Our Italian Year – February (A Valentine for Karen)

By February 19, 2012 98 comments Permalink

Instead of delving into the details of a wet and uneventful February, I’m going to share a story from the past and a story from our Italian year that took place in June. The relevance to February will be clear by the end.

I had a friend growing up named Robert Ferrari. He was the son of a Roman charm machine and an Englishwoman of extraordinary elegance. From an early age, Robert had it going on. In high school, he loomed large, both literally and figuratively, whether he was on the soccer field or singing in a band or hosting parties at whosever house the party was taking place. We knew he desired a beautiful girl named Karen Coote. Everyone loved Karen. She sparkled. And smiled. And painted. She was an artist, and she was art. She was also older and seemingly out of reach. But Robert persisted, and Robert prevailed. All of us who were there that night remember it as a seminal event. Robert and Karen, we said their names together. Robert and Karen.

Robert and Karen dated through high school, and college, and after college they got married. They had a son named Michael. Then they had a son named Justin. Everything seemed perfect. But there was something about Karen that I’ve yet to mention. Before the two children and before Robert Ferrari, Karen Coote had been sick. She had a tumor when she was younger. A tumor on her brain. People knew it, but people forgot (though I’m sure Karen and her family and close friends never forgot). Tumors certainly never forget, especially those on the brain. Karen’s illness returned in a flash one day when the boys were little and Robert was at work. She managed to secure the children and call for help before collapsing on the floor. An act of heroism I’m not able to describe but capable of Karen.

There was surgery, and there was recovery. And then there were endless consultations and appointments and the dogged pursuit of a remedy to avoid the next episode. Karen returned to her life as a mother and a wife and the beloved to so many. In June of 2004, Robert and Karen and their two boys came to Italy. They had a suite in a back alley off of the Piazza San Marco in the amazing city of Venice. We drove up from Florence to spend a few days.

In our Italian year, these days were among the most magical. Venice is surreal in its floating illogic and stunning beauty. It’s a sinking city of shadows and bridges and walls. The light plays tricks and I’ve never been somewhere easier to get lost. In my previous trips to Venice, amidst the undeniable splendor, I’d always, more than anything else, felt displaced. Robert and Karen changed that. I imagine that there was nowhere that they didn’t feel welcome. It was like being in the company of royalty as we strolled the narrow streets and sampled the Venetian pleasures. The boys each held one of Sophia’s little hands. We were never lost. Robert commandeered a gondola and gave the gondolier special commands (and a fistful of Euros). We avoided the Grand Canal and slipped through watery alleys, ducking under clotheslines, peering into homes. The children were mesmerized. We were all mesmerized. I remember Karen smiling and reclined in the front of the gondola, her legs crossed and her serenity projecting grace over the inky water and the pastel walls and the slivers of pale blue sky overhead. Her serenity surrounded us all.

Venice is not known for its food, but Robert, of course, found a perfect ristorante. In the late afternoon, we were seated upstairs in a private room with an open window that looked over a quiet alley. Seemingly, the entire staff tended to our needs and filled ice buckets with the bottles of wine as Robert ordered nearly everything on the menu. The kids sipped colorful drinks through long straws. The meal was exquisite, of risottos and seafood and vegetables. It seemed to go on for hours. After dinner, in the twinkling Venice twilight, we went to the Piazza San Marco. The children chased the legions of pigeons and giggled as darkness sifted down. Robert, with a childlike grin, layered his upper body in birdseed and allowed the pigeons to flock. He’d never seemed as large to me as he did in that moment, covered in birds, his arms outstretched and his head towards the sky. He looked like a movie star on vacation. A movie star with a wife who matched his magnificence. I wish I’d taken their picture.

The Ferrari’s returned to the United States. And shortly after, Karen’s illness returned, as well. Instead of pouncing this time, the disease returned like a vine, wending its way through Karen, depleting her of her essence on a steady basis. We watched. And we saw Karen wither like a rose, once full of vigor and vitality and of a beauty that few of us will ever know. But we knew her, and that was enough.

Karen passed on Valentine’s Day of last year. We all remember her in our own way. I remember her with a story of the time she came to Italy in June with her beautiful family and, for a few days, blessed our Italian year.

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