by Sandra Smith
My husband Arthur always planned the vacations in our family. Coming home from the office, with the dates of a reduced-fare charter to Zurich, Lisbon or Frankfurt, he would explain, "We could take the train to Venice and catch an Italian cruise to Greece and Turkey."
Oh no, I'd think to myself. Never able to find the "right" time, I would feel guilty about deserting our children and postponing painting or garden work. "But honey," I would wail, "that's the time the boys start school, and I have to wait for the last minute to buy their clothes and shoes. You know how they keep growing. I was going to paint their rooms and repot 24 tomato plants. I'm canning tomatoes—remember all those jars in the basement? We'll be in three different climates. How can I fit all those clothes into one suitcase?"
"You were the one who wanted to see the Bosphorus," he would reply. Sure, I’d think to myself, that's when Mark signed up for the first moon flight and Michael, at the age of six, was ready to apply to Notre Dame to play football with Knute Rockne. "It was just a pipe dream," I’d say, "like wanting to go to Tashkent or Peking." No one had heard of detente or Henry Kissinger back then, so I felt safe naming cities I considered inaccessible.
Complaining bitterly, I would reluctantly pack at the last minute, stomping about the house, two lists in each hand. Before every vacation Arthur planned in the 29 years of our marriage, I would feel angry, frustrated and guilty. As much as I hated those feelings, I never tried to understand them. I would allow them to envelop me like a miasma—until our trip to China. Overcome with desire, I pushed for that trip, and it transformed me.
It wasn't until after the photographs of China had been sorted, the adventures reported, and the souvenirs displayed, that I came to understand the origin of my guilt.
There was no guilt before our first vacation, a second honeymoon, to South America. My cousin Shirley was caught up in our excitement, and bought us the album "Around the World in 80 Days" as a going-away present. She would have liked to join us. "Three weeks, they'll never allow me to take three weeks in the middle of the summer," she said. "Besides, where would I get the money?" Shirl and I, born only 13 days apart, grew up like sisters. My father and her mother were siblings and our families were together for vacations, holidays and most of each summer.
My guilt first surfaced after Mark's birth. I could not contemplate leaving my baby. Arthur, not having any maternal attachment, decided our baby should not stop us from taking a one-week ski vacation. "He's only two months old," I protested. "Anything can go wrong. How can my mother manage?" I found no support from Arthur, who answered, "She seems to have managed well enough with you and your two brothers." My own mother was overjoyed that Arthur would take me on vacation, while allowing her to take care of Mark. Mark, ambivalent, was happy to have his grandparents hold his bottles. It was torture for me until, after two mournful days and many prayers, the weather turned so foul I was able to persuade Arthur to head home. I vowed never to leave our son again for more than a day at a time. Mark, unaware of the fifth commandment, grew so fond of his grandparents, he enjoyed our short absences and complained when my parents departed.
For a while, Arthur was content to stay at home and help bring up baby—or so I thought, until the day he brought home plans for a five-week vacation in Europe. I was devastated. How could he ask me to abandon Mark, brimming with smiles and laughter, at sixteen months? The brochures Arthur collected enthralled him. "We'll take a bus tour through the south of Spain, visit a friend of a friend in Lisbon and buy a Fiat in Italy. We can drive north through France and leave the car at the dock," he said, planning our journey. Across the channel, a few days of shows and shopping in London culminating in four days of rest, sailing home on the Queen Mary. I agonized for weeks, holding Mark to my bosom, while trying not to frighten him. How could I leave him and my chores behind and make a frivolous journey strictly for pleasure?
Pouting tearfully, I left Mark in the care of his adored and adoring grandparents. I wrote pages of instructions regarding his care, his diet, what to wear for each 5-degree change in temperature, when to play, the temperature of the bath water and how long to nap. Shirley reassured me saying, "I'm a nurse. I'll watch him with your eyes and even make sure no one spoils him. You're leaving him with four mothers and three fathers," she added, referring to my aunts, uncle and brothers who would be helping my mother. "He'll have a ball." I knew she was right. I completed the last page of instructions and handed it to my father in the car on the way to the airport.
Amazingly, once the wheels of the plane left the tarmac, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had done all I could. I no longer had any control over Mark's care. He was in loving, capable hands. I sincerely tried not to worry, with a modicum of success.
