But for air (writing Italy)

Florentines say the air can make you free. And that’s how we felt that trip. Quite free. The kind of freedom that tickles, makes your skin sparkle; the kind that attracts attention from perfect strangers; the return of smiles. For there we were. Eight days in Italy. Eight days of romance. Eight days with Bright Hope, you Happy Wanderer.

What sticks though, is another thing altogether. It’s a matter of death and dying, a matter of breathing, or not. How strange that mix: the astonishment of love close-up smack against the silence of that last breath.

C said I’m dying aren’t I? There’s nothing more to say. But she said to us go, go (she loved to travel). There’s nothing more to say … goodbye. And we think of all the BIG goodbyes this tiny person has to say in such a small space of time (will she squeeze them all in?) as we do go (our bodies much more obedient than our minds will ever be) step away from flesh — living flesh from 90 years old of blood flesh — and we wonder what influence and wealth of acumen we now need leave behind.

So we go. All over Italy, whorl through an extraordinary eight-day field trip to die for of early Christian mosaics and frescoes and Renaissance art. We look, we draw, we write. We hold up mirrors to each other to ourselves. We forget to panic, we live for her (as it turns out), we the little girls, for her our aunt. Her saying go.

Everyone says Italy will get to you and you resist and resist for so long before giving way to the push and pull and plunge.

(She did say go didn’t she?)

So when, a little later, Bright Hope sends you a drawing via email all of 13,000 virtual miles — a drawing of C’s well-travelled body wrapped now in scarlet ruching on standby to return to dust — it takes you back, to Firenze, to a miracle of some 10 metres of frescoes in the Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine. Filippino Lippi, Masolina, Masaccio. All there. All great. But best of all Masaccio, no-one was more a painter. The figures he painted exist for themselves (enough to make the likes of Michelangelo and da Vinci wonder) enough to make you free, to weep. As voluntary in the end (and C would have agreed for sure), as breathing. Any—which—way.

But for air was first published as a microstory in the Canberra Times, 13 April 2002, alongside an original watercolour by cartoonist David Pope, reprinted with permission.

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