There are 5, 518 miles between Olympia, Washington, and Florence, Italy. The time difference is nine hours which means Paul and I have just a couple of windows of time when we can talk with our friends and family. Our house sitter, someone we have known for years, made some serious mistakes at our house, and, per our ADT alarm system, we realized people were coming over to our house all night long every night for five nights. On Saturday night alone, our front door was opened 19 times between midnight and six am.
Paul and I spent all Sunday in a tiny Fiat car with our six pieces of luggage piled to the ceiling behind us arguing over how to handle it. It was supposed to be a beautiful drive through the countryside from Venice to Florence, but we somehow got stuck on the autostrade, and all we saw were tall grey, metal walls and the inside of tunnels. Paul thought if we gave the house sitter a good chewing out, he’d snap out of it and get better. I didn’t think so. Something had withered inside me. My trust was broken.
We have no idea how many people went through our house, if they looked through our messy pantry with all the boxes of forgotten taco shells, laughed at the absurd number of pillows on my couch, upended a cup and saucer from my great-grandmother’s china and pretended to drink from it, or (bile races through my stomach here) slept in our beds. I don’t know if they looked at my photo albums on the living room coffee table and flipped through the pages, a drink in their hand or a joint pinched in their fingers and skipped to the end because they were bored.
I don’t know if they petted Sibby or pushed her away because of her horrible habit of jumping on people. I don’t know if Lily cowered outside afraid to come in but more afraid of the coyotes who have treed her in the past.
We talked to the house sitter, and he promised no more guests, he’d settle down, it would be quiet.
“Please send me a picture of Sibby and Lily,” I asked. “Please, so I know they are okay.”
When I woke up the next morning, there was no picture. I had no way of knowing if they were okay. I sucked in a giant gasp of air and fell into a panic attack where I couldn’t remember how to breathe. I say fell, because it is like falling. Air can only come in, the room spins, the dizziness makes me want to throw up, and my legs won’t work. The worse it gets, the more I panic, and I am convinced I am going to die. In the deep recesses of my brain, I remembered a trick someone had told me about.
“I7, 84, 46, 3,” I wheezed. Random numbers. By talking, I must breathe out. “64, 17, 32, 17, 42,” my shuddering slowed. Paul held my hand and looked at the floor. There was nothing else he could do. My breathing finally returned.
“You sure like the number 17,” he said rubbing my back.
All day I was as brittle as glass, and I stepped carefully on the cobblestone streets afraid I might slip into the cracks.
Operation Move Sibby went smoothly with the help of neighbors and friends. She is now staying with two other golden retrievers and I hope they are speaking their special language of limited conversation but lots of smiles. Lily is back home with three different families caring for her in the next couple of weeks.
I don’t know what you do to thank the people who saved the places of you that are the most vulnerable, the most exposed, the most naked. I will find a way. But it will have to be without words because if I had to speak of it again, I’ll have to start counting.
Perhaps you wonder why this hit me so hard.
In July, my son was diagnosed with cancer. I was there for the surgery, but he didn’t want us to miss our trip to Italy, so he and his family are weathering his bouts of chemotherapy alone. They are taking it one trip to the clinic at a time. He counts the days of treatment he has left. His goal to is to be well enough to shoot his bow during deer season November 1.
Having a child with cancer makes me feel like all the doors and windows of my house are open and I cannot return home. It makes me feel like my grandchildren have wandered into a cornfield and I can’t hear their voices over the clatter of the corn stalks in the wind. It makes me feel like a part of my body that became a part of his body betrayed us both. It makes me feel like strangers are idly riffling though our lives with little interest.
So, I guess you could say being unable to stop the violation of your home shares a whisper of a resemblance to being unable to stop cancer invading someone you love.
Every day since July 7, I have practiced self-talk. He will be okay. He is young and strong. The survival rate is over 95% with the chemotherapy. He will be okay. It is my mantra and I say it over and over again every day.
Last night, as we walked back through the maze of streets, the hulking, silent Duomo brooding in the twilight and the Ponte Vecchio glowing in the last of the sunset, we heard the sound of music. We crossed the street and followed the sound of a single violin. We found the violinist in the piazza outside the shuttered Uffizi Gallery where the Birth of Venus lay sleeping inside.
He played for the crowd, he played for himself. He spoke little, but the music soared up between the walls of the buildings and seemed to weave its way between all of us sitting on the stairs. It grew darker until we could barely see him, but he continued to play. Paul and I left while he was still playing. I wanted to remember his music living and breathing, strong and knowing, healing and whole. I wanted to remember that even though I could not see him, he played through the darkness.