Birth, Death & The Journeys In Between

On Monday, May 7th, my father would have celebrated his 78th birthday. My husband and I had just returned from our brief but blissful babymoon on Clearwater Beach, and the juxtaposition of those two events got me thinking about birth and death and more importantly, the substance that comes between, the sum total of the moments we live and the places those moments take us. I got to thinking about travel – particularly about my father’s love of travelling and how it has influenced my relationship to exploration and adventure.

A close family friend of ours likes to share a piece of wisdom his grandfather passed on to him. You may have heard it before, but it’s worth the repeating. So the friend in question, David, was a young man visiting a cemetery with his grandfather. Grandpa, being wise as grandfathers are, knelt down and pointed to the inscription on the headstone. “What do you see here, son?” he asked.

David squinted at the stone and repeated back to his grandfather, “I see two dates. His birthday, and the day he died.”

“And between them?” his grandpa pressed.

After studying the inscription again for a few moments, David finally shrugged and replied, “Just a dash.”

His grandfather, a tall, proud man, stood and beamed at the young man. “Exactly, son. Everything we are – everything we’ve ever done, anyone we’ve ever loved, all the things we’ve seen – every single hope, dream, fear and breath – it’s all right there. That’s all we are, boy. The dash in between. That’s the time you get – just a tiny, brief length to live the best life you can, so you gotta know how to make your dash count.”

Now there are poems and songs and eulogies the world over that express this idea, but I always love listening to David tell the story. He has a flair for storytelling like many southerners, but it’s the wet glaze over his eyes, the extra swallow or two while he remembers his grandfather, that makes his telling of that tale come alive.

My dad was that kind of storyteller too. He was born near Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in 1940. As a young man, he taught English in Sierra Leone before moving to the United States to study at Bowling Green State University. Like most children, I struggled to imagine my father’s life before me, to visualize the part of his dash that came before I existed. Luckily for me, I was blessed with a father gifted in spinning a good yarn. He told stories of ghosts stealing away souls in the night, of soothsayers predicting his future in deserted bars, and of his ancestral home, Old Castle – how the vanity that built it also cursed it in equal measure. In my mind’s eye, his childhood was full of restless spirits and dense jungles – of everything exotic – elephants and mango trees and sprawling beaches. I spent hours at his side, enthralled by stories about chasing cobras from his bedsheets and getting mistaken for a diamond smuggler in Beirut. And my father – he shared with me the dreams of his youth: curiosity about the taste of strawberries, dreams of visiting the Wild American West spun up by cowboy movies and John Wayne, plans for buying a cottage in Ireland. I’ve enjoyed a good deal of travel with my mother, yes, but in her heart, she’s generally content to explore the areas closest to home. My father was different. He’d been bitten by the travel bug as a young man, and he’d fed himself a steady diet of stories to nourish that interest.

Dad and Granny, 1941
Dad (second from the left) and friends in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Dad, middle boy, with his siblings and parents.

The same restless need to see everything and go everywhere infected me as well. Like my dad, I wanted to fill up my dash with as many sights and sounds and tastes as I could. There’s a theory that wanderlust is a genetic trait, that some of us are driven to venture out, to push our boundaries in service of exploration. Scientists posit that this trait accounts for humanity’s spread across continents and oceans, the only organism to inhibit every major land mass on this planet. I believe this theory, because the same energy that drove my dad also drives me. I daydream about travel. My plan trips in my head during meetings and conference calls. And most of all, I immerse myself in stories that drive me to move forward, to see more of the wide world.

Dad didn’t just dream of visiting places, he created his own stories that fed his interests. In Ireland, I remember traipsing from pub to pub in search of a place where Irish locals lifted their pints and sang traditional songs (spoiler alert: we found that pub somewhere in Northern Ireland). Like my father, I too tell myself stories about the places I want to visit, setting scenes in my mind.

Perhaps the storytelling gene and the wanderlust gene travel hand in hand, the same momentum that propels us forward also compelling us to share accounts of places both familiar and strange. Or maybe I just want to believe I’m born to go places and write things. Either way, it’s a link I share with my father – one I hope I can pass on to my son.

I love to travel the same way Dad did – planning well in advance, researching areas of interest and history, and enjoying luxury as much as possible. We were never ones to rough it, Dad and I. Workaholics that traded long hours for the financial means to pamper ourselves, we didn’t go on camping trips, but we did go on many a shopping spree together.

