From the June/July 2015 issue of Traveler magazine
My wife was walking through hell and longed for a piece of heaven. So I transported her to the most beautiful place I could think of—the Italian paradise of Lake Como. Susan was in the second year of a fight for her life—stage four lung cancer—and we knew there was no way she would come out of it with a victory. The diagnosis had hit her, had hit us, without warning, then led to the inevitable progression of surgery, chemo treatments, and so many prescription meds that we needed a legal pad to keep track of them all. Yet Susan regained her balance quickly, as was her way, declaring she’d live however many days were left her as fully as she could. She continued to work, travel, see friends, and embrace family. She was confronting this final battle on her terms. Cancer would deal the lethal blow, but she was going to do everything in her power to deflect it as long as she could.
“WATER IS GOD'S TRANQUILIZER,” Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue magazine, once said—words Susan cited regularly. If ever we needed tranquillity it was now, and Lake Como, ringed by quiet towns, elegant vacation villas, and snow-crowned mountains, offered the perfect mix of scenery, culture—and views of God’s tranquilizer.
“This will be great,” I say as Susan and I make our plans. “Eat, look out at the lake, converse, look out at the lake, stroll, look out at the lake. By day two we’ll just look out at the lake—and be the most relaxed we’ve ever been.”
Forming an upside-down Y an hour’s drive north of Milan, Lake Como has seduced visitors since Roman times with its extravagant natural setting in foothills of the Alps, subtropical climate (palm trees, at the same latitude as Maine), thermal springs, and, later, grand villas. I already knew we’d stay at perhaps the best known of these, the tony Villa d’Este.
Which is what we’re looking for as we pull into Cernobbio, a vintage resort town on Como’s southwestern shore. The lake, walled by steep mountainsides, glitters under an afternoon sun. We drive the Via Regina (“queen’s way”) past the 19th-century Villa Erba and the town’s small historic center, and turn right at the sign for the resort. Before us, baronial buildings and pavilions—including the sumptuous main residence, built for a 16th-century cardinal—have arranged themselves along the lakefront, punctuated by gardens filled with palms, plane trees, cypresses, and flowering plants. A whiff of camellias soon has us ambling curved walking paths in search of its source, the clear blue waters of Como to our right, embraced by sloping mountains thick with greenery.
I reach over and take my wife’s hand. She turns toward me and smiles, then gently rests her head against my shoulder.
“This,” she purrs, “is the most peaceful place. I could stay forever.” I nod and hold her hand tightly.
We both know that for Susan, forever is just a few short months away. Ours has been a long relationship, 37 years. We began as friends, lived together for two years, and have been married for more than 30, raising two children in the process. We’ve had our ups and downs, but even our occasional separations were interspersed with many glorious days and nights. Through it all, we’ve remained what we’d been from the very start—each other’s best friend.
Susan’s illness froze me. I couldn’t hide from the dark cloud the disease brings with it. I stopped writing and withdrew, confused and angry about the plight of my wife, my friend. We had always valued honesty and used humor as a shield against any obstacle. But would either be enough to weather the severe storm she faced?
“Let’s take a trip,” Susan had said one morning, washing down a dozen pills with a smoothie. “I want to get one more trip in while I still can.”
“Should you check with Dr. Riely first?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Just plan it soon,” she answered.
“Where do you want to go?”
“Someplace that can make me forget I’m dying,” Susan said.
“IS THERE A LAND OF SUCH SUPREME and perfect beauty anywhere?” 19th-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wondered after a visit to Lake Como. The area inspired Hungarian composer Franz Liszt to declare, “When you write the story of two happy lovers, let the story be set on the banks of Lake Como.”
And so we set our story here; we both know this trip will be the last we take together. Susan, of course, is determined to make the most of every moment. We’ll walk the acres of gardens at Villa Carlotta, north of Cernobbio in Tremezzo, where the lush plantings, marble sculptures, and blooming flowers make us feel as if we’ve dropped into another century, a more peaceful time, in a place where neither death nor disease dares enter. We will dine at Il Gatto Nero (“the black cat”), a mountaintop restaurant decorated with artworks of cats and boasting views of the lake that seem to extend to eternity. We’ll ride the boats that operate as buses, transporting locals and tourists from Varenna, midway up the lakeshore, west to Menaggio, then south to Bellagio, “the pearl of Lake Como,” where I will want to buy a bracelet each for Susan and our daughter, Kate—but Susan says to buy just one, for Kate.
In Lenno we taste locally grown Vanini olive oil, then continue to neighboring Mezzegra, where we hike up the hillside for a view that will leave me as breathless as does the challenging ascent, a deliberate physical effort on my part: Susan always wanted us to do things together, but I invariably begged off the long walks that she loved, happy to join her at mealtime.
We stop in Laglio, the lakefront town where George Clooney and Donatella Versace own villas.
And we visit the island of Comacina, to dine at what some consider one of the best restaurants in Italy, the Locanda dell’Isola Comacina. As Susan and I board a small boat for the quarter-mile crossing, I catch her up on Comacina’s history.
“Almost no one set foot on the island from the 1100s to the 1940s,” I intone, “thanks to a curse imposed by the bishop of Como. Only in 1947 was it supposedly dispelled.” I pause. “You think people still buy into the curse?”
Susan grins and looks over our fellow passengers. “Other than you, probably not.”
The restaurant fills the top floor of a two-story villa overlooking the lake. Promptly seated, we sip a crisp Soave Classico wine as we dine on owner Benvenuto Puricelli’s cooking: smoked ham, grilled trout, chicken baked in a woodstove, slabs of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Then Puricelli emerges from the kitchen and proceeds to pour brandy and sugar into a large copper pot that has been filled with rich coffee, telling us diners that drinking his special brew is the only way to leave the island curse free.
