Ethan and I were at the National Gallery in London discussing whether Michelangelo had ADHD.
“It would explain a lot,” he said. “The guy left so much unfinished.”
I nodded. “We may be on to something, the way he moved from project to project instead of working on one thing at a time.”
I studied the painting before me, the entombment of Jesus. On his right a woman knelt, her arm a blank outline waiting for its flesh. On his left, an empty space where, presumably, his mother would have been. I imagined Mary having willed herself out of the picture into the equally unfinished one beside it. There, her son, still a little boy, was very much alive.
“There is beauty in the unfinished,” I said to Ethan. “Remember his slaves? The sculptures we saw at the Louvre? They actually look like they’re peeling themselves out of the stone.”
“Yeah. But I still wish he’d completed more of his work,” he answered, moving on to the next room.
It was our second day in London which meant we were more than halfway through our trip. I felt myself growing anxious about the dwindling days. Before this, we were in Paris where, when we weren’t in museums or grand churches, we were traveling to the top of tall structures to take in the view. We ascended The Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, and The Montparnasse Tower, a modern skyscraper that stands out as so ugly against the surrounding architecture it resembles (to quote our travel guru Rick Steves) the box The Eiffel Tower might have arrived in.
“I think I see Versailles,” Ethan said from that place high above the city.
He pointed to a patch of green in the distance.
“Oh, yeah. . .”
We’d spent the previous day there. (How do you say it? he’d asked then. And when I told him Ver-sigh, he shook his head. The French sure waste a lot of letters. They only pronounce half of every word.) That afternoon, after we’d toured the grand rooms of Louis XIV’s palace, Ethan talked me into renting a golf cart to explore the grounds.
“Can I drive? Please? Please?”
“I spoil you rotten,” I said, handing him the keys.
“Yeah, well, I’m not half as spoiled as King Louis, now am I?”
Even that early in our trip, I couldn’t help worrying that we wouldn’t see enough in the time we had. I’d spent so much to be there and taken so many days from work, I wanted everything to be perfect. “Take a look through this,” I’d say to Ethan each evening, handing him the Rick Steves book. “Anything you’d like to do that we haven’t gotten to yet?”
But I remained in charge of sightseeing as Ethan, more often than not, turned to the section on restaurants. Thanks to traveling with such a foodie, I tasted veal neck for the first time, a dish I ordered because I wanted the risotto and fresh vegetables that came with it. It turned out to be delicious which led to Ethan braving a stew of lamb stomach a few nights later. This was not as good a choice but he took it in stride. After all, we were in Paris, sitting at an outdoor table in Place des Vosges, a square framed by the grand identical houses commissioned by Henry IV. We lingered at our table, taking it all in. I ordered Ethan a rich chocolate tart to soothe away the taste of stomach and sipped my tea.
We were leaving for London in the morning, so I found myself mentally ticking off sights in our Paris guidebook, trying to figure out if we’d missed something crucial. Meanwhile, the world turned periwinkle.
“I’ve never seen the sky this color before,” Ethan marveled, making me realize I was missing something crucial by fretting.
After we left London’s National Gallery, Ethan and I walked from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall Street until we got to the majestic castle of a parliament building crowned by Big Ben. From there we took a boat tour along the Thames.
“It’s rare to get to see this,” our guide said as the Tower Bridge, dressed in its new coat of blue and white paint, slowly lifted its ancient arms. “You people are my lucky charms.”
It was a gorgeous, sunny day, so unlike the weather I expected to find in England, and so perfect for being on the water.
“We are lucky,” Ethan turned to me and said.
“Yes we are.”
But our good luck began to waver the next morning when Ethan woke up feeling feverish. With a little Tylenol and determination, he rallied and we went through with our plans to take a Beatles walking tour. We walked down Carnaby Street, saw the gallery where John met Yoko, and the Apple Studio building where the Beatles played their last live concert on the roof. Finally, I photographed a very tired Ethan walking across Abbey Road, then took him back to our hotel and put him to bed.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, before falling asleep. “I’m ruining our vacation.”
Ignoring the tug to be the perfect tourist, I answered, “No you’re not, honey. You’re the best thing about this vacation.”
Ethan slept the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening. I thought about taking myself to the Tate Gallery, but quickly realized I needed to stay in case he woke needing me. While he rested, I read, wrote, and watched over him. As I did, something inside me finally relaxed. “Often, when you don’t feel well, it’s your body telling you to slow down and take care of yourself,” I’ve told Ethan many times. This time, it seemed, his body was talking to both of us.
I’d only been to London once before, the summer I was 22. On the last evening of that trip, a man I met said to me, “When you travel, it’s good to leave some things undone to ensure your return.” It was sage advice. I wished I’d recalled it earlier.
As it turned out, Ethan felt much better the next morning and, in the days that followed, we wandered Westminster Abbey, enjoyed a night at the theater, and walked down Regent Street where the Queen buys her perfume and jewels.
But as Ethan slept soundly that long afternoon, our trip was still an unfinished work full of richness and color as well as those blank places we’d yet to fill in. And, like all the partially completed works of Michelangelo, it was already lovely and enough.
2 replies on “Unfinished Overseas”
How beautiful! Thank you for the reminder to not do too much.
We’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot with our children, since they were tiny, when we were forced to take it easy: we quickly learned that one sightseeing activity a day was all that could be managed, and the rest was playgrounds, stroller walks, and naps. Which turned out to be a fantastic way to get to know unfamiliar cities, towns, beaches, and countrysides, so we’ve pretty much kept to that strategy, adapting it to older children who have a bit more tolerance and stamina, but always arranging plenty of time to loll about in parks, cafes, or even hotel rooms. Good for you for realizing it, and I’m so glad you had what sounds like a great trip.