“Maybe we shouldn’t have gone to Italy,” said Andy. I was in a sour mood on our evening Agnes walk, a pile of bills, tuition payments, penalty-laden property taxes and other such signifiers of a certain sort of “reality” vexing me from their wicked scatter on the kitchen island, and just down the way an empty bedroom where my older son had been for the last ten years adding insult to my transient sense of injury.
But as soon as she said it I knew it was wrong. I wouldn’t have traded that trip for a few pathetic dollars in an economic IV bag drip-drip-dripping its way toward flat-line end of the line what-was-it-all-about-anyway, Rosebud exhalation.
I’d been waiting all my life to turn fifty-two. I’m not a card-counter but I have become a year-counter. Twenty-six brought near death and a loving release in an ICU, it brought new love and a harmonic convergence.
In the full deck that has been my life so far, first came clubs, birth through bar mitzvah, and they didn’t suit me, bludgeoning me with loneliness; then came spades and we kicked that dark suit off on my fourteenth birthday by burying my best friend. Twenty-seven began my time of hearts, marriage and children, lucky in love; the fourth suit was diamonds, but the kind you can’t sell, the carbon of my very soul pressed slowly into crystal though the process of finally growing up and learning just how much I do not know.
My aunt Lil once said to me, as a young boy smitten with her beauty and glamour in her elegant Gold Coast home, “Do you want to play fifty-two pick-up?” I nodded eagerly, always game to have her attention.
She took the deck and suddenly threw all the cards wildly about her fancy apartment. I was not accustomed to grown-ups making messes and she found pleasure in my confusion. “There are fifty-two cards in the deck. Now pick ‘em up!” And she threw her head back and laughed, her elegant neck exposed, her coiffed blonde 60’s doo quivering with mirth.
She wasn’t mean, my aunt-Lil. She wasn’t really my aunt either. And as a teenager when she fell slowly into the hole of Alzheimer’s, it was her eyes that shown moist and confused as she dropped in and out of knowing who I was at lunch one afternoon at the most elegant hamburger restaurant in Chicago, the Acorn on Oak.
I ate schnitzel at midnight at an outside café with my younger son, Will, as Andy and Nate slept in the hotel.
I sat at dusk under a linden tree and ate chocolate with my older son, Nate, and heard the ringing of seven-o’clock bells and a sudden swell of choir music and it was magic.
One night storms rolled in from the mountains and Nate and I stayed up late talking as the trees blew madly about and we retreated to the empty lobby where gusts blew open the shutters and the curtains fluttered and by the flash of lightning I gazed into the eyes of my past and future self and drank in the closeness like a fine grappa.
Under the Etruscan sun we encountered lizards and scorpions, butterflies in the lavender and sunflowers shoulder-to-shoulder to blanket the hills.
We played a card game called “Oh Hell,” and lay about on blankets by a lake and drank Prosecco and it was all more than very good.
In small hill town under an inky velvet sky we watched Italy beat Germany in the semi-finals of the Euro-cup, cheering and eating and drinking and honking our way home to our crumbling farmhouse, bonding and living.
At night I couldn’t sleep sometimes and heard footsteps on the stones at the hour of the wolf. Ghosts and feral cats trod softly upon the ancient hills and eyes peered out of the blackness. Etruscan tombs and offerings to eternal life lay half-raided under “melons” of rock and earth and oak trees, layers of vanished peace luminescent and ever-present under crumbling ruins of Roman conquest and erasure.
Up in the sky I saw Scorpio, and the great bear’s chalice spilling treasure into life’s cistern as distant trains slid along the valley floor with mournful horns and passing night-lights.
When the train from Italy could go no further because a landslide had blocked a former goat-herding tunnel, we took a bus over the Alps.
This was announced officially on the day we got back to LA, 9am at the French-Swiss border. I listened live on my Kindlefire though the blur of jet lag. It was the 4th of July.
Soon we were on the archetypal trip to launch our son to college.
On the long drive to bring Nate his comforter and toiletries (he had spent his first week before college in a church basement helping feed the homeless) Andy said, “Is that a mountain up ahead?”
“I think that’s a mountain,” she ventured.
“If it is, it must be the tallest mountain in the universe,” I declared.
A hundred and fifty miles later we were gazing in awe at Mt. Shasta, an oft-exploded volcano, glaciered with ice and snow, soaring to heaven, a gathering of spirits and yet an anthill upon the hot sands of time.
Andy and I cried for thirty miles down the highway as the moon rose. We looked over to see a big sweet dog riding with his head out of the sunroof of the car beside us, just as we were beside ourselves. The wind lifted that dog’s jowls into a feckless grin, an easy rider on the open road. And so we laughed and laughed.
Back in LA, still adjusting, we ran into a friend who made a movie with an epic weepy college dorm good-bye and we hugged her and told her how we’d just lived her movie. We talked about parenting and art-making and then dashed off to our days, into the mysterious and eternal movie that we call life.
Even if it’s a blur, sometimes all we can do is tell our story.
On this, the fall equinox, please allow me to wish you love and compassion. I’m blogging less, but caring about you, and our world, just as much as ever. If I can be of friendship, comfort or assistance to you along the journey, do not hesitate to ask. Perhaps I’ll throw all my cards on the table or all about the place; perhaps I’ll help you pick them up. Perhaps you’ll throw your cards all over; perhaps you’ll help me pick them up—for I’ve never known less than I do now, nor have I ever felt more alive.