Women’s Travel–Bronze Winner: Alive in Lisbon

By Marianne Rogoff

The lights have come on, the night is falling, life changes its face.

One way or another I have to keep on living.

My soul burns like a hand, physically.

I’m on the road of all men and they bump against me.

~ Fernando Pessoa


My hotel is as I pictured it, simple with all the comforts: nice bed, private bath (with bidet and tub), phone, desk, and best: terrace and wide-angle view of the red-tiled roofs of the vast city of Lisbon. The light of late afternoon is soft-focus and other- worldly. At night circus/calliope rhythms reach my windows from a courtyard below, where a large group of teenagers practice a line dance, march, grapevine, side step, swing your partner, singing along in Portuguese.

Leaving in the morning on foot from the inn’s hilltop perch near Miradouro do Monte means following a winding path downhill through Graça and Alfama’s narrow neighborhood streets. Looking into doorways, walking the cobbled alleys, I lose track of how to retrace my steps, and can only go forward, on a self-paced stroll with no destination.

Glimpses of Tagus River provide orientation and I head toward the water to gain my bearings. The beaded sandals work well on the stones, stable ground. Knee-length skirt a comfort, glad to have sweater on turns into sudden gusts.

I walk along the wide riverfront boulevard toward Municipal Plaza, and now I appreciate the comfort of being where tourists are expected. The pedestrian shopping street, Rua Agosto, leads to Rossio Plaza and a stop for cafe con natas at a sidewalk cafe for people watching.

I sit among street musicians, beggars, tourists, artists. Here I am, author of a book on end-of-life ethics and the right to die, whose publisher invited me to present my story at four venues in Portugal, and agreed to pay my flight and three nights hotel. I have no cheque in hand yet, and I worry a little about everything.

I observe the Human Statue at work nearby his collection jar, standing on a high box, white garb draped at length so he appears extra tall, in white face, white hands, cloth wrapped like gauze, facial expression of a sad clown.

A crowd gathers, awaiting his act. But the act is simply this: to stand perfectly still, be like Pessoa, no one, empty, a blank canvas on whom the observer can toss a personality, empty so perhaps a soul can appear.

At the corner: a mysterious figure seated on a doorstep — Is he wearing a mask? What does it signify? What does he mean for us to make of it, to think?

A closer look reveals that it is his face, his actual face! Visible purple and red tumors, bursting vessels that are twice as big as his face, grow there obscuring his humanity.

Attempting to understand what I’m seeing, I catch his eye, barely detectible amidst the unworked red clay of his face.

He has eyes! He’s human!

Not soulless like the white-draped statue, but fully present, and stricken by this disease, his fate, which renders him a beggar.

Who could love such a being?

I do, I love him, the eye connects his humanity to mine. I drop a coin then join a stream of others passing by him without seeing.

Later I describe him to my doctor hosts and learn it’s true there’s nothing medicine can do for his particular affliction. The society of neonatologists wants to know why this is so: why do some newborns arrive with anomalias — defects, predispositions, imbalances — that will render their lives miserable or short, or both?

Death is everyone’s fate, but the whims and will of expected natural order include this percentage of chaos and extremes at the edges of commonness.

Doctors do not respond with the “why” of philosophy or religion, they face off anomalies with science, analyze statistics for where and why there arise clusters of experience, use microscopes to examine close-up the details of the misshaped kidney, trace back in sonograms to which prenatal period initiates the “wrong turn,” present findings in PowerPoint in darkened hotel conference rooms (as outside the sun blazes, wind pushes air, waves pound the rocky Viana do Castelo coast).

The audience takes notes. Where can the doctor intervene to prevent this, or if not, to treat it, to right the wrong? Research is assessed, conclusions offered: these are the possibilities, this is what we might be able to control. The rest — what is out of control — is not the subject of these meetings.

I’m introduced into the conversation to tell my story. My 1995 biography Silvie’s Life was translated in 2006 as Estar Grávida É Estar de Esperanças; “Being pregnant is called expecting,” the first sentence, is the new Portuguese title. I read from a chapter set in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), a place I call “God out of control,” and the book says, “This is not supposed to happen.”

My daughter’s case was extreme. After ten days of tests, trauma, and assessment, doctors concluded she’d suffered severe brain damage and that death was “her best hope.” Our task became how to accomplish this within the boundaries of law, morality, and our unbounded love for our newborn.

“I needed an explanation. No one could explain it,” I read.

