Joyous journey promises healing, too

Today, Sorrento beckons. Though I have not delved too specifically into my itinerary, as I write the day before my departure for Italy — I like to leave room for surprise! — I know we will be walking the ruins of Pompeii, the Roman city partially buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., before retiring to the Bay of Naples for the night.

This “trip of a lifetime,” planned earlier this year and mired in mixed emotions ever since my mom and I catapulted our bruised hearts into its promise of enchantment, has at last arrived.

Our tour of Italy and Austria, a vacation we’ve embarked upon with dear friends we consider family, is in some ways an early celebration of a milestone birthday coming up for my mom. I’d always said we should take a big trip together to mark that occasion.

But I always thought we’d travel closer to her actual birthday next year, never imagining we’d be carrying as much sorrow and aching hope across the Atlantic as we would sweet anticipation. When we first considered going, it was last December, eight months after the passing of my mom’s longtime companion Lou. With our grief still fresh and being chafed anew as his absence loomed over the approaching Christmas holidays, we seized upon a possible sojourn in Italy as if it were a raft that could ferry us to a softer tomorrow, where a lavish beauty would buoy our hearts and make a bearable weight of our loss.

We were at an event where the host announced she would be organizing her first group trip to Italy in 2012. I’d imagined maybe a cruise or even a trip to Graceland — my mom is a huge Elvis fan — when I’d thought about destinations to ring in a momentous birthday.

But suddenly, we were eyeing each other, a tremulous excitement between us.

It took little more than a series of brief conversations over the next few days, usually initiated with “So, what do you think? Should we do it?” with the answer already straining against the seams of our feigned practicality, before we decided to go.

When it turned out our friends Barb and Mike, the first neighbors to befriend us when we moved to the U.S. many years ago, were also planning a trip to Italy that concluded in Austria, we chose to join their tour group instead. Not long after, my mom’s best friend Julie and her husband Garth were on board, too. And so today, here we are, making our way across “Lo Stivale,” from historic Rome to romantic Venice, before we depart for Salzburg, where I know I won’t be able to keep myself from bursting into “the hills are alive with the sound of music” once we arrive.

I admit, the almost-fierce impulsiveness with which my mom and I threw ourselves into such an extravaganza bore the hint of desperation. But even with the glint of such longing pressed against our bright reverie, I came to see the trip not as an attempt to flee our sorrows or deny our pain, but to have them gentled and soothed and maybe even healed in a celebration of wonder and fellowship.

For while I do believe in travel as one of life’s ultimate pleasures, it’s not often sheer pleasure that motivates me to embark on such excursions, but the possibilities for self-discovery and renewal, and the chance for new realizations to bubble up from moments both small and majestic.

My fears, my sadness, my joys, my hopes — they all are more deeply awakened and stirred in a mind that is open to nothing but the moment before me. It’s like the filters that so often keep us from our truest self-expression when caught up in the rote and regimented fall away and I am able to be with a deeper part of myself in a way that feels more expansive and alive.

It’s not that I wish to burden our time abroad with too much expectation or that I envision myself giving into a jag of tears at every turn. But I do believe a glimpse of the rare, the exquisite, or even the ordinary, seen with wider eyes, can lift us beyond the limits of who we know ourselves to be or at the very least usher us to a greater awareness of grace.

Years ago, when I traveled to Peru, visiting, of course, Machu Picchu and famous destinations such as Lake Titicaca and Pisac, one of the moments that made the biggest impression was a fleeting one observed from the window of our bus on a pit stop in a small town. As an old beggar woman, blind in one eye, hobbled past, startling two young boys who shrank back from her on the sidewalk as she did, our driver called out softly, “Abuelita, abuelita” (“little grandmother”). At first, she didn’t seem to hear, but then she turned to him to receive the coins he placed in the dusty hat she held before her and then kept walking. When he called to her again, he had opened a bottle of orange juice. But rather than just toss it her way, he reached for her hands and gently placed her mangled fingers around the body, helping her to raise the bottle to her lips to drink from it.

There was something so tender in that gesture, it moved me to tears and I remember feeling as if the moment itself had been a benediction.

I do not know what awaits us here in Italy but I have vowed to surrender to whatever impelled my mom and me into its arms. In the months leading up to the trip, I’ve been a tangle of emotions: regret over going to Europe at all when visiting Africa has been the dream dearest to my heart for years; guilt over not going to St. Lucia instead to visit my dad, given his declining health; and a bittersweet joy knowing how happy Lou would be for us were he still here. In recent weeks, I’ve missed him even more keenly, certain somehow he had a hand in steering us toward this adventure.

By the time of our departure, however, I was mainly excited. To see Italy and Austria with my mom is a precious and irreplaceable gift.

For a time, it seemed we were traveling together quite frequently, planning fun getaways to California and Florida.

But it’s been five years since our last trip together, and more than anything, this is what gladdens me — the chance to be with her, and all that is tender and teeming in her heart, as she gives herself to the joys of the journey, even as the thread of healing winds its way through each city and town and paradise that will know the trace of our feet.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times