Traveling with family, overcoming grief

It’s often said that the best part of traveling is coming home to your family. For me, the best way to travel is to bring my family.

Earlier this year, I decided I’d had enough of the pandemic and suggested to my kids that once travel restrictions eased, we should all take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe. I suggested a cruise because it’s easier, less expensive, and a more exciting way to travel when you’re in a group.

The death of a younger brother from COVID made me deeply aware that life was indeed short and that people my age had very little time left to be with loved ones. I had saved enough to pay for Norwegian Cruise Lines’ seven-day Greek Islands tour, which was offering hefty discounts to lure passengers back, but I had to tell each family to look after their individual airfares.

My wife Karina and I dreamed of one day taking all our children and grandchildren on a Mediterranean tour. We did one such tour (by bus!) when we were young students in England just starting to build a life together as a newly married couple. We thought a Mediterranean cruise would be a fitting way to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary of 2018. But it shouldn’t be.

No more international travel, her cardiologist advised sternly after I took her to the ER the day after we returned from a short trip to Singapore. She had caught pneumonia, which put additional strain on her ailing heart. But planning this dream cruise with the whole family was a great incentive for her to get well.

As fate would have it, Karina’s health was not improving, as her doctor had warned me exactly. She passed away the following year, 2019, barely six months after we celebrated our 50th birthday. In her final weeks she continued to hope that she would be well enough to accompany me on a trip to Japan in September of that year to receive the Fukuoka Asian Prize Award. Why don’t we all take everyone to Fukuoka, she said, clearly sensing that this was our last chance to be together under happier circumstances.

Heartbroken and disoriented, I had no desire to travel at all after her death. It was my children who urged me to go with everyone who accompanied me in tribute to their mother’s last wish. I realized that like me, they had lost the most important anchor in their lives and were looking for another opportunity to regroup and recover after their funeral.

And what an uplifting journey it turned out to be for everyone. On the evening of the award ceremony, the Crown Prince and Princess Akishino were the special guests of honor. It was a formal event with very strict protocols. But the royal couple, who were friends, were not deterred by the formalities. Instead of going to the exit at the end of the ceremony, they came down from the stage to meet the winners’ relatives, who were sitting in the front row.

Princess Kiko first approached my daughter Nadya, who was holding a framed black and white photo of Karina. “This is my mother, Karina,” she told her proudly. “She is with us in spirit; She wanted us all to be with our father on this very special occasion.” My irrepressible grandson Xavier summoned all his charm and boldly introduced himself, ignoring the reminder that he shouldn’t speak unless you spoke at him. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes as I watched proudly as my children and grandchildren engaged in lively conversation with the princess.

A group of 14 – four children and their spouses, five grandchildren and myself – was not always easy to accommodate in a typical Japanese restaurant. Most of the time we found ourselves at different tables, the children being herded to one table by their Ate Julia, now 22, the eldest of our grandchildren. They all loved Japanese food and were always served first because Julia could speak Japanese.

But the best part of the day was the breakfast. I wisely turned down the five-star hotel suite booked for all awardees and their companions, opting to stay the night with the rest of the family in modest Monte Hermana Fukuoka. The buffet breakfast, featuring Japanese and Western dishes, was an instant hit with everyone. I realized that breakfast was the best time to form bonds.

This was a pattern we kept on the cruise ship we boarded in Trieste, Italy, in June of this year. The Garden Cafe breakfast aboard Norwegian Gem, which became our home for seven days, proved to be everyone’s favorite. The fact that more than 60 percent of the ship’s staff – including all restaurants – were local made the cruise even more special. The ship itself was only half full, so there weren’t long queues at any of the ship’s venues and shore excursions.

It didn’t take long for my grandchildren – then 3, 6, 10, 13 and 21 years old – to settle down aboard Norwegian Gem. Being able to visit a different Greek island each day and then return to the familiar comfort of a gigantic boat built like a hotel with all kinds of activities and amenities was a fabulous and new experience for all of them.

Of course, any of us could have contracted the virus abroad and, instead of seeing new places and enjoying each other’s company, we might have found ourselves in forced isolation in our cubicles or in a quarantine facility in a foreign country. Normally, that possibility would have terrified me. But one of the lessons I learned from Karina before she died is to always try to focus on the future you are looking for rather than the future you fear.

Merry Christmas to everyone!

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