Years ago, I had an elaborate trip planned for the summer. This was (and still is) not unusual for me. I’ve spent many summers overseas and it’s always a little odd for me to spend an entire summer in America. The difference with this trip was that I needed to cancel everything at the last minute because my brother was dying.
That sounds dramatic and it kind of was. He’d been sick with cancer for a while, and things took a turn suddenly when he ended up on hospice care with a bout of sepsis. I thought it would be his last week on earth. While he fought back from the infection and miraculously lived until the following February, it was still the last summer we had together.
Needless to say, I was angry and sad and annoyed all summer. I was angry at him, sad that he was sick, annoyed that I was missing out on the summer I’d carefully crafted in my mind. My packing list tauntingly stared back at me. My suitcase sat stuffed in a closet. Emails from global airlines spammed me daily, reminding me of all of the destinations waiting for me. Most of all, the book I had been writing was unfinished — waiting for this particular trip so that I could come up with the grand finale.
I have never been the most compassionate person on the planet and that summer reminded me just how selfish I could be at times.
I begrudgingly hauled my brother to doctors appointments, cooked meals I didn’t want to, and wistfully scrolled through social media as my friends overseas posted photos, tagging me, even though I wasn’t there with them. It seemed like everyone else was living the best version of their lives, while I was stuck at home. (The latter sounds a little too familiar to summer 2020, right?)
With both my circle of friends and memories scattered around the globe, nostalgia occasionally hits me hard. That summer, taking care of my brother, made me yearn for anywhere but there — any timeline but the immediate one. I’ve had a lot of adventures in my life, and nothing quite excites me more than a passport, plane ticket and blank journal to get me to a new destination. I tried to make the most of my time at home by meticulously going through the 50 plus journals I’d kept for decades, if only to add fodder to that book.
Nostalgia is by definition: a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.
I think it’s safe to say that we’re all feeling a little nostalgic for much of our life BC — Before Covid — 2020.
Nostalgia is a tricky bedfellow, however. On one of my many train rides in the late ’90s, I traveled out of Budapest, bound for Paris, on the Orient Express.
Don’t let the illusion of luxury travel fool you. I traveled with an old army rucksack, chunky heeled black boots, and a small journal. I worked for a non-profit and while expenses were generally covered, I prided myself on traveling cheaply and I wasn’t brave or mature enough at the time to ask for more reimbursement than necessary. My Ukrainian friends loaded me up with jelly-filled donuts and sausage before crossing the border into Hungary, so I couldn’t justify buying more food. In the restaurant carriage, I simply ordered an espresso, and tried to make those three sips of mud-like liquid last forever. The train traveled through Vienna in a snowstorm — having escaped Budapest hours before parts of the railway closed due to the weather. I had my journal and my coffee at a fancy table, and a window view of the most gorgeous snow-covered landscape.
Sometimes I actually have moments in life where time seems to stand still — it’s like the universe is reminding me to pause and breathe in the experience — to tuck it into my pocket and carry it close as a reminder that things can be glorious, even in the everyday moments. This was one of those almost indescribable perfect memories where I felt fully present — but it only lasted mere moments.
That same trip? I almost broke my neck going down a set of stairs headfirst because I tripped on those chunky boots. My leg was in excruciating pain from a skin irritation, resulting in a visit to an infectious diseases doctor in London and an overpriced prescription to heal it. I worried constantly about my passport getting stolen, even though it was practically sewn to my skin. And yet that moment with my espresso and the snowscape is where my mind goes when I yearn for a train adventure. I had completely forgotten about the rest of what happened — the good, the bad, and the infected — until I went back through my journal from that trip.
The danger with nostalgia is that we want to be anywhere but where we are, yet we forget that ‘anywhere’ is also filled with mundane moments and ‘everywhere else’ is also likely to be fraught with some level of sadness and pain. The moment that we’re living might have some of those breathtaking scenes right under our noses, but we’re too immersed in what we don’t have, that we miss being present right now in this current reality.
I have to remind myself of this daily, especially when I see posts on social media of people who seem to live more than I do on some days. One photo or even several, can never capture the whole picture though. Had that train trip occurred in 2019, rather than 1999, my espresso memory of the Orient Express trip would have been one more cup of coffee on the social media highlight reel, but I’m willing to bet that I may have actually missed the entire moment if I’d been trying to capture it. I may not have even noticed it, if I’d been staring at my phone, rather than living in the moment.
Most of us didn’t get the summer we wanted in 2020. We probably won’t get the school year, holiday season, or even summer of 2021 that we desire, either. We are probably all thinking wistfully about the things that ‘weren’t’ and still won’t be, in 2020.
If I learned anything from that last summer with my brother, it’s that the world and circumstances change fast. I thought I maybe had a week left with my brother, but instead I ended up with a whole bonus summer and then some. I had a firm grip on my plans and my plane ticket and when I let them go, even begrudgingly, I got to hold onto my brother’s hand for a little longer, instead.
He was never the intrepid traveler that I’ve been, but he did want to someday take a trip to Hawaii. For his 40th birthday that summer, I decorated with Dollar Store luau paraphernalia and we all wore leis and drank from cups with little umbrellas. It was both cheesy and hilarious and he loved it. There are no social media pictures documenting this event, and surprisingly, I wrote very little about any of that summer in a journal. But I do remember his face as he walked in for his ‘party,’ and it’s now forever etched into my mind as one of those unforgettable celebrated moments, because we were all present.