Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I’ve hiked precipitous trails in the Himalayas, camped in the remote Sahara Desert, and ridden elephants in sweltering Thai jungles. Because of my MS, all presented challenges, from endurance to balance to heat. But nothing quite compared to the obstacles I had to cope with during what was supposed to be a relaxing and romantic trip to Italy. A surprise MS relapse will do that. So this is how we seized the moment and learned an essential life tip to navigating this disease.
So there I was, in the heart of Italy sitting on the Pope’s “throne,” as a crowd of people looked on in near disbelief. After all, it’s rare that someone not named “The Pope” gets to sit on his personal toilet. But sometimes having multiple sclerosis—even during a relapse—can bring unexpected benefit. You just need to seize the moment. Let me explain.
A mere three days into a dream vacation to northern Italy, the full fury of a multiple sclerosis relapse blindsided Laura and me at our Lake Como inn. I woke that morning to a pair of legs that overnight had lost all strength; they just crumbled when I rolled out of bed. I crawled to the bathroom. We scrambled to call our travel agent and my neurologist. Our Italia retreat appeared to be doomed.
In the span of 12 hours, picturesque hillside Tuscany towns became fortifications built into steep
mountainsides. Quaint inns morphed into exhausting labyrinths riddled with steps. Authentic trattorias turned into precarious obstacle courses of tables and chairs and patrons. Even though my legs recovered slightly as the morning wore on, we were faced with a difficult decision. Cancel or press on?
Traveling with a Disability
Then I recalled something both of us had just read on the plane flight to Italy. Our tour book had
discussed the popular phrase “carpe diem,” which was coined by the Roman lyric poet Horace. “A day was too long for Horace, he was more interested in moments, and enjoying whatever might occur in a succession of instances. He believed that those instances make up a lifetime, and that once you appreciate each single one you free yourself of the relentless search for pleasure, wealth or fame.”
It would have been easy to focus on the wisdom of trying to navigate Italy juggling canes, trekking poles, and the occasional wheelchair…. The struggle to find bathrooms, only to discover they were down a flight of stairs or lacking a toilet seat. The disappointment of taking a “handicapped accessible” elevator that was too small to accommodate a single wheelchair. The frustration of finally finding a curb cut only to have it blocked by a parked car.
Instead, moments—those instances Horace philosophized of—would define our trip. We ditched the traditional tourist “checklists” and let each hour of each day unfold as it was meant to. It was refreshing to watch the cacophony of rush hour in Venice float by as we lingered over cappuccinos. Michelangelo’s David could have been our only destination in Florence and our visit to the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance would have been complete. Sips of Chianti Classico painted Tuscan sunsets on the palate as vivid as the sunsets themselves.
Finding Silver Linings
While multiple sclerosis might have slowed our travels, it did not slow our spirits. Indeed, more than once it afforded opportunities that would have been off limits to our more able-bodied brethren.
Museums and historical sites were free for my wife and me throughout Italy. Hour-long lines that
snaked around Rome’s Coliseum and the Vatican were bypassed as security guards ushered us through as VIP guests. In fact, our visit to the Sistine Chapel, via a plethora of back doors and service elevators, placed us under Michelangelo’s masterpiece long before the hordes of tourists packed the room. And then there was the, ahem, Pope’s “throne” moment.
We were on a tour of Pope Pius II’s residence in Pienza, which he built in the 1400s. With my walking so sketchy, the guides were eager to find me seating in each room of the palazzo. But in the Pope’s bedroom, no chairs or benches existed for my increasingly wobbly legs. So they told me to sit on his “throne”—his vintage commode restored from the 13th Century.
Perfect. Horace pegged it. This was indeed a moment to cherish. And I had MS to thank. Hell, I was sitting on the Pope’s antique toilet as the rest of our tour group could only look on with mouths fully agape.
I’m sure they were all thinking the same thing…. Holy crap. Carpe diem, indeed.