Nobody Told Me The Hardest Part Of Traveling The World

Photo: Vintage Medical, Stockbyte, Gantas Vaičiulėnas | Canva
Woman traveling visiting places her family has been, unable to say goodbye

My mom wept at London’s Heathrow Airport. We clutched each other tightly to postpone our inevitable separation, but the hum of rolling suitcases was impossible to ignore.

"When will you be back from Australia?" she asked. "I’ll miss you."

"I’m not sure," I replied. "But I love you lots."

My mom didn't speak. However, the anguish on her face said more than words ever could. Looking over my shoulder, I caught one final glimpse of my mom as she waved farewell.

"Fly free little bird," she said. "Fly free."

Traveling the world makes it hard to spend quality time with my family.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to explore new places because I can feel the heavy weight of time slipping away. As my grandparents get older, I can’t help but wonder if each hug will be the last. Or, if they’ll be alive to greet me at the airport when I go back to London.

"The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love," my patriotic grandmother once said while reciting a speech from Queen Elizabeth II. "It is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment."

Whenever I read that quote, I remember beautiful moments with my grandparents. We baked cookies in their kitchen, went plane-spotting at the airport, and wrote letters to the Easter bunny pleading for more chocolate.

Memories like that make it hard to fathom life without my loved ones in it. But, as I travel around the world, I’ll cherish the tears, laughter, and moments of joy. And, like a lighthouse guiding a ship through rocky waters, those memories will bring me comfort when I need it most.

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It was a beautiful sunny day in Western Australia. Next to the beach was a lighthouse with dozens of stairs leading up to it. After grabbing a pack of tissues from my backpack, I sat down for a few moments and shed a tear.

I came to the same lighthouse on vacation with my grandfather many years ago. It’s where we ate ice cream, laughed during sunset walks, and created beautiful memories. "It’s important to enjoy life," he said. "Have no regrets."

I felt nostalgic and turned my gaze toward the same beach where I spent countless days with my grandfather. The memories of fun vacations came flooding back, and I could see us playing in the ocean, building massive sandcastles, and laughing until our bellies ached. "I love you, grandad," said my childhood self. "So, so much."

One tear after another rolled down my cheek. It was difficult to watch kids playing with their grandparents like I did with mine, and I wished it was possible to experience a moment like that again.

I sat on the lighthouse stairs for what felt like hours, but nowhere near long enough to appreciate each memory. However, my quiet moment of reflection was cut short by an unexpected phone call from my mom. A promise to never call in the middle of the night echoed in my mind, but the phone continued to ring, and I realized something terrible had occurred.

"Your grandfather is in the hospital," she said. "The doctors believe he’s running out of time."

I stood up and walked toward the shop where my grandfather and I purchased ice cream many moons ago. Right there, in that very spot, was where I had a beautiful memory with my grandfather. And perhaps, rather fittingly, it would be where I had my last phone call with him.

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"Not great," my grandfather replied. His newly-acquired frail voice made me cry, as I mourned for future memories together that may never happen. "But we won’t go into much detail,' my grandfather continued. "How’s your trip to Australia going?"

"I’m at the lighthouse," I said. "The one where we ate ice cream, built massive sandcastles, and laughed until our bellies ached."

My grandfather paused for a moment as if he, too, wished to be transported back in time. "That brings back beautiful memories," he said while sniffling. "I wish I could go to Australia one last time."

"Take care of yourself," I whispered because a lump of sadness in my throat prevented me from speaking properly. "I love you."

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I flew back to the UK a few days later. As I walked into my grandfather’s living room, I expected to see him drinking a cup of coffee. However, the room was empty, and my grandfather was nowhere to be seen.

It was almost as if time had stopped, and all that remained was an empty void.

"Matt, you need to come here," shouted my mom from a distant room down the hallway. "This might be the only chance you’ll have to say goodbye."

When I walked into my grandfather’s bedroom, I noticed him looking at a picture of us hanging on the wall. It captured a timeless moment of us sitting by the lighthouse, devouring chocolate ice cream, and laughing as we watched a seagull steal food from unsuspecting beachgoers.

His laugh reminded me of the good ol’ days when my grandfather taught me important life lessons. He told me to travel the world, like he did, and continue my quest to visit 100 countries. He also asked me to smile, keep my head held high, and live each day as if it were my last.

Unfortunately, I need to emphasize the past tense. My grandfather died a few weeks after I returned to the UK, and my mother called me at 7 a.m. to break the heartbreaking news. "Grandad is in heaven," she explained. "He passed away earlier this morning."

I still think about my grandfather every single day. I wish I could dial heaven on the phone and have one more conversation.

"Fly free little bird," I’d say, assuring him that I’d look after the family. "Fly free."

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If I could go back in time and talk to my childhood self, I would tell him this: Time spent with loved ones is precious, and will eventually come to an end. There will be a final time when you speak to your grandfather on the phone, have dinner together, and hear countless tales from his adventures around the world.

"Never take those moments for granted, young child," I’d continue. "They might seem insignificant right now. But one day, you’ll look back on them with a smile."

Upon reflection, that’s the hardest thing about traveling the world. It’s not saving up for a flight, learning a new language, or getting out of my comfort zone. Instead, it’s saying goodbye to my loved ones. It’s walking into the airport terminal, giving them a hug, and not knowing when we’ll see each other again. Or, if we will see each other again.

Like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote thousands of years ago, "You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think."

That quote gives me comfort whenever I travel the world. It helps me to remember that goodbyes are not the end, but a temporary farewell. It’s leaving one land for another, and knowing that it’s only a matter of time until we meet again.

Of course, tears still roll down my cheek whenever I say goodbye. I don’t know when, where, or if I’ll see my loved ones again. But I know one thing for certain: I’m blessed to have amazing people in my life.

All of them are worth crying for.

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Matt Lillywhite is a writer and journalist who enjoys sharing travel and lifestyle content. His work has appeared on numerous platforms, including Medium, Insider, Newsbreak, and others..

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.