I listen as her breathing deepens, sleep taking its hold despite her 5 year-old arguments against being tired. Propping myself up on my elbow, my eyes trace her black eyelashes against her round expressionless cheeks. I push a strand of hair off her eyebrow as I look down at my daughter, using the barest of …
“And then probably Morocco in the Spring,” my mom says.
Until this moment I was busy watching the people on the zoo carousel as we wait in line, hearing my mom’s words but letting them float around my head without notice.
“You are going to Morocco?” I ask, turning all attention to her.
“Yeah, probably in the Spring sometime. After I return from Chile in January,” she looks at me, “OAT has some good packages I was looking into.”
“I will go to Morocco with you,” I say in a rush, “it can be our trip you were talking about, the one celebrating our birthdays.”
My mom looks at me, and I can see thoughts are running through her head. I wait for her.
“You know, you should travel when you are younger. Money comes and goes, but age is a one-way street,” she replies.
Surprise stops my response as I process what she is saying. My mom knows I have always wanted to travel, that I am often envious of her trips, but I realize she is also sharing a fear that I will delay taking this trip because of work or saving money or other life circumstances. Things that have interfered with her and me traveling more together. Things that delayed her spending more time with her own parents, delayed until it was too late. Suddenly, my mom looks old and tired.
“Yes. We will go to Morocco together,” answering her fear, vowing that I will do everything possible to make this trip happen.
On April 3nd, 2019, my daughter and I were on a plane, accompanying my mom to Morocco. Two days before, we weren’t sure the fate of our trip. My mom was sent into a quandary whether to continue as planned or cancel after her emergency room visit. One day before leaving, Mom decided to continue as planned.
We began our trip in Casablanca, where we stayed for one night before climbing into a van to start our two-week journey around the Moroccan countryside. The countryside flew past our windows in a blur as we headed towards Chefchaouen, an old medina nestled in the mountains of Northeast Morocco.
I had my first feelings of culture shock in Chefchaouen, along with stress about traveling with a small child and a travel companion who I didn’t know well. Also, it was in Chefchaouen when I had my first anxiety attack about Mom’s health.
Since leaving Denver International Airport, I watched my mom try to navigate airports and traveling as she was accustomed. Unfortunately, by the time we started this trip, Mom had already lost weight and was struggling to sleep and eat. The first night in the blue city was a sleepless night for everyone as we all struggled.
Our road trip from the blue city to Fez was awkward and fraught with the sense of breaking cultural norms with every step, and Fez was filled with miscommunication and health difficulties by all but the youngest member of our group (a.k.a. travel sickness). I could see the wear on Mom as she did not show her usual interest in taking notes, following along rather than listening to our guide as he navigated us through the Medina.
Despite the obvious strain on her, Mom rallied any time my daughter showed interest.
I struggled with the first half of our trip for many reasons. I noticed how we moved in circles of Europeans and Australians, isolated in tourism bubbles despite maneuvering Mom away from her usual tour bus style of traveling. I did not want a Disneyland version of Morocco; I wanted to immerse and understand a culture that was as opposite from my own lifestyle as possible.
The stronger current pulling at me was the storm building in my subconscious regarding my mom’s health. Although she never opened to me about her thoughts, even later when we lived together during her medical battle with cancer, I could sense my mom’s denial about her situation. I watched her fight for independence and shove down any symptom that she was ill.
I watched my mom’s exhaustion grow exponentially as she struggled to consume enough calories to keep her body going at our fast pace.
The Sahara desert was a turning point for me. Despite my ass hurting 15 minutes into a 90 minute dromedary ride through the desert, I felt a deep peace in the desert. So deep, I felt the calm at the sub-atomic level. For the first time in my life, my inner monologue was silent as I sat 6 feet in the air behind my daughter.
After supper, another meal where Mom ate a few bites of soup and tried to drink a rice based protein shake prescribed by her naturopathic doctor, we settled into our respective tents. That night the wind howled against the tent, an embodiment of the sandstorm that had filled my chest since the first night in Chefchaouen. My dreams filled with jinn and monsters playing supernatural games, and the pre-dawn alarm of my cell phone found me awake and eager to end the night.
My daughter and I rose in the dark, and in the hazy moment between night and day, we walked up a sand dune to watch the sun rise. Balanced on a small metal chair that sunk into the sand with every imperceptible shift, I watched the sun crest the desert and felt the yellow warmth kiss my uplifted face.
We froze in time. My fidgety daughter calmed, sitting still and relaxed on my lap, as I found equilibrium between my core muscles and the haphazard metal chair.
Wind began to move my hair against my cheek, and like single grains of sand falling in an hourglass, time resumed. I watched the desert breathe, mesmerized by the breeze picking up tiny particles of sand, creating endless waves that crested over a dune’s top to fall on the other side. The desert shifted and settled, moving dunes one grain at a time and erasing foot and hand prints within minutes.
Human existence was a speck in the vastness of the desert, and the desert’s breath blew away traces before they could establish residence.
As we left the desert, I was in shock at the magnitude of what I felt, an experience that would sustain me in the difficult months to come. The night gave me a new understanding how Mom struggled every night, awake and battling the betrayal of her body. But a deeper calm was established, reinforced by the knowledge of how insignificant our lives are compared to a vast entity like the Sahara Desert.
While my ascent occurred in the desert, my mom experienced her own return from Hades in Marrakech. Finally succumbing to our nagging, she took an OTC painkiller before trying to sleep. And she slept the full night, free from the demons that plagued her since the ER visit.
The next morning my mom was able to eat a full meal, and all day she was engaged with our tour and the historical monuments we saw. I began to see the mom I’ve known in my adult life, full of humor and a thirst to experience everything.
Our trek through Morocco ended too soon, our flight leaving Casablanca to return us to the States to embark on our next journey navigating the healthcare system. Despite our best intentions of planning how we would battle Mom’s cancer and maintain our lives, there was no organizing that would prepare us for what was to come.
Less than a month would find me and my daughter moving in with my mom as crisis after crisis created a sandstorm that left us without visibility beyond the next moment. Doing the best we could, we hunkered down and tried to survive as the cancer and complications pummeled Mom.
There is a plethora of opinions regarding both my mom’s and my choices during that time. Opinions about treatment, opinions about lifestyle, and opinions about whether it was wise for Mom to take two weeks in Morocco instead of fighting her cancer. While some decisions were reactive and based on necessity, other decisions were weighed carefully. Six months after Mom’s death, I can say I do not regret any decision that we made.
Now is time for me to put into action the lessons I learned during the fight for Mom’s life. Of course, the first lesson anyone learns from death is life is short. Like my mom said in the Fall of 2018, youth is something that cannot be recovered once it is gone. Because of this lesson, I intend to stop procrastinating my own travel plans. The desire for world wandering was a trait that I shared with my mom, and I will embrace my desire to travel now instead of waiting until the “time is right.”
The bigger lesson for me is about leaning into life and not reacting based on fear. There are many things I have not done based on a fear: a fear of failure, a fear of rejection, a fear of having to do it alone, or a fear of abandonment. Six months ago, I experienced all four feelings in the space of one weekend. Having faced my deepest demons, I can move forward with the peace I found in the desert.
Just as I tried to meet all my mom’s needs in the last few months of her life, I will continue to try and meet her final wishes. While this does require me to embrace the fear of the unknown, sometimes traveling by myself and jumping into situations where I cannot control the minutiae, it is instinctive to combine my new approach of leaning into life with spreading my mom’s ashes and documenting a legacy for my daughter.
And so the Two of Us was born, a travel documentary about embracing life, wandering the world, and fulfilling my mom’s final wishes.