A Voyage of Grief — Introduction

A Voyage of Grief is a series of blog posts chronicling my journey across the world as I created the short documentary film “For Wanda”.

It was a Monday morning. The tech start up I was working for had been bought the week before, transforming my financial and professional life. It was day one in a new position and I was humming through my morning routine energized by what was now possible with the new opportunities in front of me. As I was about to get in the shower my phone rang. I answered it. It was my dad. We exchanged small talk for a few moments — about what, I honestly can’t remember, but within seconds I had fallen naked to the floor with a piercing howl. My mother was dead. Suicide. I lay there sprawled out with the shower running behind me, sobbing into the phone over and over again, “I didn’t get to say goodbye… I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

It had been almost seven years since I last saw my mother. Her twenty year battle with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness had formed a chasm between us. She had made so many efforts to communicate: letters, phone calls from jail, psychiatric wards, and burner cell phones. Many of the letters, I am ashamed to say, I threw out. The phone calls I ignored. My treatment of her only compounded and complicated my grief, adding layer upon layer of guilt and shame. I was so angry with her. I looked at my mom as a deeply selfish person who chose drugs and alcohol over me. I dealt with it all so poorly and with little love in my heart.

The ruthless hammer of grief came down hard and swift over the ensuing weeks and months, beating me with the reality that the world is emptier now. The waves of grief came without warning and were onset by the most peculiar of things. I once broke down in the middle of a grocery store checkout line watching a mother stroke the back of her young son’s head. To deal, I would often find solace in booze, drinking until I couldn’t feel anything. It became a nightly ritual to consume a bottle of wine before bed to allow myself to sleep and to fend off the emotional tumult ripping at my mind. The grief was relentless, and was getting worse, poisoning my soul with lies.

You could have been a better son.

I slipped into a deep depression and it became apparent I needed help. For the first time in my life I began therapy to process and work through my grief, guilt, and shame. I made the decision to stop drinking, began regularly exercising again, re-integrated into life, and began a journey to try to make sense of my heartache.

Daniel and I at Dyer and Jenkins headquarters, one of our sponsors.

I had long talked with an old and dear friend of mine, Daniel Brown, about taking a trip around the world. The way he and I envisioned it was to circle the globe in 30 days, visit several different continents and cultures, focus on seeing wonders of the world, and do some charity work along the way. We coined the phrase “Take A Lap” for our trip and began organizing.

Planning the trip provided me a positive outlet — something to look forward to and distract me from my own misery. It was a complicated task because we wanted to do it our own way without travel agents or planned tours. Having the freedom to explore was paramount to our journey.

It was during the planning of the trip that I conceived of the idea to make “For Wanda.” It was late at night and I couldn’t sleep. I was at my desk, exhausted and miserable. On my desk sits an altar I built to remember my mom. It was made up of a strange assortment of things: a journal she never got around to writing in, a pair of her reading glasses, a brush with bits of her hair still in it, a Serenity Prayer coin, and the small mason jar of her ashes I took after we had her cremated.

Sitting there I was consumed with both sadness and anger. Why did her life have to end this way? Where was the meaning in it all? My mom fought so incredibly hard to stay sober in spite of failing time after time. She would always get back up and try again. For a long time I had run with the narrative that she would overcome her disease, write a book, and positively affect thousands of people’s lives. Distraught over my ruminations of her failure as a mother and mine as a son, I suddenly grew resentful of the jar, the altar, and the pointlessness of my efforts to commemorate her with them.

But then something came to me. One of those creative sparks that comes to many of us in moments of self-reflection. I could not undo the past, but I could try to create meaning out of the experience, not only for myself, but also for my family and hopefully for people everywhere. My mother’s life and death were not meaningless, and I was doing her a disservice to keep her to myself in the altar on my desk. She deserved more.

I decided then I would take her with me on my trip. I would spread her ashes at seven beautiful locations throughout the world, one place for each year it had been since we’d seen one another. I would capture the experience on film and produce a piece of art to honor my mom, share her story, and if I was lucky, bring some hope to others in desperation.

Andrew Lin and I at a premiere of our work Acceptance.

I pitched the idea to Daniel and Andrew Lin, a talented editor and close friend with whom I collaborate on projects. They both jumped on board and the development process began in tandem with the planning of the trip. Daniel and our friend Dune Baydoun, a gifted photographer set out at the end of February, our first stop Cambodia. Nothing could prepare me for the wonderful and difficult things before me.

Next Article: A Voyage of Grief — Cambodia