Now that I felt less guilty about leaving Mark, I could feel more guilty about spending money. Arthur had always ignored my inborn stingy streak. He had never been exposed to what he jokingly referred to as my "attempt to squash the buffalo" for such an extended length of time. Now he turned his deaf ear whenever I lamented and crabbed about the excessive costs of side excursions, the extravagant dinners, the cost of the Paris opera and London shows. I tried to enjoy buying inexpensive souvenirs for Mark. In London, when Arthur helped me choose twelve place settings of china, I vacillated and cried for two days. How could I agree to that exorbitant expenditure even when Arthur assured me it was one half of the New York price?
Reluctantly, as a result of Arthur's gentle persuasion, I said yes and even agreed to the large platter, vegetable dish and gravy boat. The thought of spending the next four days on the Queen Mary with regrets helped stifle my tears.
A huge envelope found in our cabin contained pictures of Mark enjoying himself, without his mommy and daddy. The daily diary of his activities, enclosed by my father, unleashed the specter of my guilt again. We returned to a child we almost didn't recognize. Mark was taller, smarter, and fatter. Shirley gave me her report of his excellent care and I related, in exquisite detail, every place we went, everything we saw, and all our experiences. She was enthralled and vowed to make a trip abroad her next vacation.
A year passed. Michael joined Mark. Shirley met and married Leo and honeymooned on an island in the Caribbean. Our boys grew, and Arthur planned other vacations. I nurtured those same feelings of guilt and protected my right to have them, the same way I cared for our traveler’s checks and passport. Now I could feel guilty about leaving two children. It made no difference to me that they both looked forward to those special times with their grandparents. I still deplored spending money on the wrought iron screens from Spain, the Italian ceramics and the huge brass candle sticks from Morocco. All of which I knew I couldn't and wouldn't want to do without.
Shirley's desire for a vacation abroad increased with all the tales of adventure Arthur and I reported. She floated ideas before Leo and he blew them away with derision. "What do you know about travel? A waste of time and money with foreigners cheating you every chance they get!" She enjoyed our vacations vicariously and insisted I report the minutiae to her after we returned. Shirl went to Atlantic City for a long weekend with Leo and their two children, three times. Would she ever see the snake charmer backlit by the setting sun in Marrakesh, the Blue Mosque with its threadbare carpets in Istanbul, the cotton-shaped lamp posts in Tashkent, or hear the plaintive cry of the gypsy violins in the wine cellars of Budapest? She and I joked about traveling together as widows.
I began to put off telling her about our vacation plans until the very last minute. When I disclosed our itinerary, she would sound more exited than I felt, giving me another kind of guilt. She always asked me to send postcards, perhaps as a stab at Leo. Leo bought a summer home in New Jersey, where Shirl sat on the porch reading, while her children attended day camp. I developed a third kind of guilt knowing that Arthur had to drag me off on exciting adventures, while Leo considered a trip to California to visit Shirl's brother a waste of his time and money.
Shirley went on a diet to get into shape for her son's
Bar Mitzvah, and a lump in her breast became easy to feel. Her voice
on the phone shattered my hold on life. For a moment we teetered
between fear and despair before righting ourselves. Our unquestioning
faith in each other gave us the strength to deal with the doctors and
After her mastectomy, her fear of a shortened life span grew, and so did her courage. She announced to Leo that she would make that trip to California, alone if necessary, using the birthday money her mother gave her each year. Leo ranted, his tongue a rapier of verbal abuse. "I leave my job one day and Ralph or Harry latch onto my clients. And then where are you? In the poorhouse! What do you know of the business world? You just spend money, that's all." At the very last minute he condescended to join her and their children.
The radiation to her chest wall failed to prevent the tiny tumor that grew just outside the treatment zone. Shirl had a radium implant to treat the lump of cancer, and then started chemotherapy. She called me almost every night during those three years to voice her fears, describe how she dealt with the day's nausea, and to give me a hair loss count. I tried my best to bolster our spirits. Our ability to anticipate each other’s thoughts increased as we pulled closer together for support. Three months after she completed the course of chemotherapy her blood test disclosed cancer activity. Bone and liver scans proved negative. We worried. If the blood test was accurate her cancer was active. If the cancer had spread, where was it hiding?
Arthur planned a trip to Israel and Egypt. I dreamed about dying in the desert and refused to go. I had bad vibes—my sixth sense was sending signals. We rescheduled our plans and again I couldn't make myself go. Shirl developed leg pains and started falling. The cancer was sending signals but it did not disclose its location until a month later. A second CAT scan found it in her brain and spine, making treatment difficult and control of its spread only temporary.
plumbed our relationship to its very core and found the stamina to see
us through to the end.