Susan takes two sips. “It’s too strong for my taste. But good.”
“You’re going to finish it all, right?” I ask, having downed my portion.
She shakes her head.
“But you have to,” I say. “Otherwise the curse will follow you off the island.”
The early afternoon sun seems to hover over her shoulders, the deep-blue lake sparkling behind her. She is as beautiful as the day we first met, in 1976—and I realize how foolish I sound, jabbering about some curse to a woman dying of stage four lung cancer. She turns, looks out on Lake Como, and is silent. Finally she says, “I’m beyond the reach of any curse.”
THE TOWNS ALONG COMO'S SHORES have constituted one of the world’s great silk centers since the Renaissance, thanks to an abundant supply of water (needed to boil the silk cocoons for their silk fibers) and mulberry trees, which the silkworms feed on. Today Lake Como’s silk works supply such high-end fashion houses as Versace, Ungaro, and Hermès.
“Silk helped turn this region into a destination of choice for those in need of rest and relaxation,” Costanza Murino, a frequent visitor from Milan, tells us one afternoon. “These days, I suppose there is one man in particular to thank.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Ralph Lauren. He bought the silk for his clothes here when he first started his business and now returns to vacation.”
One century-old Como silk house, Mantero, frames its craft as “weaving emotions.” Susan and I have just strolled past its headquarters and showroom on Via Volta, in Lake Como’s regional capital, also called Como, a few minutes’ drive south of Cernobbio. Through the windows we make out a shimmering rainbow of silk scarves, ties, and shawls. I’m ready to step in to buy a foulard when Susan spots one of Como’s other gems, the 12th-century Basilica of San Fedele. Places that have stood the test of time now call to her.
“Come, let’s go see what’s inside,” she says, tugging eagerly at my arm.
We enter the hushed space, lit by a rose window from the 1500s and arrayed with richly hued medieval frescoes. Relics of St. Fidelis, a Roman soldier executed near here allegedly for helping to free Christian prisoners, rest in the marble altar. Susan turns to me. “I need to talk to you.”
I follow her out to the piazza, an ancient locale that is dotted with ocher- and umber-colored town houses.
“Let’s sit for a bit,” she says, pointing to a freshly painted wood bench.
“You all right?” I ask.
“Today is a good day,” she says. “I still get those now and then.”
“There’s a gelato stand across the way,” I answer. “I can buy you one of the chocolate cones you like.”
Susan grabs my hand and rests it on her leg.
“Maybe later,” she says. “First I need you to promise me something. Not for now, for after.”
I take a deep breath and find it hard to form words; all I come up with is a nod.
“I want you to do the things you always talked about doing but never did,” she says. “The house on a lake you wanted. Buying the vineyard that will use up all your money. Another dog, to keep Gus company. Just don’t let too much time pass before you do. Each day is like a year, as I found out the hard way. And I want you to be happy, as I always have been. That’s my wish for you.”
“I don’t want to do any of that without you,” I say. “It won’t mean the same.”
“It will have to be without me,” Susan says. “That decision has been made.”
She leans against me and stares out at the lake. “Promise me that,” she whispers. “It’s one last promise.”
I kiss the top of her head and close my eyes. “I promise,” I whisper back.
We sit on the bench until late afternoon, temporarily setting aside our fears and concerns yet bracing for the cold reality that soon we will have no choice but to face them all head-on.
“We should get going,” Susan finally says, rising.
She points across the way, to the gelato stand. “Does your offer still hold?”
“Always,” I answer. “Always.”
LAKE COMO IS THE PERFECT PLACE to visit when starting a new chapter in life—a new romance, a marriage—or simply to enjoy the company of someone with whom you’ve shared much. It also, I’m discovering with some pain, is a loving place to say goodbye. Susan and I find ourselves often gazing at the lake, compelled by its shape-shifting waters, shading from an ocean indigo to a deeper midnight blue. We’re at its shores at sunup, warm cups of coffee in hand, watching the first waves cross its surface. We make a point of being by it at sundown, when snow on the hillsides seems to melt right into the lake as the landscape slowly descends into darkness for a night of silent rest.
We also walk and talk a lot, going over the life we have shared, smiling about the many good times, shaking our heads at the mistakes made along the way. Other than shortness of breath, Susan shows no sign of the war being waged inside her body. The lake seems to lift her spirits and put her mind at ease.
“This time will stay with me always,” she murmurs one night, her voice soft. “People who live here are lucky to call it home. They wake to such a beautiful sight. It never leaves them.”
I find myself wishing we’d rented one more boat and taken one more turn around the magical lake, tucked into one more meal at flower-adorned Ristorante Navedano, my wife happy with a glass of simple house wine and a bowl of soup. I long for one more stay at Villa d’Este, seeing Susan pose in front of the villa’s statue of Hercules (that symbol of overcoming adversity), her pain a fading memory. But we both know we have another journey ahead of us.
I am aware of what awaits her—the late ambulance rides through empty city streets, the endless rotation of nurses and doctors doing all they can to combat the inevitable—and I dread it with every breath I take. But none of it matters as long as we are by this life-affirming lake. It is as if time has frozen for us: Stay here, and we’ll remain free of pain and death. The woman I love will forever be next to me, staring at the still, blue waters, talking about her hopes for our children, the plans she wants to make—and the places on Lake Como she still wants to see.
Susan Jill Toepfer died a few months after this trip to Lake Como. Author Lorenzo Carcaterra said that she spoke often of their days by the lake.
LORENZO CARCATERRA is the author of 11 books, including the recent thriller The Wolf (2014). Contributing photographer MASSIMO BASSANO, born in Italy’s southern region of Calabria, often covers his native land for Traveler.