Thursday, May 28, 2015

When death becomes part of a travel tradition

Dad fixes the tent, our first ever camping trip in Ontario.
He passed away while we were both on camping weekends.
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about odd travel traditions. Many of us have them, and we look foward to practising them every time we leave for a trip.

However, there is one rather odd and somewhat sobering travel tradition that seems to pop up in my life with some disturbing frequency.

It seems people in my immediate family often choose to die when I am away on a trip of some kind.

That's not to say every time I travel, somebody close to me passes away. If that really was the case, I might stop travelling. Or at least give it some strong consideration.

I guess it could be seen as just one of those weird quirks that happens because I'm a travel writer, and I'm probably away travelling more than the average person.

However, this disturbing trend developed before I started travel writing seriously.

In 1992, my father passed away while I was on a weekend camping trip, at Bear Mountain, near Dawson Creek, B.C (yes, there is a real place by that name - not "Dawson's Creek' - and it's been around for a long time). It happened on a Saturday night, the night before Father's Day. We didn't have cellphones then, so no one could get in touch with me until I returned home Sunday afternoon.

Close to 10 years later, my father-in-law passed away just as we were heading out to enter Lakeland Provincial Park, Alberta, for a four-day canoe trip. If we had been a few hours earlier heading out, we might not have known for four days.

Then, in 2007, while on a four-day kayak trip in the 10,000 Islands region of Everglades National Park, my mother passed away. Again, no one could reach me until I returned from that trip.

That one was particularly tough. Mom had been ill for quite a while with Myelodysplastic syndrome and had gone into the hospital in Toronto a few weeks before. She never got out.

It was tough for many reasons. An only child, it meant I had no immediate family left - no parents, no siblings - in some ways, I'd never felt more alone, even though I had other family members to help me get through my grief period.

An egret wading in the 10,000 Islands.
I shot this image the morning my mother passed away.
What made it more difficult was the fact I was so far away - and I was only halfway through the trip, as I'd made plans to spend a week in the Florida Keys following the paddling trip with Crystal Seas Kayaking. I had interviews lined up with some parrot sanctuaries and tourist facilities, lodging arranged for, and flights booked. And I had to complete the second half of my journey with a heavy heart.

I know many people would have returned home as soon as they found out. However, the life of a freelance travel writer sometimes demands that you make sacrifices, make choices, that people who are just vacationing, do not have to make.

That's one of the things the average person probably does not consider when they imagine what a travel writer does for a living. Once a schedule of accomodations, meals, and other elements of a trip have been set up with tourism boards, a travel writer has an obligation to fulfill those, particularly when the rooms have been set aside, and usually paid for by the boards - and they won't be getting a refund for them.

Also, if a story has been already promised to a publication, the writer needs to try to meet that committment. Leaving a destination, then trying to return later, rarely works out. While most editors and most tourism boards will understand in the event of a death in the family, they may still hesitate to work with you going forward.

I certainly would never judge or criticize anyone in a situation like this, no matter what their choice. It is their life, their decision.

However, that kind of decision is never easy to make. I struggled, and in the end I chose to stay and try to meet my commitments. I know that's what my mother would have wanted me to do, had she been given the choice, and knowing that, the choice was wee bit easier than it might have been.

It certainly does bring a different feel, a different perspective to a trip, though.

This odd trend happened again, just recently.

Margaret and David, on their wedding day.
On the second day of my recent trip to Mexico the first week of May, I received a text message from an aunt in New Westminster, B.C. My uncle had passed away in a hospice, the victim of colon cancer. I hadn't actually had any contact with him much since 1971. My dad's younger brother, he moved out west suddenly back then, and shunned contact from the family.

When I moved to Vancouver in 2003, I did try to connect with him, actually spoke on the phone once, but he made it clear he really didn't want any contact. I repeatedly sent him Christmas cards with notes about meeting for coffee, but never got a response.

Then just after Easter, I got a call from his wife, Margaret, telling me he'd been hospitalized. I had a chance to finally visit with him then, for an hour or so, and I was grateful for it. A few days later, he was placed in a hospice.

Three days before I left for Mexico, a phone call came, telling me he would do well if he made it to his birthday, May 8.

Off I went to Mexico, and then came the news he had passed away two days before his birthday.

Again, that odd travel tradition had reared its head.

As it turns out, the memorial service is scheduled for the day I leave for Ontario for three weeks, so it's like a double whammy. I won't be able to attend that service.

My memories of David go back to when I was a four-year-old spending most of my days at my Grandmother Geary's house, as both my parents worked. Three memories stand out specifically.

David (who was still living at home then) had a pet bird named Joey, a budgie. So I guess my fascination with birds (like parrots) began at a very early age. That was the first pet of any kind I ever encountered. I used to sit there talking to Joey every day.

Not me - but it could easily be. But I'd be marching.
(Photo via
The second memory that springs to mind involves music.

When I was four, I always used to watch the old black-and-white Popeye cartoons; he was the first "super-hero" I cheered on. In many of the old 'toons, whenever Popeye would eat his spinach and get ready to beat the crap out of Bluto or some other deserving bad guy, the John Philip Sousa march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," would start to play. So I just loved that song.

Turns out David had a copy of it in his collection of marching music. He would play it for me often, and I would march around the room in time to the music, later on adding a toy trumpet to my performance, which became a regular occurrence, at least once or twice a week.

Robin Hood blows his horn.
 (Image from
The third memory includes some physical mementoes.

When David married Margaret (at the age of eight, the first wedding I ever went to, and I remember stuffing myself with sausage rolls at the reception!) and they went on their honeymoon, they brought me back several pennants from their travels in the Williamsburg, Va. area.

They also brought back a cow horn, hollowed out and complete with a mouthpiece to blow on.

It became a go-to prop for when I played Robin Hood, and later a "powder horn" for playing Daniel Boone/Davey Crockett/Hawkeye.

I still have it, and I still have the pennants.

I'll never forget any of those memories. Just like I'll never forget David.

So, what's the point of all this, in a blog that is supposed to be about travel?

It's this: Make sure the people in your life that you care about - family, friends, partners - KNOW that you care about them. Especially, try not to leave to go on any trip on bad terms with the important people in your life. God forbid, but they may not be there when you get back.

Life is a journey, but it's the people we meet along our path during that journey that help to make it so rich and rewarding. When one of them leaves, that journey seems a bit less rich.

While you're pondering that, remember this: You never know when someone you care about will be taken from you.

Playing this one for you, David.


  1. Very thoughtful piece, John. It's never happened to me in the middle of a trip yet, but I have had to cancel three. One did involve sponsored travel and assignments — everyone was understanding, but slow to accept me for future assignments afterwards. I had a bleak following year d/t reduced income and concern that I'd never be taken seriously again by tourism boards.

    1. I think it's quite possibly the toughest call we ever have to make, as travel writers, Julie. It turned out I made the right call, with respect to my mom. I was the exeuctor, and we had to put everything into motion via phone. And with all the paperwork and arrangements, we could not have had the cremation and service any earlier than we did by coming home any earlier than we did. It's rarely as cut and dried as that, though.