A Tale of Two Trips:
Why These Experiences Confirm My Need Go See The World
In July of 2014 my father was dying. We all knew his time was limited, but we were in denial as to how soon the end would come. Based on doctor predictions we thought we had about 3 months. We had 3 weeks. The thing is that those three weeks included a family trip with my only brother and his wife as well as myself and my mother. We were to take a cruise around the U.K. Dipping into Ireland as we rounded the west coast of the United Kingdom. Many would say we should never have even left the country together. Certainly if I had been an observer of another family in a the same situation, that’s what my own judgement would have been. But my father was determined to go on this trip and we just never thought to argue.
It was clear from the beginning that he was far more ill than I thought. In fact as I look back I know now that from the beginning the process of dying had begun. It has taken me three years to give voice to this thought. It is only recently that I can look at pictures from this trip without tearing up or reliving some of the worst moments.
In July of 2017 I broke my ankle while walking on a rocky trail in Spain. It was a trip planned for a long time and a trip meant to last a month not a week. While certainly not as serious as the death of a parent, it was still a somewhat traumatic event happening in a foreign country.
Both trips were wonderful. Let me tell you why.
I don’t know the dictionary meaning of humanity but my definition of humanity is that quality displayed as compassion, humor and empathy toward another, often when that other needs it the most. Both of these trips; these trips that ended in loss, pain and disappointment brought out the best in both myself and in the those around me. I have witnessed gentleness when it was needed most, compassion when myself or those with me were in the depths of despair and fear, and help when I didn’t know what help I needed or how to access it.
July 2014: The Mater Hospital, Dublin, Ireland. My father is in intensive care. My parents are two days away from their 60th wedding anniversary. Just days before we had been at the gravesite of RobRoy McGregor and his wife. It is a bucket list item for my very well traveled father who himself is named RobRoy McGregor and is a descendent (at least that is the family lore.) It is a quick but poignant visit and the photo from it is the one I can’t look at. We are all in a room alone with cookies and tea. Outside of this room the ER of this large and public hospital is bustling with the daily traumas that occur in a large city. The doctor comes in. He tells us that my father is very ill and while stable may or may not live the night. We accept the news stoically and go in to see him. I break down and leave the room, gather myself and return. We kiss him, hug him as best we can and leave for the night.
He survives the night and has been transferred to the intensive ward in the main hospital. Again we are in a waiting room but this time it is shared with an Irishman whose brother has suffered a stroke from which he is not likely to recover. The nurse comes in. She is terse. She says, “We need the room for the Americans.” That’s us. In walk two impossibly young doctors. One is dressed as though she just walked off the dance floor. The other has on scrubs and incongruously a tweed sport jacket. His accent reminds me of the “Lucky Charms” cereal leprechaun. Like the doctor the night before he tells us that my father is not likely to live more than a few days, he tells us the palliative care options, we make decisions. We were hoping to medi-flight him home to see his grandchildren and friends one last time but that doesn’t look possible. The doctor leaves and the same nurse brings in cookies and tea and tells us, “OK now, have your moment, have some tea and gather yourselves because he needs to see you. Be strong.”
He is definitely not well, but looks better than the day before. He is alert, and actually happy and bright. He wants hugs and his hand held. He tells us he’s ready. We start the process of acceptance. Say good bye for the morning, promising to return that evening. The nurse, so terse before is tender and kind to my father. Normally a gruff man in these situations he accepts her care, even relishes it. As we get into the cab to go back to see him that evening the cab driver knows something is wrong. We wouldn’t normally be touring Dublin to visit it’s biggest hospital. He is nothing but concerned, asking us,”What is the trouble then?”. Like the nurse with my father, he has enveloped us in a cloud of compassion that is comforting. We are strangers here but we are not alone.
Over the next 24 hours my father is brought back from the brink of death. He has a will to get home. The doctor is frankly amazed and tells us that he thinks my dad will be able to take that flight home. My brother and I privately joke about his “Lucky Charms” accent. The terse nurse, (sorry for the rhyme), brings my father ice cream, its all he’ll eat. She smiles at him. I am grateful. For her, for the Lucky Charms doctor, for the cab drivers. In the elevator as we leave, two women stop talking when we start talking. We look and apologize for maybe being too loud. She says, “Oh no, I just want to listen to your accents!” And smiles at us sympathetically. We make the plans to get home in stages; me first, followed by my father and mother in the med-flight plane, followed by my brother and his wife. My father gets home. He is alert. He is happy, euphoric even. He is talking a blue streak and to anyone who enters his room he tells them, “I’m ready.”
One night as I leave I kiss him good bye and hug him and he says to me, “Go see the world, kid.” It will be the last thing he says to me.
July 2017: I am on a month long trip. I will start with a tour of the Basque Country of Spain and France. I will travel with a friend for the tour part. After that I’ll be on my own as I travel around Switzerland, France and The Netherlands. The trip comes at the end of a four month leave of absence from work that I have taken to care for my mother. When it’s over I return to work and learn to balance both my job and my increasingly elderly mom.
But fate had a different plan. On day five of my trip I misstep on river rock on the El Camino de Campostela trail in Spain and break the small bone in my leg, the fibula. Luckily, though my bone is broken clean through, it has stayed in alignment. This means less pain and no surgery.
I am vulnerable which I hate. I have to rely on relative strangers for their help. This includes being carried, having hands around me to support me so that I can get off the trail, and it means being open to receiving help from others. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. I don’t want to overwork this group’s compassion for me and my situation. But what choice do I have?
Where before I had guides that I relied on to tell me where to be and followed as called upon, I now have two men who have not only cared for me until we could get to help but also made it so that I could continue on the tour. I would have to return home much earlier than planned, but the Basque part of my trip would be complete. All because they chose to step in and help me. You’d be right to say it is their job, but never once was there any hint that I was inconveniencing them or anyone else. Never once was their a show of panic, or impatience, or frustration. I am grateful.
The group with whom I travel, a group who until five days ago I had never met, bring forth their own care and compassion in ways unexpected. I don’t know why I find it surprising. I’d like to believe that were it one of them I would have been as helpful. Without asking, someone was there to push my wheel chair so that I could be part of everything they were doing. Without asking, someone carried my suitcase for me. Without asking, someone saw I was feeling the weight of all that had occurred and stood in front or me so that I could wipe away tears and collect myself lest others see. I am grateful.
An my way home through three countries, two airports and one foreign hotel, strangers from France, Spain and the U.S. took care to insure I was able to make my way home safely and in as much comfort as possible. Water was fetched, wheelchairs pushed, luggage carried. I am grateful.
Both July 2014 and July 2017 could have happened in my hometown and I know I would have experienced the humanity from friends and family that has been offered to me in foreign countries. But to have these events occur as I travel reaffirms the reason I had this need to go to other countries. I learn more about people when I travel. Our cultures may be very different but humanity is universal. Whether a stoic Irish nurse, or a calm, zen like travel guide, I have witnessed and experienced the good in people all while seeing their countries and experiencing their culture. In fact, I believe foreign cultures may shine the most brilliantly when experienced through adversity. I find we’re not that different. We all have fathers, we all hurt, we all know disappointment and fear and it is during these times that I believe I have seen the best of people. This is not something I would have experienced had I not been traveling. If we hadn’t been traveling as a family we would not have been together day and night as we held my father’s hand as he was dying. Had I not been traveling I would not have experienced the personal growth of what it means to allow yourself to be open and vulnerable to a relative stranger’s help. I have new friends. I have a great story. I will continue to be a kid and go and see the world.