Because of my father, I’ve had a great many opportunities to venture out into the wide world. I took my first international trip  – and my first airplane ride – to the Bahamas when I was six. I vividly remember that our hotel’s garden was full of snails. I collected their molted shells along with the expected cockles, angel wings, and conch fragments. We came home with fistfuls of snail shells, a sand dollar, and a prize piece of brain coral that’s now displayed in my living room alongside all my best objets d’art.

Dad and I in the Bahamas, 1988

During long road trips to visit family, I’d trade seats with my mom midway through the journey and ride shotgun with dad. We’d sing along with his favorite tapes – ABBA and Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole – as we wound our way through the Smoky Mountains on the long trek from South Carolina to Ohio. Our traditions ran a different course from my best friend, Samira, whose mother packed intricate lunches to be enjoyed along the way (check out her excellent post about her travel traditions – and the need to sometimes break with those traditions – here). Instead of loading meticulously made snacks, we hit the road with little more than a travel mug of coffee for dad. We’d rise well before the sun – sometimes as early as 3:00 AM – in order to get ahead of traffic. I’d sleep sprawled across the backseat until the sun rose, and then it would be time for a brief stop at McDonald’s for sausage, egg and cheese biscuits that inevitably reduced themselves into buttered crumbles I’d pluck from my shirt for the remainder of the ride. Kentucky Fried Chicken was the usual lunch stop. Through some feat of dexterity I still cannot replicate, my father would tidily eat crispy chicken thighs while pointing out sites along the drive – glimpses of waterfalls, vintage cars, the occasional deer.

When I was nine, Dad asked me where I’d like to go during summer vacation. This was the season of my cetacean obsession, and so my parents and I ended up whale watching in Cape Cod as a result. I stroked the hard shells of horseshoe crabs along the cape, tried clam chowder for the first time, and sighted a spyhopping humpback alongside my father.

Off the coast of Cape Cod, 1991 – a few moments after spotting our first whale. This godawful hideous picture of me was one of my dad’s favorites because it “reminded him of a special time with his daughter.”

There were many more adventures over the years that followed. In Maui, where the air smelled of plumeria, my dad ate Korean food for the first time, and I strung my own leis from tuberose and orchids. In London, Dad and I shopped on Oxford street for hours and hours while Mom relaxed at the hotel, and in Scotland, I tried my first shot of whiskey at a distillery and learned that I really, really hate Scotch (this still holds true, try as I might to cultivate a taste for it). Switzerland was where Dad and I gorged on raclette and discovered Alpine water’s impossible turquoise hue. We drank Guinness in Dublin and marveled at the Redwoods outside of San Francisco. In Memphis, we swam in a guitar-shaped pool, and a few years later, we got stuck in a crowded elevator at the Hoover Dam with an Elvis impersonator. We ate rambutan from street stalls while searching for bespoke suits and dresses in Kuala Lumpur. Much later in life, inside a little coffee shop in Amsterdam, I shared a joint with my husband, my mom and my dad. On that same jaunt across Europe, I helped Dad cope with the reality that Vienna was nothing like the Austrian paradise that lived in his mind, and we got pedicures together in Budapest as a consolation to lost dreams (what my dad really was hoping for probably exists in Salzburg, but that’s a story for another day).

In Carmel-by-the-Sea, 2002
Dad in Ireland, 2003
In Amsterdam, 2012
With my parents in Zaanse Schans, 2012
Cruising the Danube through Budapest, 2012
At a cafe in Gruyere, 2003
Atop the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, 1999
Gstaad, 2003
In Edinburgh, 1994
Ireland, 2003

The adventures we both cherished most, though, were the trips we took to Sri Lanka together. I was lucky enough to visit Sri Lanka four different times with my parents – in 1999, 2001, 2009, and 2015 – and as the daughter of an immigrant, I can’t stress enough how much it meant to visit the country where my dad grew up. We had our Sri Lankan traditions together – lazing around the pool and watching the monkeys play at Heritance Kandalama, enjoying a glass of arrack and deviled cashews in Colombo, taking afternoon tea with “short eats” in Nuwara Eliya where the air itself smells of tea leaves.

At the bar in Colombo, 2009
Baby monkey’s playing on our balcony, 2009
Dad in hotel hallway with monkey, 2009
Poolside lounge in Kandalama, 2009
At a rest house near Kandy, 2009
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Dad enjoying young King Coconut, 1999
Dad and I in Nuwara Eliya, 1999
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With our big travel group, Colombo, 2001
At Gal Vihara, 2001
Mama and baby monkey, Heritance Kandalama, 2015
The church my dad attended as a boy – Jaffna, 2015

During our last trip to Sri Lanka, we celebrated my father’s 75th birthday in a colonial bungalow in the tea country that my father rented for our party of family and friends. We ate his favorite foods and lounged in the gardens. Looking back on those days, I remember how happy he was at the bungalow, sipping Lion Lager with his childhood best friend as a cool breeze slinked through the open doors.

