This is where we are now, but it all started with my Uncle David three years ago. He had just got back from walking in the Highlands to celebrate his 67th birthday when he developed a sore throat. Three weeks later he died from oesophageal cancer. He left behind his wife Alison, still only in her early 50s, and a daughter Anna, who’d just graduated from Oxford.
Through David’s fantastically warm personality he had risen from teaboy at ICI to Head of Marketing. By his own admission he had been very fortunate and he retired aged 52, his greatest delight the fact the he could spend more time with Anna and Alison. He lived healthily and happily, enjoyed playing guitar and fishing (see cartoon pic drawn by his friend Roger Penwill for David’s funeral), and never seemed to age – so his unexpected death from cancer was all the more shocking. I recall Alison saying to me a few months afterwards: “If anyone ever says to me now, we’re planning on doing our dream trip next year or something like that, I always say – don’t wait, do it now.”
Six months later our Darley was born, but spent the first week of his life in the neo-natal intensive care unit. Thank God for the NHS, and thankfully he’s now a thriving boisterous little boy.
Then a year after David died, and with the realisation sinking into us that life didn’t go as it was meant to, a best friend called Tim – a 48-year-old from Chicago who I’d met on travels two decades earlier – contacted me just before Christmas by email with a shocking out-of-character message. “I might just kill myself,” he wrote.
I spent two months chatting with Tim, thinking he was overall getting over the unplanned life events that had taken him into this depression. He was another of my rocks: he would without doubt pull through this difficult time. Just two months after that initial message though Tim took his life. That’s Tim pictured above, not long before he died. He left behind a crowd of bewildered friends and family including his adopted son Andrew, aged just 19.
A few weeks later I called my best friend from school to apologise and explain why I hadn’t been in touch for a while. I could immediately sense something was amiss.
“What’s up?” I asked him.
“My sister, you didn’t hear? She was murdered.”
She had been killed by her partner two days before Tim had taken his life.
In the intervening months, it really hit Debs and I that life really didn’t go as you always thought it would. So six months after Tim died, rather than take a regular beach-type holiday, we spent a week visiting a dozen friends who we, although in touch through Facebook, hadn’t actually seen or hugged for too many years. Some of them met our two little boys – Daniel, five, and Darley, three – for the first time. It was great and it was emotional. But we still can’t believe our boys will never know David or Tim in their lives as we always thought they would.
I wrote an article on aspects of this, one that was initially published in The Daily Telegraph – http://fw.to/ECkUW6P – and that was also then published in Ireland, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve also written an ebook about much of this, called Relentlessly Me – tinyurl.com/cf2dtz6 – that’s been rated by bestselling authors Peter James and Marcia Willett.
The realisation was stark, but also loud and clear: you never know what’s round the corner. (Or as the saying goes: how do you make God laugh? Tell Him your plans!) Increasingly, Debs and I were reminded that the most important things in life are not things at all, but family and friends. We were amazed when we realised how many family and friends we hadn’t actually seen for a number of years. We realised that while Facebook is fantastic for staying in touch, it can veil how infrequently many of us actually see our loved ones face to face.
Personally, this was all emphasised by the fact I was getting into my 40s (when we had our first baby I was the exact same age as my uncle David was when he had his daughter Anna), and that I could now clearly recall my own father at my age – working or recovering from working most of his time.
We went to Spain this springtime, poignant for Debs as she’d grown up there but not been back for 20 years, and I trod streets that I had when I’d first left home aged 19 to work in Spain. My father had come to visit me in Spain then, when he was aged my age now. More realisation. When I’d arrived there as a teenager with the world before me… back then seemed like a million years away, and yet it had also flown. In another 30 years I could be where my father is now, looking back on life. What does he wish? What would we all wish in that position? That we had spent more time with the people we cherish I am certain is the answer.
The solace within it all is that we have been clearly reminded of the real value of life: the friends and family we have. So we want to do something to help.
Daniel was due to start school soon… how could he have reached this age already? It seemed every time we went in the shops a lady in her 80s comes up to us and says something along the lines of: “It seems like only yesterday that my two children were the age your two are now. Make the most of it – time passes so swiftly and they grow up so quickly.” And so our idea for this family travel project came about.
But rather than it just be about us travelling around visiting people and places, we wanted to do a lot of good as we did it (extra to our loving hugging of family and friends!) – and inspire others to spend more time with the people they cherish in this world. So ideas developed. Then some more. Until we reached eureka point, knowing we had been granted an awesome idea!
This is where we are now, approaching the excitement of setting off on the road…