It’s over. The Neylon family European vacation so many years in the planning, is now several thousand digital photographs and enough fantastic memories to last a lifetime.
At least 3 years ago I dreamt a dream for July 2014 of showing our boys the places we love in Europe and ticking off my bucket list that villa in Tuscany; my long service leave would be due, Adam would had finished Year 12, Dylan would still only be in middle school and Joshua would have reached the grand age of 10. The icing on the cake would be turning a half century in Paris, my favourite city in the world.
And then 2013 came along – a year consumed with breast cancer, surgeries, chemotherapy and a major infection. A pretty crap year for myself and the family. The thought of a European summer in 2014 is what I clung to during the Australian winter of 2013 through those months of chemotherapy. A week before my last round of chemo in September 2013 the discounted airfares were released for the European summer – I think my husband thought I’d lost my marbles. We’d had to borrow money to pay for my surgery and medical expenses but there was just enough of that money left to cover the cost of 5 return airfares to Europe. If my dream was to become a reality rather than something I’d thought would be great to do, then I knew I had to take the plunge and do it. With tickets booked to London we were locked in – the dream was now a firm plan. Over the months of recovery from chemo, more surgery and infection, I spent countless number of hours planning and booking accommodation, transport, activities through UK, France, Austria, Italy, and Singapore, taking into account the places the boys told me they dreamed of seeing. Using my management skills I project-planned the trip of a lifetime, a mix of exploring and chilling.
With my penultimate surgery just 5 weeks prior to leaving and my body still getting used to tamoxifen, I was not exactly bursting with energy and a fine physical specimen to be travelling the world. Some days I felt like I’d be celebrating a century, rather than turning 50! But my spirit is young and I was so looking forward to showing our boys the places Craig and I explored in our 20’s.
As the day drew closer, however, I felt so guilty – this trip was totally self-absorbed pleasure. It would be a time to reconnect with my husband and boys, but it was not really serving anyone but ourselves. I’d be leaving my busy job for 7 weeks, I’d be escaping from the everyday life and the things that needed doing. This feeling of guilt started to spoil my enjoyment of knowing what was on the itinerary. Many people had wished me a great holiday, saying I deserved it after all I’d been through. That’s garbage – I didn’t deserve this any more than my well-meaning friends. And then, just before the big day arrived, I opened the book next to my bed and, yet again, Rachel Naomi Remen spoke to my soul. I was reminded that we are useless to others if we don’t take care of ourselves first. If the oxygen mask drops from above on a plane, it is important to fit your own mask first before assisting others. This trip was my time to heal, to experience joy, to reclaim some physical stamina, to reconnect as a mother and a wife, to replace the past 15 months of grey memories, with memories of laughter, beauty and light. I needed to be healed and whole, with my energy replenished, to move forward into whatever life brings next.
Finally the day arrived; 29th June 2014. We made it – Craig and Adam had rotten colds and Craig had a bad back causing sciatica, but we were all intact and made it onto the plane. I kept bursting into tears. If I stopped to think about how good life was and that the dream was about to become reality, I was overwhelmed. What can I say, the trip was everything we’d hoped for. All accommodation, travel connections, activities went without a hitch. There were enough unplanned dramas along the way to laugh about in the years to come (walking the streets of Paris at midnight in the rain trying to hail a cab to the Eiffel Tower and floods through the ground floor of our ancient Tuscan villa), but nothing that spoilt our overall experience. London, Yorkshire, Paris, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Venice, Pisa, Lucca and Tuscany, Rome and Singapore – every day is etched clearly in my mind, there to be replayed in slow motion whenever the whim takes me. The colour, the food, the sights, the artwork and paintings, the beauty of the landscapes, the people. The world has opened up for my children. It was a joy watching their vocabulary change over the weeks as they learnt snippets of new languages, and their perspective of the world exploded before them. There was a bit of culture shock for them, particularly the 10-year old, but to hear them chat about places they’ve seen with first-hand experience, warms me to the core. They were niggled by the fear that we were doing this trip because I was going to die, but I kept reassuring them that the reason I wanted to do this trip was because it was my dream to show them the world and life was for living and celebrating. No-one is promised a tomorrow.
Highlights for me? My amazing 50th birthday in Paris where my brother joined us, one perfect day in Venice where we got together with friends from home who happened to be in Venice the same time as us, our Tuscan villa in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside and the beautiful city of Lucca, spending time with Craig’s brother and family, watching fireflies together in the Tuscan hills on the warm summer nights and wandering aimlessly for hours through the streets of Rome. It took a while, but my pasty skin finally took on a sun-kissed hue. During our last Australian summer I was on high-strength antibiotics and had to protect myself from the sun. After the chemo, the steroids and the antibiotics, my sun-starved skin drank in the European sun like an elixir. I was so tired and out of shape at the beginning of the trip, but as the days passed and each day involved much walking and do-ing out in the fresh air, my stamina gradually improved, such that I have returned home feeling better than I have for a very long time. I feel healed and whole. I have one more week at home before I return to work next week. It’s a gift to be able to sort through photos, find the time to blog again, arrange framing of pictures brought home, clean out cupboards and pantry, rediscover some of our local cafes and cook some home-cooked meals. Everyone deserves a vacation like we’ve had. I highly recommend it.