I wrote a dear friend in Gig Harbor, Washington this week to let him and his wife know that we’ve postponed our plans to visit them this month. My husband, now an official retiree as of this past Tuesday, has busily turned his attention to the myriad of small household repairs that have been, like our trip, postponed dozens of times. Not only that, but we realized that after our trip to Toronto last month, we were tired of travel. With our impending trip to Japan in November, neither of us was eager to step on an airplane again quite so soon. “I’m really tired of being a tourist,” I complained. “Besides, air travel just isn’t any fun anymore.” But neither did I welcome a long road trip. We’d taken one to Sedona and Flagstaff at the beginning of summer, and as pleasant as it was, we were both happy to return home and sleep in our own beds.
After leaving my small Northern California town for The Netherlands as a high school exchange student, I was never content to stay put for very long. I dreamed of travel, the excitement of visiting far-away places, of flying over the oceans to visit places I’d only read about. When my first husband decided to go to graduate school in Ottawa, Canada, I never hesitated. It was an adventure, and flying back to California seemed simple enough: buy a ticket, pack my bags, board the airplane and fly across the country. When reality set in: loneliness, winters that seemed to last forever, and the cost of travel on our meager income, the adventure began to sour.
Years later, I became a corporate executive, living in New York City. Exciting at first, my eagerness for travel diminished greatly in the years I found myself flying back and forth between coasts and New York and Europe several times a month. I grew weary of living out of suitcases, eating airline meals, and contending with what seemed to be a state of constant jet-lag. Still, we spent our vacations traveling overseas: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, something we haven’t done for the past five years. Not only are our trips now relegated to see our daughters and grandchildren (living in Toronto and Okinawa), despite our technological advances, travel is more difficult, crowded, expensive, and frankly, nerve-racking, which no doubt accounts for the endless lists of travel tips and guidebooks.
As someone who routinely travels back and forth between Southern and Northern California and has a defibrillator implanted in her chest, I am well acquainted with the TSA security checkpoint processes. Even the TSA offers travel tips on their website to make your security screening process more “checkpoint friendly,” including tips such as how to dress and how to pack. Despite the travel tips and advice travel is rarely a “no hassle” process, no matter what airline I might be flying.
Airplane travels aside, we each encounter many different journeys during our lives. I think back to some of mine, and how much I wish I’d had a few roadmaps for events like single parenting, widowhood, illness or even this new journey called “retirement.” I am now preparing to lead two “Writing Through Cancer” programs in less than two weeks, and I think of the men and women who’ve attended. Part of the strength of the community that forms isn’t just about writing together, but about helping one another navigate through the cancer experience. And although I am the group “leader,” the men and women who are living with cancer are teachers to me: on illness, approaching death, or simply, living with gratitude.
In a discussion of the use of metaphors in cancer, authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson discuss the “journey” metaphor as one that encompasses possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.…the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)
Like anything, google “retirement” or “cancer,” and you’ll find dozens of sites with advice and tips. All good, and yet, the amount of information can sometimes be overwhelming. Any of the sites may be helpful for the newly diagnosed, the newly retired, or the first-time you travel to a foreign country. But we need the support—and advice—of friends and colleagues who’ve experienced these different journeys. I have cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me in life. They are invaluable resources to help us prepare and guide us through this unknown territory.
This week, extend the travel metaphor into your life. Here are some questions to consider as you write:
- What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or elderhood? Job loss? Retirement?
- How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks to the “new normal” of life and rediscover how to live fully?
- What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced traveler?
- What is the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is just beginning their own journey defined by illness, loss, or new life stage?
- What has been the single most important piece of advice someone gave you? Why?
…a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds…
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
(From “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)
(also posted at: www.writingthroughcancer.com by sharon bray)