Our visit with Matt, Meredith, and Hayden took an unexpected turn when Hayden starting having back pain in Florence. This is a kid who has such a high pain threshold that he once played baseball with a broken leg, arousing suspicion only because he couldn’t run to first base. So when he says he’s having pain, his parents take notice. He mentioned as he was walking around Florence that his back hurt a little. By the time he got home, he was in full out pain and a trip to the emergency room followed.
One of my greatest fears has always been getting sick in a foreign country. What a terrifying feeling to have a health issue in a strange environment with people who don’t speak English at a time when communication is crucial. I know a few people who have had such experiences – and now I know one more.
After a couple of hours in the ER the diagnosis was kidney stones. His father and uncle have struggled with kidney stones so this wasn’t a shock to us, but at 19 we hoped he had a few more years before he fell victim to this hereditary nuisance. At this point, there’s not a whole lot you can do but wait and hope the thing hurries on its journey out of your body. And take pain medicine.
A Severed Head
We continued on our merry way with some minor adjustments. One night when discussing options for the next day, I suggested going to Siena to see St. Catherine’s head. That got everyone’s attention. This has been on my list for a while and somehow we just never made the hour and a half drive to Siena to see it.
St. Catherine was the youngest of 25 children (yes, that’s right folks, 25 children), most of whom did not survive childhood. Catherine herself had a twin sister who died as an infant. She began having visions as a child and by the time she was 21 she said she had a mystical marriage to Christ and her invisible wedding ring was Jesus’ foreskin. She also claimed to have received the stigmata (the mark of the wounds of the crucified Christ) but again, only she could see it.
Now, if someone were walking around today claiming to be married to Christ and wearing an invisible foreskin wedding ring, they might be at risk for institutionalization. But things were different in the 1300s and Catherine was revered both by the Catholic church and by her hometown of Siena. So much so that when she died and was buried in Rome at the age of 33, a plot was hatched to steal her body and bring it back to Siena where it belonged.
The plan went somewhat awry and all that the grave marauders manged to get was her head and a thumb. So today in the church of San Domenico in Siena, behind an iron grate, sits the mummified head of St. Catherine in a gilded glass box. I was a little disappointed in how far away the head was. Honestly, you can barely see it, but I guess they want to make sure no harm comes to this sacred relic. Her thumb, however, is clearly visible in its glass box and you can get up close and personal to it. Other fingers, a rib, and a shoulder blade are scattered around other churches in Italy. I’m not sure how they managed to secure these body parts, but all this sprinkling around of her anatomy gives a new meaning to the term “rest in peace”. Maybe for St. Catherine, this is peaceful resting since she’s giving comfort and inspiration to thousands. And curiosity to many more.
After our encounter with St. Catherine’s head, we walked around the lovely town of Siena. The Piazza del Campo is the huge piazza that hosts the violent Palio horse race twice a year. The rest of the year it’s a laid back space where children run, lovers kiss, and tourists drink in the Tuscan sun. When I visit Siena, I’m reminded of how much I love this town and its winding streets and quirky shops. It’s a tourist haven, however, and can become clogged with humanity in the summer. The beginnings of that were evident on our visit, but it was still charming and beautiful and very, very Italian.
When we have visitors, the trip usually ends in Rome. Most flights to the US are in the morning, so we always spend at least one night in Rome before seeing them off to the airport. For this trip, Hayden rallied and we spent a day and a half hitting the highlights. Us and one million of our closet friends. I’ve seen Rome crowded, but this was something else. All the big tourist destinations were jammed, the ultimate being about a five hour wait in an approximately three mile long line at the Colosseum.
We decided to do a Roman shuffle instead of waiting in the ridiculous lines. As a result, we saw the outside of a lots of things. We also got to stroll down out of the way streets with no tourists and that was a beautiful thing. We did go on top of the Victor Emmanuel monument (better known as the wedding cake building) for killer views of Rome. Seeing Rome from the bird’s eye is a wonderful thing. From the majestic Colosseum to the splendid St. Peter’s dome, you see how this maze of city is laid out. No building in Rome can be taller than St. Peter’s dome, so you can see for miles with no tall buildings in your way. Only red rooftops and umbrella pines.
The other day was spent at the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. To get into the Sistine Chapel, you have to go through Vatican Museum and gaze upon the centuries worth of art and antiquities amassed by the Catholic Church. It is an amazing, priceless collection and I’m told what is displayed is only a fraction of what is available. I sometimes wonder where all this came from, but don’t dwell too much on it. I also wonder what the value of all this is and think about how much good can be done with that money. Again, these are thoughts well over my pay grade and they lead to a tangle of power, money, corruption, and divinity. Suffice it say that it’s doubtful that a greater collection of art exists anywhere. All crowned by the magnificent Sistine Chapel.
The Long Road Home
As we were standing in front of our hotel seeing yet another group of visitors off, it struck me how practiced we are at goodbyes. We look forward to the hellos much more, but with any visit a goodbye must come. This one was especially hard because these were our first family members to visit. And we were sending Hayden off with that dreaded kidney stone still making its way through his body.
Family represents many things, some not always so good. But at the core is a connection that surpasses ordinary bonds. There’s a familiarity that fits so well and seems so comfortable. One of the greatest things in life is seeing someone you love experience something new. The reaction is not always what you hoped for, but with family you get complete honesty and hopefully a different perspective. And always laughter.
Italy is important to us and we love sharing it with others. After years of hearing about it, Matt, Meredith, and Hayden finally got to experience what we’ve been talking about for so long. Hayden has been hearing about it his entire lifetime, so putting the reality together with the imagination was especially meaningful.
There’s always a void left when the doors slam shut and the cab makes its way down the street carrying people away from us and back home. A part of our hearts go with them and the rest of it aches. It makes us remember what we left behind to have this adventure and for a time we wonder if it’s worth it. Then we settle back into our lives here and think, yes, it’s worth it. Because now not only do we get to live our dream, we get to share with those we love. And what better place to arrange a visit than Italy?
Matt, Meredith, and Hayden – we will certainly miss you but treasure this visit more than you can ever know. It was a tonic for our souls and a salve for our hearts. We loved catching up with what’s going on in your lives and especially loved spending time with the amazing young man who is our grandson. Once when we were keeping Hayden for the weekend we did some particularly wonderful thing to his six year old brain and he dubbed it “The Best Day Ever!”. A few hours later when his brother did something annoying to him he cried it’s “The Worst Day Ever!”. Well, Hayden, I know how you feel. Having you here with us was the best day ever and watching you leave was the worst day ever. Come again, dear family, and next time leave those kidney stones at home.