From the Outback to the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney

HDU_postcardBy the time most of you read this, I’ll be on the last leg of my 30-day Australia trip, back over the Pacific Ocean and on my way home to Austin. Overseas when people asked what country I was from, I always replied, “Texas!” There are three U.S. states that everyone in the world recognizes and Texas is one of them so I didn’t want to miss a chance to represent.  Of course as soon as I mentioned the Lone Star State, I’d get asked why I didn’t have a southern accent.  “Oh, most people don’t have those anymore” I’d say because when you’re in another country, you can make up all sorts of things about your own. I could see the disappointment in their eyes and I was always quick to add, “But we still have our guns.”  That seemed to satisfy.

Years ago while traveling London, I’d heard a stand-up comic say, “Never ask an American where they’re from…they’ll give you their whole, bloody life story.”  I didn’t tell my story to every soul I met, but I did tell it to the ones I felt a connection with.  My travels may have looked a lot like a holiday from the outside, but inside I was struggling not to drown in the shallow waters of memories.  Except in Australia, there were no memories to haunt me, and I was able to miss my husband every day in a way I hadn’t able to do in Austin.  I found I could still ache with tears for him late at night, yet wake up in the early mornings excited about what I had planned. I practiced whispering, Thank You, ten times more for the experience of knowing Allan than the tragedy of figuring out how to live without him.

Earlier this year and long before this trip, I’d won a raffle prize for a free angel reading.  The angel reader knew Hook had died but the question I asked out loud was not the question she answered.  Instead she said, “Your souls had agreed on this time long before,” and with that she’d answered for me the plaguing questions of Why only five years, Why didn’t we meet sooner. I mention this because I sat next to an Aborigine woman on a plane from Queensland to Sydney and after a couple of hours of conversation, she laid her hand on my forearm and repeated the exact same thing as the angel reader.  She also said that nothing was a coincidence … not my being in Australia or our sitting next to one another on that plane.

About four days after I’d spread Allan’s ashes in the Indian Ocean, I dreamt that he called me on the phone. I could hear and see him clearly in his washed out, burgundy flannel shirt and his beige baseball cap on his head.  When he was alive, Allan used to try and calm me down by saying, “I know how you feel.”  That wasn’t a saying I was fond of so I was confused as to why this would be the message he would say to me in the dream:  I know how you feel.

When I woke up, I thought about the dream the entire day, just sitting in the Perth apartment thinking of nothing else.  The longer I thought, the more details of the dream I could recall until finally, I remembered the most important part:  He had known I was in Perth.

I know how you feel meant he knew I’d wanted to hop on a plane and run back home after barely being in Australia for a week.  I know how you feel meant that even though it was not a trip he would have taken, he knew how important it was for me to see this all the way through. I know how you feel meant he understood that he has been mourned deeply and even though an entire year has passed, the missing hadn’t stopped.  In his own way, Allan was freeing me from the inevitable guilt I was feeling that comes from realizing I could have happy days that did not include him in bodily form.  And I finally recognized that my bittersweet pilgrimage in search of an emotional salvation would not mean I’d lose him forever.

Traveling the Land Down Under

Australia is the 6th largest country in the world, The United States is the 4th.  If someone told you they were visiting the U.S. for a month, where would you recommend they go?  What highlights are a must see?  Whatever initial plans I’d had, I’d immediately wiped those away and settled on three locations:  the Outback via Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and the center of the country, the Great Barrier Reef via Cairns in Queensland on the northeastern coast, and the metropolitan city of Sydney in New South Wales on the southeastern coast.

Unwilling to leave Perth in Western Australia and its perfect spring weather, I ended up staying a full two weeks before flying to the Outback and the arid desert.  Once there I joined up with 15 other people for a five-day safari into Australia’s red centre, called this because of the rich red dirt found everywhere. Kangaroos and venomous snakes and dingoes and deadly spiders all received their invitation to come hither and welcome newcomers. Even the oddball camel and wild horses made an appearance throughout our five days.  As part of our safari, we hiked in the Aboriginal areas known as Kata Tjuta, and to my immense relief, we learned that the Pitjantjatjara people prefer that tourists not climb the world’s largest monolith of Uluru.  This natural icon is under the Aborigines jurisdiction (or at least half so) but instead of telling you not to climb, the Aborigines explain why it’s important to respect nature and the land, something Hook would loved to hear and to respect.

