Back in November, I got a voicemail from a dear friend who told me she wanted to talk to me about something. She was newly married and looking forward to a family, so I fully expected she was going to break the news that she was pregnant. When I called back, it became quickly apparent that the news she had was much different: stage 4 brain cancer, she said. The doctors said 15 months. She was only 37.
The news sent me reeling. In the weeks that followed as I visited with her, took her to treatment and tried to process the whole thing, I couldn’t help but reflect. I was 37, too. With two young girls, a husband with a demanding job, my own day job and budding business, life was – and is – hectic.
Days often roll over one into the next until, before I realize it, weeks have flown by without pause.
Rarely have I stopped to look around at the life we created – the constant churning of a mental to-do list will do that. But this news brought me to a halt. What if that diagnosis had been mine? There was no logical reason why she should get this disease. Glioblastoma – the type of cancer she has – usually occurs in men over the age of 64. It made no sense – but then, cancer doesn’t always play by the rules.
One day, as we sat over coffee, I asked my friend if she had a list of things she wanted to do. Her answer surprised me. “You know,” she said, “you think there’s all these things you’d do if you’re told you have only a year. But the reality is, there’s so much to take care of. Treatment takes so much out of you.” Fighting cancer becomes a full-time job.
After that conversation, I went home, back into the hustle of everyday life. Christmas season was coming, with its usual demands. The last thing I wanted was to fill our lives with more stuff, more noise, more obligations.
Again, I thought, what if that diagnosis had been mine? Would any of this even matter?
I already knew the answer was no. None of the toys, the peppermint lattes, the Christmas cards, even the holiday parties… none of it really mattered.
But there was one thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about. My children had never been to the beach. They were 5 and 3 years old, born at the base of the land-locked Rocky Mountains, and my Colorado native babies had never set foot in the ocean.
At some point a couple years ago, when my oldest daughter was 3 or 4, she read a book about the ocean, or maybe she saw it on TV. She started asking me about when we were going to the beach – as if it was a done deal, already planned with tickets in hand. I laughed it off, amazed at her fixation on something she had never experienced. But it just didn’t seem realistic. Daycare was eating all our extra income, and our PTO was always reserved to visit family on the east coast. A quick jaunt to Mexico didn’t feel fiscally responsible. It was easy to talk ourselves out of it.
Until suddenly, it seemed like there were no guarantees.
Without a guarantee of “there’s always next year,” or “when the kids are out of daycare,” or “when things slow down a little,” what would you do as a family? My husband and I talked about it, and both of us agreed, we had to make the beach happen.
Let me tell you: choosing to prioritize a family vacation might be the best decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our little clan.
Better than choosing a school. Better than me working part-time. Almost better than the time we pulled off the Wyoming highway in the middle of the night amidst tornado warnings.
What I learned about taking a family vacation is that it’s so much more than just making memories and new experiences – though that alone is worth every penny.
What amazed me was that I saw my children in a new light. It was their first time out of the country, in a new culture with new language and new food. I witnessed their curiosity and personalities blossom outside of their comfort zone. I learned that my oldest isn’t as fearful as she sometimes seems – something to remember the next time she gets scared to try something new at home. I learned my youngest will dance like no one is watching, to any and every music she hears – something to cherish and encourage the next time I worry about her getting in someone’s way. Without the distraction and over-stimulation of daily life, I saw who they were, unencumbered. I saw who they might grow up to be, if allowed to bloom.
On vacation, my kids saw a different side of me, too. They didn’t know their mom spoke Spanish, or danced salsa. They didn’t know I ate crab or knew what monkeys sound like. They caught a glimpse of my 20-year-old self: the carefree college girl who took a semester off to live in Central America. They needed to see her, to know that mom is just a grown girl who is excited by the world, who loves her life but sometimes gets overwhelmed with its crazed pace.
I needed them to see her, too.
See, that’s the other thing, mama. You need a vacation. You need someone to cook and clean for you for a few days. You need your kids to crash after hours in the sun and pool, giving you 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep for 6 nights straight. If you have a partner, you need a week with them, without work travel, long days or late nights, but with extra hands and help and love to manage those kids. You need a break from the mundane tasks that weigh you down: the birthday parties, the school projects, the soccer practices, the outgrown shoes, the dry cleaning. You need time free of worry, with nothing to do but play.
You deserve to be reminded of who you are when you aren’t bound by the mental weight of managing everyone else’s life.
You deserve look around at the family you’ve created, and cherish the beauty, the love and the time you have together. You deserve to pause, to breathe in life without constraint, and remember what it’s like just to live just for the sake of living. You deserve the vacation, and all the discoveries that lay on the other side.
Prioritize the vacation, mama. There are no guarantees – only the promise the life waits for us if we choose to embrace it.
Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.