Sometimes, it’s more about what you don’t do than what you do.
With that in mind, traveling with children is akin to life with children in general. You need to think in smaller slices, more in line with their minute capabilities than your own older, greyer ones.
That’s how I approached Tuscany. Although it wasn’t entirely my own ingenious thinking that arrived at this scaled back solution, but rather a medley of influences, some subtle and some not so, that sealed the deal.
For starters, the heat made my limbs feel more like noodles than accomplices, making it easy to pass up a trip to another medieval town in lieu of the shade by the pool. There is a reason I don’t live in central Canada, stifling hot summers chief among them.
The other significant influence came in the form of the two other families staying at our accommodation. One family who left early and returned exhausted each night, the other who barely left and seemed to gain rejuvenation as the week went on. It was an education in itself.
But perhaps the biggest of the sedentary influences was the drastic change in my diet, whereupon I substituted gelato for greens, white carbs in the form of several pastas for whole grains, and of course chianti for water. Such changes don’t lend themselves to the get-up-and-go mentality.
Arguing (to know one in particular) that this was a big part of life in Italy, we slowed down our pace, like the Italians do everyday from noon to three, in favour of the finer pursuits in life.
That is to say, the art of doing nothing.
Yet we did manage to struggle to our feet and make the journey to a few local hot spots. We conquered local villages dangling the promise of gelato in front of our children’s noses. The caveat was they had to order for themselves in Italian. As a result, they can sing gelato flavors in Italian like nobody’s business.
We did a day trip to Siena, highly successful despite the sauna-esque temperatures, because of the challenge of counting the stairs while climbing the Torre del Mangia. They were as thrilled by the narrow, twisty staircase and uneven marble steps as they were by the sweeping views from the top. And then gelato to celebrate.
Limone, stacciatella, fondante. Grazie!
San Gimignano, on the other hand, was not so successful. The hour and a half car ride felt like an eternity since world war three waged in our backseat, our children not so happy to be in such close proximity to each other for the trip. The town itself was beautiful, but it was hard to see its famous towers for all of the tour buses.
We decided to put off Florence for a few days. And then looking at the weather forecast, the sun mercilessly beaming back at us everyday for the foreseeable future, we delayed it a few more. Finally, our last day in Tuscany loomed. Florence had charmed me as a backpacker and then again in my twenties, so I couldn’t justify denying it to my children.
Crowds and heat be damned, we were going. The promise of gelato was augmented with the prospect of buying something for each child in the San Lorenzo market, and we were off.
We have an uncanny knack for picking busy days, and this was no different. As we gawked at a snaking, unmoving line for the Duomo, we learned it was in fact an Italian holiday. Every Luigi and his mother had apparently decided to spend it in Florence, rendering the lineups for the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, normally long to begin with, virtually impregnable.
Nevertheless, my children were suitably awed by the market and diligently searched for a treasure of the leather variety that Florence is so famous for. They were charmed by the Ponte Vecchio and fascinated by all the locks with lovers initials chained nearby. They devoured their pizzas and lingered over their gelato, and we called it a day.
The list of things we didn’t do in Florence is far longer than the few things we did, but I soothe myself with the old words of wisdom that sometimes less is more. We went, we saw (some), we conquered. We left Florence hot, tired, but happy, a mission accomplished. Just a less ambitious mission.
The doors in the Florence airport fling open as my big toe hits the mat in front of them. I’m momentarily dazed at their flagrant efficiency, and then chide myself for this typical North American attitude. Yes, they have sliding doors in Italy, too.
Standing on the hot pavement outside, I spy a sign displaying the temperature as 32 degrees, although it is 6:30 in the evening. I watch a bleached blonde girl join the taxi queue while smoking a cigarette and drinking a bottle of beer. Although the smell of cigarette is affronting, it is at the same time a refreshing sign that I have indeed changed continents.