The Aborigines forbid nothing and instead leave it up to individuals whether to oblige their wishes. In my tour group, we represented six different countries and I’m proud to say that not one of us climbed the rock. Instead, many of us hiked the 9.4 kilometers of the circumference. A few hours later as we rested near the base of the rock, we saw fresh climbers on Uluru – what the Aborigines call Minga meaning “ants” because humans climbing such a large structure resembled ants ascending up a hill.  I felt a little sad wondering what had made those people disregard the Aborigines in such a public way.  Surely someone in their group must have felt indignant enough to announce, “I traveled all this way and I’m going to climb the rock!” to which a few others in their group must have nodded their heads in agreement.  Entitlement followed by sheep mentality. Otherwise, how else could an entire group have justified disrespecting the people of the land?

There was one other American woman on my safari and after a brief conversation, I’d agreed to walk around the base of Uluru with her. This was before I realized she liked to walk with a determined urgency and a laser-sharp focus on speed.  When I asked her where the fire was she said she had a lot of energy and wanted to get through things quickly.  If you google “energy,” a picture of my round face will show up, but I had not traveled all the way from Texas to sprint around the largest rock in the world.  I wanted to stop every few steps to touch the surface, to smell its earthy scent, to try and interpret the hieroglyphics on its walls.

There is an odd co-existence of beauty and danger found in every step of the Outback and it takes more than 9.4 kilometers to absorb the 60,000+-year-old history of the Aborigine people.  I definitely did not want to sprint around anything.   I slowed down that day and all the rest of the days to smell a desert rose, to feed a kangaroo, to pet a domesticated dingo.

After Uluru, we hiked the mammoth, hardened sand mounds of Kings Canyon then camped in the spinifex woods of Glen Helen before ending our hot travels in the luscious green of the Western McDonnell range.  On our last night in the desert and when our party had dwindled down to six people, I got up the nerve to sleep in a swag – an Aussie sleeping bag – under a million stars lighting the sky like the diamond studs on a wedding ring.  I’ll admit that yes, I was a little worried that wild dingoes would come into our campsite while we were asleep.  Certainly, there were a number of them to be seen in the hedges of the rocks watching from only a few hundred feet away.  And each time I slowed down to take in a new view at night or during the day, I hesitated longer so Allan could take in the experience with me.  I know how you feel.

After a dry week in the Outback, I continued on to Queensland and home to the gateway of one of the seven wet wonders of the natural world.  I spent my 50th birthday snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, trying hard not to suck in ocean water every time the hole in the middle of my face opened even wider at the iridescent beauties swimming in front of me, so close I could almost touch them.  It was in Cairns that I finally took a break from taking a break. I was tired of being a tourist, and I was only halfway around the country because as the Australians like to remind folks:  It’s a damn, big country.HDU_Ozmap

For those reading who are from the U.S., let’s say you started out traveling in San Diego where it’s clean and clear and the view of the water is everywhere.  We’ll call San Diego, Perth.  Then you decide you must see the Grand Canyon but let’s pretend this natural wonder is located in the center of the U.S., say in Kansas instead of Arizona, and you’ve decided you must be one with the land which you prove by hiking from dawn till dusk and drinking inordinate quantities of water to keep up with the sweat that keeps leaving your body and so you won’t pass out from the overbearing sun. We’ll call the Grand Canyon the Outback. You have a tour guide who is part astronomer, part entomologist, and part cultural liaison. You wonder if he has met your dead husband because he seems to be channeling him.  He convinces you to put leaves up your nose to help relieve congestion from the desert air (you do this three times to test whether it is true).

Your guide shows you how to read the stars but he cannot promise you wild animals will not eat your face while you are asleep.  “There’s nothing to worry about with the dingoes,” he says, “They’re not interested in us.”

You ask how many dingoes he has consulted personally, but he ignores you as he is right to do.  He explains the ipi-ipi plant and demonstrates how the Aborigines would break the hardened stems and out poured a white goo that was used as a coagulant and a see-through band-aide but also as a tool to temporarily blind a person for three consecutive days. The goo of ipi-ipi was placed on the eyelids of troublemakers when they were asleep.  When they woke up, they had to fend for themselves, searching for food and water in one of the most dangerous places in the world — the Outback.  No one from the tribe was allowed to help them. Some of us in the modern world were raised by parents who said things like, “shape up or ship out.”  Ipi-ipi was the Aboriginal version of that.

