I’m distinctly uncomfortable. Caught between my own selfish desires and plans, and a reality that I don’t want to face. Confronted by a responsibility that I’ve imposed on myself; one which I should fulfill. Criticizing myself for looking for a compromise between the two options. And finally, going to her for guidance.
A few months ago, I explained my traveling journey to an acquaintance, and she asked if I was doing the “Year of Me.” I had no idea what that was, so she asked if I was having my selfish year. Use of the word “selfish” took me aback because of the negative connotation. I am naturally a giver, not a taker, and I endeavor to be kind. But she did not mean selfish in the undesirable, grabby way, but in the neutral or even positive way of focusing on the self as a means of exploration and improvement. As much as I introspect, this was a surprise to me. I never thought of my endeavor as selfish, but I guess she was right. I am focused on me, but with the caveat that such focus not be a detriment to others who are important to me. And I promised myself that my travels would not become a method of escaping my problems, but rather a way to confront them if needed.
Plus, it’s fun. I love planning and having adventures. I like meeting new people and challenging my ideas. And strangely, I like throwing myself into situations, learning about them (so I’m not foolish or unsafe), and seeing what happens. For example, years ago when I went to Las Vegas, I planned to take an aerial arts class. None of my friends were interested in joining me, so I took a cab alone to a strip-mall location outfitted with silks flowing from the ceiling, hanging loops, and swinging trapezes. They started the class by asking if anyone was afraid of heights. I came out of the fear closet and raised my hand. Yes, I have fear that cumulates until it is slightly paralyzing, but I like to test it every once in a while to see if it’s still there. I poke my internal bear. This is vastly preferable to poking actual bears. I did not climb as quite high or swing nearly as enthusiastically as the others in the class, but it was a success for me. Because I tried everything they threw at me. Once I got back to the strip, it took about 20-25 minutes of speed walking for the adrenaline to subside. Nothing wrong with a healthy coping mechanism!
In the past year, I’ve lived in North Houston, New Orleans, South Houston, Oklahoma City, a barrier island in Florida, and I was preparing to drive further than I’d ever driven. For adventure, experience, and all the reasons I outlined in my mission statement (The beginning, a/k/a happy birthday, baby). But then my fact pattern changed. It became feasible that I was escaping my problems, shirking my responsibilities, and creating the opportunity for regret to seep into my journey. On one side, I planned to take a 1-2 month trip up to the Pacific Northwest. Really, the trip of a lifetime. On the other hand, my desire to be with my family and my role as a supporting caretaker (not the sole or main caretaker) suddenly came into sharp focus:
What is important? Family. When is it important? Now. What is the main thing we want in hindsight when we lose a loved one? More time. What am I giving up by going on this trip, or any further trips? Time. What am I trading for time?
I don’t know how to answer that, except that whatever I would gain doesn’t involve her. When someone gets critically sick, they are the most important even if their need is not immediately apparent.
So, I told her that I was thinking of cancelling my trip. And she was annoyed. More than annoyed. Irked. And the more we talked, she was on the edge (and possibly proceeded over the edge) of being seriously peeved. We had several conversations about it, and this is the gist of all combined conversations. I wanted to communicate: that whatever money I had already spent on the trip didn’t matter and I’d eat the loss; that I wanted to help at home, and it was important to me to help; that I didn’t want to lose time with her; that it didn’t feel right to leave. On her side, she expressed: that she did not like when people did things just because she was sick; that she wanted me to live my life; that when I’m at home taking care of her, I don’t really live my life; that we’ve had such wonderful times together and I’m not losing that by leaving. That last part makes me verklempt every time. I asked my dad about it, and he agreed that I should go: that we all need breaks from the situation, so this is one of mine; that it was just the beginning of the process so it was the easiest part; that she wasn’t showing outward symptoms yet.
I’m super rational, so I measured and weighed the factors, talked to her even more, and made a decision. The turning point may have been when I was talking to one of her friends to get advice about hiking and certain national parks. When I conveyed why I was still going on the trip, that she had insisted, the friend paused then said that she understood: “I wouldn’t want you to miss it either.”
I planned the trip, loaded my car, and drove away. And, I couldn’t help but feel selfish. The bad kind of selfish. What does it say that I couldn’t even make the decision without her? I even went through the process of weighing the factors and permitted her opinion to trump the importance of time with her. Is there any question that I am prioritizing myself and my interests over another person?
I dealt with a lot of my feelings right after I heard the news. I was living in Florida, and the luxury of solitude meant that I didn’t have to hide my inner turmoil. But feelings develop, turn, twist and stab you like Inigo Montoya in a fight to kill the six-fingered man. It is a struggle to reconcile the hollow feeling I get when I think of my decision to leave, while at the same time immensely enjoying the journey. When I don’t think about it, I enjoy myself more. But when I think about it (which is often), I still feel guilty or selfish. But I will proceed, and be crazy and live my life and take risks and make mistakes. I will also be boring sometimes, because we all need balance. And I will hug my dog often.
I made my Dad promise to tell me if I needed to come home for any reason. I didn’t ask her for the same promise. Maybe because I know she doesn’t ever want to have to ask me. Maybe because I believe that she never will make that request, even if she needs it.
Over a month after I left, we received completely unexpected hope. We got good news. I didn’t even know that good news was possible at this point. Not a change in diagnosis, but a change in available treatment. It might open up years more with her. And less severe side effects than chemo!! It was a startling and unfeasibly welcome relief. I still haven’t fully processed it. Within about a day she told me that I should expand my trip and experience it as I’d originally planned – add a month in Portland. Because she is selfless.
I don’t know how my travel will unfold, but perhaps for a while I can shelve my guilt about being selfish. Perhaps I can forgive myself for leaving when (both in reality and in hindsight) she didn’t really need me, even though I felt distinctly absent. For a while, I don’t want to consider ideas of the self. Instead, I want to relish in feelings of gratitude. For time, for experience, for family.
– Your huckleberry