My husband and children pick me up and we proceed to get lost for the next three hours in the Tuscan countryside as we look for the villa they have inhabited for the last three days. We navigate narrow roads void of center lines that look like one-way lanes, but yet lorries and boxy Italian cars fly past us going the other way. We circle round abouts again and again looking for the names of villages we recognize, and finally just guess on a direction after seeing none that are familiar.
Finally, dusty and hungry, we arrive at our villa, named La Torre, not far from the village of Panzano. It is 900 years old, and nestled amongst vineyards and olive trees, postcard perfect. It is split up into 5 apartments, and there are two other families staying on the property; one from Chicago and one from Germany. The Chicago family leaves early to explore different things each day and return late at night. The German family rarely leaves the property.
We are somewhere in between, taking small, short daytrips, but spending lots of time lounging by the pool. The German’s have an eleven-year old boy named Paul, who in desperation for a playmate turns to our three girls. He speaks no English, but after a day or so they are speaking the language of play; which here means various forms of ball, pool games, and cricket hunting in the vineyards. Their voices echo all over the property, bouncing off the medieval walls of the tower, as they call each others names.
It is curiously true that everything tastes better in Italy. The tomatoes are sweeter, the basil more lively, the parmesan more pungent. I was prepared for this. What is surprising to me is the aromas that you encounter.
Rosemary bushes are everywhere, their intense sweetness can be smelled long after they are out of sight. Lavendar plants send floral cues floating about the nearby atmosphere. Lounging under the shade of an olive tree the smell of sage is overwhelming. Taking our clothes down from the clothesline, the fresh mint in the field overwhelms the scent of fresh laundry.
Walking through the vineyards is to experience all of these scents mixed together, like living in an overgrown herb garden. A sensory pleasure, especially of the nasal sort.
It would be difficult to pay him a tribute that equaled his legacy, but as tributes go it came close.
People came in droves to his three wakes – lined up for blocks and waited over an hour to say a final farewell. The church was brimming to the rafters and at maximum capacity a full half hour before the ceremony began. When it was announced they would be naming the local high school’s new gymnasium the John Regan Memorial Gymnasium, 800 people erupted with applause.
We knew he was special, but it was a tad astonishing to see how widely cherished he was.
Over the last few days we have heard countless stories about how John touched peoples lives in ways they would never forget. Like his friends are too many to count, there are too many stories to relay. The common theme involved his quick smile and unfailing generosity.
Here’s one of mine.
Whenever I got home for a visit, we would go for a run together. When we turned a corner and were faced with a headwind, he would jump in front of me and tell me to follow closely behind him, he would act as my windshield. He always tried to make things easier for those around him, even if it meant things were tougher on him.
He always pulled more than his load.
It’s hard to believe this has happened, it is surreal. We have cried enough tears to sink a ship, but still they are coming, easily triggered by a story or a memory. We keep waiting for him to bust into the room, snapping his fingers like he did restlessly. So often he entered with a “Let’s go to….” or “Why don’t we… ” and we would be off, trailing after him, trying our best to keep up.
He walked quicker than anyone I knew.
If health was a viable commodity, I would have so gladly given him a lung, or an eye, or a limb. Or traded places with him. Everyone in his family would have. And in the days following his death, I met hundreds of people who would have gladly done the same. Strangers to me, these people also loved him like a brother.
He was easy to love.
Luckily, for all of us who knew him, he was generous with his love. I know a lot of people who casually cap the amount of friendships they have – they can only manage so many on top of family and work. Like his energy knew no bounds, it seemed, so did his friendships. In the last few days I have seen a lot of big, burly men shamelessly crying their eyes out at this unfathomable loss.
I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on the snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain.
He will be missed more than I can properly express. But the most amazing thing happened as his body failed him: his spirit continued to grow. His bravery, strength, love and humor grew stronger in the face of adversity. It grew through the roof and became bigger than the sky.
There were a lot of stars out last night, but it was easy to pinpoint the brightest one. And there he was.
Look out, there will be carnage.