"Do you know what I'll miss the most?" she asked, as thoughts
of sunsets and Chinese food filled my mind. "Our relationship. Our
relationship," she would repeat, asking the question again and again.
We wanted to be together at the end, but there were two journeys I had to make. Michael was graduating from college in Ithaca, New York on May 18th, and Mark was graduating in Olympia, Washington on June 6th. Shirl and I knew we would have to be apart for those times, and she said she would try her darndest to live until I returned from Washington, or else manage to die in between my trips. I returned from Ithaca and we were together, with the door to her room closed to keep others out, as often as she wished. She told me she had seen Death sitting on the edge of her bed and said, "I'm not ready. I have to wait for Sandy to return."
"The finality of Death is not appealing," she said. I looked up from filing my nails at her monstrous form in the bed, her body bloated by drugs, her nude skull depressing the pillow. Her round fat face broke into a grin. She was making a joke. A half joke. No joke. I stood and reached for her hand and we laughed till she shook, our eyes met and filled with tears. We were saying good-bye in yet another way, knowing that this may be the last time we would see each other.
When the day came to fly west, I sat with Shirl until she fell asleep. Her death was so close, when I kissed her that last time, I wished I could have smothered her beneath the pillow rather than risk not being there at the moment she would need me most.
I left instructions with everyone before that journey west. Whose visits she enjoyed and how to keep the others away. How to act: cheerful. What to talk about: happy times. Michael, home from school and acting as my surrogate, was given very specific instructions to let me know immediately if she should die. Michael called at 9 a.m. the morning before Mark's graduation and gave me the news. I had been in bed, asleep, on the West Coast, when she died early that morning, five days before her fiftieth birthday. We had decided, if she were to die in my absence, I would not return for the funeral. I told Michael which flowers, from our garden, to place in her coffin.
Arthur planned our trip to Israel and Egypt that fall, and even if I truly had nothing to feel guilty about anymore, I still did, for inexplicable reasons. The children were grown and did not live at home. I stopped buying mementos, because no one wanted to dust or care for them. I did not feel guilty about taking trips that Shirley would not miss. Yet I traveled under a small cloud. There was no incentive to enjoy adventures without the audience that Shirley had provided.
Two years later, things began to change. I always had a desire to visit China, and we were getting firsthand reports from many of our friends. They did not impress Arthur. The trip sounded exhausting and there were stories of poor accommodations, uneven food, bugs and unsanitary conditions. Arthur preferred the paradors in northern Spain. This time I made the decision. I was determined to pursue my dream of visiting China.
I had come to realize what happens when one postpones their dreams so long that they are never able to fulfill them. I shut my stingy guilt away in a box with a big lock. A long hard look in the mirror convinced me. I did not want to wait till I would be the tourist who remained in the bus every time there was a hill to climb for a spectacular view. The China bug had bitten me.
"I want to go to China," I said, and Arthur’s mania for research took hold. We found just the tour we wanted, through an agency in Chinatown. I felt so free of guilt, I was positively light-headed. I began to sew travel clothes long before the first down payment. I was packed days before departure. I made no lists of instructions. If the plants died before we returned, I would buy new ones.
A radically different person stood at the railing of the flat-hulled ship on the Li river, as it picked its way carefully through the limpid shallows. The sight made me hold my breath. Before me, passing in and out of the mists were the crusty, oval, limestone peaks rising sharply from the river’s edge. Sparse, misshapen pines clung to irregularities in the sides of the cliffs. Small huts, barely the size of a walk-in closet, perched on shallow shelves of earth, their roofs turned up at the ends in the fashion of the east. Could it be that all that stretched before me, the river, the rice paddies, the cliffs, all that I had admired for years in the many Chinese paintings I desired to possess, was real? My eyes moist with pleasure, I attempted to store each changing view in the convolutions of my brain. Then I could conjure them up from those secret, dark places whenever I needed comfort and strength.
We saw many sights in China that filled me with awe and delight, before ending our journey in Peking. There, in the shop, near the Winter Palace, in the Forbidden City, I saw the most beautiful deep blue silk jacket, embroidered with masses of golden chrysanthemums. One look at the price tag and I never bothered to try it on. Oh Guilt, how I wish I could put you back into Pandora's Box.