Travelling more difficult with emotional baggage


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At the beginning of this new year, I travelled to Ontario hoping to spend some time with my son and his husband, two of my most favourite people, a couple I married. (How often does a mother get to do that?)

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At the beginning of this new year, I travelled to Ontario hoping to spend some time with my son and his husband, two of my most favourite people, a couple I married. (How often does a mother get to do that?)

I am not a good traveller. I panic. At the best of times, Toronto’s Pearson Airport and panic seem an inevitable pairing for I find its size, design and sheer volume of its in-transit population overwhelming.

The collusion of Pearson and panic was no more dramatically apparent to me than during the 2022 Christmas travel rush mired by a snowstorm that stranded travellers, sometimes for days. I had to delay the trip I had planned (with a Dec. 24 departure) because I had been felled in the middle of the month — not by COVID, but by a mean-spirited viral relative that laid me low for weeks.

But in recovery I revised my plans, hoping against hope that better weather would prevail; that the sky would not fall (I always pack for that possibility, so travel primarily as a pharmacy); that I could navigate my way through the Winnipeg airport (and it is always so much easier than I think it will be), and then through the arrival-to-exit labyrinth in Toronto (as difficult as I imagine because, for me, signage is more curious than clear, though friends navigate seamlessly, shaking their head in light of my trepidation).

I do not necessarily know why I am such a hapless traveller, and yet I know exactly why I am such a hapless traveller.

For 50 years, I entered airports with Mendel, my husband. From the get-go — in reply to my announcement that I found mainstream culture, its rules and regulations, indecipherable — he proclaimed that he understood exactly how reality worked. His assessments were straight-ahead, black and white, either/or.

I worked with roundabout shades of umber and lilac, the possibilities inherent in “perhaps” and “what if.” I was in charge of alternatives, out-of-the-blue magic and metamorphosis, while he took control of accounts and claims, oil changes and winter tires — a perfect blending of approaches and abilities, of the real and the imagined, the necessarily concrete and the necessarily intangible.

I remember our one big trip to Paris in the early ’90s, just before Mendel’s chronic illness made travel too difficult to manage. We were without children for the first time in 11 years. We were on a moving sidewalk, the ones that carry you along, which I thought rather perfect for the Paris we were going to explore together — the innovative cross-fertilization of Left Bank writers and artists I was studying and a Paris we imagined as friend to longtime lovers.

Mendel was ahead of me, walking and gliding. I did not walk but glided. His curly red hair moved further and further away. Suddenly, he was on the verge of disappearing; suddenly it dawned on me that I did not have a passport, the name of the hotel, its phone number, cash in my pocket, traveller’s cheques…

If I lost sight of him, what would become of me? I scrambled. I ran. He turned back. Might he have sensed what I had just discovered?

He grinned. I grinned. He laughed and in the light of his laughter and the surety of being beside him once more, I forgot that I ought to take better care of myself, be more informed… just in case.

The half-century habit of relying on the one who is the born manager is hard to break. When Mendel died, I found myself stranded in that very reality that still flummoxes me. I learn how to read manuals (almost), renew insurances (with heart racing), locate registrations. I know how to pay bills electronically (sort of, though I wonder if I will exceed my limit). And I am always exceeding, given that the circumference of Mendel’s capacity extended my life just as my own extended his.

It does not surprise me, therefore, that travelling never comes easily enough (and returning to an empty house is just as challenging). I think of departure gates within these realms of loss. When Mendel could no longer travel, if I were ever to take a trip on my own, he would drive me to the airport and come to the gate to see me off. He was made that way. He would never simply do a drive-by drop.

He suspected that as soon as I made it through the revolving doors I’d get lost on my way to the escalator that led to the second-floor portal that separated those leaving from those staying behind. He would guide my passage, go as far as he was allowed, and then rest against the portal’s door jamb, watching, worried. He looked as I felt, as I looked. He stayed resting against that door jamb as I stumbled through security. Bundles in hand, accepted as screened, I would turn back to find him still there.

Love does that — turns back, turns toward. To make sure.

After Mendel’s death, I drifted in and out of aimlessness, reconciling accounts, revising official documents, submitting paperwork that would redefine my identity, my status. I updated my will, health care directive, obituary (sort of), renewed my passport.

I discovered a strong box at Canadian Tire, fire resistant, a deterrent to theft (though I did not screw it into the floor, discovering that as the next step months later).

The very idea of a strong box was, of course, riddled with irony for a newly constructed widow. I filled it with key documents, even as I understood I was operating under a cloud of startle and alarm.

What is home security when the loss of a life partner has obliterated that stay against confusion, disorder? What can be safe in a world run by chance? What, then, is safekeeping? Where is the box for that?

Over time, I added odds and ends to my strong box. A strand of South Sea pearls my mother cherished but that proved to be fake. A note from a friend written to encourage me in tough times. A Skyross “Adapt To the World” travel adapter that came with the accompanying caution that still tickles my sense of the strange I had entered as widow: “For use with unearthed appliances only.”

In preparation for my Ontario journey, I retrieve my passport and my evolving understanding of past travelling. I take a cab. The day is calm and clear when I enter the airport. I manage security, find the departure gate, acknowledge that I am in the right place well within the requisite time frame.

I think of my strong box safely stored, the to-do list checked, the just-in-case arrangements with family and friends in charge of monitoring the house, collecting the mail…

I am managing, travelling with my pharmacy and my trepidation. I am also travelling with the image of Mendel leaning against the door jamb, hoping for my sake that I might — despite my inclination — make it through to a destination he cannot share.

This image, resonant and dynamic, fuels my understanding of departure, shows how I carry the one loved and lost in another form — a form more compelling than my official identification papers, indelibly central to who I happen to be.


Updated on Saturday, February 4, 2023 9:58 AM CST: Corrects to Left Bank from West Bank

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