We are hurting acutely, our star center forward has left the building, and we are yearning for him. This adjustment to a lacklustre life, sans John, will not be an easy one. We are broken.
But we need to remember, in our darkest moments, that someone who contributed so much, and lived so large, can never be gone. He’s everywhere, his spirit is so strong it encompasses all of our senses. His personality was so big it left indelible marks everywhere. We have indents on our hearts and in our minds. Not to mention his beautiful wife and amazing son and daughter; John, thank you for these gifts, these pieces of you.
He lives on, but in a different way.
I’ll get you across the finish line, Dee.
I’ll be the first star you see in the sky every night.
Who else in the world could sing, in the midst of being transferred to palliative care two days ago, On The Road Again? To have the breath, let alone the humour, boggles the mind.
His brother said, I’m sorry for hacking you at hockey. He replied it’s okay, I deserved it. This was all they needed to come to terms with, some tiffs after twenty years on the same hockey team. Between that and some stolen socks, not bad after fifty years together. Many have fared worse.
And that’s as spicy as it gets. No drama, or fences to mend, just pure and simple. Love, the biggest kind imaginable, from every direction you turn, for the greatest person you could imagine knowing.
If we could all be a little more like John, live and love and laugh as much as he did, the world would be a better place. Big shoes to fill, but is that the message here?
He can’t go yet – we are still learning from him.
He continues to be a picture of grace, flashing his beautiful smile every time someone enters the room. Thanking every nurse and doctor who comes by. Telling us be strong when we cry.
Generally the purpose of these visits is to comfort the sick, but it is definitely he who is doing the comforting.
He has taught and coached hundreds – could be thousands – of kids over the years, so he is taking this opportunity to give us advice and words of wisdom. Be the mentor one last time. A knee jerk reaction when you’ve been doing it your whole life, I guess.
He says he doesn’t want to leave us, but he’ll be watching us from above. Every hour our admiration grows stronger, although I didn’t think that was possible. Every hour his voice weakens.
How he can stay so strong and so brave after all he has endured is truly mysterious. As though he hasn’t impressed us enough with his exemplary life.
Remarkable in every way. He always did rise to the occasion.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was not the end he wanted.
Nevertheless it’s happening, proceeding like your worst nightmare on speed. But let me tell you about the love. There is so much of it in the air it is almost visible; I can smell it, taste it, and most of all, feel it.
I look at my brother, shrunken and weak far, far too soon, and know that he has experienced more love in his life than is humanly possible. Take the love I feel for him, which borders on worship, multiply it by a million, and you’re getting close.
He lived a love story.
In a gaggle of children, he was the middle child, and my mother has always freely admitted he was the apple of her eye. To this day she has a soft spot for middle children, although when you’re the fifth of nine it’s hard to imagine the phenomenon is the same. Regardless, he was the favored one, ironically named after my father. And because he was deserving of his plum spot we all forgave him for it and bowed down to our rightful (lower) place.
He married the woman of his dreams, someone who was engaging and beautiful to begin with, who then fell into the folds of our family as though she’d been part of the fabric her whole life. And then something happened that doesn’t always happen: their love grew.
A workaholic (she) and the life of the party (he) meshed and morphed and taught each other things. She learned how to relax, he learned how to work hard to achieve his dreams. A perfect mix.
Of course there has been ups and downs, stresses, harder times as well as many wonderful ones. But underneath it all, love was growing like the weeds in their perfectly manicured garden. Everytime I showed up at their house for dinner they were working on their garden. The workaholic would be weeding or planting, the life of the party mowing the lawn or cutting back bushes. They were always working on that damn garden.
An overused metaphor? Maybe, but it is perfectly true so I’ll take it at the risk of being predictable. Their love for each other and their children grew like a garden that could sustain an army. If it were to produce, say, carrots, it would be the sweetest carrot you ever did taste, packed with fortifying vitamins.