Dad with his Lion Lager, 2015
The entryway to our bungalow
The bungalow gardens
Our home away from home in Nuwara ELiya
A really epic tree, Nuwara Eliya
Dad opening his birthday cards at breakfast
Dad’s birthday posse
Smiles from the birthday boy


The gardens around our bungalow
A view from inside the bungalow

There’s a running joke in my family about how every trip my parents took to Sri Lanka was their last trip. Somehow, they’d commit to “one final journey,” saying tearful goodbyes to friends and family, only to decide after a few months at home that one more – just one more – trip was in order. It would be the last time, of course.

As you can imagine, a few months after returning from the 75th birthday trip, dad was already scheming over how he could convince all of us to visit Sri Lanka one. last. time. But our 2015 trip had been different, and it made all of us nervous. Dad had struggled through the airports, wheezing and stumbling when the wheelchair we’d reserved was unavailable. The layovers were long and the flights felt endless. In Dulles, my dad’s pants fell off in the middle of the terminal. He hadn’t bothered to replace his belt after customs, and he was bone tired. Although we all helped him and shared a giggle over the moment, privately, my husband and I eyed each other with concern. My dad wouldn’t be able to make another trip. I knew it in my bones. And yet still, he planned. He spent two years organizing arrangements and shuffling dates with his travel agent in Colombo. We booked and cancelled the trip twice due to health scares with his defibrillator. Throughout it all, I argued with him. He promised to be firm about demanding a wheelchair this time. He swore he’d worked on a plan with his doctor.

In the midst of all this planning and wheedling, he also dreamt of new journeys. What about a trip to Denmark, he asked, or a maybe a river cruise through Scandinavia? Ireland would be nice again – relaxing and low key. He researched a luxury train that wound its way through the national parks and began a campaign to convince my mom to book tickets. Before he went into surgery in December of 2017 to address his growing abdominal aneurysm – the surgery which ultimately resulted in complications that led to his death – he was optimistic about the future. This surgery was effective 98% of the time. Although he hid it from me, he was already on the phone with his travel agent in Sri Lanka, looking at dates for a trip in February. He promised me a cruise to Alaska – something low key and full of good food and great scenery.

But my dad’s travelling days had come to a close. Instead, the vast unknown country that comes after this life beckoned to be explored, and he departed on December 16, 2017 – two months before that “one last trip” to Sri Lanka.

I think of him now – not just all the places he went, but all the places he didn’t go. I think about what of the world remained undiscovered in his dash. It helps to remind myself to keep pushing forward, to keep dreaming and plotting and saving and setting aside time to see just a little more of the miraculous, improbable planet we call home.

Many friends and colleagues have warned me that travel will stop or slow when my son is born. There will be new priorities to consider, new hurdles to scale and scant energy to scale them. I’ll be two tired to take the baby with me and too attached to leave him behind. Travel won’t matter for a few years, and then it’ll center around my child’s desires – Disney and water parks and kid-friendly spaces.

Now look, to all of that, I say, “Ok, maybe.” I mean, I don’t know what I don’t know. I’ve got no clue how I will feel once my son has actually arrived. But I know I’m already building my own stories. I’m daydreaming of the most epic safari when he’s a little older – let’s say 8 or 9. I’ve got routes charted for the great East African safari a la Hemingway, with stops at Giraffe Manor in Kenya, a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti, and a final stop in the Seychelles for sunbathing on Anse Source d’Argent. Or we could take the southern route – hippo tracking and luxury tented camps in Botswana. Cape Town, whale watching, and wine tasting in South Africa. Exploring the desert in Namibia.

Some of my dreams keep us closer to home. I imagine my son’s first trip to see the ocean. A roadtrip to the mountains. A visit to Niagara Falls. I wonder how I’ll introduce him to Sri Lanka without my dad to bridge the gulf between worlds. I want to wander with him, to expose him to the incredible diversity of our planet, and I want to wander without him as well, to ensure he understands the value of independence and autonomy – especially in women.

I suppose, though I should wait until he’s born and go from there. For now, I’ll just write us into new adventures in my head.

Happy Travels,

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