About five months ago, doctors told me I had less than a year to live. The next appointment, they changed their minds and said four years, which is a bit disconcerting on a number of levels. Were they wrong the first appointment, or the second? Or both? Should I contribute to my 401K ("Probably not."), or sit around the house, eat HobNobs and pain killers, and wait? Should I bother trying to finish the book I'm writing, or just hope to finish the book I'm reading?
Each viable and unviable option carried a time–stamped alternative. Each alternative then bred more alternatives, a branching tree of if A then B on which the branches would suddenly stop as if they'd fallen off the ends of the earth.
And there, paralyzed between poles of immobility, only one real question remained: Which would be better, live longer like this or get it over with?
I spent most of my time alienating most of my friends. They all wanted to help, to give me their strength. I wanted only to protect them from ever having to find out what living with a deadline is really like.
But if you refuse to talk about the only thing there is to talk about, what's left to talk about?
Besides, if I pushed them all away now, they wouldn't have to miss me later, right?
I adopted an old dog, old enough he had no more than a 50–50 chance of outliving me, a big furry stray who needed a home and had no conversational requirements beyond hearing the occasional "Good boy."
Then I parked the dog at a sitter and, leaning on a fake Malacca cane for support, boarded a plane for Italy. I hadn't written a word in months. As the brilliant poet Jack Spicer wrote, "He is conscious that there is nothing left/in his mouth but one word."
In Italy, I would not have to use that word, because I did not speak a word of the language.
Which brings us to this moment.
Right now, the perfect medieval hill town of Asolo rises behind me in a pile of terracotta walls and architectural angles that seem planned to double the space available for window boxes. Ahead of me, the world drops away in vines and terraces of flowers and farm animals too far away to tell if they're goats or sheep or small cows with quite gangly legs or very lost llamas.
The air smells like maybe how air smelled before we discovered what fun it is to burn hydrocarbons.
A butterfly, all charisma and orange–black wings, tastes the arbor that shades me. The butterfly has two tiny white balls at the tips of its antennae, and I wonder if all butterflies have this, and I've just never noticed it before, or if it's only this particular butterfly, ornament as specific as my own tattoos, but perhaps less indicative of moments gone very wrong.
Where I'm sitting, maybe with seven months to live, maybe three years and seven months, maybe unknown more, maybe less if I'm careless around speeding buses, is walking distance from Freya Stark's grave—head downhill and to the left. Also Eleonora Duse's grave, but I'm a lot less interested in the ultimate fate of silent movie actresses vs. travel writers, so if I leave this sunny bench and seek out the local graveyard, it will be for Freya's sake.
And if, some time in whatever time is left, I do get interested in silent movie actresses, I can still content myself that I saw Duse's house. It's sort of pink and lies in the shadow of what was once a city gate.
If I felt compelled to write something, I could easily produce an article about Freya Stark. Before she died, Freya published more than twenty books. So far, my total is sixteen, the newest out this very week, with another one that either will or will not be finished still in the works after years of effort. Freya, chronically ill as a child, read for escape, until she could actually escape.
I was a pretty healthy child, but the first inklings of things to come happened around 1990, when I passed out while walking up the stairs of a Japanese train station, a country where I'd gone to escape. Freya made her name traveling alone in the Middle East, in a time when it was largely a blank space on the map and few women went alone anywhere. The first place I went truly alone was Thailand, where it's impossible to be alone, and my name is still far from made. Most people can't even pronounce it correctly.
Freya first came to Asolo in 1927; she died here in 1993, the same year doctors became a common facet of my own life, about two years before the first time they told me my time had run out.
Oddly, it's not something one ever quite gets used to, these end of the world predictions, no matter how often they're wrong. Each and every night, all truly sane people still check between the stars for looming meteors.
But, anyway, that's not an article I want to write. If I write about my life, about Freya's life, even in a travel story where I'm going to use it all as a framework for telling you about how very beautiful Asolo, Italy is, I've sort of buggered myself. Even counting on sympathy readers to drag along with the question of my own mortality as it may or may not mirror their own, that one desperate thing everyone has in common, I still have to count on the fact that you know or will care who Freya Stark was. I still have to hope you're interested in a woman who, right before her death, said she felt about death "as about the first ball, or the first meet of hounds, anxious as to whether one will get it right, and timid and inexperienced—all the feelings of youth."
No. If I were really trying to structure this story, shine it up for a glossy magazine, I might be better off trying to interest you in the fact that the hotel whose grounds I'm sunning myself on was once the home of the poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Much more famous than Stark, and considerably more romantic as well.
Elizabeth was almost an invalid when Robert took her away for a secret wedding in 1846. They fled to Italy, and after a while, ended up here. Robert died the day the purchase of this house became official. So maybe I can't really call it their home and can't structure things that way after all.
Books from the Author:
Buy Under the Protection of the Cow Demon at your local bookstore, or get it online here: