Last summer, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I’d just moved to Milan from Rome, where my family is based, and, ever since then, I’ve been going back and forth between the two cities every other week, taking the high-speed train from Milano Centrale to Roma Termini.
I recently counted the booking confirmation emails in my inbox: There’s 37 of them. Thirty-seven train journeys to visit him, accompany him to the hospital whenever I could, and try to grapple with his illness on my own terms.
Most of the 300-mile, three-hour-long rides have been slight variations of each other. I’ve spent them calling doctors and speaking to my family with updates on my father’s health, googled ‘bladder cancer’ and the differences between chemo and immunotherapy too many times to count, and regularly checked in with my dad to let him know how far or close I still was to Rome. After particularly hard visits, I strived to claim some space for myself on the way back to Milan by reading, listening to podcasts, or just sleeping, lulled by the repetitive motion of the train and its by-now familiar, even soothing, surroundings. In recent months, as he got progressively worse, I cried for most of the journey.
Staring at the panoramas at eye level, the fast-paced rhythm of the train as the main background noise, I felt my breathing settle, my mind clear. It didn’t heal me—but despite everything the act of travel felt like moving forward.
But I also, increasingly, found myself taken in by the world that sped by outside: The golden crops of Lombardy, the flat fields of Emilia-Romagna, the vast, green expanses of Umbria, the rolling hills of Tuscany and quaint borghi of Lazio—and back again. I started noticing different hamlets I never knew existed, valleys awash with olive groves, and mountain ranges that looked untouched. I made mental notes to look each one up and plan a trip with my dad if he ever got better—all of which would be experienced by train. Gazing at the scenery felt oddly comforting, as if the rivers, farmed lands, and forests I could see from my seat were trying to remind me that, despite grief, life and beauty go on.
Over time, the window seat became my go-to whenever I could reserve it. It allowed me to cry privately by turning towards the window, but I could also just get lost in the landscape and be distracted by the view. More often than not, it worked: Staring at the panoramas at eye level, the fast-paced rhythm of the train as the main background noise, I felt my breathing settle, my mind clear. It didn’t heal me, not by any stretch of the imagination. But despite everything the act of travel felt like moving forward.
Eventually, I learned the stages of the journey by heart: How Bologna's high-speed railway station is underground and always full of university students coming and going for the weekend, public holidays, or concerts in bigger cities. How the train always, always slows down in Florence due to “rail traffic reasons,” skirting by medieval buildings and sleepy streets at snail pace, before picking up speed again. How the lofty Umbrian town of Orvieto seems to be blessing travelers from its hilltop position, signaling them—me—that they’re almost in Rome, only 74 more miles to go.
For some, the sameness of the ride could have felt stifling. I welcomed it. The low-stakes predictability of rail travel gave me the reassurance I needed at a time when nothing else felt secure.
That's not to say there weren’t surprises. Early morning starts and sunset departures showed me the same places under myriad different lights. Random acts of kindness from strangers—the offer of a biscuit from a little boy, a tissue from an older woman, a gentle customer service representative who promptly rebooked me on another train when mine got suddenly canceled—made me feel less alone, bestowing me brief moments of delight when I had started to forget they could exist.
My dad didn’t get better. He passed away on August 1, the day after I'd taken my 37th train ride down to Rome to see him. I didn’t know then that it would be my final journey to Rome. But I took my window seat and I spent the entire time looking out, feeling that same sense of peace I’d begun to feel on my previous rides. It was a journey I had taken before, and it helped prepare me for what would come.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler