Facing Death: Why One Man Travels to Embrace Life
Editor’s note: The author, Tristan Cano, wrote this article over the summer of 2013. We recently received word that Tristan passed away on December 31, 2013. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Tristan’s family during this difficult time. We worked with Tristan for a few months on this article, and I was constantly amazed at the strength and positive attitude he grasped life with despite the unfair hand he was dealt.
Suddenly I lost control of my bodily movements, and my head started spinning to the sound of a loud clicking noise. I remember grabbing hold of Samantha and seeing her initial confusion before she descended into sheer panic. I recall the feeling of hopelessness as she called out for help, and the next thing I knew, I was lying in the back of an ambulance on my way to hospital.
There are days that always tend to stick in your memory; your first kiss perhaps, the death of a close relative, or maybe the birth of your first child. That day I was taken to the hospital, November 6, 2012, is one such day for me …
Always keen to discover new places, I had jumped at the opportunity to visit my girlfriend Samantha’s family in the small town of McAllen, TX, a few miles from the Mexican border. With the exception of some mild and mysterious headaches I had been suffering from for the past couple of weeks, I literally did not have a care in the world.
1. Life-changing experiences
That fateful morning in November, I was lying in bed with Samantha, killing time ahead of a proposed border-hop to the town of Progreso, which was to be the first time I visited Mexico. The trip was not intended to be cultural, more an opportunity to purchase some souvenirs, such as a bottle of Mexican vanilla, the luchador’ mask I had always longed for, and perhaps a sombrero or two for some of my friends back home.
Then came the loss of body movements. The clicking. Samantha. The ambulance. Once in the hospital, after having a litany of tests run, I received the news that would change my life forever.
There was a monster growing in my brain, a tumor, and it was larger than a golf ball. Encouraged by doctors (and the high cost of medical care in the US), Samantha and I made an immediate return to Europe, where I checked into a hospital in the UK. Within a week, the majority of my tumor had been “de-bulked,” and following a speedier-than-expected recovery from the brain surgery, I began a course of targeted radiotherapy which kept me in and out of the hospital for another 2 months.
So it seems that a few hours is all it takes to turn one’s life completely upside down. Over the course of a morning, my life had been placed on complete hold.
Of course, there is no such thing as a “good” brain tumor; however, doctors had made it clear from the start that this was not one of the “better” ones. However amongst malignant glioma-type tumors, “my” Anaplastic Pleomorphic Xanthoastrocytoma (or PXA) is considered rare, and not categorized amongst the most serious a patient can have. The most serious ones, unfortunately, return quickly and do so aggressively, tending to kill most people within a year. With my PXA, at least I had the perk of not knowing … a benefit I gladly took ahead of the idea of having to make immediate funeral plans.
So it seems that a few hours is all it takes to turn one’s life upside down. Over the course of a morning, my life had been placed on complete hold. The client meeting I had scheduled for the following week. The trip to Buenos Aires we had booked for the new year. Soccer matches, dentist appointments, car insurance renewals, dinner dates. The mundanities that make up a person’s life, relegated to the second division. Within a literal blink, I ceased to be the complete master of my own destiny. Not only were doctors and family members taking control of the major decisions in my life, but Samantha and I were stuck in rural Hampshire, hundreds of miles from our home and all of our possessions in Gibraltar, making our way in and out of the hospital like a sick yo-yo.
It may be a macabre thought, but every passing day brings all of us a little closer to death. It’s a fact we all chose to ignore of course, but when doctors start measuring your life out in coffee spoons, you know its time to really start living.
It was time, I thought, to try to get my life back on track, and more than ever, seize that elusive day which had become so central in the calculation of my future life. It may be a macabre thought, but every passing day brings all of us a little closer to death. It’s a fact we all chose to ignore of course, but when doctors start measuring your life out in coffee spoons, you know its time to really start living. It was time to take stock of what was really important to me, seeing as much of the world as possible, meeting interesting people, and enjoying fresh, new experiences; and no longer with the cynicism of the jaded, grumpy traveler I had become. It was time to revitalize my approach to travel, to live, smile, and be happy. Before I could do this however, it was time to reclaim control of my life … so that is what I did.
2. Taking control
Taking control of one’s life may seem like an easy enough prospect; however, when you are tied down to a course of medical treatment in a foreign country, things are not quite so straight-forward. Nevertheless, it was time to start moving.
With radiotherapy scheduled five days a week, I had limited time available to me, but I started scheduling long walks in the the surrounding countryside. I was lucky to have landed in Hampshire, an area of great natural beauty, with rural charm aplenty and more quintessential English villages and pubs that anyone could ever hope to visit during a whole lifetime, much less a six-week course of treatment. I did do my best, waking early and walking along country roads until my legs were sore, and getting to know many of the towns and villages in the vicinity. London being only a short train ride away, we got ourselves “season” rail tickets and spent our weekends visiting friends in the capital, better acquainting ourselves with the art gallery and theater scene that we had been largely neglecting in recent years. I was starting to feel alive again.
