Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Learning to Leap

This is an essay that I submitted to "Real Simple" magazine last fall for their Life Lessons Essay Contest.  I waited to post this, as the judging only took place in January.  But, seeing that I didn't win, I thought I'd put it here for all to read.  Enjoy...   :)

“Make sure you jump far out, away from the rocks,” my German guide Lukie shouted over the roar of the waterfall. I trembled inside, my legs wobbling, and wondered if I could jump at all, but I smiled at Lukie, closed my eyes, and pushed off with all my might from the small ledge in the boulder. Seconds later, I plunged into a deep, swirling pool of frigid glacial-melt water thirty feet below.

I was never one to leap. I was practical, responsible, careful – a planner, a list-maker. I was the kind of person who made lists about the lists I needed to make. In college, my architecture curriculum included the opportunity to study in Florence, Italy, during the Spring semester of third year. At the time, I was strapped for cash and involved in a serious relationship with a guy at home. My school loans were already sizable, and I simply couldn’t envision the value that the study abroad program offered. Not wanting to add to my debt or leave my boyfriend behind – or to experience change of any kind – I decided to stay behind in the familiarity of snowy Ohio while my classmates gathered their passports and boarded a plane. Many evenings that following summer, I came home after work, opened the mailbox and greeted postcards of Big Ben, the Spanish Steps in Rome, or the blue waters of the Mediterranean from friends who remained in Europe for the summer backpacking. Swallowing my envy, I felt at that point that I had forever missed my opportunity.

By the age of thirty, I had passed my professional exams to become a registered architect and was well established in a stable job at a large architecture firm. I methodically saved a portion of each paycheck, sacrificing while others spent. Within five years, I had actually saved up a down payment for a modest starter home. Just as I had done all my life, I was doing the sensible, responsible thing. I was becoming independent. I was establishing equity. And then, I drastically changed direction.

A month earlier in May of 2009, my best friend Sherri and I daydreamed about all of the goals we wanted to achieve in life. We both dreamed of backpacking through Europe, traveling by train, staying in hostels, and going wherever a whim might take us. I also shared that I wanted to travel to Munich, Germany, with my mom and sister to see where my mom lived as a little girl. As Sherri scribbled our list in her journal, I privately wondered, would it ever really be possible for me to steal away from the responsibilities of life to take a trip like that?

A month later, I met with my oncologist to review the results of my most recent PET/CT scan. For the past two years, I had been receiving treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As I sat in the exam room, my doctor looked at me with concern showing in his kind eyes, to tell me that my most recent radiation and chemotherapy treatments weren’t effective. My only remaining option was an Allogenic (donor) Stem Cell Transplant. He told me that I would need to have my bloodwork compared to that of my sister to determine if she could be a match. If not, the hospital would search for a matching donor among the Bone Marrow Registry.

For hours on end, my doctor and his team thoroughly reviewed the overwhelming magnitude of what the transplant would entail. Flinching, I heard the nurse rattle off, “No travel – for years possibly,” because I would have a low immune system and an increased risk for contracting infections. Not hearing her next words, my mind flashed to the list Sherri and I wrote.

“How soon will the transplant take place?” I asked.

“If your sister isn’t a match, it could take six to eight weeks to find and schedule a donor.” Six weeks. The words resounded in my ears.

The surprising calm I felt in my heart shocked me as I knew I was about to do the first radically impulsive thing of my life – to give up the tangible security of a house for the intangible promise of an adventure. If not now, when?

The plan formed quickly over the next few days. I would be going on extended disability leave for the transplant anyway. Surely my office could spare me for six more weeks. Within two weeks, my faithful traveling companion Sherri and I had received the blessing of both of our employers. Our jobs would be held for us, and we were free to go.

The blessings continued to flow in as I shared with family, friends, and coworkers about the Europe trip I was about to take. Their generosity was overwhelming. My sister donated a travel stipend that she had received as a bonus at work, a gift that perfectly covered the cost of two Eurail passes. A benevolent coworker shared his unused frequent flier miles so that I could purchase our roundtrip tickets. Coworkers took up a collection, hosted a casual day, and put on a raffle to raise money for me. On my final day at work, my work family presented me with a generous check and told me that, in addition, many kind coworkers had willingly given their own vacation days to add to my own to cover the entire duration of my six weeks abroad. I could barely speak the words “thank you” through the lump in my throat, stunned at their extreme charity and selflessness.

That night, our brand new, carry-on sized backpacks sat open on my kitchen table as Sherri and I stuffed them with our six changes of clothes and an extra pair of shoes each, travel guides, maps, and an assortment of other gadgetry. Early the next morning, we caught the first of our series of flights to Greece. As the arrangements for our expedition had unfolded rapidly, we only knew that we were landing in Athens, the following day catching a ferry to the island of Santorini, nine days later flying from Athens to Barcelona, 26 days later meeting my family in Paris, and 42 days later flying home from Paris. These dates were the only fixed points in our nearly non-existent itinerary. We had reserved rooms for our first few nights in Athens, Santorini and Barcelona. The rest, we would make up as we went along! With my house savings transferred to my checking account, we skipped excitedly down the boarding ramp to our plane and the start of a life-defining adventure.

With each day, new sights, sounds, places, tastes, feelings, and experiences bombarded me. There was the unforgiving heat of Athens, the breathtaking grandeur of stained glass cathedrals, and the soulful, melancholy sounds of the accordion echoing off the stone buildings and cobble streets in the Bari Gotic. There was the thrill of stepping off the train in Reims and searching for a place to sleep, the hustle of the crowds on the nighttime streets in Venice, and the sticky, sweet taste of chocolate crepes eaten in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I had never envisioned myself lunging over waterfalls, cliffs, and canyons in Switzerland, or racing off a mountain while air currents carried my parachute high above steep hillsides where sheep grazed. Certainly, I never imagined standing on a peak in the Alps, where I looked out over clouds below me and asked God to show me the view, and then watched the clouds part before my eyes to reveal a brilliantly blue lake far below.

And since we were living the dreams of our list, we were joined in Munich by my mom and sister. I had hoped – but never expected – to witness the unbridled joy on my mom’s face as she explored the familiar rooms of her childhood apartment or to hear the stories she told as we stood in front of her school.

More than any of those unforgettable experiences, though, I never anticipated learning the value of letting go, of simply being, and of not dictating the activities of my day based on responsibility, obligation, or the expectations of others. I was liberated, carefree, and living life fully and abundantly.

On a Friday in late August, Sherri and I flew home. I was to be admitted to the hospital on the following Wednesday, after another PET/CT scan. Tuesday, I met with my doctor before admission to review the results of the scan. He walked into the exam room, grinning. “What did you do in Europe?” he asked. And then, a smile playing in his twinkling blue eyes, I heard him say what I’d never dreamed of hearing: “The tumors are shrinking. You don’t have to come to the hospital tomorrow. Your transplant is cancelled.”


Monica said...

This window view into your life is a special gift to me, thank you for writing your story and sharing it with everyone!

automated forex trading said...

Thank you so much for being the inspiration that you were and continue to be. You touched so many lives in your short visit to God's little blue ball (a/k/a "Earth"). This world was left a little brighter, a little happier by your having graced it with the presence of your love. Thank you.