The days after death

“These feelings won’t go away … they’ve been knocking me sideways …”

For the two days after Grandma died, I walked around in a haze. Numb. Listening to the same song on repeat for 12 hours and not once getting sick of it, not once singing along. It was just background to my grief.

“There’s no words to describe it, in French or in English …”

I alternated between tears and silence. I had never felt so alone. So sad. So empty.

There was no one in Trogir.

I talked to my mom, messaged some friends, but even with their kind words, their love and support, they couldn’t erase the fact that I had no one to sit with me, to hold me, to tell me it was OK.

The first night was the hardest. After I wrote my last entry, I sent it to my mom to have her print it out and place with Grandma in her final resting place.

An hour later, I got an e-mail from Mom, reminding me once again how proud Grandma was of me, how much she liked what I had written and one little piece of information: She had asked Grandma to be my guardian angel and Grandma had nodded in agreement.

Now, I am not a believer in much. Never have been, likely never will. BUT, those words, aside from causing me to break into a fresh bout of sobs, also caused me to feel something I desperately needed when I was thousands of miles from home, from family, from hugs — comfort.

That night, I talked to Grandma. And, she told me she was OK. She placed her arms around me as I tucked the covers under my neck and hugged me.
Yes, I went to sleep with a tear-soaked face, but I also went to sleep feeling more at peace.

I went through a multitude of emotions in the next two days.

Sadness. Loneliness. Anger.

I’ve never had to mourn without the company of people I loved and who loved me, and being in Trogir, in Croatia, thousands and thousands of miles from home, was a test for me.

What do you do? How do you cope? How can you escape the myriad of thoughts running through your mind?

My homecoming wasn’t going to be happy. It was laden with grief. With loss.
Like a zombie, I walked through town, listening to “Sideways” on repeat for hours. I ate dinner. I sat outside. I was a robot, going through the motions. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. And yet, I made myself eat. I made myself drink. I made myself keep moving.

I decided the next day I would head back to Zadar, spend the night there and then get a bus to the airport the following day.

On the morning I was departing Trogir, I wandered the town, looking for a Murano glass ring. I needed a quest to take my mind off of the sadness that was clouding every inch of me.

Then, I took the bus (without incident) back to Zadar.

“Well, diamonds they fade … and flowers they bloom … but I’m telling you, these feelings won’t go away … they’ve been knocking me sideways … I keep thinking in a moment that time will take them away … but these feelings won’t go away.”

The entire bus ride, the same song played on repeat.

I returned to Zadar, sat outside at a cafe on my last night of living in Europe. There was no ‘this is my unofficial last night in Europe’ night out. There was no ‘end of trip’ party. It came, and it went. I sat at the outdoor cafe, by myself, with some red wine.

Still numb. Still sad. Still a walking zombie.

The funeral was the day before I arrived home. I was too late, despite my best efforts.

In 48 hours I knew I would be home. Would be seeing my parents for the first time in 6 1/2 months. Would be able to sit in their arms, bury my head in their shoulders … and cry.

On my last official night in Europe, I had to resign myself to falling asleep listening to that same song on repeat, tears wetting my pillow and my heart heavy.

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Love, life and loss … while on the road

On September 13, 2010 at 6:15 a.m. EST the world lost an amazing woman, my grandmother. She died in her sleep and in no pain, surrounded by her husband, her son and his wife, and her daughter, my mom.

And I was thousands and thousands of miles away.

I knew it would happen. The possibility of her passing while I was traveling was very real and I was encouraged to still make plans, to take that flight from Dulles to Heathrow on March 7.

Grandma was my biggest supporter.

“Are you sure it is OK for me to go and do this?” I had asked my mom repeatedly.

“Yes,” she would answer calmly. “Grandma wants you to go. She doesn’t want you to miss this opportunity and wait for something to happen here.”

So, I boarded the flight and headed out on my adventure.

At first, everything was wonderful back in Pennsylvania where she and my grandfather had moved only months earlier.

ALS, what she had, is a cruel, cruel disease. It atrophies your muscles, and often times one of the first signs is limping. She had a limp, but we hadn’t noticed anything was wrong at first, nothing that would scream “fatal disease.”

When I moved to Atlanta, I was thrilled to be closer to home and closer to Florida, where my grandparents were living. I went to visit them a handful of times in the year I lived in the South.

And each visit, she got worse. At first she was just slurring her speech (a mini-stroke Mom had suggested), and then it got difficult for her to swallow. And then she started using a cane, and then a walker. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around last year, she had a hard time even with that.

The first e-mails I got hinting that all was not well was in May, when I was in Madrid.

“Grandma has told us she doesn’t want a feeding tube,” Mom had written. The doctors had suggested it as a means to slow down the progression of ALS.

Immediately, I burst into tears, Anthony at my side.

I called my mom and she reasoned with me. This was Grandma’s fight. If she didn’t want to prolong it, she didn’t have to. We had to support it.

I called her a few days later when I was in Merida to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. She talked to me, but ALS had taken away her ability to form words so all I heard was noises.

A few months later, when I was in Bulgaria, Mom e-mailed me to tell me she had stopped eating.

I knew she was in Penn. with her parents, so I hopped on Abby’s Skype and called them.

Through stifled cries, I told her I loved her and she made noises back. I know she was telling me the same.

Then, a few weeks later, I got word she wanted to be transferred to a nursing home.

I knew it wouldn’t be much longer.

In Sarajevo, once I had my iTouch and had installed Skype, I called my mom and for the first time in a long time, we talked. And cried.

I don’t want to be here when this happens.

When we spoke, she told me she had showed Grandma my blog about going topless. Before she had stopped using the Internet, Grandma read my blog regularly and would write to me, telling me in each e-mail how proud she was of me.

This time, Grandma had requested a print out of my blog so she could read it.

Two days later, when I was in Mostar, I got word she had moved to the home and had told everyone via written word she was “ready.”

I did what I had to do — I wrote her an e-mail telling her how much I loved her, how I remembered crying each time her and Papa would leave our house after their annual summer visits, how I loved going to Disney World with them, and above all, how much I loved the support she had given me through my life, and told her in a million ways how much I loved her, and that, if she was ready, I understood.

Two weeks later, on a sunny Monday afternoon when I was in Croatia, her body was finally ready. Her mind had been for a long time.

The day before I had spoken to Mom and she told me things didn’t look well, that she had packed her clothes and was staying until …

I hadn’t known how to react. As she talked, I slid down the old stone wall of the hostel, burying my head in my hands and talking in hushed tones through tears.

“I am so close to being home,” I had sobbed. I changed my flight the week before with the hopes I could make it home to hold her hand and tell her I loved her one last time.

I never got to do that in person.

The night before she left this world, Mom put the phone up to her ear and I told her I loved her.

I HATE ALS. That this disease leaves the mind to KNOW the body is shutting down and there is nothing that can be done about it.

Mom and I had an agreement — no e-mails about anything. If there was news to be delivered, it had to be via the phone.

Sunday night I didn’t sleep. I wasn’t interested. I closed my eyes, but nothing happened.

Monday, I woke up, called my Dad who reported he had heard nothing overnight. I went to the beach. I tried to enjoy it, but nothing felt right.

Today is the day.

I tried to take my mind off of what was going on at home and focus on being in the moment since I only had a few days of being in the moment left.

I boarded the water taxi and headed back to Hostel Trogir and loaded my e-mail.

“Give me a call, Love Dad,” was written in the subject line.

Instantly, I knew. And instantly I began to cry. Painful tears of heartbreak and alone.

“Dad,” I said into my headset, barely audible through my sobs, expecting what he was going to say.

“I’m sorry, D,” he said somberly.

“I was so close …”

“I know.”

He told me what had happened. He reminded me she wanted me there and that I needed to be OK with that since that was what she had wanted.

Then, I called Mom.

“I’m so sorry you are so far away,” she said softly as I sobbed on the other end of the phone. I could barely talk. “D, she was so, so proud of you. This morning, one of the nurses came up to me and asked if I had just gotten back from Europe. She told everyone about what you were doing.”

More tears.