Now let’s say after you’ve traveled to the center of the U.S. and sweated through the outdoors that you’ve decided you must be one with the water.  Let’s pretend that New York City is actually the Great Barrier Reef, so from the center of the U.S. after dry, dry land you head to the northeast coast where summer is barely beginning.  You do all that can be done there (snorkel, snorkel, and more snorkel). You walk through rainforests and take day tours of Aborigine villages, but what you really want is to latch onto some new people like you have done in all the other places you’ve been.

It was the dream from Allan that prompted me to interact more with other travelers, mostly couples, or friends traveling together. In the Outback, I synced up with Kate and Fran who were on holiday from Sydney. In Queensland, I met Chris and Jill, farmers from Adelaide.  We’d all opted for a train ride to the village of Kuranda that ended with a Skyrail ride over a rainforest. By the end of our day together, we’d agreed to meet for a late lunch the next day in Palm Cove, one of the many northern beaches sprinkling the Cairns coast.  Because I had not rented a car, the only way for me to get from my beach to Chris and Jill’s beach was to walk north along the sand for two miles.  I was happy to do this because it meant I could dip my foot in the water along the way oblivious to the repetitive warning signs of crocodiles which Chris pointed out before I began the walk back.

Our late lunch turned into an early dinner as we sat and talked for hours looking out over the water.  Together we marveled that we’d all turned 50 in the same year, and we agreed that no matter how much we try and plan, our lives do what they will do and we just have to make the best of it.  It had been a perfect day.

Before dusk could approach, we closed out our tab so I’d have time to walk back along the beach in daylight.  We said our goodbyes through hugs and promised to stay in touch.  As I started walking along the sand with my face towards the water, a swell of gratitude rose up.  I had had a joyous day, enjoying a meal and interesting conversation with good people.  After I’d been walking almost 150 feet, I turned around for no particular reason and saw Jill jogging towards me calling my name.  I stopped to let her catch up and when she did, I noticed her eyes had welled with tears.

“Is everything okay?” I asked wondering what had happened in the 7 minutes since I’d left.

She wrapped her arms around me and held me tight then said, “I think you’re brave to be doing what you’re doing.”

She was the third person I’d met on my pilgrimage to say that to me.  I’m not sure if this trip to Australia was brave or stupid … maybe a little bit of both.  Certainly, I should have planned more carefully if only to save money while being here.  None or slow internet service in Australia made for a struggle trying to coordinate domestic flights and room accommodations on a whim.  But I’d wanted the flexibility to stay longer here or leave earlier there based on my emotional compass.

When I was in my non-wireless apartment in Perth, I’d watched two back to back television commercials that explained everything. The first mentioned how Australia’s internet technology was slower than Romania’s. That’s not a joke. The second commercial said that the leading cause of death among Australian women, ages 18-34, was suicide.

“Yeah,” I yelled at the screen, “they’re killing themselves because of the crappy internet!”

I can forgive the Aussies many things, but if you’re going to charge first world prices, then you really need to have first world technology to back it up.  (The U.S. dollar is only .87c to the Australian dollar.  That’s expensive, mate.)

After Queensland, I began my final trek in Australia to the city of Sydney. Sydney is our New York if New York were located where Florida is except in Sydney there are few homeless people, prostitution is legal, and the city seems exceptionally clean considering there are 5 million inhabitants which are 1/5 of Australia’s total population.

My first night in Sydney, I had dinner and drinks with an Austin contact who was visiting her beau for the month.  On one of my last nights there, I was invited by the safari contacts, Kate and Fran, to have dinner at Kate’s house.  In between these times, I chose to stay in a bed and breakfast hotel instead of an apartment.  I landed at a place called Simpsons of Potts Point and over their daily continental breakfasts, I met Sherry another woman on a pilgrimage who had traveled from the U.S. with her husband’s ashes.  Sherry’s husband had only passed away six months ago, but they had pre-planned this trip when they thought he would survive his illness.  We exchanged grief stories and comforted one another.  Sherry said that the hardest question she continues to face is:  So what are you going to do now?  We reassured one another that we’d know the answer to that question in due time.

