WHEN I was 16 years old, we lost dad.
I don’t mean that we lost him in the David Jones carpark. I mean he died. It was unexpected and horrible and I felt like my life would never return to normal. Whatever normal means.
In a way I was absolutely right, although 14 years on I know that the events that passed in November 2002 and thereafter would make me grow in ways that could only be caused by profound loss and change.
When it happened, I was three weeks out from my year 10 exams, with my nose deep in history books. All of a sudden, Renaissance Italy didn’t seem so pressing. My life had been turned upside down, and I didn’t really know how to feel, apart from complete numbness, with the occasional wave of all encompassing grief that literally took my breath away.
Enter Lynnie G. My mother. The strongest, wisest lady I know who, after a period of mourning and yelling at God, rolled up her sleeves and began to pick up the pieces of our broken lives. She went back to work, found a rental for us, and perhaps most surprisingly — she booked me a ticket to Europe, virtually pushing me out the door like an eager mother bird keen to see her chick finally fly.
It may seem strange that a newly widowed mother would send her 16-year-old daughter across the world for a holiday — and it perhaps it was, but it proved a magical remedy that still cures my sometimes sad little heart.
I arrived at Heathrow on a dreary London afternoon, and was ferried back to Battersea in my cousin Jacque’s old Volkswagen. It was my first time in a city that I would return to many times over the next decade, and even live for some years in my twenties. My first time in a city that showed me exactly what I was capable of becoming, and who I was capable of being.
For the next two weeks, I caught double decker buses over Battersea bridge into the city, and rode the endless tube network from East London through to Chelsea. I sat in coffee shops watching busy commuters and tourists hurry by, and discovered my favourite place on earth to whittle away the hours — the National Portrait Gallery. I lined up for cheap tickets to West End shows and ate way too many super club sandwiches from Pret a Manger.
And then came Paris, where my big brother came to meet me. My eternal hero and best friend, the 10 years between us never really felt like that much, and don’t to this day. Perhaps the only person in the world who could possibly understand the gravity of what had passed, there was something that was, and remains profoundly special about the few days we spent in this magical city. Sitting on the balcony of the Young and Happy youth hostel drinking beers, listening to John Mayer and chatting the nights away.
I write this article 14 years later, from halfway across the pacific ocean. We are travelling at 912km/h, eight hours into the journey between Los Angeles and Sydney.
The aeroplane is humming loudly and the cabin is too cold. I’ve had too much wine, not enough sleep and the woman behind me is talking too loudly. I am the happiest woman in the world.
I am immensely grateful for a mother who understood the magic of travel, and trusted me to do it from an early age. A woman who knew that the best way for me to catch my breath was to breathe a new kind of air in an unknown city.
In one month I will turn 30. I will wake up on my birthday in Paris with my big brother in the bunk bed below me at the Young and Happy youth hostel. Of course we could afford to stay somewhere fancy, but something about it wouldn’t feel right.
We’ll have a delicious dinner, wander home through the streets of Paris and farewell the evening on our balcony drinking beer, listening to old John Mayer records and watching the world go by.
I will smile knowing that all these years after the hardest day of our lives, we have done OK. Better than OK. I still miss my father everyday, but I know that he is with me on every endeavour I take, watching proudly as I embark on each new adventure with wide-eyed wonder.
From camel rides through the Sahara desert to late night subway trips in New York, I am fearless because I know that I belong to this earth, and it belongs to me. I don’t know when my time will be up, but when it is I’ll know I’ve spent it well.
So parents — please encourage your kids to see the world. Encourage them to do it now, before the stress of university and careers set in and they start to believe the lie that having your life worked out by the time you’re 21 is paramount to a successful life.
Because I can guarantee you that my time away as a heartbroken 16-year-old who couldn’t make sense of her life was the single most important learning curve of my life. It’s a learning curve that continues to this day, and one that will keep on going until I’m an 80-year-old grandma cruising the Mediterranean wearing a sparkly bumbag and pinching cute Italian policemen on the butt.
The world belongs to us — and it is so much bigger than whatever is going on in our safe little lives. It is waiting to embrace, surprise, overwhelm and heal us. It’s an endless adventure too big to take on in one lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
And try I will.