We said our “goodbyes,” our “I love you’s,” and I sat on my bunk bed, tears rolling down my face with reckless abandon.

The hostel owner had given me the dorm to myself, thank goodness, so I could wail softly and not worry about others asking me what was wrong.

Then, I went numb. I started looking for hotels in Zadar for my last night in Croatia. I called Old Town Hostel, where I had stayed a few days prior when my hotel options had failed.

“I just need a bed, I have a flight from Zadar Wednesday morning,” I had explained.

“All we have is a private.”

Perfect. I could grieve and mourn without being around anyone.

Then, I walked into the city.

Expressionless. Like a zombie. I wandered the marble streets while blaring on repeat Citizen Cope’s “Sideways.” I probably listened to it 100 times in the two days this was going on.

I got some blood orange gelatto and smiled politely when the shop owner asked for my number. I sat at a restaurant on the water and ordered garlic bread, tuna salad and a glass of red wine. I picked the corn, tomato and egg out of the salad and struggled to get it down. I ate the garlic bites of the bread. I drank the wine.

I walked back to my hostel and took out my flat iron and straightened my hair, all the while trapped in my thoughts, running like wildfire through my mind. So close. ALS. Pain. Heartache. ALS. Love. Life. Loss. Far from home.

What do you do when you are alone and grieving? When you know no one?

Normal conventions don’t apply. No amount of virtual hugs replaces the real thing. No amount of phone conversations replaces face-to-face contact.

I was alone.

And then, I sat down outside in the late summer night and pulled out my laptop and wrote this story.

Grandma, you will never be forgotten. Your love and support meant and will always mean the world to me. While we may not have you here, I know you are now a star in the sky, looking down on me for the world to see. Mom said you agreed to be my guardian angel. Thank you. My book is for you. You will read it over my shoulders. I love you forever and always.

To learn more about ALS, click here.

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Backtracking

I pulled up hostel after hostel, bus schedule after bus schedule, as I sat on my bunk bed in Zadar.

I had wanted to go up the coast to the Istria region of Croatia, to hop some islands before I boarded my flight from Zadar to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt to Washington, DC.

No hostels. No beds. Too expensive.

What the hell am I going to do?

Staying in Zadar for four more nights was not an option. I didn’t need to go back to Zagreb. I had no desire to go back to Split and party away my remaining days in Europe.

Trogir.

I had wanted to go there, but opted to head to Zadar with Katie instead.
It’s a quick bus ride back.

Could I do three nights there?

It didn’t matter. I was going to.

The next morning, I crept out of the dorm room and walked to the bus stop, headed to the bus station, and boarded the first bus to Trogir.

Zadar and I don’t have the best bus relationship. Not even a year earlier, it was the scene of my bus riding debacle. Now, I have the whole riding-the-bus-thing under control, but on that afternoon, it didn’t matter.

As the bus wound around the inland road, it began to putter a little bit.

Great.

Then, we were pulled over at a little bus stop in the middle of nowhere.
The driver got out and walked around back. My eyes followed him as he returned to the bus, grabbed some sort of tool, and turned off the engine.
Oh, no.

For 15 minutes, we sat there. Finally, the heat began to get to me, so I grabbed my messenger bag and got off, sitting at the glass-encased stop, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

After 20 more minutes, the driver motioned for us to get back on the bus.

Finally.

He started the engine. Then, a moment later, he turned it off.

There was little communication between him and the passengers. Everyone just got off of the bus.

“What’s going on?” I asked someone who spoke Croatian.

“The bus is broken. We have to wait here 20 minutes and a new bus will come and get us.”

Thank goodness I had no place to be. No flight to catch. An hour later, we were back on the road, in a new (and functioning) ride.

We arrived to Trogir shortly after and I found my way to the hostel, crossing a bridge over the water.

The hostel was cute, tucked into a little street behind a church.
There was nearly no one there.

I got a map, found out how to get to the beach (take a water taxi) and then went to get dinner. And a bottle of wine for later.

That night was a quiet one for me. I sat outside on the terrace messaging with Katie who had arrived safely to London (she hated the flight) and writing. And talking to my mom about my grandma.