There is, after all, no longer any time like the present, and I was relieved to receive an answer in the affirmative when I went down on one knee to ask for Samantha’s hand in marriage.
With the continent just a short ride away on the Eurostar, Samantha and I decided to whisk ourselves away for a long weekend winter break to Paris, enjoying the free reign we had of the city during the low tourist season. I had never seen a Parisian cabaret show and will not forget the bizarreness of the Au Lapin Agile any time soon. I will always also look back fondly on our time wandering amongst Paris’ sprawling flea markets and choosing the perfect antique engagement ring in a small antique jewelery shop on les Puces de Saint-Oue. There is, after all, no longer any time like the present, and I was relieved to receive an answer in the affirmative when I went down on one knee to ask for Samantha’s hand in marriage.
More and more, I started concentrating on my plans for the immediate future, once my treatment had ended. Making plans too far into the future might be a little premature, but even in a worst case scenario, I still needed a blueprint for the rest of 2013.
Foremost on my mind was the US vacation that had been so rudely cut short by my seizure back in November. The doctors had prescribed “rest and relaxation” for the period following my radiation, and jaded as we had become by the cold UK winter, we decided there could be no better place to convalesce than back in southern Texas, getting to know a bit of nearby Mexico while I did.
With three months to kill before my next scan and never one to pass up travel opportunities, I started getting ever-more elaborate with the plans for my time in the US. I started arranging a 9-state road-trip, taking us from my new adopted home in Texas, to the Pacific coast and back. It was a perfect opportunity to get to know Texas and meet various members of Samantha’s family along the way. We would plan to visit ten National Parks on our route, with the National Parks in Utah arguably the highlights. We camped and couchsurfed our way through the country and were genuinely overwhelmed at seeing how people’s hearts seemed to be touched by our story, as well as the generosity we were shown by people who we had just recently met.
Though I remain keen to shy away from the concept of a “bucket-list,” I felt it would have been wrong not to see the Grand Canyon during the trip or pay a visit to General Sherman at the Sequoia National Forest. Not to mention the extreme sacrilege of setting foot in California without spending a few days in San Francisco, getting acquainted with the taquerias in the Mission district and its vibrant nightlife, followed by a drive down Scenic Highway One to laid-back Santa Cruz. And let’s not forget the obligatory trip to Las Vegas, where we were joined by Samantha’s family and tied the knot below the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign at the northern end of the Strip.
We camped and couchsurfed our way through the country and were overwhelmed at seeing how people’s hearts seemed to be touched by our story, as well as the generosity we were shown by people who we had just recently met.
Although the oft-visited tourist sites were worth visiting, we shaped our itinerary around the quirkier roadside attractions which I feel make US road-trips so unique. The fanfares surrounding Area 51 (in Roswell, New Mexico) or those on historic Route 66 must surely be an exclusively American phenomena and something which no visitor to the States should miss. I would also say that the world’s largest ball of hair was well worth the six hour detour through Garden City, Kansas, and that “Swetsville Zoo,” located just outside Loveland, Colorado, will always rank as one of the best sculpture parks I have ever visited. There were, naturally, disappointments along the way, as we found that traveling out of season, we did not get to see Prairie Dog Village in Oakley, Kansas in its full glory, and we almost cried our eyes out when we learned that the Cockroach Hall of Fame had been recently relocated to Phoenix from its former home in Plano, Texas.
The road-trip had to end. So after a couple of weeks relaxing in my Texan home-away-from-home, it was time to return to the serious business of my illness and the suitably grim English weather …
3. Taking care of business
Although the return to rural Hampshire meant time spent in the company of family and friends, it also heralded a return to the hospital and the bitterly cold weather one tends to expect during the season the English, I suppose mockingly, refer to as “Spring.” The anxiety I had been feeling about having my first post-radiation scan and doctor’s appointment were, to an extent, short-lived. I came away no closer to knowing what my future held, and more importantly, for how long I would be holding it. With all the serious business in the UK complete, it was time for my return, for the first time in earnest, to the supposed normality of my former life, back in Gibraltar.
With all the serious business in the UK complete, it was time for my return, for the first time in earnest, to the supposed normality of my former life, back in Gibraltar.
I never thought I could find the idea of returning to my beloved home town so daunting. I had always loved living in Gibraltar and recalled the giddy elation I would feel when returning home after a trip abroad. The parameters of my life had now changed, and in just a short time all that remained of the old was a distant and fading memory of how it used to be.
There were small, trivial matters which played on my mind ahead of returning home. With the exception of a mullet I had been harvesting for the purpose of wedding photo aesthetics, I was bald as the proverbial coot, with a head as smooth as baby’s behind. I was also conscious of how many people had become interested in my life, sharing their opinions with me on how I should be living my life according to their version of the world. And all the time, having to share a sugar-coated version of my prognosis with all asunder.
Was this not the age-old retirement conundrum, shifting from a life where you have the health and finances to do what you want, just not the time to do it; to a life where there was ample time, but no longer the good health and cash flow to afford it?
