My Tribute to Kethan | Leaving the Streets for the Plazas in Rome

Who would have thought that a winter storm in Texas in February 2021 would be the moment that this blog post, originally conceived during my TEDx World Tour for Kethan in October 2013, would come to life? I sure didn’t. Life is always a series of events. Some connect in the short term. Others take years to come full circle and connect. This is one of those moments. First, though, a little bit about this week in Texas, then we’ll head back to Rome. To Piazza Navona. To Kethan.

While still asleep Sunday night at the beginning of this week, a text arrived on my phone in Austin, along with many other phones, I suspect, around town and around the state of Texas. It simply said this. “Due to reliability issues with the electric grid, we will be rotating power every 40 minutes.” It was 2am Monday morning. It had already dropped to 10 degrees fahrenheit outside. When I awoke a few hours later, power hadn’t rotated. By 2pm Monday, it was increasingly clear that it was not only unlikely to rotate but unlikely to be restored soon. Another 10 degree low was ahead for Monday night. As things were disconnecting in the midst of our winter storm, things were about to connect at a whole other level.

Enter the Meles. Good friends from St. Andrew’s. Kids a bit older than ours, and Greg, husband and father, was also our son, Taylor’s, Latin teacher starting in 7th grade at St. Andrew’s (SAS), as well as my daughter, Kyla, a few years later. For context, Taylor is now a 4th Year at the University of Virginia, preparing for graduation. The Meles offered a place for Katelyn and I to warm up as things looked dire for us. They had a four wheel drive vehicle, so they could pick us up on the snow laden roads. Their home was also on the same circuit as a hospital, which meant power, and not just the warmth of heat but the warmth of conversation and of friendship. Little did we know then that Katelyn and I wouldn’t head back to our own hoe until Friday afternoon.

I have always had a great deal of respect for Greg. He didn’t just teach kids Latin at SAS. He taught life. Boys in middle school are just stating to become men, and in the midst of teaching them Latin, he also taught them so much more, both in the classroom and through relationship retreats. And by teaching the boys to be good men, he taught the girls to not settle for anything less than complete respect. Values important to any relationship quite frankly, far beyond gender. Before teaching Latin, Greg had a rich professional history as an archeologist, and he had spent a lot of time in Rome. Actually, for two summers, he participated in digs on the Palatine Hills across from the Colosseum. So, while sitting on the couch after dinner one night this week, I was sharing my photos of Rome, from my amazing trip so many, many years ago. There are many other posts and videos from this trip, but, I need to pause again to talk about Kethan. I met Kethan when he was starting 1st grade at St. Andrew’s, the same SAS that connects our family to the Mele’s. I was in Rome because of Kethan’s passing in the summer of 2013 from the effects of leukemia. Kethan left a big mark on all who met him. Unlike the ruins on the hills surrounding the Tiber river and throughout Rome, his mark was left on hearts. Mine is still affected.

So as Greg and I spoke about Kethan, we also spoke of the Vatican, the Colosseum, as well as the ruins, churches, and plazas throughout this majestic city. Then, we came to a photo of Piazza Navona. Well, actually, a picture of an espresso on a cafe table in Piazza Navona. He laughed. Having both drunk a lot of coffee during the arctic outbreak in Austin, we couldn’t help but chuckle. We had been drinking a lot of coffee. Let me repeat that. We had been drinking a LOT of coffee. As we looked at my other pictures from the Piazza, Greg shared his own dots that connected in this place. From 1989. From his trip to Rome. In grad school. He told me of Carlo and his father, Tonino, and the familigia Petrozzi. He told me of his own family and their connections to the Petrozzis in the foothills of the Appeninne Mountains on the Liri River. He told me of his grandparents emigrating to Schenectady, NY, on its own river surrounded by mountains. He told me of his kids, the Petrozzi’s kids, summer camps, and the Adirondack Mountains. And, as he told me these stories, he sent an email to Carlo.

Not more than a day later, Katelyn and I still hunkered down in their home, an email returned. From Tonino. From Carlo’s father. Translated by Carlo from Italian to English. Tonino. As I sat on the couch reading (with some coffee), I understood the rich history of that plaza but why it took almost eight years for this blog post to be completed. As we got lost in day to day of life, there are greater currents of life connecting all of us in some way. As I asked in my talk on the TEDx stage at the fish market in Trastevere, meaning “across the Tiber,” what could 7B humans do working together to carve a canyon through cancer. In that talk, I also spoke of the drops of life, of water, of what water in all its forms has created around the world, from the Grand Canyon to the Dolomites in Italy.

And, as I read Torino’s gift again this morning, it hit me. Actually, it is hitting me right now. As the goosebumps reflect a brain that is beyond amazed. I actually had to stand up to feel the full impact. That moment when all the dots connect. I’m still feeling it now, and I’m trying to type as fast as my brain is unpacking it. For you see, the central fountain in this square represents the four known rivers of its time. Constructed in the 1600s, in Tonino’s translated words, “the central fountain is composed of four marble statues in dramatic attitudes. It represents four rivers that symbolize the world as it was knows by then: the Ganges for Asia, the Nile for Africa, the Danube for Europe and the Rio de la Plata for America.” Water. Drops of life. And interestingly, in its earliest days, up until 1865, when it was repaved, the plaza itself was flooded with water, turning it into a lake, typically not more than 50/70cm deep. For games. When built by Emperor Domitian in AD 85, it was called In Agone (agonis means games).

Water. Truly the ultimate “drop of life.” And in this week, where too much of it in its frozen form brought Texas to its knees, cutting off electricity and water, it was simultaneously connecting me to something bigger. Connecting me once again with the Meles through their incredible hospitality. Connecting me, through Greg, to the familigia Petrozzi. Connecting me to the story of why I had come to this particular plaza. Connecting the plaza to my TEDx talk at the fish market in Trastevere. Connecting me to history, a history spanning millennia. And connecting me once again with my time in Rome. And most importantly, connecting me to my love for Kethan.