I stand atop the fabled volcano, pregnant, nauseous and desperately missing my three-year-old girl. It’s high summer and the air is ripe and torrid. Sweat trickles between my breasts, plastering my shirt to my slight belly bump. I long to be home, vomiting into my own toilet, wrapping my arms around this late life pregnancy; instead, here I am, three thousand miles away in southern Italy, directing a documentary about Mount Vesuvius and her geological tripwire—a mega disaster in waiting.
I should have turned down this assignment. I should have told my boss that working in Italy during the early months of this pregnancy—and so far from my daughter—was a complete no-go. My mind is restless; my body is otherwise engaged.
But to admit this would have felt like running bare bottomed through my office. There was simply too much riding on my self-image as a kick-ass professional, not limited by my childbearing apparatus or my personal priorities. I had worked so hard to become a filmmaker. But I’d also worked hard to become a mother. So ever since the birth of my first child, I had seesawed between these parts of myself, struggling to integrate the loves of my life: my work and my family.
My decision to accept the new assignment seemed like a way to honor both: the pay would cover months of the mortgage and mountains of diapers. This Italy assignment was a new career high. If I produced a good film, other assignments would come my way, securing my position, and my family income. In my calculations, the rewards outran the risks. So I swallowed my ambivalence as best I could and said yes to the job.
At the rim of Vesuvius, I shade my eyes, watching as a team of scientists rappel down the craggy walls of her thousand-foot-deep crater, ropes coiled around their bodies. Our camera crew films as they push off the sides of the volcano, hopping and dangling, descending downward with childlike glee.
The volcanologists tell me the story: In ancient Rome, Vesuvius, the geological supervillain, erupted, without warning, wiping out Pompeii and her people. The city was engulfed by rivers of scorching lava, suffocating ash and rocks that clobber buildings like cannon balls. Since that fateful day the volcano has been mostly dormant, a sleeping dragon occasionally spitting and sputtering smoke and ash. But hidden inside this beast a magma chamber of molten rock churns and churns. One scientist compares the volcano to champagne; Vesuvius, he says, is like a shaken bottle. The internal pressure is building. He presses his lips tightly and then, with a blast of air makes a deep sound—Pop! We don’t know when, but we know the big one’s coming. Their mission is to develop an early warning system before the next eruption, to alert the three million Neapolitans who live in the volcano’s shadow.
After a day of filming at the crater, we follow the scientists to the infamous Phlegraean Fields, where they monitor for signs of a pending eruption. As this landscape of underground craters spew malodorous sulfur and hissing steam, my mind turns on me: what a dangerous place I’ve brought my pregnant body, as if to the edge of the underworld itself. Am I tempting the fates? What of my own early warning system, my well-honed ability (I believed) to worry about the right things, to suss out the odds of a situation going south, and to take the necessary evasive actions?
Ever since I became a parent, I’ve adopted an old world superstition, like my mother and grandmother before me: the misguided but deeply held conviction that if I just worry enough, well then, I’ll convey a kind of protective cloak over my child. If I anticipate danger, then I can control it, perhaps with a properly fitted car seat, or CPR training, or a bank account in the black. On this long hot day in Italy I still want to believe I can prevent calamity from sneaking up on me and my family.
But what of the lessons of Pompeii? What of the grave and unforeseeable dangers, like this deadly eruption? Or the lesser, unpredictable assaults of daily life?
My unease grows; have I miscalculated the risks of this Italy assignment? I’d worried about being far from my daughter, but I’d not feared the impacts on my pregnancy.
When we break from the morning’s filming, I rush to find a working telephone. I squat in a phone booth, my forehead pressed against the ash coated glass, beating myself up for a risk I’d not controlled for: Sulfurous fumes and noxious gasses in the first trimester? When my stateside ob-gyn finally takes my call, between sobs, I try to explain where I am. Is this safe for my pregnancy? I ask this kind, patient man. You are fine, he tries to reassure me, the baby will be fine. Please try not to worry, he says. I am reassured, somewhat, though residual anxiety ricochets around my trembling body, drenched as I am in adrenaline and pregnancy hormones and homesickness.
There is no time for my emotional eruption. My crew waits for me to pack up the camera equipment and make our way back to Naples. We head to bed early, for the next day we’re to film at the scene of the crime.
