Around 5 years ago today I was on a 1-way flight to Europe. I can remember sitting alone on the plane, surrounded by hundreds of strangers and still feeling somber and zealous at the same time. It was something I had never really felt before. The long plane ride gave me a lot of time to contemplate about life and reflect on what had just happened. To provide some perspective…let’s flashback a bit. One month before departing for Europe I lost the women I loved most in the world. My mother had just passed away from a long and strenuous battle with breast cancer on April 18th, 2011.
(Memorial I designed on the John Lennon Wall in Prague, CZ)
I was back at University when my Mom passed away. The night before she passed away I received a call from her. We talked almost every day since I left for college. It was around 8pm and at this point she could barely speak (she had been terminally ill for quite some time), but I could tell she was listening. After a short conversation about my day I told her “I loved her and to get some rest.” I put my phone on silent and went into a deep sleep. It was the type of night where you wake up in a state of confusion. The next day I awoke to a knock on my door. It was my friend, I could tell something was wrong and he told me to call my brother. I gave my brother a call and he told me that Mom was gone and said he loved me.
It was absolutely devastating, even though I knew this day was coming soon. After hearing my mom had passed my immediate reaction was anger, followed by sadness. It is embarrassing to admit, but I threw my phone down and cast my anger at the first thing I saw. Luckily, it was a wooden door, which my fist was able to pierce through. Anger was followed by sadness and this would slowly diminish over weeks, months and years. Eventually, these emotions turned into a controllable state of mind. It truly astonishes me how many tears the human body can create.
Two weeks after my Mom passed it was time for final exams. This was my last semester at the University of Missouri and I couldn’t have cared less about school at this moment in time. I toyed with the idea of postponing graduation, but what would my Mom have thought? Giving up was not something she had taught me! I decided to hold in the pain and prepare for my finals. With sheer determination I was somehow able to pass all my courses and graduate…but I was not about to stick around for graduation and mope about life. Shortly after finals, I packed up my college house and moved back home to spend some much-needed time with my family. I only had a few days before I was scheduled to fly off to Europe to lead a study abroad group of 35+ students around Prague. May 13th arrived quickly and I was off to Europe with no real plan in store.
A little more background: For two years during college I had an awesome job as a student manager for a study abroad program in Prague. During this time I fell in love with Europe and wanted to spend more time there. The loss of my mother didn’t change my perspective on life, but it did solidify it, and helped me realize that I should follow my dreams of traveling and living abroad. It was a hard decision, but after visiting 58 countries and 5 marvelous years of living abroad I am happy I chose to pack my life into a backpack and book a one-way ticket to Europe. I didn’t start this journey to ‘find myself’, but to define myself.
The Prague Summer program lasted about a month and during this time I was able to secure a job at the Czech University teaching Financial Economics and IT. It was such a relief to have a job lined up after the summer. I spent around 3 months backpacking around Europe before I headed back to Prague to start work. It truly was the “best of times and the worst of times.” While traveling alone you are constantly surrounded by friendly people, but you certainly can feel alone at times. Although there were times where I felt alone, most of the time I was surrounded by like minded and friendly people. I have made some amazing friends while traveling and always find this quote to be by Tim Cahill to hold true to my philosophy on travel.
The loss a loved one is a strenuous, emotional and heart-wrenching part of life and unfortunately, it is something everyone will experience in life. I am just fortunate to have had someone (and many others) in my life that brought me everlasting bliss. I can finally accept that you can’t have one without the other. Death is something we must all endure, but unconditional love is unfortunately not part of everyone’s life.
5 Values from 5 Years of Traveling
1.) Loss of a loved one is not something you “get over”, but rather a part of life you (try) learn to live with. Time does heal, but never fully mends and this is something you have to slowly learn to accept. After my mom passed away, I could not believe all the amazing people who had reached out to me. Friends, family, acquaintances…I can’t imagine going through an experience like this without the support network of my friends and family. I was really overwhelmed by the outreach from everyone, including strangers.
2.) People cope with death differently; there is no right or wrong way. You need to find something to put your energy into (I have travel, my brother has music, New Mayans). Find something you are passionate about it…and fuel it with your feelings (hate, sadness, love, happiness, and emotion). I see people sacrifice their passions all the time. Travel has been my main priority in life and I have been able to fulfill my dream while maintaining career and personal growth. This is probably one of the hardest things to obtain in life and most people never figure out what they want in life. Once you find your passion, make it a priority and devote your time and resources to it…nothing will be able to stop you! Recently I just launched a book, which is dedicated to my mother called: Global Career: How to Work Anywhere and Travel Forever. My mother was a big inspiration for writing this book, she even published a book called, “Fran, That Lucky Devil” shortly before passing.
