My grandmother’s cancer came back when I was living in Australia. I can’t remember exactly when we knew—there was some chest pain, some circulation issues—but my mom assured me there was no reason to come home just yet. But Mimi asked why I couldn’t just return home and marry my high school best friend; what was in Australia that wasn’t in California?
I mailed home Australian black licorice (her favorite) and wrote emails, sent postcards, called her whenever I had good news. Later, I quit my job in Australia and turned down sponsorship to gallivant around Asia: to do yoga every day in Bali, get certified to scuba dive in Gili Trawagan, eat from street carts in Thailand, hop on the back of a motorcycle to cross the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I struggled to reconcile this image of a happy-go-lucky “solo female traveler” with the guilt I felt for not being at home — until I couldn’t. And I booked a ticket home.
I spent two months at home, driving Mimi to transfusions and the grocery store and to get her hair curled every Saturday. Cancer is hard — it’s terrible on the person who has it, and it’s terrible for the people who love them. I felt guilty for not being more of a help to my mom, and for wanting to live my own life (one in which I thrived on travel, on adventure, on being very, very far away). Morphine treatments started; we realized there was nothing more we could do. I kissed her goodnight one evening without waking her to say goodbye. I drove out to New York City. I got a job offer. There was a break before my start date; I booked a ticket to South America to see a friend who was working on a sailboat.
“I spent those hours in the hammock staring out to sea, in a haze of reflection and vacancy and sadness tinged with relief.”
The day before we were set to sail the San Blas islands — five days without cell phone service or Internet coverage — I noticed a voicemail. My grandmother had died peacefully in her sleep. There wouldn’t be a service.
I spent the next five days on a sailboat in the Caribbean, crossing from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. My friend and I were the only girls amongst 10 rowdy Australian boys. There was a lot of beer drinking, a lot of rope swinging, a lot of laughter. It was one of those perfect vacations where you can’t hardly believe it’s happening to you: stunning sunsets, islands dotted with palm trees and not much else, nothing to do and no one who can reach you. We ate lobster that had been caught that morning, sliced vegetables on the deck of the boat, fell asleep to the motion of the waves.
I felt guilty for not going home: surely, just as much as I needed my grandmother, my mother needed me. I spent those hours in the hammock staring out to sea, in a haze of reflection and vacancy and sadness tinged with relief. It was over, and she was at peace.
My grandmother grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and rarely left it. She wanted my mother to be educated, to see the world—and my mom was, and did. As much as Mimi wanted me home, she was also proud that I took advantage of the opportunities that she didn’t have. She read my blog faithfully; showed my photos to her friends. She proudly told our small-town bank teller and grocery clerk where exactly in the world I was that week.
“That week on the ocean healed me in a way that I don’t think going home would have.”
I believe that salt water is the cure for everything, whether it be in the form of sweat, tears or the sea. That week on the ocean healed me in a way that I don’t think going home would have. I honored my grandmother’s memory every time I watched the sun rise and set over the sea—she always adored dipping her toes in the ocean. Instead of dwelling on sadness, I was able to experience being fully alive: the thrill of jumping into the water, the taste of fresh lobster and rich butter. It was a selfish choice, but a choice that reflected the way Mimi and my mom often encouraged me to be: independent, unafraid, daring to be happy despite the circumstances.
If she had been alive, I think she would have told me to go on the trip and have a drink for her—and so I did. And I think that looking back on that trip with happiness and without regrets honors her memory and speaks to the kind of woman she helped raise.
This piece was originally published on January 23, 2014.