I did take in some of the touristy things in Sydney.  I climbed their bridge. I walked the scenic route of Bronte to Coogee.  I took the ferry to Manly.  I scoured the Opera House and the lovely Botanical Gardens.  I did all these things so that when people asked me what I saw every morning at breakfast, I could say, I did ___________.   I would have been just as happy with a week sharing dinner with new friends and talking about the cleanliness of the prostitutes.

The Next Step

Last night after looking through all the receipts I’d accumulated in the last 30 days, I said out loud, Why did you even come?  I wasn’t sure if I’d had any real conclusions or mass breakthroughs about this trip until I thought about the young married couple I sat next to on the plane from Alice Springs to Cairns. The wife had been in public relations and the husband was a software programmer.  They were traveling through multiple countries and eventually would go back to living in Philadelphia when they were all done.  After chatting with the wife for the first half of the flight, she admitted that she wasn’t satisfied with her current career, that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed about what she was going to do next.

“That’s okay,” I reassured her.  “You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do. You only have to know the next step to take to begin figuring it out.  The rest will come to you.”

She let out a sigh of relief and said it was serendipitous that we were sitting next to each other.  I thought so too but not for the same reasons as her.  I laid my big, Texas hair back on the headrest and contemplated my own advice. I’ve spent the last 12 months looking behind and ahead at the same time, confusing myself into immobility.   After that plane ride, I forgot about the conversation with the young couple until my last night in Sydney.  I reminded myself that there are no quick answers to any journey for anyone.  Sometimes our paths are clear and the roads we need to take obvious but many times they’re not.

C.S. Lewis wrote, No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.  That’s the perfect description of what I’ve been living for the last two years.  Take all the fears you’ve ever felt in your life, roll those up into a big, fat hairy ball, then put that inside your middle.  Now imagine carrying that around for an indefinite period of time.

Taking a 30-day journey through Australia was never going to magically make this disappear.  My only goals were to spread Hook’s ashes and close the chapter on Australia forever.  I did that.  Oz is no longer some mystical place Hook and I never made it to.  I finished the journey for both of us and learned finally what it means to carry a person in your heart.

I do not have to know what my future holds exactly.  I only need to know my next step, and my next step is I’m coming home.

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In the Land of Oz

Oz_GiveWayFive days ago, I arrived Brisbane’s international airport with Hook’s ashes and managed to avert a personal customs check of my baggage.

Before I left Austin, I purchased one of those face powder makeup containers and emptied it, then filled it up with my dead husband inside.  I was fully prepared to dip the mini powder pillow into his ashes and smooth it onto my face should the scene have called for it.  It’s just make-up, sir.

In Australia customs, a foreboding sign looms over weary travelers and reads:  Do you really want to pay an automatic $200 fine for these?  The sign posts photos of handguns and flammable liquids and other assorted crime paraphernalia.  Because I’d been rushed by other smelly travelers hurrying through to catch their connecting flights, I didn’t see that two of the ten forbidden items were fruit and nuts. Imagine my relief when the drug sniffing dogs passed right by me and did not pick up my scent of a fresh apple, a plastic container of cashews, or Hook’s ashes in the fake make-up kit in my luggage.

In customs, they asked, “Purpose of your visit?”

“My husband died,” I said in a dazed sort of way, my big cow eyes staring and blinking at him like someone with a nervous habit but really just someone who’d popped contact lenses onto bone dry eyeballs after a 14-hour flight.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the customs official, “was your husband Australian?”

“Oh no … but we were going to come here?  For a year?  Then he died …?” and I let the rest of my fake British accent drift off.

I’d sat between two of the nicest Australian men on the plane and in our forced time together, their beautiful Aussie accents had rubbed off on me but not to the point that I could duplicate them effectively.  I was opting for the easier route of doing a Madonna-fake-British-accent on the customs guy who was staring at me wondering where I was going with my death revelation.

Then I knew. I knew I needed to stop speaking.  I’d marked the box for ‘holiday’ on the immigration card because there was no box for Spreading Spouse’s Ashes.  If I were to state anything, I should have said “vacation” but I was confused and exhausted and still worried that my period was going to start, which is an emotionally taxing effort all by itself, especially when it involves three flights — Austin to Los Angeles to Brisbane — with one more still to go to get all the way to Perth.