Does the distinguished lady doctor wearing the cross necklace cringe when I call God out of control? Silvie’s Life wonders what kind of faith can allow for belief in a God who designs anomalias, or, if not designs them, permits them to exist? Belief that suggests this is part of our lesson here: imperfection.

Only God is perfect? — and perhaps even God is still learning.

The churches of Portugal are fortresses, walls three feet thick, interiors a kind of hubris, prideful reaching toward some perceived conferred power — priests’ throne-like seats, bishops’ tombs, velvet robes, worship-me rituals — I feel both awe and cynicism inside these monuments to power.

The University of Coimbra’s grand plaza overlooks the city and river, and to step inside the ancient library requires an appointment. My group enters the temperature-controlled, sacred space with its ladders to high shelves, books in cages, grand conformity of spines and colors, grand depository of knowledge on medicine, law, physics, mathematics, the arts. Climbing through the buildings, the steps are unevenly sunken and slippery from thousands of footprints, weight of centuries; I can feel my fleeting presence and my permanent mark as well.

At Cafe Brasileira in Lisbon, Portugal’s most famous poet, Fernando Pessoa, appears as a bronze man in a hat and suit seated at a bronzed outdoor cafe table, with an empty seat where everyone who passes feels compelled to sit and pose for photos. I regard this parade: the traveller observes, the writer records these observations, the ordinary person wants her picture taken with Pessoa, and I hand my camera to a cafe neighbor, gesturing the shutter click as we don’t speak the same language.

Then I enter the cafe and head toward the back to watch comings and goings. All is chatter, animated, relaxed, nothing going on that doesn’t happen here on any given afternoon. I see four men in the front doorway, one pushes the other, who returns a punch to the shoulder, which causes the first one to stumble, then retaliate. Portuguese is tossed in the air, some insult or threat, and the four go at it, a regular brouhaha, and the patrons shout, stand up from their seats (myself among them), as the tinkle of breaking glass is heard — the mirror at the entrance? glass in the doors? port glasses at tables? A roar goes up, the waiters shout, one hurls a bottle at them, the bartender is on the phone to Policia as is the fat lady on her cell.

Outside, there’s a row of sidewalk cafes full of people who leap up shouting as the men “take it outside,” and proceed with the fight down the block.

Inside, the cafe settles into an excited bustle — Ah, how the energy of the afternoon can change, the moment of danger reinvigorates the ordinary; emotional tenor shifts.

We’ve just dodged “what could have happened” (one pulls a gun, or the tumble falls in my direction; I am, after all, trapped in the back of the cafe, the fight at its entrance; we were all forced to witness and wait to see where danger might strike, be prepared to defend our space and lives). Everyone is shaking their heads, reliving excitement, speculating, dismissing them as ruffians, laughing about it now, fear gone and replaced with some new elation that coffee and wine can’t offer. Only the adrenalin of fear gives this spark.

At my hotel I overhear the clerk, Jose Manuel, describing his “problem child.” Later, we get to talking and I show him my book, “This is why I’m here.”

(He speaks some English, I employ my little Portuguese.)

Soon he is pulling pictures from his wallet, one of his son now at age 5, and the dreaded NICU shot with the newborn attached to all the tubes and wearing the too-familiar cap and blanket with the same pink and turquoise stripes used in the States.

I gulp. “Yes, my baby looked like this. But listen, her situation was extreme. She didn’t live.”

His baby, his boy, lives, and his problems will be ongoing (I don’t diagnose but it sounds like autism, or obsessive-compulsive disorder; Jose Manuel says hyperactive). He and his wife disagree about how to respond, and I worry for their marriage; I’ve been through all this, death and divorce, and feel like I’m on the other side.

I point to Teresa Botelho’s name in the Preface, “Maybe she can help you; she works with these children and families.”

He has no faith in psychologists, he says, doesn’t read books, but accepts my gift of the book, maybe for his wife.

On Monday morning I’m scheduled to tour the public hospital where Maria do Ceu Machado, who wrote the other preface, Alexandra Dias, my translator, and Teresa Botelho, all work. Dr. Machado heads the department of pediatrics and neonatology [and was appointed Minister of Health following my visit], Dr. Botelho leads the psychology team, Dr. Dias is a respected pediatrician.

Two young psychologists-in-training accompany us as we visit the children’s library and play room, staff offices, wards, and intensive care. We pass through waiting rooms for day service appointments, noisy with hordes of the needy, all races.

