I was born with traveling in my genes. My grandmother, who came of age during the depression, was a world traveler. She would send me postcards from everywhere, written in her tiny script, and tell me all about the amazing things she’d seen. I pasted them up on the wall above my bed in my pastel pink bedroom. She would send Christmas Cards, with her on a camel in Egypt, or on an elephant in India, or on a donkey somewhere in the Yucatan. One year was her parasailing, another water skiing. After retirement, she spent her winters teaching English in Mexico, and her summers being a tour guide on Block Island for a light house. She taught me that travel was possible no matter what your age or situation.
I started independent travel early, in my teens, and by the time I was thirty I had been to twenty-five countries, many of them with my boyfriend, then husband, Michael. We were married in Italy in 2001, with fifteen wedding guests in attendance and gelato to eat directly afterward. Wendy had been to Italy before she was a year old, the little old ladies lifting her up before asking my permission, calling her a piccola piccola (little, little), allowing us to eat dinner without worry. Wendy had her diapers changed in dilapidated Welsh Castles, she skinned her knees in the courtyards of French Chateaus. She was given a time out once where Leonardo Da Vinci studied the mechanics of flight.
Then Wendy got sick.
I remember thinking that it was effectively the end of our family travel, that we were never going to travel the way we used to, ever again. There were too many medications, too many medical devices, too many things to measure and calculate and take care of. How could we possibly do it? I told my father in law to cancel his annual gift to us, which was a subscription to Conde Nast magazine, a magazine of travel destinations that we really could never afford, but we could dream anyway, and at some point, I thought we couldn’t even dream anymore either because it hurt too much.
Then, after Wendy’s kidney transplant, she said for her “Make a Wish” that she wanted to go on a Disney Cruise. We talked to her doctors and they gave their blessing. So Make a Wish set it all up, Door To Porthole. A limo picked us up and took us to the airport. We took the Disney Express from Orlando’s airport to the boat. The boat took us to the Carribean.
And you know what? The only word for it was that it was magical. Not only did it fulfill Wendy’s wish, with a big boat with a pool and shows and movies and activities, but it gave us a chance to be a family again, together, relaxing, laughing, going on excursions. Everything didn’t have to be reactionary or just for survival. It showed us that living was possible again, that maybe travel was possible again.
So we started small, and we learned a lot of lessons along the way.
A trip to Colorado. There were some problems, headaches and vomiting. It turns out she had altitude sickness.
A trip to Canada, that landed her in the children’s hospital in Vancouver and our first interaction with standardized health care. She had a virus. We learned that the US is the only country in the world that measures blood sugar this way when we told the doctors that her sugar was 127 and they all gasped. Lesson: bring a conversion chart.
A trip to Aruba, where the Insulin Pump went bad and we had to go back to injections and long term insulin and carry around ice packs for her medicine. Lesson: get an apartment, make sure there is a refrigerator. Lesson: have the pump company on speed dial. Lesson: carry double the supplies than you expect to use.
A wedding in Scotland, with a side trip in the Chunnel to Paris. We were stopped in Heathrow because of all of her liquid medications and missed our connection. Lesson: get her medical letter translated, carry both copies. Lesson: get a longer connection time.
A trip to Italy with her grandparents, where after parking at the bottom of a hill town and walking up, we realized that we didn’t have any candy or juice to replace Wendy’s low blood sugar. It was a saint day so the town was packed and no one would feed us without a reservation. Lesson: Learn to cobble together a way to say “My daughter is a diabetic and I just need a juice for the sugar,” in the local language.
Skiing and realizing that the diabetic monitoring devices don’t work in frigid temperatures. Lesson: keep the devices closer to the body, check blood sugar in the lodge.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking how can this still be fun with all of that worry, with all of those things to remember, with all of those unknowns? Here’s why I think it’s still important to travel:
Travel in a foreign country evokes a sense of wonder. Watching my kids navigate in a foreign language, figure out a metro map, make decisions about dinner, try something new, see something they’ve only ever seen in a book, all of those things are amazing. Swimming in the Mediterranean Sea? Drinking a soda while looking at the Eiffel Tower? Walking in Stonehenge? Who doesn’t want to do that?
It’s important for them to be uncomfortable sometimes so that they can see that other ways are possible. People drive on the other side of the road in England. Toilets and sinks look different but have the same function. The same ingredients are used to make very different national meals. All of these lessons are valuable and teach flexibility and resilience.
It’s also important to have them see us, their parents, be able to navigate in uncomfortable situations. Michael and I are good travelers, but unexpected things happen and we need to make decisions. We need to negotiate with cab drivers, or tour guides, or cut something out of the itinerary. We need to lay low for a day because someone isn’t feeling well. We need to take more frequent breaks in the day. It’s good for the girls to see us communicate with each other, deliberate what we are going to do, make a decision, and move forward. So much of everyday life is routine, it’s important for them to see that happiness is still possible even when things don’t go according to plan.
Finally, we keep traveling because we love it. It’s worth the extra effort. It’s worth the extra planning. Sometimes things don’t work out. But those moments that do work out, those magical moments where we climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or look at the Mona Lisa, or watch a local festival that’s been performed since Medieval Times, those are the things I want my kids to remember.
And I want them to remember that obstacles can be overcome, even medical ones, to keep living the way they want to. It just takes more planning and thought.
Photo: Checking Wendy’s blood sugar while skiing in Snowmass, Colorado, at 8000 ft elevation.