6: Safari for One

6: Safari for One

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible

Safari for One

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

~Howard Thurman

“Hey Mom! Having a great time in South Africa! We sent you three pictures Dad took on his Blackberry. The animals are so cool! We’ve seen big ones and small ones and yellow ones and gray ones and more ones! Wish you were here!”

But I wasn’t there — I was home recovering from the mumps. The mumps, of all things!

My husband had been invited to speak at a conference in South Africa during a time that coincided with a milestone birthday for each of us, and we had decided to seize the opportunity and celebrate on safari. But my body wasn’t cooperating. In a period of five months, I had contracted severe asthma and anemia, undergone surgery, contracted shingles, and then the mumps. My body was waving a white flag, and I needed to take notice.

I’d been a good friend to my body most of my life. It told me when I needed to de-stress and get a good massage, when I needed to eat less sugar and drink more water, when I needed to chill out and get a good night’s sleep. It told me when I needed to get help. My body had been telling me for the last few years, in not-so-subtle ways, that I needed to take better care of myself. When did I start ignoring it? Finally, it grabbed my attention by succumbing to that series of illnesses that slammed into each other like dominoes.

The date of departure for South Africa loomed closer, and I was not ready. But I hated to give up the trip of a lifetime. I was trying to will myself better in time to travel. I believed it was possible for me to make that double-milestone birthday celebration with my husband. And I was trying to listen to my body — was it telling me that the trip would be good for me, that I needed to get away from it all? I wrestled with the decision; it consumed me.

Then my dad came over. It was mid-afternoon, and I had been in bed all day. I didn’t have the energy to water a plant, much less make dinner, and he was bringing me soup that my mother had made. He stood at the doorway of my bedroom and shook his head. “Robin, don’t go on this trip. Let the twins go instead. It’ll be a wonderful father-son bonding trip for them, and you can have ten days without taking care of anyone. You need the break. Africa will be there when you’re better. It’s really a no-brainer.”

A no-brainer. Africa will be there. My dad had such a way of taking a tough decision and making it seem simple.

Besides, there was a different opportunity: if I stayed home, I could attend a writers’ conference. I had discovered it on the Internet, a local conference that would take place during the last weekend of the South Africa trip. I began to think about it. Instead of spending twenty-three hours on an airplane, I could sleep for another week and then drive down the road to the writers’ event. The funny thing was, the prospect of going to this conference became more exciting to me than the prospect of going on a safari. Suddenly, my heart was speaking to me with a booming, “Yes! This is what I want to do!”

I always did like to write. Ironically enough, I had begun to dabble in it a bit when my youngest — my twins — were infants. I would sit on the couch, balance my laptop on the armrest, and nurse a baby in one arm while typing with the other. I had gotten an article published and started a book. I was pried away from the writing, however, when the twins began to move on their own. Then time blurred as my children grew. I had been raising kids and volunteering, running from after-school functions to family gatherings, for twenty years. With fourteen-year-old twin boys at home, I was still in the proverbial tunnel. But, I could see a light… it was a tiny pinprick of light, but it was a light. And maybe there was something at the end of the tunnel for me.

The day of departure arrived. I kissed everyone goodbye and went back to bed. The house was quiet and I slept for ten-hour stretches each night. Yet as I thought about the conference, I became more energized. I went there refreshed and returned home elated. I had met writers, editors, and agents; I had gotten feedback on my writing and my book idea. I had a new direction. I could call myself a writer.

Then I saw the message on my laptop from my boys — “wish you were here” — and felt a pang of regret. It would have been a romantic journey to share with my husband, to go on a safari with him and see all that exotic wildlife — the big ones and small ones and yellow ones and gray ones and more ones. I read the message again and smiled at the adventure that the three of them were experiencing, and I was glad of it.

They came home sharing photos and stories. An elephant almost overturned their Jeep; they saw a cheetah on the hunt; the food was delicious; my husband’s presentation went well.

And I started writing.

I had a renewed focus. It was time for me to gently decline the many volunteer requests that came my way and to answer another calling. I was still a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a neighbor, a friend; I was still an everything-in-law; but I was also giving myself permission to take care of myself. Every so often, I had to say “no” to everyone else in order to say “yes” to myself. Otherwise, that trickle of creative juice inside me would be sucked dry again, my health and spirit withering with it.

I began to write columns. I was published in my local newspaper. I joined a writers’ club and a critique group. I worked on my book. I was hired as a regular columnist. I stayed home from coffee meetings and dinner gatherings, and wrote instead. And gradually, my body strengthened.

Two years after the safari trip, my father was diagnosed with lymphoma. He fought it with all of his strength and wit and good humor; he did everything the doctors told him to do. But the disease crossed into his brain and it took him.

With every piece of writing that I publish I think of my father, of how he helped me start on the path that brought me back to myself and to better health. Like someone who took me by the hand and led me to a mirror, he helped me see what I already knew.

I think of my father all the time. I tell him about the pieces I am writing — the big ones and small ones and sad ones and funny ones and more ones.

And then I say, “Dad, I wish you were here.”

~Robin Conte

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