All travelers have their stories of challenges faced and overcome. Of mountains climbed, of rivers crossed, of storms on land and perils on the sea. Tales of wild animals, of enemies and unrest, of narrow escapes and daring rescues. I know these stories well. In fact I even have some of my own. But the “place I didn’t want to be” is none of these…
I sit in a small metal chair in a small white room in the early months of 2007. On the wall across from me is a picture of a beach at sunset – a burst of color on a wall of clinical-white. If I stare long enough I feel as though I might almost hear the waves crashing upon some distant shore. I do not. What I hear instead are words like “biopsy”, “radiation” and “chemotherapy” – words uttered by a doctor as he amasses all the blunt tools of our young species, to wage modern warfare against the most cowardly and invisible of enemies.
My mother has breast cancer, and this room is the “place I didn’t want to be”. Not because I didn’t want to stand by and support her – of course I did – but because it is a place no-one should have to be. Helpless to watch a parent suffer, locked in battle with invading, treacherous cells. Relegated to the cheering section in a war I have no less than my whole heart in. Left to offer my shoulder and my words, because I can offer nothing else. Give me a mountain I can climb and conquer. Give me a river I can cross or a storm to weather or a wild animal against which to stand my ground. Give me an enemy I can fight. But there’s no self-pity allowed here – not in this room. There will be plenty of time for that when the war is won… or lost.
Five years later. It is 2012 and my mother is cancer-free and has been for a few years now. She fought bravely, alongside doctors wielding the weapons of science, and won the war I could not fight for her. There are still many who do not, many who fight just as bravely but who fall, and we haven’t beaten it yet. But we will. We are a species whose footprints are on the moon, whose technology is currently beaming back pictures from the surface of Mars. We are a species of explorers, travelers, thinkers and fighters and – although Cancer has proven itself a worthy adversary – time will no doubt expose it as one who is not quite worthy enough. It is this knowledge that gives me hope.
Since that day in the small room years ago, I have learned to treasure every moment with my parents, with the depth of appreciation that can only come when something is no longer taken for granted. Every glass of wine together, every conversation, every Scrabble game played and every sunset watched from the balcony at their home – each appreciated more now because of the knowledge that it is fleeting, and all made infinitely more poignant by the knowledge that they are finite.
All travelers have their stories of challenges faced and overcome. They share these stories joyously over cold beers in the beach-side bars of the corners of the world. And for anyone who has ever wondered why – it is because every traveler knows that it is through challenge that we truly learn the most about our world and about ourselves and, often, it is the places that we didn’t want to be that end up teaching us the greatest lessons of all.