The year was 1999. My mother died in the dog days of summer. The weight coming down was crushing. That grief is so hard to explain unless you’ve been in it.
We didn’t have a perfect relationship. Mom came up with a world of baggage on her shoulders, but insecurities and other issues aside, our relationship became one I looked forward to growing with as adulthood progressed.
But I recall Thanksgiving dinner in 1998, looking at Mom sideways in the tungsten light and thinking, “This will be her last Thanksgiving.” I shook that out of my head, but it haunted me, despite such fears being baseless – she wasn’t ill, as far as we knew.
When the cancer diagnosis came four months later, I had a sickening thought I’d conjured it from some dark place that made thoughts real.
She’d be dead six months later.
Enter that crushing weight of guilt, anger, and that whole cloud of morbidity that comes from losing the most formative relationship of a young woman’s life weeks before my 26th birthday.
My dad tried to be there for me, but he was a marshmallow and struggled to communicate when his heart was broken.
As things got bleaker, I wanted to run. Enter the first time travel truly compelled me.
The year before, I’d visited a British Columbia town called Nelson, and it beckoned me to return. I couldn’t explain the pull. But with grief devastating me, Dad suggested I take his car and get away for a few days.
So, I did.
Road Trip Country
Southern British Columbia is the kinda place cars are made for. Majestic pines, daunting mountain peaks, verdant greens and dark earth as far as you can see. Rushing rivers, glacial falls. When you need to get lost and remember your smallness as the bigness of grief and tragedy are drowning you, it’s time for a road trip through wilderness.
With Mom’s death came other stresses too. I’d have just five weeks to find a new apartment after I got back to Vancouver. With her dead, I couldn’t afford the home. My life was to start over in ways I couldn’t imagine.
Even little stresses loomed.
We had a wooden floor lamp, found on Dad’s childhood property when we visited Prince Edward Island in the summer of 1981. My mother had re-wired it years before, and when my uncle went away for an extended departure, he loaned her his giant stained-glass lampshade to dress it. Upon her death, he asked for it back.
It’s bizarre what we deem important when a loved one passes. Somehow this lampshade became my driving force. I needed one, because that lamp became this symbol of my past, my father’s youth, my mother’s skills, my family’s history, and a memory of the first time travel ever really delighted and surprised me – experiencing the never-fading summertime bliss of PEI as an eight-year-old kid.
So, when Dad said, “Get out of town,” Nelson pulled me with a gravitational force I’ve seldom felt since.
Seeing the Light
On my second morning in town, I did what Mom and I always loved; I visited some second-hand furnishings shops.
And there, in the corner, was a stained-glass lampshade. Very ‘70s style, the colors were rose, blue, and yellow. It reminded me of the crazy-ass big floral wallpaper we had in our dining room when I was a kid, which still leaves me stunned that Mom never dabbled in drugs.
I asked the shop owner its price; $65. At that time, I was a bookseller taking home $555 every two weeks, so, a lot of dough for a girl in mourning. She said she’d hold it a couple days while I thought about it.
Somehow, we got to talking and I learned she used to live literally right above the bookstore I now worked in. Life’s weird, man. It connected us.
A similar pull made her bail on the big city, start this little shop and a whole new life. I don’t know how we got from point “A” to point “B,” but soon I told her about my mother’s recent death. She handed me some tissue, patted my hand and said I’d come to the right place.
Nelson, she told me, was the Valley of the Lost Souls, according to local native beliefs. The First Nations around there held that the Kootenay River carving through their alpine valley was sacred. On her banks, one could stand and be healed. The idea went that anyone broken in body, mind, or spirit could go down to the river and be made whole again by those who’d come before them. And when they left, they’d also leave some fragment of their soul behind to speed the healing for those yet to arrive.
My relief from grief would be a long time coming yet, and maybe it’s still not come, even 20 years later, but something about that place made its load easier to bear.
I think about that often as I travel. Leaving a piece of me behind for those yet to come.
Recently, I saw a documentary about manufacturing faith and the dubious nature of religion, and I’ve been thinking about these things a lot. I was raised profoundly Catholic, so I have struggled on my travels in respect for those profoundly faithful in places like Croatia and Italy, or faithful of a different sort in places like Thailand, where every home has a spirit house.
I don’t believe in gods, per se. I sure don’t buy the infallibility of faith and leaders, of religion and myth. I don’t believe in a god overseeing everything and deciding, this week, these people die at the hands of a quake or a volcano or dysentery or Ebola.
I believe in the beautiful chaos of happenstance and time, of energy and inexplicability.
I’ve been around now long enough to hear stories and see things most don’t.
I remember eerie feelings I’d had some nights on the Mekong River, where locals believe dead climb out nightly to wander the countryside, which is why riverside real estate wasn’t coveted. I remember hearing bizarre sounds I couldn’t explain on the teak house roof, then looking the next day and realizing, no, it wasn’t branches thumping the roof; no trees were near the building. I remember the landlord Richard telling me of the dark days of the Vietnamese War with its illegal campaigns through Laos (close enough to reach by 15 minutes’ swimming across the Mekong) and nearby Cambodia, when it’d be normal to see the bodies of 12 or more people floating downriver daily.
I can tell you the feeling of sheer evil that coursed through me when alone in a rural 1,000-year-old Croatian castle’s interior windowless room, and how this fat girl ran from that castle faster than she’s ever ran before.
I can share about the feeling of breathless awe I still get washing over me when I close my eyes to remember standing on the cliff of Cabo da Roca, Portugal, staring out at the ocean that brought fear and curiosity to life for those crazy explorers who set sail into the unknown over five centuries ago.
