By Emilio Parodi
MILAN (Reuters) - When COVID-19 ravaged my adopted home of Lombardy, what struck me the most was the kindness of strangers - the strangers I was interviewing every day.
Initially, I feared that no one would want to talk to a reporter about their dying fathers, mourning mothers, disoriented children and rushed burials without flowers or real farewells.
Instead, after initial moments of hesitation, I found that most people did want to talk and appeared to find comfort in a listening ear, even if it was mostly over the phone as I was also in lockdown.
Chiara Zini told me about her 81-year-old aunt Giuliana, who was in a nursing home in Cremona, one of the hardest-hit areas in the northwest Italian region.
Before the outbreak, at least one person in Chiara's extended family tried to have lunch with Giuliana every day, hoping the regular appearance of familiar faces would help keep her Alzheimer's disease at bay.
When the facility went into lockdown, telephone calls replaced visits. As more residents fell ill, the staff were too busy to take calls from families or to hold up private cell phones to the ears of dying patients.
When she succumbed to respiratory problems, Zini's aunt, like many COVID-19 victims, was buried hastily.
"They have lived their life and they're leaving like that, without the ones they loved around them, without a real funeral," Zini told me.
I was miles away, talking over the phone from my flat in Milan. But I was overwhelmed by the trust people showed, how close they felt.
For months, Italy was at the centre of the pandemic. A "red zone" that began on Feb. 21 and covered several towns in Lombardy was extended to all of Italy on March 9.
At one point, the daily death toll across the country came close to 1,000.
About 35,000 people have died in Italy, nearly half of them in Lombardy. But today, the daily death count has fallen to single figures. The world's coronavirus epicentres are elsewhere and I am no longer calling people every day.
Instead, they are contacting me.
People have sent me pictures of their children playing or of a cake they have baked together. Some still want to talk.
Others - and this was also a lesson for me - want to give some comfort in return and ask how I have been faring in the crisis.
I am left remembering names, knowing places I have never been to, and appreciating the lives of people I never knew.
They never were numbers to me, and never will be.
(Editing by Philip Pullella and Andrew Heavens)