Not long ago, my three sisters and I gathered around my mother’s bedside and held her hands as her life slowly slipped away. Here was a Nevada woman who had headed out in 1950, single and in search of adventure, to Vietnam, at the time a French colony. There she met my father and there began a lifetime of travel and cultural discovery that traversed the world, including stays in Nigeria, France, Algeria, Australia, and Ireland. Fittingly, that life ended in the city of Washington, D.C., the perfect resting place for a lifelong expatriate.
Days after saying a final goodbye to my mother, I headed out on a research trip to Morocco, accompanied by my very good friend and colleague, Sarah Erdman of National Geographic Expeditions. I admit I had misgivings about picking up and leaving at a time when a gaping hole had suddenly developed in my heart. Yet my instincts told me that it was the right thing to do. I soon discovered that, for me, travel proved to be the perfect antidote to grief.
There is no doubt that lingering in places that have sharp associations with the loved one you have lost can cause pain. I found that a change of scenery was beneficial—a clean slate that allowed me to build new memories: a busy souq in Marrakech, a donkey cart hauling Coca Cola, the rose-colored sand castles of Ait Benhaddou Kasbah, and the dappled night light of a lantern on a table strewn with rose petals…
Certainly, there is always time to return to places that evoke the memory of a lost family member, but immediately after the intense pain and haunting images of life’s end, there is comfort in seeing a new world.
I am not sure any of us truly rid ourselves of the child’s eternal question: “Why do we have to die?” I had answered this question many times in the month leading up to my mother’s departure. My daughter was persistent. So the discourse on the “cycle of life,” “you can’t have light without dark, life without death, sun without shade” had been rolled out and pondered at length. Observing life in a new and exotic location provides the perspective on humanity that comforts rather than disturbs, that validates and celebrates this cycle in a way that is reassuring.
Whether watching an old man performing ablutions at a mosque, a young father tickling his daughter in an olive shop, young boys playing a vigorous game of soccer in the alleys of a medina, or a white-bearded Berber heading to market on his mule—youth and old age commingle and enrich the world.
Nature anywhere can provide solace to broken hearts, to grieving souls. On this trip, we dismounted camels in a sea of dunes before the sun rose one day, and each of us claimed a dune-top for contemplation. Somehow the purity of this landscape brought me closer to my mother than I had been since her death. I felt a transcendence lift my spirits.
Finally, I believe travel is a life-affirming pursuit. It intensifies and enhances the most mundane. And to truly commemorate a loved one who has passed, one must live—and live passionately. Make the dead live anew, not just through old memories but through new ones you forge–moving forward.
To see my slideshow on Facebook of my tour through Morocco, CLICK HERE.