I did not want to be fined anything for anything, but I’d lost an entire day crossing the equator and something about the congenial way of the Australians was going to have me blurting out:  I didn’t mean to sneak in fruit and nuts but there are some human remains in my big suitcase with the broken handle – Please, for the love of God, I need to get to the bathroom.   All, of course, in my new fake British accent … the closest thing to an Australian accent I could muster.

Giving Way in Perth

Yesterday morning I drove on the left side of the road with my rental car, the one with a steering wheel on the right side of the car instead of the left.  Those of you reading who are not from the UK or a former British colony, think about that for awhile.  The words –  stay left, stay left, stay left – played in a continuous loop in my head, and I’m immensely grateful that there are frequent Australian road signs that read, Keep Left. They must have known I was coming.

I’ve successfully fought off the inclination to drive or turn onto the right-hand side of the road or to think that all cars were headed down the wrong way each time they came towards me. Good Lord, either he’s driving the wrong way on a one-way or I am.  Neither of us was of course.

Several times a day, I drive over curbs on my left because I’m unable to estimate the amount of space I need for what feels like a huge passenger side of the car … on the left side of the car.  And when I drive, I continuously glance over my right shoulder as though I’ll need to Give Way for the cars I’m sure will be driving up on my right, from behind, instead of towards me.  Is it confusing to read this?  It’s confusing to write it.  Imagine what it feels like to drive in it.  I keep turning on the wipers every time I need to use the turn signal because those are switched on the steering wheel as well.  Seems my driving in Australia is as bad as my driving in Austin, but my front window is always clear and clean of any debris!

All the travel books talk about how nice Australians are, and all of my face-to-face contact so far has supported this except when it comes to driving.  They honk if you go too slow in what I have finally figured out is the fast lane (right lane instead of the left lane!), and they really honk if you constantly drive over the little lane bumps –  brrdrrpbrrdrrpbrrdrrp – which separate their car from your car.  They’re so picky.

This whole driving fiasco has me feeling like I’m speaking a foreign language, so much so that when I went to the McDonald’s (hey, don’t judge – my Perth apartment doesn’t have wireless internet but trusty Mickey D’s does) and they asked, “Dine in or take away?”

I replied, “Here?” and I wasn’t even trying to sound British.

The young woman stared at me like I was from Mars instead of just Texas as she repeated, “Dine in or take away?”

The first response that popped into my head was, para llevar.  My brain in its misunderstanding of Australian phrases and the thick Australian English has me pulling from the recesses of travel, a phrase in Spanish that I never seemed able to recall in Mexico when I needed it.  But because my brain is muddled and that was a state of being with which I was familiar living in Mexico, my auto-reflexive memory (I just made that up) pulled the response, para llevar, to the forefront.  Interestingly, I am still using this inappropriately as a Spanish response because my intent is not to “take away” but to dine in or drink in as it were since all I was buying was a “flat white coffee” or a coffee with cream or café con leche depending on which part of Texas you live.

“Here … for to dine in … here … I’ll eat here except I’m not really eating just the coffee, the flat-white-coffee-with-cream-or-milk-or-anything-white really.”

I jumble all of this together confusing us both then I lean over the register and whisper in a conspiratorial voice, “It’s okay, I can just have black coffee and I’ll drink it here so I can use your internet.”

I’m sharing too much just like with the customs guy.

Ashes in Australia

Today, I did what I had come thousands of miles to do, and which has been my only real goal since my non-planning for this trip began.  Not even the thought of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has held as much importance for me as seeing finally, 43 Hope Street.

Western Australian time is 13 hours ahead of Austin and my Wednesday, September 3rd, started while most of you in the west were still sleeping. This morning, I drove north of Perth onto the Mitchell Freeway which as best as I could tell does not have an actual highway number assigned to it, it’s just called, Mitchell Freeway.  I kept confusing speed signs with highway number signs, and I didn’t know if the speed limits were in metric, too, so I couldn’t figure out if I was going too fast or too slow unless cars were honking at me which they seemed to do quite a bit.

“Give way, damn it, give way!” I kept yelling but of course, the honking continued.

