The cancer that was first detected in her breasts had spread to her bones, lungs and liver. The pandemic had shut down travel nearly everywhere.
But Lisa Maksym, 57, of Phoenix, refused to relinquish her dream of taking her son and daughter to Rome, where she had spent a year in 1991 and had become enamored to the point of obsession with the city’s food, culture and people.
Last summer, she and her twin sister, Camille Maksym-Schorr, decided they would return to Rome in May 2021, hoping travel restrictions would be lifted by then. They rented a house on the Amalfi Coast, where the sisters and their families would meet with Ms. Maksym’s old roommate and the friends they had made in Italy decades ago.
Then, in November, Ms. Maksym-Schorr tested positive for the coronavirus. The twins had been living together, and Ms. Maksym-Schorr stayed in her bedroom to keep from infecting her sister. Two weeks later, Ms. Maksym texted her sister from her room and told her she had also tested positive for the virus.
“I wailed,” Ms. Maksym-Schorr said. “I literally wailed.”
Ms. Maksym immediately went to a hospital, where she was given steroids and was monitored carefully. Her doctor said she had to stop the promising experimental chemotherapy treatment that had begun to shrink some of the cancer cells.
Both sisters recovered from the virus.
“The cancer,” Ms. Maksym-Schorr said, “got a chance to come back with a vengeance.”
In March, Ms. Maksym’s doctor told her she had three months to live.
‘We were in our 20s. We were in our prime.’
Ms. Maksym was working in marketing in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1990 when she decided to move to Rome. The plan was to spend at least a couple of months in a new country, learn the language and maybe find a job.
She moved in with Brenda Barton, a friend she had met in 1982 at Arizona State University. Ms. Barton had recently married an Italian man, Gian Paolo, and the newlyweds invited Ms. Maksym to stay with them in their small, ground-floor apartment.
Ms. Maksym slowly learned Italian and scraped out a small living teaching English to Italian businessmen. She used Gian Paolo’s beat-up Motorino scooter to get to her teaching assignments.
“I’d never seen a city as beautiful in my life as that city,” Ms. Maksym said. “When you think of the ancient ruins. I would drive by them and think, ‘Here I am, circling the Colosseum, and this is my ride to work.’ I couldn’t believe that was my job.”
Ms. Maksym would come back from her assignments, sometimes sweaty and dirty from dragging the Motorino, which was prone to breaking down, up a street. The roommates usually ended the day drinking wine and eating pasta.
“She was unaware of how drop-dead gorgeous she was,” Ms. Barton recalled. “The Italian boys would follow her down the street, asking for her telephone number, and she would just laugh and sweetly put them off.”
In 1991, her twin sister came to visit her for the summer. The two of them traveled around Italy, dated Italian men and explored Rome on the Motorino.
“It was this magical, wonderful time in our lives,” Ms. Maksym-Schorr said. “We were in our 20s. We were in our prime.”
A cancer diagnosis followed by the pandemic
After a year in Rome, Ms. Maksym returned to Arizona and began working for the state’s Office of Tourism.
She went into advertising, got married and had a son, Sam, in 2000. In 2002, her daughter, Sophia, was born.
Ms. Maksym and her husband eventually divorced but stayed friends.
Her love for Rome remained constant.
“Sometimes, I just think I’m too crazy about it,” Ms. Maksym said.
She started a flower business with her twin and their older sister that they called Sorella — Italian for sister. The twins, who have three other sisters, considered opening a restaurant with the same name.
When Ms. Maksym got into an accident and wrecked her Honda Pilot, she and Ms. Maksym-Schorr bought a light green, retro-style Fiat 500 with the license plate Roma91.
In 2016, Ms. Maksym learned she had breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy, and after several radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she felt well enough to travel again. She went to Hawaii with Ms. Maksym-Schorr. In 2018, the twins returned to Rome with their father.
Then they began planning a trip to the city with their children.
“This was going to be a gift to my two girls and her two children,” Ms. Maksym-Schorr said.
But last year, the virus proved nearly debilitating. Both women had pneumonia, and Ms. Maksym went without cancer treatments for two months. During that time, the disease spread to her brain.
The twins thought about simplifying the trip — instead of a whole reunion, the two of them would go on their own and spend a few days together in Italy. But even that felt like too much of an ordeal for Ms. Maksym, who now uses a wheelchair.
“This isn’t going to happen,” Ms. Maksym-Schorr said.
‘There is a part of me that never wants to give up’
Ms. Maksym-Schorr said she remained determined to find a way for her sister to experience Rome again.
On April 17, she and her daughters sneaked into Ms. Maksym’s room as Ms. Maksym rested in the living room.
They put up an enormous poster of St. Peter’s Basilica and photos of the twins when they were young.
They taped pictures of Ms. Maksym on the Motorino, photos of the twins with their Italian boyfriends, and homemade signs from friends they had not seen in months. One friend in Rome sent a picture of a sign that read “Roma loves Lisa.”
On the ceiling, Ms. Maksym-Schorr projected her sister’s favorite movie, “Roman Holiday.”
Ms. Maksym-Schorr then wheeled her sister into the bedroom as the song “Vattene Amore,” by the Italian singer Amedeo Minghi, blared through speakers.
Ms. Maksym gasped, and then cried and stroked the pictures gently.
“I was amazed,” she said, remembering the surprise. “It was just so beautiful.”
Ms. Maksym goes to bed at night looking at the photos, she said, but she cannot stop herself from believing she will return to Italy before she dies.
“It’s hard enough for me to move from one room to the next,” she said. “But there is a part of me that never wants to give up.”
On May 10, when the twins turn 58, they plan to eat pasta carbonara and tiramisù and watch “Roman Holiday.”
In her will, Ms. Maksym has left instructions for her children to visit Rome, along with money for them to travel there. Ms. Maksym said she wanted a portion of her ashes scattered somewhere in the city, most likely in the Tiber River.
Ms. Maksym-Schorr said she would bring one of the wind chimes that hang outside her sister’s window and place it on a tree in the Amalfi Coast.
“I tell you,” Ms. Maksym said. “This trip will still happen.”