I wasn’t even two weeks in to my year-long career break trip when the news came through my Facebook feed with little warning: a friend from law school had passed away suddenly. He was a year behind me and while we were friends in school, we had lost touch since graduation, only reconnecting through Facebook. Just weeks before, when I was home in Minnesota before leaving on my trip, he had liked one of my status updates. And then, as I was alone in my room in a bed and breakfast on the island of Saaremaa in Estonia, I learned that he was dead.
A few months later, it happened again. This time, a friend from law school and his wife, Sara, were in a car accident. Chris was severely injured, but survived. Sara didn’t make it.
Then, a couple months ago, a note from someone I don’t know at all to a high school friend popped up on my Facebook feed, ominously implying something had happened to her. Curious and full of dread, I headed over to her Facebook page. I hadn’t seen Missy since we played volleyball together in high school 20 years ago, but I had kept up with her through Facebook and, most recently, followed her successful battle with breast cancer. At the end of last year, she had joyfully posted that she beat it – she was cancer-free.
So in the seconds it took for her Facebook page to load, my mind was racing, wondering how on earth her prognosis could have changed so quickly. I soon got my answer – Missy wasn’t killed by breast cancer. No, she was killed in a car accident near her home in Ohio.
Life is cruel.
Most recently, and again via Facebook (what would I do without Mark Zuckerberg?), I got a message from a sorority sister with a link to another sister’s obituary. I had last seen Jan back in 2008, watching an Iowa football game. She passed away in April at the age of 40 with no warning.
On my 37th birthday, I published a post listing 14 things I wanted to do before I turn 40. A reader commented on it, asking why I was in such a hurry. I have my whole life ahead of me, why do I feel the need to rush? That comment has stayed with me and I think about it often.
Greg and Sara and Missy and Jan are why.
You can say all you want that you’ll travel later, that you’ll pursue whatever dream it is that you have later – when you have saved enough money or after the kids are grown or after you’ve lost those 10 pounds.
But later might never come. No one likes to think that way, but it’s true. My mom once told me that my grandfather, a professor of European history, had planned to travel to Europe when he retired. But my grandmother passed away from cancer far too young (so young I have no memories of her) and he never ended up going.
Travel was always my dream. As a child, I spent hours spinning my globe, making list after list of every country in the world, every sea, every river. Although I will likely visit my 50th country this year, I waited a long time to pursue this dream. I never studied abroad in college or law school – I never even left the country, aside from a high school mission trip to Mexico, until I had finished law school at age 25. I didn’t necessarily get discouraged by others from traveling, but I also didn’t have anyone pushing me forward. As I worked to put myself through college, taking a summer or semester off to spend overseas just didn’t seem feasible and no one tried to convince me otherwise.
And now even though I have been back from my career break trip for almost three years, travel consumes me. I love dreaming of where I will go next, researching destinations and planning new trips. When I travel is when I truly feel alive. If money and time were no obstacles, I would travel as much as possible.
At the same time, fulfilling my dream of travel has come at a cost. I pretty much stopped dating for two years because I didn’t want to meet a guy who might derail me from taking my career break to travel, but then I met someone anyway and sometimes wonder if it could have worked if I hadn’t left. And while I never would have met the guys I did on the road if I had stayed home, I couldn’t help but speculate where things could have gone if we had met under different circumstances.
Friendships have suffered and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to even begin repairing them. I lost friends who didn’t understand or support my desire to go (admittedly not “true” friends to begin with) and didn’t try hard enough to maintain bonds with those who supported me despite not understanding. Although I feel like I did try – a lot. But at some point, when I felt like the effort wasn’t reciprocated, I just gave up. And at some point, it became easier to just keep putting up walls rather than let anyone back in – even though I hoped deep down that someone would try to break through those walls. While I have made plenty of new friends over the last few years (most of whom share my passion for travel), there’s something about someone knowing you for decades that just can’t be replaced. I miss those friends.
I don’t want to give up my travel dreams. I want to run a marathon on every continent and finally get to Kamchatka and Nagorno-Karabakh and the Pamirs and visit 100 countries or even more. Life is too short not to try to do so now while I can. But I also need to find a better balance and devote more time when I am home to repairing friendships and building new relationships and watching my niece and nephews grow up. Because life is also too short to not be surrounded by people you love and care about, and who love and care about you.