The nights in Campania were almost always perfect. If the storm clouds stayed away, the sun lingered behind the volcano, turning the mountain purple while the sky above it darkened. In time our shadows disappeared. Stars smiled. A poison candle guttered on the table, its fumes turning away mosquitoes. Fireworks crackled above the town, almost every night. The amber flame flickered in a thousand tiny versions formed by the beads of condensation on the skin of my wine glass.
How do you want to be remembered? We’re rarely at our best. But for a while, there in Italy, I was living the life I always wanted. I’m glad you were there to see it.
And we talked late into the night, while a yellow comet crackled overhead and the sun shifted below our feet. I remember the night you were born, and nothing makes me feel older than the fact that you are now a young woman, with a mind sharper than mine ever was and a heart more open than mine will ever be again. I used to be sixteen. But that was before you were born. Years have a way of filing off the more tender parts of ourselves, a thread recoiling from the candle before ever touching the flame. When I was your age, the world used to talk to me, the way it does to you. But somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to hear it. This isn’t a tragedy; I got it back. It just took a lot of years and a lot of miles. Under the glowering volcano, I relearned what I knew when I was your age.
But you get it. And by it, I mean everything.
When I was your age, I was miserable. It seemed impossible to reconcile the beauty I glimpsed like a sky through bars with the life the world seemed designed to force me into. Feathers sticky with blood clinging to the cleaver; the abattoir floor littered with severed wings. I was hopeless. I listened to other people too much, and they told me that the best years of my life were already behind me.
They were wrong, of course. The bright sun and deep nights of Campania prove that. For that matter, so did Vancouver. When I was your age, I never imagined that life would be as beautiful and as strange as it has been. Even with the losses we all inevitably accrue as the years skulk past. Because of those losses, not in spite of them.
I hope you know that.
We had fun during your visit; at least, I think so. I did. I remember your embarrassment as I dunked my head under a tap against the heat of Pompeii, and your perfect compassion as you tried to offer some of your drinking water to a heat-stricken pigeon sheltering in the ruins. I remember you, a better swimmer than I, showing me how to lie back on the floating rope that demarcated the swimming area in Vietri as though it was a hammock. I remember sipping limoncello under the lemon groves of Amalfi, and trying not to vomit on the boat that took us there. I remember having to look up the Italian word for ‘niece’ on my phone as I tried to explain to a waiter in Naples why I was drinking Lacryma Christi, the Tears of Christ, with you.
But I remember most clearly the conversations we had on the balcony late at night, though I couldn’t repeat a single word. Trust someone older than you when he says that you won’t meet many people who inhabit a world as deep and as rich as yours is. I used to be sixteen. I remember what it’s like. That hunger for the world that comes with the dawning realization of how little you’ve seen. Everything starts to open up. You question what you’ve been told and long to discover everything for yourself. And you’re wide open, ready to receive the world as though it’s brand new. I hope that as you grow older, you can hold onto at least some of that. I hope I can.
And when one day I’m swept away, vanished into the last long night as firmly and finally as the dead of Pompeii, I hope you will remember me on the balcony, with the concrete giving back the day’s heat to the shimmering stars above, a wine glass lifted to my lips and a smile on my sunburned face.