Now, you can imagine the life of the party attracts friends like bees attract honey. Everyone wants to be around the life of the party, party or no party. But not all lives of the party retain their closest friends throughout their entire lives. This one is still best friends with his buddies from the neighborhood, and his brothers he grew up amongst, although he’s picked up hundreds more along the way. They probably didn’t talk much about the love they felt for each other amongst their escapades, hockey and golf, but it’s apparent now and they’re not shying away from it.
Too many friends to count, too much love to measure.
Writing about love is overdone. It can be cheesy and trite. It can be thrown around too casually, or riddled with drama. But I look around at this unquestionable nightmare and the air is heavy with love. It is hanging around like a fifth wheel. I can smell it and taste it and it lingers on collars. It’s in his hair – not a grey hair to be found, by the way – and underneath his fingernails. It’s hovering around him like a forcefield. An aura of love.
He’s been worshiped, revered, idolized, respected, looked up to his entire life by literally everyone who knew him, but chiefly and most importantly his wife and his children. His greatness was obvious and apparent, bordering on flamboyant. But the love in the air still takes my breath away. It’s followed him everywhere the world over like an unrelenting shadow. It’s a wonder he didn’t trip on it.
He says he feels so much love. He is thankful for so much love. His cup, you could say, runneth over.
I had to be annoying as a little sister.
John was ten years older than me, and he may as well have been a rock star in my eyes. I was attracted to him like a magnet, quietly determined to be in his presence as much as humanly possible, because whatever room John was in was more exciting.
Like plants add oxygen and vibrant color to the world, John adds life and vitality and energy wherever he goes.
I would hover around him, listening to his stories (there were many), biding my time until he left the vicinity.
After summer regattas, where he raced all day, he would come home and fall asleep on our sofa, and I would take up my vigil, waiting for him to wake up. At twilight, we would pile into our car and drive to a local running trail. Dad would shine his headlights down the dark trail, and John would take off, as though shot from a cannon, down the trail while we we timed his effort.
As luck would have it, my handsome brother became the student teacher at my junior high school. Arriving at school in his beat up Honda Civic was my ticket to popularity. I would sit in his passenger seat, amongst his sweaty socks, proud as a peacock. It may as well have been the Royal Carriage delivering me to Westminster Abbey.
Through the years he was my paddling coach who saved me from the bully in the girls locker room. He taught me how to throw a spiral with a football. He wrote me training programs when I wanted to become a better runner. When we played tennis, he would give me three serves.
One day, he brought his girlfriend Debbie home. She was beautiful, so I was worried. And then she opened her mouth and she was smarter than a whipper snapper. I was devastated. I was already in a heated competition with my other brothers, sisters, and parents, for John’s attention, not to mention golf, running and paddling. How could I possibly compete with Debbie?
This is how a twelve year-old thinks.
But just like she beguiled my brother with her combination of intelligence and charm, she soon had me eating out of the palm of her hand. She is still the ying to John’s yang. Like attracts like, and Debbie is John’s perfect match: strong of character, witty and engaging, scientific, methodical and hard working. I love her like a sister.
What is your definition of a perfect person? If you could pick anyone in the world, and adapt their characteristics, energy, and essence, who would that be? Some might choose an engaging leader-type. Someone who leads the charge and takes the bull by the horns. Others might choose someone more quietly engaging and charitable. Imagine for a moment combining those two very different personalities.
Somehow, that’s John.
He is both the leader and energizer of the pack, while at the same time unassuming and gentle. He is whatever an given situation calls for: he either lightens the moment, or revels in the beauty of it. He is the perfect energy source, the alpha and omega of people. He is the person I most want to be like. He is the person everyone who knows him most wants to be like.
John, do we tell you this enough? You are our epitome of perfection.
It’s not surprising, even in sickness he is leading by example. I saw him yesterday, smiling and brave even at this point in the game, even after all the shit he’s had to deal with. A year of pain and suffering and fighting. Not bitter, or scared, just brave and happy. Happy.
Our perfect hero.