“I just don’t know, D. I can’t tell you how long it could be,” she said. “It could be hours, days … I just don’t know.”

I’ll be home soon. It’s OK.

I could visualize my arrival on four days …

A group of people from the hostel parked themselves at the table next to me and we all began to chat. They were headed out. I was headed to bed.

The next day, I took myself to the beach. A gorgeous stretch of coast lined with little cafes and restaurants. I spent the entire day there. It was relaxing. It was beautiful. It was perfect.

What a great place to end my adventure. I’m so happy.

And then, when I got back to the hostel, that’s when everything changed.

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Realization

I never imagined my brain would tell me I wanted to go home. Early. But, it did that night in Split.

I had 10 days left of my trip. Originally, and for months, I had planned on extending my adventure, heading to Spain (for the sixth time), back to Merida to see my friends and celebrate my birthday on October 1.  I had looked at my funds earlier in the day, looked at the cost to get there, looked at the penalties I would face to change my flight, calculated the extra cost of staying in Europe for three more weeks, and realized it was just entirely not going to happen.

Suddenly, my body ached. My mind was exhausted. I craved my family. I craved a good night’s sleep. I craved home. I wanted to be with my mom as she coped with my grandma’s sickness. I wanted to be with my grandma.

I think I’m ready.

Realizing it is time to end the trip of a lifetime was hard for me. I struggled with the idea of ending it — especially early. I had ended my first trip in Europe early (for entirely different reasons) and had promised myself I would return and do the trip right the next time.

This adventure was my do-over.

And now, my do-over was starting to wear me thin.

I called my Dad.

“I want to come home. I want to be with my family. This is so hard to be away from home. I want to see grandma.”

“D,” he said quietly, “There is no guarantee that when you get home she will still be here.”

“I know,” I said, fighting back tears, “But I at least want to try.”

I messaged friends.

“Are you sure you want to come home early?” They all asked the same question.

“Yes.”

It’s time.

I called United and engaged in a three-hour long battle over changing my ticket.

Then, around 9 p.m., it was set.

I was coming home. Four days early. Which wasn’t much, but I hoped it would get me back in time to see my grandma. I told Dad not to let Mom know about my arrival. Together, we plotted a surprise arrival and I could hardly sleep that night knowing how happy my mom would be when I walked through the front door four days early.

During my epic fight with United, Katie messaged me from Trogir.

“Come up here!” she urged. “Meet me tomorrow and we can go to Zadar together!”

I was going to say no, then I looked around me.

I don’t want to be in Split anymore. I want to be with Katie. I want my friend back. I NEED a friend.

So, I agreed.

The next morning, after nearly oversleeping and power-walking to the bus stop in Split, I was reunited with Katie for the third time in as many weeks.

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The new roommate

Davor and I stood on Fulir’s balcony, overlooking the tiny shops and bar below. He was telling me a Canadian girl was staying here and also going to Plitvice Lakes the next day, and when she got back, he promised he would introduce us so we could take the bus together the following morning. He had tried to explain to me where the bus station was, but when I became exasperated because of my lack of map-reading skills, I just asked if him or Tin, a worker at the hostel I had befriended the night before, would come with me so I wouldn’t get lost. Instead of agreeing to that, Tin said he would drive me to the bus station to purchase the ticket.

It worked for me.

That’s when I saw Him on the street below.  He caught my eye immediately. Perfect height (I’d probably recon around 5’9 or so). Perfect weight (the right blend between athletic and non-athletic). And completely different from the typical guy.

He wore plaid shorts, a dark shirt and shiny gold-framed sunglasses. He had a healthy serving of tattoos on his arms and legs, and a lip ring hooped through the middle of his bottom lip. His brown hair was cropped close to his head.

There was no way he was staying at Fulir. He just didn’t fit the mold of a typical backpack-hostel-goer. But, he walked up the ancient, red colored stairs, pulled a key out of his pocket and walked through the yellow painted door into the room I was staying in. When he walked in I caught a glimpse of a tattoo peaking through his hair on the back of his head and melted just a little bit.

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