It is a squelching hot day and the hospital is not an air-conditioned place; the air is stifling with the smell of bodies, illness, fear. On the wards the smell of bleach and disinfectants; in the cafeteria, hospital food.

My hosts, used to the smells, the air, the sight of the needy hordes, walk past as if guiding me through a cathedral or museum, casually (kindly, respectfully) pointing out children with pneumonia, those with long-term care needs, one with possible lymphoma or is it edema that will respond to medication given one more day?

All is well, tudo bem, I’m in stride, okay, until I’m invited in, inside, in closer, to see the newborns in their cubicles.

Alone in a blanketed cubby, there’s Matilda, teeny, bruised, connected by wires, holding on by a thread, alive. Breathing!

I bend close to peer inside, a spectator, and feel ashamed for looking, for being on tour. Gulps of emotion are swallowed then rise like air as I cross the room to meet the young Portuguese mother lovingly hovering over her perfectly beautiful baby boy. He is so so small, desperately yet calmly attempting to live with his intricate hands and complex brain waves, internal organs striving to do their work of coming into life and sustaining life before he is fully formed and ready. He’s been here three months so far. This mother has been here too, in this darkened room with the busy nurses, doctors, and monitors, in love with this new being, faithfully conjuring hopeful thoughts.

This is when I start to cry, seeing that young mother. Looking into the more dire condition of the fist-sized African preemie, grasping a hand in camaraderie with the stoic, broad mother, I mumble, “Compreendo, I understand,” want to offer prayers, can offer only empathy.

As we exit, wells of old feelings engulf me as I fall, weeping, down the well.

My guides seem surprised and I am too.

“It’s been 18 years, I didn’t expect to feel this way.”

“You haven’t been in a NICU since?”


Why would I?

I ran as far from the place as I could get, avoided thoughts of this becoming my life’s work. Yet I wrote the book, and attention was being paid to the story, again, after all these years, and it is my work here now.

One neonatologist down the hall realizes it’s me, the author, here in their midst, and hurries over, drops everything to catch up with me, to tell me, this is an important book — she read it last week on a plane — how meaningful it is for doctors to hear from the patient’s side of the bed.

Someone has brought me tissues and I stand in the hallway crying and dabbing at eye makeup, as I try to absorb this praise. Aware I could sob all day, bottomless buckets even after all this time, I recuperate enough to move through the cafeteria line with these fine people, swallow a few mouthfuls of bad food, attempt to keep track of conversation about the newest baby in crisis.

My other appointment on my last day in Lisbon is at the offices of Gradiva Publishers with the formal Sr. Begonha, who has most efficiently arranged for my cheque.

Generous Sr. Begonha inquires how I’ll spend the rest of the day.

“Wander the neighborhood, drink coffee, process everything that’s happened.”

He locates a city map and highlights his recommended path to tranquility, then walks me to the corner and his favorite cafe, points downhill to Jardin do Estrela (beautiful, shaded benches to rest on, gazebo, wide walking paths), and beyond to his secret garden — Jardin Botanica, an oasis of palm trees, labyrinth hedges, giant-root ancient arbols.

There, in the silence at the center of Lisbon city, I will find a shaded bench and release all my tears, shed mascara, snot, façades of composure.

I’m crying for many reasons, I realize, not least my pleasure and shock that my deceased baby girl herself has led me here, to this dark green garden. Silvie, her fictional name, means sylvan, green dark forest.


Her mother smiles at the image of herself weeping wetly in the garden in the city, blows her nose, wipes sweat, persists in walking through the heat onward toward the rest of her life.

Back at the hotel I pay my bill with the Gradiva cheque, shy around José Manuel.

Business settled, he says, “I read your book today.”

“You finished it?”

“Yes. In three sessions. I had to stop when guests arrived of course, and when I had to cry.”

His experience was exactly the same in the beginning, he tells me, it brought all the memories back.

“But of course my son is alive, and for that I can be grateful.”

Guests come in and need his attention.

He nods to me, embraces my hand, and I bow good night.

Boa noite.

I ride the elevator to the rooftop bar and buy two bottles of water to drink in my room while I ponder the nighttime view.

Outside, the calliope dance loudly proceeds.

Marianne Rogoff’s true story “Raven” was selected for Best Travel Writing 2006. Her 1995 biography Silvie’s Life has been optioned twice for movies, adopted for ethics courses, and translated in 2006 by Gradiva, Lisbon. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and book reviews, and teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco.

Leave a Reply

Travelers' Tales