From Mitchell Freeway, I took Reid Highway until it turned into North Beach Road which took me to Waterman’s Bay, a quiet coastal town which was also the home to 43 Hope Street, the address for a house that Hook and I pre-rented for our stay in Perth.  It was going to be our year-long home base while he researched, and we traveled domestically.  After slowly driving by the residence several times and wondering if from the inside of the house I might look like a crazed stalker, I knew that a strange woman dumping white powder on a front lawn would not be cool. Instead, I parked two blocks over which happened to be only one street across from the mammoth Indian Ocean.

Once on foot, I immediately found an entry way with stone steps leading to a secluded rock cove near the water.  I walked down until I came to the base and before my butt even hit the stone step to sit, I started to bawl like I had not done since before the move back into the Hook House.  I howled from my gut not worrying if anyone could hear.  The waves crashing against the rocks hid the sound but not my tears which fell for all that had transpired, for all that would never be, and for Allan still being gone.

When I was done, I looked out to the ocean and said clearly, “I’m here,” as in, I made it, for both of us.

There was nothing else left to say because I was talking to myself only.  Hook was not there.  He has been long gone in spirit for some time.  He waited for me to move forward and he waited for me to get re-settled, but he’s had his own journey to fulfill which does not include me.  And as much as I have wanted otherwise, mine moving forward will not include him.

I looked down at my hand which held the pretend makeup case full of ashes.  Removing the lid, I spread my husband’s remains onto the rocks while the waves of water washed over them and I whispered this poem from our wedding:

Votary of nature even from a child,
he sought her presence in the trackless wild

To him the shell, the insect, and the flower,
were bright and cherished emblems
of her power

In her he saw a spirit all divine,
and worshipped like a pilgrim
at her shrine

When I finished I said only, “Okay.”

I sat for awhile on those steps until my eyes dried completely, and I allowed the peace that was mine for the taking to come. This time, I accepted it.

Allan and I did the best we knew how to do at the time.  Whatever deficiencies I had as a wife, and they were many, I had been there when my husband needed me the most.  I think again about the weeks before he died when every day was a new routine because his body was declining faster and faster.  In those evenings, I’d drain his stomach of fluid then rub him down with Ben Gay to loosen up his back and buttocks.  His sinewy swimmer’s body had been all muscle, perfect even at the age of 59.  Afterward, I set up the oxygen tank for a short 30 minutes, not because he had difficulty breathing, but because fresh oxygen in his lungs and muscles meant a deeper, more comfortable sleep.  With the tank humming, I’d begin to massage the edema out of his feet and in this way, I learned finally what it meant to really love a person.  To love meant to do for them, to give to them.  I learned that love was a verb and not a noun, and I felt closer to my husband than I ever had before.

When I first started massaging Hook, he liked to encourage me to think about massage therapy as an alternative career.  My brother, Dave, owns a massage business in Austin, and Hook thought that after he died, I should consider working for Dave.

“You’re really good, babe,” he’d mumble with his eyes closed.

“I don’t want to massage anyone but you,” I’d say as my fingers pressed into the soles of his feet.

Even as he lie dying, the practical side of Hook couldn’t help worrying about a backup plan for my future.  And as I would rub, he’d say over and over again, “I wouldn’t trade you for 10 nurses, babe.”

Once the oxygen had run its time, I’d stop rubbing his feet so I could turn off the tank, then I’d lean over to give him three quick kisses on the lips.

“You’re so handsome,” I’d say every time because to me he was.  Through all the chemotherapy and the radiation and the debilitating weight loss, through all of it, Hook remained incredibly virile to me.

“I’m a scarecrow,” he said once with a slight catch in his voice. I kissed him again, looking straight into his eyes, “You’re beautiful to me.”  And he knew that I meant it.

For the past two years, I thought that Allan and I had been dealt a crappy hand.  He would never ask Why or say Not Fair so I said it for both of us…screamed it…cried it…bellied it until the muscles in my stomach ached.  When he was still alive, Allan reminded me again and again that dying was a part of living and that his dying was just happening sooner.  He had accepted the circumstances, faced them, walked into his end with grace; but not me.

