After a personally tumultuous final semester of school I moved back home in May. And it seemed like the second my foot went through the door, it signaled some great wisp of malevolent air that threw my dad out of remission. He was dead in September.
The thing that made me relatively okay throughout the year was the grand idea that I was going to see Asia – Vietnam – by the end of it. It was the year of controlled, meditated breaths and talking to myself, coaching, negotiating: I’ll be in Southeast Asia soon. This – travel, place, otherness – had become the solace of my small life. I’ve endured bad breakups with, “Well, at least I have Argentina.” General anxieties about life can routinely be quelled with, “I’m okay as long as Mongolia exists.” And so watching my dad wither away in an Upper East Side hospital bed, his hands and feet turning black and blistered, short doctors whispering words like “amputation” in dark dead-end hallways with flickering lights, it happened to be Vietnam this time.
It was an escape as much as it was a goal. It gave me the cognizance of knowing how very temporary it all was – and that the world is bigger than I will ever know, that I can choose which springs of the earth I want to swim in, which deserts to traverse – all the while helping me strive for something grander, for a life of discovery and simple pleasures. I felt quiet and small the entire year, collapsing in on myself, squashed by circumstance. Vietnam would be the end to all of that.
Sitting in bars with friends, about to graduate, they’d talk about their next steps, about what else was out there. They spoke more confidently than usual, as if they were trying to convince themselves of something. Most of them stayed in DC or New York, some were getting their MAs and PhDs. One went rogue and is now farming and baking bread in Ireland. And then there I was. Full of beer and short on answers, casually mentioning Asia but not really wanting to talk about it. They would demand facts and plans of me, and I had none. I couldn’t speak definitively about my future; I couldn’t kid myself. It’s because they were in the boat looking ahead while I was in the water trying to stay afloat. When this indulgent bout of hackneyed existentialism was done, we’d move on to bigger topics like fierce job competition and how nothing is the same anymore.
As much as I enjoy shouting it from the rooftops, that we have all the self-control, resolve, and motivation needed for success within us, sometimes we are slaves to circumstance. It was a year of situational entrapment and waiting. Waiting for graduation, waiting for my dad to die because there was never any hope there, waiting for Vietnam. Now that the end is near – I can smell the airport, I swear to god – I feel happier. That bullshit that we’re fed, the bullshit that says if we’re unhappy we’re doing something wrong, has never been more apparent. Sometimes endurance is all we have, ask any Russian. Sometimes it’s not about fighting but about letting go.
With my one-way ticket in hand, I can laugh at 2013. It is no longer relevant. There was never any fixing it, and there’s certainly no fixing it now. Instead, I am back in the boat. Instead, I am dizzy with expectations of adventure, of patent foreignness, of slurping noodles, the smoke of dripping street meats, the exhaust fumes of put-putting scooters, temples everywhere. Of Vietnam and beyond, plan-less, itinerary-less, commitment-less, of owing nothing to anyone. And I have never felt like more.
I take comfort in this uncertainty, knowing only that it is a good place to begin.∗