We enter Pompeii before dawn, before the onslaught of tourists, before the sun bakes the ruined city. As the documentary’s director, it’s my job to envision this ancient Roman city as it once was. As I survey desecrated Pompeii, I try to imagine it just before the eruption.
The roadways that criss-cross the city are scored by deep tracks from ancient carts, and I can picture them, heavy with their cargos of fruits and breads and oil-filled amphoras, pulled along by donkeys, navigating narrow streets abuzz with life. A clutch of children might chase a laden cart, and, perhaps a little girl—one much like my own—would run, her skinny legs pumping, desperate not to be left behind.
My imagined girl catches up, and then the children are laughing, and throwing pebbles at the donkeys who pull the carts, and then, they’re darting amongst the vendors and families and men and women who go about their quotidian business. The children’s sandals slap against terracotta lanes, and red dust coats their toes and shins and their knees, scabby from scampering up trees and games of war, just like the children before them and the children forever since.
Do these children believe they are untouchable, safe, wrapped as they are in the embrace of their tight-knit city, their doting parents? Are their families oblivious to the curtain that’s about to fall? Are they careless with their days? Does a farmer, anxious about his harvest, berate his innocent child? Does a lover obsess over one word, carelessly uttered? Does a mother fret too much about a burnt meal, or a lost slipper?
The scientists have described Vesuvius’s ancient eruption, and now I try to visualize what unfolded here: On this ordinary day, the volcano began to rumble. Pompeii’s citizens, at first unbelieving, rushed outside to watch as the sky darkens with smoke and ash. In horror, they witnessed the red glow of the monstrous explosion, of a volcanic column that pushes miles into the air, of the horizon blotted out as if in a spill of black ink. They turned away to flee, but there was no way to escape. They cling to one another as Vesuvius battered, and then shrouded them. And they remained so, lost for two thousand years.
When the Victorian archaeologists excavate Pompeii, they uncover a massacre. Her citizens had been entombed in ash and pumice, and when the scientists injected plaster into these now empty cavities, they resurrected their human forms, frozen in their very last moments.
The resulting tableaus of chalk-white figures are wrenching still-lifes. Though separated by millennia, I feel an odd kinship to them; they appear contemporary, even familiar to me. Had they, too, harbored a false sense of control over their destiny? Overtaken by an unforeseen catastrophe, were they frantic to protect their children, to hold on to life? And would I not reach for my partner just as they had, clinging to him with my last breath? Won’t I throw my arms over my daughter, shielding her with my body, just as these lost mothers had?
Or, perhaps, they were much wiser than me. Perhaps these mothers of Pompeii accepted whatever was to come, banishing worries and a false sense of control. Perhaps on pleasant days they strolled outside, their faces upturned towards the sun, small chubby hands held tightly in their own, sipping the sweetness of air perfumed with olive trees and rose bushes, cherishing all that is on offer.
What, if I, like my imagined mothers of Pompeii, could abandon my own sense of control? What if I could better balance on the tightrope that stretches between life’s fragility and appreciation of the moments we have? What if I could surrender to those moments with my daughter and my new baby to be, without my habituated worrying? In Pompeii, in the midst of this destroyed place, it seems possible.
Once the Italy shoot is complete, once we return to the states to begin the hectic process of editing the film, I slip back into my busy life. Then one morning, weeks later, when I’m on deadline and rushing off to the studio, my daughter grabs at the hem of my skirt. She tugs and tugs, the fabric balled up in her hand, and she won’t let go. I’m annoyed with her, and with this delay in my carefully controlled schedule. But as I look down at my girl, with her face turned up expectantly—Stay mama!—the ghostly figures of Pompeii come back to me, with their interrupted lives, their lost loves, their stark fates.
On this day, I must leave my daughter, so I gently unfurl her tiny fingers, straighten my clothes and kiss the top of her head. But when I return from work, I talk with my husband. Then there’s a hard conversation with my boss. It is time for me to recalibrate. I will finish the Vesuvius project, but then I apply for a desk job, with a more family-friendly schedule. I make a bargain with myself: When my girls are older, I will go on to make more films. For now though, in this fragile world, what I truly want is more moments to cling to my family, and to turn my face to the sun.