A few years ago I heard P. J. O’Rourke give a lecture at a Texas Book Festival on the subject of fairness.  He was reprimanding his daughter for something and she yelled out, “That’s not fair!”  He used this as the crux of his talk to list all the unfairness in the world, and how each of us living in a first world country had better hope things don’t start becoming fair any time soon.

I don’t think, Not Fair, anymore because I don’t want to know what would be fair.  I don’t ask Why either. That’s for another lifetime. I say now only, “Okay.”

You will always be beautiful to me:  Allan William Hook, September 3rd 2013

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From Funk to Super: The Hook-Australian Update

The Olympics came and went, August came and went and now, if I’m not careful, September will come and go, too.

My lackadaisical attitude hit right after my last blog posting.  I’d been in a bit of a funk, the kind where you have all these different directions you could go but none of them are completely where you want to go.  Instead of going anywhere, you decide to go nowhere.  You come to a dead stop like slamming on the brakes in the middle of the road even though there’s no car in front of you.

Some of you know what I mean.

August required some Brothers Johnson to help me get the funk outta my face.  Snoop Dog wouldn’t do.   And to help this process along, I did what any self-respecting, mature woman of 47 would do:  I ran away from home.

Running Away From Home

When I was 14 years old, my father, Lou, took a stand against my late night talks on the phone with my then boyfriend.   Remember the kitchen wall phone with the long, winding cord that you could twirl around your fingers as you talked?  I would sit on the steps leading down to the basement with the door between the kitchen and the basement partially closed so I could giggle in private.  Exercising his patriarchal rights, Lou took away my phone privileges.  In an act of teenage defiance, I hopped a bus from Saginaw to Flint. 45 miles away, learning the hard way that $10 dollars doesn’t go very far when you have to buy a $4.50 bus ticket.  I was gone for what felt like an entire week but was really only three days.  I chose Flint because I had a friend who lived there and it felt brave to my 14-year old self.

Flint, Michael Moore’s Flint of Roger & Me, is not a place people run to but away from.  No one runs to Saginaw either but at least Saginaw had one thing going for it – it wasn’t Flint.  I was taking a stand (so was Lou), fed up (so was Lou), and I meant to take drastic measures (again, Lou).

Running away from home when you’re 14 is eye-opening.   Running away when you’re 47 is just another charge on the credit card in San Antonio which is where I ran to.   My tastes and my friends have changed, but my lifelong desire not to be stifled has not.

I sent a text to Hook the next day just in case he hadn’t realized I wasn’t there anymore.   Poor Lou agonized over my absence.   Hook probably didn’t notice until I didn’t show up for dinner … the next day.

After getting our lives back in order, Hook’s and mine, I realized that I hadn’t taken a break.  Oh sure, we’d spent weeks and half weeks on and off in Port Aransas but that was more for Hook’s decompression.  Beach or no beach, I still worked doing my virtual recruiting and career coaching.

Within a three-month period, we went from planning a life overseas to planning to save Hook’s life to redesigning what our new, temporary lives would be.   In a bad case situation, it’s the best of circumstances.  No sane person could ask for more and that’s not just a repressed Pollyanna talking.   We really couldn’t ask for things to be better.

But the summer came and went and I missed it somehow and then Hook said something he shouldn’t have said (what husband doesn’t?) so I waited until he left for work one Friday morning, just like I’d waited for Lou to leave that morning back in 1979, and I packed a bag and ran away.

And it felt great.   Just like it had before.  And this time I could drive myself, so there.

I know most women, if presented with the right amount of alcohol in small intervals, would admit to the secret desire to walk onto a train, hop in a car, get on a plane and just go.  No note, no call.   Nothing to anyone.   Ppfft.   Figure it out for yourself.

 And What Does Any of This Have To Do With Being Down Under?

Well everything actually.  One of the allures of Australia, and one of the reasons we are still determined to get there, is that Aussies have this knack for going with the flow.  It’s different than say with the French who pretend to care only about wine and taking it easy but who are closet tight asses and whose weather can really suck.  Or even the Mexicans who claim to live on a mañana schedule in siesta time which feels great initially but the flow still needs to flow at some point and the whole mañana thing eventually gets on your nerves.