Then there was the work situation. After seven months of medical leave, I barely remembered what my colleagues’ faces looked like, much less the subtle complexities of the type of corporate law I used to practice. My former clients had long forgotten I existed, and even though I had done my best to stay updated during my absence, I was behind the game by a few months. I was nervous about the dreaded conversation with my employers where I would have to explain that I was simply not ready to return, not to the same job, not yet. A return to work in a different capacity would be a different story though, and we worked on developing a new role for me in the company which allowed me the flexibility to travel while still giving me the rest and relaxation time that I needed for my recuperation. The blueprint for a new life was being sketched.
We have all thought about becoming global nomads, no longer tied to the nine to five. But leaving the security of a steady, well-paid job can be worrying. Was this not the age-old retirement conundrum, shifting from a life where you have the health and finances to do what you want, just not the time to do it; to a life where there was ample time, but no longer the good health and cash flow to afford it? As I enjoyed greater success in my legal career, I became more consumed by the trappings of first-world living, making it ever harder to leave. The timing was never quite right. It was clear that I would never be able to deal with the usual monthly litany of bills and expenses if I didn’t have a job, and my tastes were getting more expensive each year.
But it was time to face reality, which was, that the old existence was no more, and there needed to be changes in the way I led my life.
But it was time to face reality, which was, that the old existence was no more, and there needed to be changes in the way I led my life. It was time to downsize, time to remove the clutter that was tying me down both physically and metaphorically. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very scared of leaving the traditional workplace, a large part of me did not want to let go of my old life, and the possessions which accompanied it.
4. Looking forward
Having begun my new career journey and the lifestyle which accompanied it, thoughts turned to downsizing. Not just my house, but all the bits and pieces which filled its empty corners and could perhaps have been up-cycled to better use. I found the de-clutter exercise to be strangely therapeutic and was now ready to start making travel plans for the year ahead.
Though my illness had effectively placed the greatest of limitations on my lifestyle, in many ways I felt more liberated than I had felt in a very long time. Nothing was holding me back anymore and I could not help asking myself why I had not made this move when I was in better health and enjoyed this life for 20 or 30 years.
Scans and hospital appointments already scheduled, I started planning my itinerary around these key dates. I was not about to miss seeing the Stones at the Glastonbury Music Festival in England, so why not recover from that by spending a few days on the Canary Islands? I was keen to take a weekend break to Berlin, and that trekking holiday I had been thinking about in the Swiss Alps seemed long overdue. I also decided to extend a writing assignment I was taking to Morocco and head back to the US to spend Thanksgiving with my new family in Texas. Though my illness had placed the greatest of limitations on my lifestyle, in many ways I felt more liberated than I had felt in a very long time. Nothing was holding me back anymore, and I could not help asking myself why I had not made this move when I was in better health and enjoyed this life for 20 or 30 years.
It therefore occurred to me that it was ‘fear’ that was the main limiting factor for those would-be travelers who wanted to hit the road but couldn’t make the plunge.
There always seem to be factors conspiring against a person’s ability to travel. They could be environmental, such as lack of funds or family/work pressure, or physical ailments and disabilities. In my case, for example, apart from my illness, I was also on a rather complicated diet, which was not easy to adhere to at the best of times, but verging on impossible when traveling. But everywhere I went I seemed to meet inspirational people who were intent on ignoring the limitations their life had thrown their way and were fulfilling their dream of making travel a central part of their lives. It therefore occurred to me that it was actually “fear” that was the main limiting factor for those would-be travelers who wanted to hit the road but couldn’t make the plunge. It was clear that I would no longer be the “gourmet traveler” I once thought I was, but I was determined to enjoy the new dietary challenges ahead and decided to keep a blog of my failures and successes along the way.
We should never forget that we all have the Grim Reaper breathing down our necks, we just don’t know when we’ll be getting the dreaded tap on the shoulder. I know dozens of people living their lives like I once did, working long hours all year long just to enjoy a few vacation days a year, reduced to tempering their wanderlust vicariously in the pages of magazines or websites. If you are reading this, you are also likely to be in the category of people who has, at some time in their recent life, vowed to pack in their job and head off on a round-the-world trip, volunteer at a Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, join the Foreign Legion, or move to Fiji to sell coconuts on the beach.
The No. 7 bus is hurtling towards you at full speed, and before you know it, you could be pushing up daisies in the local cemetery with an epitaph that reads: ‘Here lie the remains of Jane Smith, she dreamed of selling coconuts on the beach.’
Whatever your travel goals and aspirations may be, I hope that the moral of my tale has not been lost amongst the banalities of my personal story. That although the opportunity will never seem quite right, there really is no time like the present to really start living and purchase that round the world air ticket. The No. 7 bus is hurtling towards you at full speed, and before you know it, you could be pushing up daisies in the local cemetery with an epitaph that reads: “Here lie the remains of Jane Smith, she dreamed of selling coconuts on the beach.”