This is one of two philosophical posts I have been thinking about since we decided to take this trip. I could have written them as two of our first entries, but I decided to post them when our travel train had a full head of steam. After three countries and a little time in China, I think the boilers are on high. We might even be getting to the point where this has become a lifestyle and not a vacation.
During the months leading up to our trip, we talked to a lot of people about what we were doing. Their responses fell mostly into two categories. The first group of people thought, “How wonderful,” and joked about joining us in one capacity or another. The second group gave us mystified looks and bluntly asked, “Why?” In both groups, I am sure there is still a bit of wonderment, a “why this?” or “why now?” I will admit the timing could have been better, but it also could have been a whole lot worse. Anne and I have been talking about doing something like this for years. It was often one of those late night subjects and was usually spawned by the discovery of a family, individual, or couple who had decided to travel around the world. We would talk about it, mention places we wanted to go, and let it pass into the realm of dreams. However last year was a pivotal time in our lives. A confluence of occurrences drove home three very important lessons and pushed me to take this trip and take it now.
The first happened about a year ago, when good friends of ours lost their 16 year old son in a car crash. It was a tragic situation for those who knew and loved him, but it was especially hard on our friends, his parents. As they went through the grieving process, they both said things that touched me. They pointed out how fleeting this earthly existence is. Comfortingly, we share a belief in an afterlife where we will see our loved ones again, but that doesn’t take away the pain they suffered as future graduations, marriages, grandchildren, etc. disappeared in a single night. Their response was to glory in the time they had spent with their son and to fondly remember the many vacations they had taken together. The lesson to me was to enjoy the kids more while they’re still young. They grow up quickly and you can never get your time with them back.
The second epiphany happened while I was on a volunteer trip cleaning up New Orleans from the devastation left by Katrina. We spent a couple of weekends working in different areas of Mississippi and New Orleans, removing trees, gutting houses, and trying to lend a hand to those in need. However, it was a single moment on one of these trips that impacted me the most. We were in New Orleans about 10 weeks after the hurricane; some were getting their lives back together. Some restaurants were open, some people were back in their homes. We even stopped to get beignets at Cafe du Monde on the end of our first full day. On the second morning, we were driving into the city to gut a house in the 9th Ward. As we came around a bend on I-10, we could see the Superdome with all its damage on the right and to the left was an equally impressive structure. A large landfill had suddenly appeared just to the side of the city. I had driven the road a few years earlier and knew there had not been a landfill in that location. Then it hit me: that giant landfill with bulldozers running across it had been people’s possessions only 11 weeks before. Many of the people who were now putting their lives back together were doing it without their stuff. As gut wrenching as it was to add people’s wedding albums, family photo albums, and treasured wall hangings to the pile, I knew they would all be fine even in the absence of these keepsakes. For those whose families had lived through that terrifying day, they would pull things together and start over. I then tried to think of how I would fare in similar circumstances. I hope I would be fine without stuff, but my actions reflect a different prioritization. I spend a lot of time acquiring, using, and servicing possessions. My trip to New Orleans drove home to me a very important lesson: stuff is just stuff.
The third thing I learned was fairly common. It is a lesson I know comes with age, but one I had hoped would come decades down the road. In March I had to get my hip replaced. I knew this was coming and had postponed the surgery for a number of years. In preparation, I needed to get a physical to be cleared for surgery. I hadn’t been to a regular doctor for a number of years and did not have a primary physician in Georgia, our residence for almost four years. I found one in the Yellow Pages and went in for a quick check up. He did all the normal tests. My blood pressure was low, my cholesterol good, and my general sense of invincibility–enhanced with with bionic joints–remained in tact. A week after the physical, they called and said there was a problem with my blood. They suggested I go see a very specific hematologist. I quickly looked him up on line and noticed that he was not a hematologist but an oncologist. My mind raced down paths I did not want it to follow. After a week, I got an idea of what had scared my primary doctor. The oncologist decided to run a more thorough series of tests and told me to wait another week. I spent another seven days on the edge of my seat before the oncologist asked me to come back to his office–not the best sign. Fortunately, the only thing broken was the machinery that ran my first blood test. I was cancer and blood disease free. The oncologist was great and told me to try and avoid him for 40 or 50 years. I recognize this is such a minor scare that I hesitated to write about it, but it was the first hit of a one-two punch (the second being complications after surgery) that helped me realize life is both fragile and short. We need do the important things when we can.
In the wake of these three lessons, I felt forced to metaphorically jump out of the plane and spend a year dedicated exclusively to the family. The travel and service will only enhance the experience. Everyone will be out of their comfort zones. Each of us will have only each other. We will need to rely on and enjoy each other much more than we have at any time in our lives.