There’s something special about planning a vacation. Whether it’s a cruise to the Caribbean or a hike into the Grand Canyon, the anticipation of exploring new destinations and discovering jaw-dropping scenery fires the imagination with the promise of new experiences and the possibility of making new friends.
Many times, pictures of idyllic white-sand beaches, cotton candy sunsets, and swaying palm trees become the recipe for a second honeymoon, when the obligations and responsibilities of everyday living can be left behind to enjoy some uninterrupted time with your spouse.
Typically, we begin the process by perusing resort websites and travel brochures. We read the schedules, check the itineraries and, if budget and timing allow, make the reservations, looking forward to the departure date like a child counts down the days to Christmas.
More often than not, however, we set our travel plans aside and return to the more practical side of life, telling ourselves that some day we’re going to try that new resort in Mexico, or spend a week relaxing on a cruise ship in the Caribbean or Mediterranean.
Bottom line, we seldom associate a sense of urgency with our travel plans. We consider the comfortable accommodations, the activities, and the new sights we’ll see as luxuries, while making the assumption that the future will always hold the same possibilities and opportunities.
But life has a beginning—and an end.
It’s one of those irrefutable facts that none of us like to think about. And for a forty-five-year-old man named Evan, it became a reality much too soon.
I met Evan on a Caribbean cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale. We were both browsing in the onboard gift ship when he approached and asked for my opinion about a tie he was considering. He’d forgotten to pack one and the recommended dress for the dining room that evening was formal. After he’d chosen the conservative dark blue, we chatted about the usual topics—where we were from, the ship’s itinerary, and what we thought of the food.
“Are you traveling with family?” I asked.
He hesitated, as if not sure how to answer. Finally, he offered a resigned smile and said, “Yes, I suppose in a way, I am.”
I resisted my natural curiosity. My questions would extend beyond the boundaries of polite conversation. He must have seen the confusion on my face because he immediately offered an explanation and in doing so, shared one of the most moving and powerful memories a surviving spouse can have—the last time they traveled with their soul mate.
He called it their “goodbye cruise,” and even though his wife—Frankie—had been gone for four years, he described their last journey together with such detail and emotion, it was easy to imagine it could have happened last week.
They had received the news from the doctor without warning. It didn’t seem possible—the prognosis, the short time that remained. And when the oncologist began talking about a treatment schedule, Frankie had wanted to wait. There was something else she wanted to do—something more important.
A cruise. Together.
It was a trip they had often promised each other they would take. But for reasons that are all too familiar, they had put it off, postponing what was now the most important thing in her life—a life now measured in days instead of years.
“During the first half of the cruise, Frankie was so excited. She reveled in the quick kisses on the dance floor, the secret scoot of the proper piece of silverware as the next dinner course was served, and the short strolls we took down secluded stretches of beach. But by midweek, I noticed she was walking the decks a bit more slowly, and in the evenings, she wanted to turn in early, right after dinner.
“The last three days of the trip, she was too tired to sit through a meal in the dining room, so we had our food served in our cabin. But we were never lonely—the friends we made on board would always drop by and check on us. A soft knock on the door and Frankie’s eyes would brighten, and then she would flood them with questions: ‘What color were the flowers in the table centerpiece? Which tour excursions did you take? Did you swim in the ocean or just walk along the shore?’
“Occasionally, someone would make a comment about a particular restaurant or activity being so enjoyable that it would definitely be on the list to do again, on their next cruise. And then there was a sudden silence as everyone remembered that re-visiting the same destination was not an option for my precious Frankie.”
Evan paused as he saw the tears gathering in my eyes. He reached out and took my hand. “So now,” he continued, “I take the same cruise every two years, reliving the moments and memories—the times when we walked hand-in-hand along the beach or when we asked for a breakfast table just for two, and especially when we watched the islands pass from our balcony, talking about what it would be like to live there . . . for the rest of our lives.
“The first time I traveled alone—that first trip after Frankie was gone—was very hard. But now I can almost feel her sitting next to me, or standing close by on the deck. And even though I miss her like hell, I really believe she wants me to be here.”
We hugged. We cried. And as we parted, he left me with a special wish: “Don’t wait for tomorrow,” he said. “Live now. Travel now. Fill your lives with the joy of new people and places while you are together. Even if you can’t take that big trip, just spending three to four weekends a year with the love of your life is better than a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that never happens because, for one of you, a lifetime just wasn’t long enough.”
It was a difficult story to hear, and an even more difficult one to write. But it was a story full of love and compassion and it echoed the wisdom of the old adage, ‘You never know how much someone means to you until you lose them.’
My chance meeting with Evan was an incredible gift, reminding me of how fortunate I am to have my soul mate by my side. Yet I also know that life changes with the seasons. And if one day I find myself navigating this world alone, I will remember my visit with Evan and be grateful for his unwavering spirit, and especially for his story about two hearts and a love that travels forever.