It’s been quite a while since my last post, as I’ve been travelling all over the place trying to connect with relatives and friends whom I haven’t seen for a very long time. My journey took me through the UK, across North America and down to Jamaica, before heading back across the Atlantic to west Africa.
With a total of nine flights to make all the connections, I had been putting off some aspects of the trip since 2013. However, I decided that enough was enough and that some things just would not wait. Those things included a number of aging relatives in Toronto whom I hadn’t seen for over 10 years. One in particular, my step-grandfather, must be approaching 90 years of age and I needed to see him before being compelled to do so by bad news.
I had forgotten how much I like Canada, with its spotless, leafy neighbourhoods, juxtaposed with gleaming skyscrapers reaching into crisp, blue skies. I like to think of it as America without the excesses, raw edges and urban decay. Okay, so Toronto may not be as vibrant as New York but it has plenty to engage even the most demanding traveller. However, more than anything, this is where some of the most important people in my life reside.
Chief amongst them are my sister and niece, ‘my favourite girls’ as I like to call them. I see them often when we meet up in Jamaica but it was nice to spend lots of uninterrupted time with them, just hanging out. Most days involved tracking down one relative or the other, as I tried to see as many loved ones as I could. It was incredibly fulfilling to catch up with all the missing pieces of our lives, while I tried to recognise the children who had become adults in my absence.
The most difficult part was seeing how the passage of time had ravaged bodies, mental faculties and lifestyles. It reminded me of the hidden reason why I had not returned for so long. My previous visit, in 2004, was to attend the funeral of my beloved grandmother, the person who raised me alongside a phalanx of strong women. It was a devastating occasion, coming just a few years after my mother’s farewell in the same city. For many years, my visits were connected to illness and finally, death. So, after that second funeral, events in my life appeared to conspire against a return, or so I have chosen to believe. Having finally made the trip, it’s much easier to admit that I was running from the pain and heartache associated with those journeys.
The most uplifting aspect of this experience was the opportunity to reflect on how much some of these people meant to me, especially when I was growing up. And none more than Uncle Bob, who was married to my grandmother for over forty years. With my parents divorced since I was a baby and my father residing in Britain, Bob, as he was happy for us to call him, was the closest thing I had to a father figure in my life. A silent provider, he deferred wisely to the women in the household in almost every respect. However, I will be forever grateful to him for teaching me the value of work, integrity, accountability and remaining in control of your emotions.
At no more than nine or ten years old, my brother and I would help him to count thousands of dollars and reconcile the figures with his daily sales invoices. During the summer holidays, we would take turns being the assistant to his assistant, touring Kingston and the surrounding parishes on his sales rounds, and earning our first weekly wages. Those precious years shaped my attitude towards work and my desire for a career that involved travel. Also, by always working for my pocket money, I figured very early on that there was no such thing as a free lunch.
It felt quite strange for me to tower over this giant of a man, now slight and stooped but still as sharp as ever. Although he’s still not very talkative, we shared quality time and wonderful memories. On hearing my stories about life in Africa, he became quite misty-eyed, regretting how he had believed the media that all the continent had to offer was poverty, disease and aggression. It was a touching moment, as he was genuinely sad that a place I had found so enriching had passed him by and that he had no more time left to experience it.
That feeling stayed with me for a long time, as I tried to connect with other relatives who could barely remember who I was or found it hard to communicate when they did. Alzheimer’s, stroke and other debilitating illnesses have taken their toll on previously effective, articulate and engaging personalities. It’s a feeling that time is running out for so many people and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.
One’s first instinct is to curse the passing of time and the diseases that trail in its wake. But then I stop and think; this is the same time that affords us the opportunity to do everything that’s possible in life. So, what to do? Surely, it’s more a matter of what we do with the time we are given, however long that is, and especially when we are still strong, mentally agile, active and mobile.
The issue of time came up once again when I visited with lifelong friends in Florida, in a fascinating conversation on the way to the airport. Jenny talked about wanting to travel more, apart from occasional trips home to Jamaica, but, like most people, work took precedence along with family commitments. We agreed that the whole idea of working all the time was to be able to afford a great life, which, of course, included travel. As I headed for the check-in counter and she headed back down the highway, my unanswered question hung in the air, “If you don’t find a way to start travelling soon, when exactly will you do it?”
As I settled into my seat, I asked myself another version of the same question, about all the things that I want to do. “When are you going to do it?” Did I want to have regrets later in life about all the things I failed to accomplish; all the places I never visited; the people I never saw before they died? I didn’t think so.
The point of this piece is simple. Time is precious. Once spent, it never returns. Once wasted, you can never recover it. Fill each moment with quality thoughts, quality time with loved ones and other ways to add value to your life and that of others. One day, when you are a little closer to the end than the beginning, you should be able to look back on a life well spent, satisfied that you took care of whatever is most important to you.
Remember, no matter what your age, this is your best time – to work, to build, to travel, to love, to nurture, to enjoy. In fact, it’s the only time you have.