But she gave legs to my wanderlust
When I quit my job last June to travel the world, my mom wasn’t exactly surprised. She was there, after all, when my fiancé died. She was standing at the foot of his bed when he took his last breath, feeling her own heart break for his family and for me.
She was there when I walked out of the hospital just minutes after he died. She was following just a little behind me as I pushed through people on a downtown Chicago sidewalk, wondering what to say when I reached wherever it was that I was going.
She was there when I seated myself in the middle of a park, blinking against the incongruous sun of a beautiful summer afternoon. She was seated there right next to me as I felt the first waves of grief wash over me. (She, along with my father and my best friend, wisely chose to say nothing at all.)
She was there during the weeks that followed his death, carefully avoiding my room when I closed the door to curl up with the pain, and quietly making soup out of a refrigerator stocked full of organic, cancer-fighting produce and herbs.
My mom was not there when I made a promise to Jeff during the last days of his life — a promise that I would not waste one single day that I am given. She was, however, the person who planted the seeds for that promise.
A lesson about time
I was quite young when my mom taught me a lasting lesson about time. I remember skipping out to the backyard where my mom was losing a battle with the abundant growth of the Pacific Northwest greenery by attempting to save our deck, which was sprouting weeds through its planks.
“I am bored,” I said, twirling across the deck in circles with my arms outstretched and my face tilted upward toward the sun. “I am sooooo bored.”
In my defense, I am an only child and summer days could grow quite long when my friends weren’t around to ride bikes or play on the slip-and-slide on the sloping hill of our backyard.
My mom was unsympathetic. She looked up at me from her crouched position on the failing porch and said words that, while dismissed at the moment, would ricochet across the decades that stretched between that back porch in Portland and a hospital room in Chicago.
“It would be nice to have the time to be bored.”
She then offered me the opportunity to help her pull weeds and I quickly retreated back into the house where I assured her that I could find something to occupy my time.
It would be nice
I was too young to grasp the enormity of my mom’s simple lesson back then, but it stayed with me. When Jeff looked out the window of his hospital room at a park full of people lounging in the grass, he said that all he wanted to do was fire up the grill and sit with his friends doing absolutely nothing.
It would be nice, I thought to myself, following his gaze. It would be nice to have the time.
I think that’s why I headed straight for that very same park just after he died, strode toward it like it was a lighthouse beckoning me toward shore. I knew that I was spending my first moments without him and I felt the waves of grief coming. Bracing for a part of my life that would be filled with more anguish than I had ever felt, I wanted to sit in the sun and remember that — even in the worst moments — I was lucky to have the time.
I think I’m going to travel for a while
My office was good for me. Very good. They gave me a month’s paid time off to care for Jeff when he got really sick, my boss and two colleagues came to an impromptu gathering hosted by yet another colleague the day he died, and they gave me a week before calling to discuss coming back to work.
But I just watched as my phone buzzed its way across my couch cushions, bouncing up and down with its need for an answer. I didn’t know what I was going to say yet; I let it ring.
When I did pick up the phone to call my boss back, my mom was there listening as I said: “I need to take some time for me now. I think I am going to travel for a while.”
There was no surprise on the other side of the line. And there was no surprise on the other side of my living room. My mom sipped her coffee and said nothing.
Surrounded by travelers
That isn’t to say that my mom completely understands. If you asked her whether she would rather sit in her armchair with a crossword puzzle and a cup of coffee, or sit at a café in Paris, or go on a stroll beside the Mekong, she would probably opt for home.
My wanderlust comes from my dad, who sits across from me at a café in Laos next to the Mekong even as I write this.
Surrounded by travelers, my mom has mostly sighed with affectionate exasperation at the travel dreams lofted over the dining room table over the years: See all seven continents, ride a bike across Portugal, hike the Camino Trail, float in the Dead Sea…
When these scraps of conversation float past my mom, she does not attempt to suppress our desire to travel simply because she does not share the same irrepressible need to see the world. Instead, she has joined us to see some of those travel dreams come true.
She has backpacked Europe with us, joined my dad in campervan adventures across New Zealand and Australia, traveled to Italy with me (hiking up countless Sicilian stairs), supported my dad’s decision to ride his bike across Portugal alone, and even joined her best friend in a hike across Israel, where she floated in the Dead Sea without either my father or me.
She turns out to be a resilient and easy-going travel companion, though a bit directionally challenged.
So, it’s no surprise that she swallowed her worry and supported my decision to travel through Europe alone while I grieved. I pushed her patience to the limits when I returned from Europe with plans to travel to Southeast Asia, but after clearly stating her desire for me to stay at home, she bought me four pairs of walking shoes.
Time to come home (for a while, anyway)
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom since it was Mother’s Day and since I am coming home next week after nearly five months in Asia. My dad — who joined me for nearly two months — will come home with me, both of us returning in time for her birthday.
I am looking forward to sitting with my mom and a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle.
She will be glad to hear that, for the first time since June, I feel like myself again. I laugh more easily now. I see the world once more for what it can give rather than for what it can take away.
And I expect that she will sigh with affectionate exasperation before helping me pack a bag fit for hiking the Camino Trail, which I plan to do this summer.
It is, of course, nice to have the time.