Five years ago yesterday night, I missed the worst phone call of my life.
It was a few weeks before my spring freshman year finals at Ohio State, and I was napping off the stress of the day after classes around 8 pm. Typically for a modern 19-year-old college student, I slept with my phone, usually under my pillow. That day, it rang.
I checked it blearily. It was my dad. He didn’t usually call me to chat—we love each other, but he wasn’t my custodial parent growing up, and we didn’t generally have day-to-day contact. I silenced the phone. I started to go back to sleep.
The phone lapsed into silence. Then it started to vibrate again. I checked the display; it was my dad. It was the only time in my life that I ever heard him call a second time. I knew something was wrong, and it was. Tears were in his voice when he said my name as I picked up: “Katie?” He was calling to tell me that my mom had died.
I didn’t think of my mom as sick, because she worked very hard to make sure I didn’t think of her that way. She had her first heart attack when I was 11. She drove herself to the hospital. I stayed with a friend while they kept her in a hospital bed; for me it was like an extended sleepover.
She had two more heart attacks over the next 8 years. She suffered from angina, took pills to control her heart functions, and had a stent put in to clear her arteries. She did change her diet, and mostly (not completely) quit smoking. But she kept working, and I think I saw these procedures and changes as surgeries. Like an appendectomy or a colonoscopy. You have them happen to you and then they’re over. My mom encouraged this view. She didn’t want her kids to see her in pain.
She showed me her will once, in the top drawer of her dresser. The dresser had been mine when I was younger. She was a single parent with no college education. We rarely bought new things. She even more rarely bought new things for herself. “I don’t want to talk about this, Mom,” I said when I saw her will. It was just a Word document with “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT” typed up at the top. Maybe it was those caps I found scary. But mostly, I was irritated. I didn’t think it was important to think about what would happen if she died.
My 17-year-old brother tried to wake my mom up when she wasn’t up by the time she needed to be at work. She was frequently a late sleeper. She died of heart failure in the night. She didn’t wake up. I felt deeply guilty about being at college during this time. I’m the older sibling. It should have been me. I should have had to find my mother’s body.
I have noticed in my life that a lot of the best things that have happened to me have also been the worst things. Maybe we need that duality to appreciate what life is like. In coping with my mom’s death, I have found a lot of peace. I found everything comforting for a while. Doing new things was easy. What could happen to me now? It wouldn’t be harder. It wouldn’t hurt worse.
And I have been able to help others. A couple months ago, I was in my apartment when I heard sobbing from the hallway. Full-out, hard sobbing. My boyfriend and I looked at each other, not sure what to do. Finally, I went into the hallway. A drunk girl was slumped over near the wall, bloody knees from some earlier incident I never found out, sobbing because her best friend had recently died in a car accident. I talked to her for an hour about my life, about losing someone, about if it got easier and why. She hugged me as she got to her feet. “I’m really glad I met you,” she said weakly, wiping mascara tracks from her eyes. “I don’t know how you’re so strong.”
This post isn’t about traveling… and it also is. I don’t think I would have had the strength to pursue what I love about travel if my life hadn’t happened in the way in this order. The good and the bad. I wish she had been alive when I received my passport. I wish I could have a do-over for the first few times I left the country. I squandered so much of it without knowing. I know what I could’ve done differently, but I don’t know how.
But here I am now.
Last week, I returned from Fajardo, Puerto Rico. I went alone. I stayed in a hostel and I made new friends. My life is already better than my mom ever could have imagined for me. And that’s because I already know that I can survive anything.
Fajardo is a smallish town on the east coast of Puerto Rico. From it, you can pay $2.50 to take a ferry to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which is pretty awesome. It’s a typical beach town where you can drink overpriced drinks on the strip where you rent snorkels and get a whole (and delicious) chicken for $8 if you’re willing to go into the sketchy street tent that clearly doesn’t meet health code standards.
I got very sunburned here.
Then I took a kayak tour of Fajardo’s bioluminescent bay. Two hours of sunset kayaking through mangrove trees and into a great open space. The bioluminescence itself wasn’t quite as expected, and I certainly couldn’t have gotten a picture of it (it only happens in complete darkness when something moves in the water, and looks like the object is covered in fizzing alka-seltzer tablets mixed with sparkles), but the kayaking? The kayaking was worth it.