3.) Keep in touch and put yourself out there. Whether it’s with family, friends or the person you met for one day. If you feel any strong connection, make it a priority to keep in touch. It’s hard, but worth it! As for putting yourself out there, remember that even your best friend or family was a stranger at some point. If you are not putting yourself in new situations then you will never expand your social and professional groups. Networking has been an integral part of my success and something I have put a lot of effort into. One example of networking success is when I first met a Korean professor in Prague. He was a good friend of my former study abroad director (Chuck Franz). Chuck was one of the most influential mentors during my collegiate career. He taught me quite a lot about international business and management and would later introduce me to another mentor, Dr. Sohn (Ki). Ki and I established a good relationship and he would later become an integral mentor in my life. Once leaving Prague, after a few years, Ki and I had still kept in touch and he suggested I apply for an MBA scholarship to study at his university in Korea. A few months after submitting the scholarship application, essays and forms, I was granted a full scholarship. I accepted it and spent two amazing years in Korea, growing professionally and personally. This is just one example of how networking has taken me around the world. Most recently a friend recommended I apply to a position with his company. I didn’t get the job I applied for, but they ended up hiring me for another position and I am currently working as a Marketing and Sales coordinator. It is a remote job for an amazing company (Empire Flippers). Without networking, it is really hard to grow and be successful. This is something that is hard to learn, but a skill that everyone should try and develop.
4.) English is not universal, but body language is. A simple smile, warm body language and confidence can take you to some unbelievable places. Some types of body language make you approachable, while others make you standoffish. No matter what you believe, people initially judge each other on body language and appearance. Improving your body language is not something that will happen over night, but it is possible. One of the most important I can say is to become aware and try to make changes. I recommend trying to mimic charismatic friends, role models or actors. It’s going to feel weird to make changes since you have to re-train your muscle memory. Whether it is crossing your arms or slouching there are a lot of different ways you can try and fix your body language.
5.) YOU are the one who has to decide to be happy! Yes, there are external factors, but at the end of the day, you are the one who has to decide. It’s okay to wake up and be (happy, sad, upset, angry, etc.) but eventually, YOU are going to have to make changes in your life. Realizing the ‘what’ and ‘how’ is going to be difficult, but if you need help refer to #3, there are hopefully people in your life that are willing to help.
I could go on and on about tips and tricks for traveling, but the life lessons you learn from traveling are something unique. There are countless ways to travel and the only correct way is the one that you enjoy. I have stayed in 5-star resorts, backpacked, hitchhiked and slept on a towel in a park for 3 days, but there is no “correct” way to travel. Everyone has different agendas and over time these will change. Like anything in life, we continue to change and hopefully grow. Reflecting back on the past 5 years has brought upon some strong emotions and nostalgia, but I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next 5 years.
Comment by Joan Garritano Sanders
Joan Garritano Sanders May 25, 2016 at 10:43 am
My thoughts and prayers are with you more than you can know. I had Breast cancer close to the same time as your mom. That was when you and Gabrielle were very close friends. Because of this I always think of you and pray for you. I know your mom would want someone praying for you.
You are an inspiration!! Your Mom would be so proud of you! With Love, Gabbys mom Joan
Comment by Al Wolk
Al Wolk May 25, 2016 at 10:13 pm
While Fran has passed, what I’ve experienced is that I think of Fran more often in death than in life. I love her more now than when she was alive. I appreciate everything she did for me and our family more now than when she was alive. I laugh about her memories more now than when she was alive. I love the people in my life more now because of Fran. I care more about strangers and people in need more now because of Fran. I am not afraid to show my emotions now because of Fran. I pray to God more for people who have died that they are in heaven because of Fran. I know that Fran is at peace knowing that I am not the only person whose life has been changed because of her passing. I am so happy that her death has put you on a special journey that has impacted so many people around the world. Fran being so humble would have never imagined that she could make such a difference in so many people’s lives around the world.
Love you — Uncle Al
Comment by Benner
Benner May 26, 2016 at 4:10 pm
Thanks Swigs for sharing this. I hope you keep traveling and keep sharing your insights on life and the world.
Comment by Mitch G
Mitch G July 4, 2016 at 7:07 pm
A very touching and insightful piece. I remember the sadness that also overtook me when my mom passed away in 2008. A piece of you literally dies along with them but the most awesome part is that every single moment, you spent it telling her how much you loved her and creating as many memories as possible. Memories are the best investment in the world and I appreciate you sharing it with the world through this blog.