I’ve been in cemeteries on All Soul’s Day as crying and exuberant faithful commemorate their dead. I know well the power that comes from collective remembrance.
I’ve walked through a night-fallen square as townsfolk laid wreaths to honour those who’d died in Bubonic Plague outbreaks over 300 years before.
In the Yukon, I’ve sat on a cliff watching a midnight sun’s light move slowly over lodgepole pines on the summer solstice, feeling more awe about my place in the world than any one person deserves to feel.
I have stood on the very spot in Sarajevo where the first World War began, causing the deaths of about 20 million people in a half decade, and in the same town, where a cello player spent 22 nights playing concerts to honour the dead in first mass bombing in the Bosnian war.
Standing Before Awe
Mystery and faith, awe and inspiration aren’t merely the domain of religion. They also belong to travellers who meander through countries and cultures, agog at the splendour of everything that unites and divides us.
This is a spell-binding world we’re in and there’s much to love and enjoy, wherever we are. But there are things that cannot be explained, and I think the certitude and convenience of religion is for people trying to carve the incomprehensible into bite-size bits for easy consumption.
But this traveller has no interest in those bite-sized convenience beliefs. Yet I’m more awed and less grounded in what I think, understand, or perceive about the world than I’ve ever been.
And I’m okay with that.
In the 20 years since my mother’s death, I’ve tried on all kinds of lives in all kinds of places. Mom would’ve loved the woman I’ve become, the choices I’ve made and the chances I’ve taken. She’d be proud to know I’ve sported her DNA around the globe while toting her passport too, every step of the way.
It’s not often I feel my parents are with me. I wish I did. But, I don’t. And grief has gone nowhere. I wrote once that grief becomes part of who we are, a loss that never goes away – its edges just soften and fray. It’s there, constantly, in the back of my mind and in the depths of who I am, like my social insurance number or my shadow.
Two years ago, here in Albania, I saw an old man staring at me. I looked him in the eye. His gaze never broke. Eventually, I smiled, nodded deferentially. In lines etched in his face and those weary, sunken eyes, I saw an 80-year lifetime including a World War, the railroading of a king, the ascent of a dictator whose paranoia and delusions would lead to tens of thousands of bunkers constructed in his lifetime, while his citizens got by on crumbs and faith. I saw the fall of that dictator amid the desperate clutches of failing communism, the collapse of their system, an economy’s bungling, a bitter civil war, then the strains of adopting capitalism, and the now-widening gaps between his troubled generation and today’s rising new rich.
Makes me wonder what will be seen in my eyes in four decades, when I stare people down with that earned defiance of long-lived elders.
As Walt Whitman wrote, we each contain multitudes.
Perhaps it’s in discarded shards of those multitudes that some small part of us remains to heal those coming after us, even as we travel.
Wherever We Go, There We Are
While I know without any doubt that I’m more self-aware than I’d ever dreamed I’d be, I’ve also tested my strengths and challenged my preconceptions about life.
I’m left with more questions than ever.
And the more I’ve seen, the more I feel religion will never again figure in my life. The world’s more magical, mystical, beautiful than you could possibly know. There is no “most beautiful place on earth.”
Nowhere is more sacred, more inspiring than elsewhere.
It’s all about how much you’re able to be here, or there, now.
That, I guess, is partly the gift of mourning and loss. They’re not here. They can’t be. But we are. We have this spell-binding world around us, and we can choose to be here in the moment, or not. And when you are truly, truly here, there, or any other place, I promise you, that sense of presence worms its way inside you to heal you.
It turns out, it’s not just the banks of the Kootenay River that’s the Valley of the Lost Souls, where the broken become whole. It’s anywhere you close your eyes and give in to the moment. To feel the sun, enjoy the breeze, and forget all the stupidity around you.
You are small, you are nothing.
Yet you are large, and you contain multitudes.
All these contradictions are true.
Remembering Where I’ve Been, Where I Am
I guess, in the end, that’s the gift I’ve gotten in 3.5 years of travel. I know my insignificance, but also my infinite self. I’ve shed parts of myself through 25 countries that I hope somehow found their way into others who needed be become grounded, made whole.
And going forward, I’ll take with me the calm of the Moroccan man in his djellaba, sitting on the cliff and absorbing that ocean off Taghazout the same way I have, hundreds of times on the other side of the world, in my home province. I’ll recall the weary fatigue of the old nonnas tottering home with produce from Italian markets, reminding me how easy I have life. I’ll cherish memories of old toothless Thai men napping in hammocks under mango trees in the afternoon, who taught me the everything of doing nothing. I’ll carry with me the camaraderie of street-corner connecting, in which Mediterranean men chat and sip espresso, spreading the day’s gossip.
For the rest of my life, my flashbacks day-to-day will be tempered by 1,300 days spent travelling the world at my current age; young enough to make it happen but old enough to always, always remember how blessed I am to have done this.
I still don’t know where my earth-bound journey will end. You don’t know about post-life journeys either, no matter what mythologies you buy.
We just don’t know.
Maybe my parents followed in my footsteps somehow, maybe they didn’t. Either way, I’m blessed to reach the end of my journey knowing how much wiser I am about the world, but also appreciating how mystified I remain by these questions I’ll never answer.
And that’s the gift.
That’s what we need to hold on to – how wonderful it is to be powerless to know anything beyond what’s here, today, in this moment.
I think, in the end, that’s what helps us die with no regrets. Knowing that, while we were here, we were here.