30: Just Another Day…
…” tomorrow is just another daaaayyyy, just another day…” I don’t know how long I was staring down at the ocean of clouds before I became aware of the lyrics piping through my headset. The refrain of one of my favorite songs was incessantly repeating: “It’s just another day, tomorrow is just another day.” I’d listened to those lyrics dozens of times, but this was the first I’d understood the impact of those words.
I’m on a flight from Ann Arbor, Michigan, back to London after saying goodbye to my aunt, the woman who had inspired me to travel around the world. She’d been my hero growing up – exploring exotic locales, working and traveling her way around the world – always on a new adventure. I’d spent my entire life thinking about the day I’d follow in her footsteps and had looked forward to sharing my year of adventure with her. It had seemed especially important because her kidney problems of the last five years had ruled out any more globe-hopping, and I thought my travels could bring a little bit of it back to her.
But she left on one last adventure last week, one from which she wouldn’t be returning. She’d died just hours before I stepped off the plane. I’d come home because she was seriously ill, but didn’t know she was gone when I landed. It was surreal having her sons pick me up and tell me the news when I asked how she was doing. I sat in stunned silence on the ride back to their house. I knew things had gone from bad to worse, but I thought we might be in for a repeat performance from the last time, when she rallied in the 11th hour. But her poor body just couldn’t put up with the torture it had been sustaining. There had been one too many demands put on it and despite her iron will, I think this time she just had to let go.
Her house in Ann Arbor was a virtual museum to her travels, filled with paintings, crafts, vases, decorative plates and a collage of her beaming likeness in front of various monuments around the world. One of my favorite pictures was of her holding a koala. I had tried to replicate the photo during my own trip to Australia.
The house was also crammed with antique furniture and family heirlooms from when my grandparents had emigrated from Turkey in the early 1900s. There were ancient hand-woven rugs, lace linens, porcelain, silver tea sets, opium hookahs, a bowl carved by my great-grandfather while in a Turkish prison, lamps and a brass stove that for years I had thought was a baptism urn. The stove had been passed among my grandfather’s brothers as each one died. My aunt had inherited it, as my grandfather had no male offspring, and now, sadly, it would pass to her sons.
I’d always made fun of all the clutter, but now it was as if every treasure, no matter how tacky or exquisite, held a little piece of her. She was a woman of the late 60s, breaking loose of traditional roles, being an adventurer who sought out the world. But she didn’t forget her roots and eventually returned to her birthplace to establish a respected career in public service and raise her family.
However, for all the gender traditions she broke, she still held fast to family traditions. And she was the glue that held fast our rag-tag little family. She demanded we honor our Greek traditions and that we be together whenever we could. She insisted we act like a family when we were feuding. Sometimes I thought she was a pain in the ass, but she was only motivated by love. Family was the most important thing to her.
As I stared bleary-eyed out at the breaking waves of the cloud sea, I wondered if our family would continue to our traditions now…
“Just another day, tomorrow is just another day…” As I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, my back brace trying vainly to support my upper spine because my torn ligaments couldn’t, I mused about how quickly life can be forever altered.
How a slip of a surgeon’s scalpel eventually ended my aunt’s life, how that mistake forever changed her husband’s future, inflicted a wound that could never be healed in her sons and opened old scars long buried deep inside her sister, my brother and me, as a reminder of the pain of our father’s death when we were kids.
And how a well-meaning gesture by a fellow rafter trying to pull me out of a river, resulted in a spinal fracture that arguably should be ending my journey. I shouldn’t be on this plane back to England. Two back surgeons had insisted carrying a backpack any further could lead to more damage, a guaranteed lengthier recovery and possibly surgery if the pain didn’t subside.
I popped another pain pill, not really sure if it was for the ache in my back or the one in my heart, and smiled faintly at the thought that of all the things I may have inherited from my aunt – my longing for adventure, my desire to write – I knew for sure I’d inherited her stubbornness.
But I also knew that returning me to the road was the acutely painful knowledge that it just takes one microsecond for tomorrow NOT to be another day. And that’s why I had to get back to my journey today.
In my opening story about why I’m traveling the world, I make reference to a memory of my aunt, arriving at JFK Airport wearing a Spanish dancer’s hat and a fringe suede jacket.
I’d coveted that jacket for years, but my aunt insisted it didn’t exist. On the way to her wake where I was about to share my thoughts on her life, I looked in a closet for a coat to ward off the winter chill. In the very back of the closet was a very retro, 70s-looking sweater coat with fringe. I immediately knew it was the coat; all these years, I’d imagined it to be a suede jacket. It was as if she was finally giving it to me. I immediately put it on and wore it while I gave my eulogy, because I just knew that’s why it had appeared.