By the time I woke up on October 23rd, 2012 my mom was already dead.
I didn’t know until several hours later.
While at work, I got several missed calls from my dad along with text messages asking me to pick up my phone. Later, while driving to a meeting, I called him back. He told me I needed to pull over, but I was running late. Annoyed, I said “Dad, just tell me!”
My normally calm, easy-going father lost it, yelling: “MORGAN, PULL OVER!”
I knew it had to be serious. I pulled over into a small shopping center. Once I parked, I asked him what was wrong.
I asked again. He started crying. I had never heard my dad cry.
I started to panic, repeating: “No. No. No.” Even though he hadn’t told me yet, I knew it was bad. I finally choked out: “Dad… what is it?”
He said between sobs: “Your mom… she died. In a car accident… going to work.”
I became hysterical. I started screaming and throwing things, anything I could find in my car. I began convulsing. I went numb. It wasn’t true. I saw people walking nearby with smiles; how dare they! I watched cars drive by; didn’t they care?
My dad told me my mom was forever gone on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 1:55pm. That’s the day my world stopped spinning.
I tell this story because it was this event—the one that sent me into a catatonic and emotional state where I never knew which way was up—that was the impetus for my travels.
I started seeing a counselor after my mom’s death. During one particular session I told him I just wanted to pack up and leave, to disappear for a while.
He looked at me and said, “Well, what do you have to lose?”
I HAD NOTHING TO LOSE. SO I LEFT.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we will not find it.” But what if there is no beauty left in you? What happens when depression has left your body heavy, empty, and bereft of all joy? I went looking for something to call beautiful; something to believe in and to dream about, a reason to smile and to live. I left to make my world spin again.
I started in Iceland. I read a book several years ago called The Geography of Bliss, where the author goes around the world looking for “happy” countries. Since Iceland was at the top of his list, and I was very sad, I figured it was a good place to start. And as I sat in the freezing cold weather watching the Northern Lights dance in the sky, I started to also feel something dance inside me. Was that a little bit of happiness?
I traveled to Denmark to stay with a friend of my mom’s. We spent many hours talking about death and dying, what it does to the heart and how to keep going; little did we know she would lose her mother soon after. We traveled to the coast for Christmas and stayed in a tiny cottage along the tumultuous North Sea, where the wind was strong and the rain never stopped. The presence of nature and its ability to destroy was palpable. I watched the sea and thought about how it could swallow me instantly. I felt a deep sense of how short life is, how you never know which day will be your last.
I continued on to Paris, to stay with another of my mom’s friends. This person had experienced loss as well, as her dad died when she was 17. I opened up to her, telling her I didn’t know how to live again, how to find a normal life. She looked at me and with that great French sternness said: “Things will never be normal, but you’ll find a new normal. I know this. You will.” And I believed her.
With my newfound confidence for a future, I flew to Thailand, an area of the world where I had never been and knew nothing about. I woke up once during the flight and saw a huge mountain surrounded by stars and a low hanging moon. In that moment, my pain and heartache, while honest and real, felt so small next to the mountain and the rest of earth’s vast and endless creation.
It was scary stepping off the plane in Bangkok, into a world unknown. I likened it to my life without my mom: everything feels unknown. While there, I met a man who had also just lost his mother. Over a bowl of soup, we shared stories about our moms and the experience of death. We were so different, and yet, in a place so foreign, I felt so comfortable being in the presence of someone who knew what it was like to experience deep and sudden loss.
Every place I went, I felt a connection to my mom through the things I saw and the people I met. In many ways, I found what I was looking for: a place to mourn the loss of my mother, but also bring her with me; a cliff where I could just breathe and cry; a park bench where I imagined I was sitting with my mom; the most glorious sunrises and sunsets during which I could simply remember. Throughout those five months, I found the space to not be distracted by the heartache at home, but to instead feel my mom’s presence in my happiness abroad.
My trip offered me a lesson that can’t be taught, but must be learned: it’s important to seek out and fight for your smile. Now, when people ask me if they, too, should travel, I always answer with the same words my counselor once used: “Well, what do you have to lose?”