many tears were shed as I lay in bed thinking about the challenges ahead. My neurologist said there was no reason why I couldn’t go and suggested I contact the hotel to arrange for a wheelchair. Thus began communications with Velia De Angelis, the manager at Villa Rosa. She was so nice and went immediately to the local pharmacy to inquire about renting a wheelchair. But they had none; and for good reason – there isn’t a flat piece of land to be had in Positano. Maneuvering a wheelchair would have been difficult.
February melted into March and eventually the trip began on April 13, 2004. The moment Dan and I arrived at Villa Rosa, Velia flew down the 35 steps to meet us. She took me by the arm and we walked up the steps to the lobby. “Slowly, slowly” she said to me as we climbed to the top. When we got there she brought me a cup of cappuccino. In my travel journal I posted, “The manager at Villa Rosa is wonderful. She treats me like a queen.”
During the vacation Velia arranged for special dinner reservations and trips to Pompeii, Ravello and the Amalfi coast. When Dan became ill on April 20 (our anniversary), she called for a doctor to come to our room. She sent one of the servants to the pharmacy to get Dan’s prescription. Later that afternoon Velia came to our door with a beautiful bouquet of flowers: 10 apricot colored roses, yellow daisies and baby’s breath. She sent a ceramic vase to put them in with a lovely note. “I hope you will enjoy this holiday…anyway. AUGURI for your anniversary. Love, Velia XXX”
On April 22, Velia made reservations for dinner at San Pietro – a magnificent, luxurious hotel perched hundreds of feet above the Mediterranean. Her boyfriend Gianluca was an evening manager in the dining room. After dinner, he gave Dan and me a personal tour of a couple of rooms where movie stars such as Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas and Julia Roberts have stayed. It was a heavenly evening.
On our final day, Dan took a picture of Velia and me together; a bittersweet moment. Later in the evening Velia appeared with a hand painted ceramic picture frame and a beautiful letter. I told her I would put the picture of the two of us in it. It was so hard to say goodbye! After that, Velia and I kept in constant contact via email. On April 27 she emailed, “when you left I felt such sad and even my colleagues told me that was too sad for them (unusual for me); but it’s like a part of my heart left with you.”
Velia left Positano and started her own cooking school in her home in Monterubiaglio, Umbria. She emailed, “I will be happy (felicissima) to have your sisters Rosa and Elena there. You will have two beautiful double rooms and a private bathroom, a dining room and a very well equipped kitchen.” In 2006 Dan and I along with my brother George, his wife Terrie, my sister Rose and her husband Greg spent an unforgettable week with Velia. We were all immersed in the Italian culture and were treated like family. We used our Italian names: Anna, Daniele, Giorgio, Teresa, Rosa and Gregorio. We attended a wine tasting dinner at Falesco Winery on a glorious Italian summer’s eve. We cooked together, had a huge feast with 30 people at her cooking school, visited Assisi, toured Orvieto and drank copious amounts of wine. Velia stayed upstairs with her Nonna (grandmother) and Zio Guiseppe (uncle Joseph) during the week while Dan and I, George and Terrie stayed in the guest rooms downstairs in the school. Nonna showed Anne and Terrie how she made baskets and where Zio Guiseppe made wine. We were treated like celebrities in the little town.
Rose and Greg stayed nearby at a bed and breakfast with a pool. Everyone would meet there for a swim and more wine after a day of touring. One night Velia and Assunta, the owner, made homemade pizza that was baked in their wood fired outdoor oven. The week flew by much to our dismay. Dan and I cried and cried the morning we said goodbye to our dear friend…vowing to return. Velia urged me to turn my daily written journal into a document entitled, “Adventures With Velia – the Chronicles of the Wooden Chair”. I did this, incorporating pictures from the trip. I sent it to Velia who posted it on her blog.
During the intervening years from 2006 - 2013, Velia and I stayed close on Facebook. Velia continued her cooking school and appearances on a TV show, “Chef Per Un Giorno”; plus cooking for Gianluca’s Champagneria in Orvieto. I retired from my principal’s job in 2009. It was shortly after my retirement that Velia told me of her MS diagnosis. What were the odds that these two women who became friends and shared so much thanks to the Internet and two trips to Italy, would now share the same medical diagnosis?? It made our bond even stronger despite the thousands of miles between us. I recalled an email from Velia in Positano where she was encouraging me with my diagnosis. “you are a strong woman, you have the strength to fight this disease as you know keeping your mind working with good and positive things will help you to face up this period of your life. And you have to think always that you have a friend who is waiting for you; praying for you…I know there are many things for you to learn but even for me…you gave the courage to many persons with your beautiful smile…please don’t give up…because the world needs people like you!!”
She had her first MS symptoms while she was working at Villa Rosa. But she never thought about it until she became blind and then she could not move anymore. Eventually her sight returned to normal. The same thing happened to me in 1990 but the MRI didn’t show MS and my sight returned. So I forgot about it. Velia was on vacation in Positano in 2009 when she had an attack. She remembered that she had one earlier that year in April. But as MS goes, you have an attack and after a month, the symptoms go away. Sadly for Velia after 2009 she did not come back as before; there was nerve damage. She had 18 attacks “cured by cortisone”. Then she tried Copaxone, the same drug I inject daily. But it didn’t work so she tried many interferon drugs and they turned out to be really bad. Now she is good on Tysabri but she says “MS continues working”. Velia says her MRIs “look like a skeleton”, full of black lesions. Now she is involved in experimental research. I’m so worried for her. Unlike my MS, which has remained mainly in remission since 2004, Velia is having attacks many times a year. It is a progressive disease and seems to be really going after Velia.
In the spring of 2013, I was having symptoms and many MRIs and Velia began telling me more about how she was doing herself. On Facebook, our pictures looked great on the outside but bad things were happening on the inside. Velia said her “legs feel heavy like rocks” and she isn’t able to walk “too much”. Also, her balance is off – these are the same symptoms shared by me! Some days Velia says she is “not able to use my hands to close the zipper on my trousers or even the bottoms of my shirt.” She has to be careful with stairs, “looking where I put my feet…because I do not feel the floor.” This is particularly disturbing to me because Velia is above all, a talented chef. She needs her fingers to work precisely when creating in la cucina! I recall an episode I had years ago when my left hand was tingly. Being left-handed, it affected my ability to write clearly at work. But it didn’t affect other personal care needs.
On April 13, 2013, Velia said to me, “We are warriors!!” and she was right. She said I needed to write our story and so I did. But it doesn’t end here; we will continue to focus on what we CAN do and not focus on what we CAN’T do for as long as we live!
Epilogue: As I reviewed this tale it hit me like a thunderbolt – Our story began on April 13, 2004 and look above to see that on April 13, 2013 the tale was put to print!!