Nearly a month into my travels in Indonesia, I still have to pinch myself and realize that I'm on a train in the middle of a sprawling archipelago. Picturing life at thirty years old, I assumed that I would be settled into a regular routine and perhaps already have completed my master's degree. How did I get to this island on the other side of my world?
After an outstanding Peace Corps COS trip, or close of service trip, with Eugene through more than 25 National Parks, we decided to try life together in Philadelphia. Finally moving in late November to the hipster neighborhood of Northern Liberties, we celebrated Thanksgiving and started to explore our new home. We felt lucky to have located a fantastic apartment, secured an interesting new job for me and for Eugene's pending position at the Department of State.
Almost immediately, life unraveled. My father and cousin were diagnosed with cancer and I stated to learn about the fragility of my new employment. During a tense holiday season, we waited for test results and treatment plans. While visiting my sister in Vienna, my father was hospitalized and on the eve of 2015, he called to inform us that the cancer was everywhere. Within two weeks, my siblings and I descended into Minneapolis to say goodbye. His condition deteriorated rapidly and we spent most of our time in the hospital waiting for his pain to subside. Daily crises were the new normal. We cried with visiting relatives, got angry at strangers, spoke like zombies to servers and tried our best to support each other. We watched our father tearfully say goodbye to our grandfather and joyously reconcile with our mother. We told stories to pass the time, asking our dad to recall memories of his own childhood, young married life and of our youth. At times he was lucid, coherent and himself. More often he would drift off during conversation and not return to us for hours. After three weeks in Minneapolis, we said our final goodbyes, knowing that we'd be unable to be at his side during his final moments of life. Just after midnight on February 15, the call came.
The weeks continued as a blur of grieving and pain. My step-father was diagnosed with cancer shortly before my father's funeral, both paternal grandparents passed away and my cousin's illness continued to win battles. By the time I was laid off from my job in mid - June, I had no shits left to give. Having toiled pointlessly for months, it was a relief to give up the charade. The day after my 29th birthday, I was jobless, grieving and desperately needed a break.
This is not to say that everything was terrible. While life felt aimless, there were wonderful people who supported me endlessly in Philly. Eugene was patient and loving despite my violent mood swings. He cooked me dinner, encouraged me to connect with family and watched any TV show that I wanted. Together we ordered pepperoni pizzas and binge watched Netflix and Ken burns documentaries. At work, several of my coworkers shared stories of their personal losses and allowed space for me to open up over coffee. Caitlin danced with me, Miranda hugged me and so many others sat with me. Despite being in a new city, I had abundant support.
As the months passed, life in Philly became easier. I found a new job, started studying for the grad school entrance exam, and began thinking about life after the losses. Following the year anniversary of my father's passing, I started to experience familiar levels of energy, albeit with obvious terrible no good very bad days sprinkled in. Grad school acceptance letters started to arrive and I could see a change building on the horizon. Choosing to accept a spot in a program in Rotterdam, I considered how to spend my last few months before beginning a new chapter of life. What did I need to feel like myself again?
And that's how I arrived in SE Asia. The best, truest version of myself comes to light when I'm on the road. Meeting new people, riding in rickety trains and operating outside of my comfort zone sparks joy in me. More than a travel adventure, this is my first extended solo backpacking trip. A new challenge to prove to myself that despite the assault and the loss of my father, there is so much good to be found in the world. That while I'm not the same person, I'm becoming a wiser, stronger, more loving version of myself. I'm meeting her during the quiet moments of sadness, in the depths of the ocean and peering into an active volcano. I think that my dad would be proud.