We chose Australia because it is on the other side of the world with an 11-hour difference, sometimes 12 depending on how we are monkeying with our clocks.  When Americans are sleeping, Australians are awake.  When we’re working, they’re dreaming.   People in Perth have the Outback in their backyard and they rest against the Indian Ocean.  We here in Austin have some incredible parks and Lady Bird Lake.   I love Austin but there’s just no comparison to the beauty of Australia.

One of the gift books I’d received, Mutant Message Down Under, was written by Marlo Morgan, an American woman who takes a four month walkabout in the Australian Outback.  There was some controversy surrounding the book because the author wrote it as fiction but then later said it was non-fiction but then changed her mind again and said it was fiction.  Fiction schmiction.  That woman did a walkabout and she convinced wellness gurus Og Mandino, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and Wayne Dyer to write praises for her book.  Then Harper Collins turned around and published a million copies.

Here’s what we know:  there was a woman, there was an Outback, she walked.    And I want to walk, too, in the Outback in 2013; we think/hope/are planning.  “We,” remember?  Everything is ‘we’ now.

The Super Hook Update

Hook has passed through six weeks of intravenous chemo and is now onto daily radiation with chemo pills as a chaser.   The radiation with chemo sandwich will continue through the rest of September and the first week of October.   Then his body will take a rest from all the drugs with surgery planned for November.

Hook is doing great, a teensy tiny bit on the tired side, but otherwise great.  Or “Super!” as one of our nurse practitioner/advisors/doctor’s assistants (I have no clue what she is) says to us every, single time we meet.  “Do you feel tired or do you feel super?”

You cannot ask Hook if he feels tired because his automatic answer is, “Tired?  Well, yes, yes I do feel a little tired.”   And then I have to butt in with, “No, he’s not tired.   He sleeps a little more in the morning but his energy is the same.   He’s still swimming and bugging and fishing.”

“Super!”  Our assistant doctor-like person says.   She is who the doctors have us meet with so we’ll feel like we’re meeting with them.  We only actually get to see the doctor every third visit.  Do they really think we can’t tell the difference?  Our person is bubbly but annoying, perky but forgetful, genuinely nice but eternally distracted so much so that I want to punch her in the face before her mouth ever opens to save us both the hassle of conversing.

But I keep my hands to myself, screaming only in my head, when our practitioner/advisor forgets to tell us what we really need to know or says things like, “I just can’t keep all these prescriptions straight.”  And how does she think we do it? Or, she forgets to set up a “very important appointment” that is so important she cannot tell us why it’s important or who it is going to be with.   “It just is.  Trust me.”   Super!

You should have seen Hook’s oncologist and radiologist fist-bumping him after the first set of test results came in.  That’s how excited they were that the chemo was killing off what it was supposed to, and the radiation was not burning a hole in his skin.

The doctors exclude me from their excitement; they do not raise their closed fists to me because we are not on the same team.  I am on a maybe-surgery-won’t-be-necessary team, and they are on a he’s-almost-ready-to-be-cut-open team.   I’d have a little more faith in the process, in the medical system, if it seemed everyone was reading from the same game play.  But we meet and re-meet and discuss and re-discuss and have the same conversations over and over and over again that it takes everything in me not to punch them all in the face and say, SUPER.  But I don’t.  I am antsy but quiet; stoic with a wide-eyed hysterical look which I’m quite certain doesn’t look super.

2013 Australia Plans

Our plans are still on for Oz-land in 2013, so much so that Hook will meet with an academic guest from Curtin University of Technology this month.   The Curtin contact will be in Dallas and a connection to a connection to a connection was made and viola, they will stop in Austin to meet.

Why It’s All Going to Work Out

Four months ago, when Hook and I received the soap opera-like phone call about his diagnosis from a nurse who couldn’t answer any of our questions, we sat down side-by-side and scrolled through websites together to read what we could about pancreatic cancer, the stages, and the possible outcomes.

My first thought after reading was, Okay. This is going to be okay.  Hook read the same sites and thought, I have six months.

We communicate like all married couples communicate– we don’t– and our initial reactions to the situation were comical:  Hook wanted to update beneficiaries; I wanted to update our plane tickets.

We did update the beneficiaries and we cancelled the plane tickets but only because I didn’t listen to my instinct, and my instinct is this:  The only thing that’s ever going to kill Hook is me.

It’s all super!   And I am keeping the funk outta of our face(s).

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