When we returned from a weeklong family trip to Rome, several friends asked me to name the one monumental moment from the trip, the standout thing that made the visit.
Was it seeing our son, Noah, for the first time since he had left months before to study abroad?
Was it bringing our entire family to the pope’s Easter Mass?
Was it taking Olivia and Chiara to view Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel?
Surprisingly enough, although each of those moments was special for different reasons, the things we will remember most, the real monumental moments, were the smaller, unplanned twists and turns, as is so often the case on this journey called life.
I can tell you for certain that one experience that will stay with all of us for years to come was the day we started at the Colosseum and trekked our way across Rome; nine miles to be exact. As we left behind the quaint, twinkling lights of Trastevere—Rome’s version of Greenwich Village—we turned to Google Maps to get us back to our hotel. Already tired from hours of walking, we found ourselves staring up at a steep hill, followed by a steeper staircase. We trudged along, finding moments of joy in the unexpected overlooks, lapping water from a gurgling street fountain, our adventure spirit still intact. But, as we walked along the edge of a winding road with fast-moving traffic only an arm’s length away, we began to question ourselves, and Google Maps. We finally reached our destination, exhausted and sore, but with an experience that, in hindsight, made us laugh. It’s a far cry from standing under St. Peter’s dome, but there was something even more magical and memorable about that day because of our unexpected detour.
From the little restaurants we discovered down narrow cobblestone alleys, to the afternoon spent in a park where we were mistaken for native Italians, to the crazy traffic jam on the way back from Pompeii, we created memories out of mundane moments that ended up surpassing the spectacular scenery. It can be difficult to find those same kinds of everyday miracles in the midst of the daily grind back home.
We’re usually busy just trying to get things done—work, family responsibilities, chores and more. It can feel like nothing particularly special is going on. We need a vacation to do that, some gorgeous destination where the memory-making is obvious and abundant. Stop and think for a minute about the things that have left lasting impressions on your heart and soul. Not only are many of those things probably right there in plain sight, but some of them may even be not-so-happy memories that linger with a bittersweet force you wouldn’t trade.
My mother’s death is one of those memories for me. Sitting at her bedside and holding her hand as she took her last breath is the single most powerful moment I’ve ever experienced. In that moment, when my mother exited her earthly life, I felt as though I was touching the other side. It’s a monumental memory that will never leave me, and yet it happened on the saddest day of my life.
Look around and notice the amazing events playing out right now before your eyes. The flowers blooming, the baby crying, the grown children spreading their wings, the co-worker making you laugh just when you need it most, the unexpected card that arrives in the mail, even the sorrow that weighs on your heart. They are all single strokes that make up the masterpiece that is your life. You don’t need to stand before a Michelangelo, as fabulous as that might be, to appreciate the wonders of this world. Sometimes you just need to step back and breathe in the glory of now in all its messy and sometimes-painful beauty.
This column originally appeared in the May 10, 2018, issue of Catholic New York.