One year ago this week, I was given the news that my mother had been diagnosed with stage II colon cancer.
Suddenly, my carefully laid-out academic plan and my goal to study abroad in Africa became nothing more than scribbles in a one-subject notebook. I contemplated how to piece together this devastating news. Everything in my life up to that point had been planned, or at least somewhat scripted. I was always supposed to graduate high school, go to college, have internships, get good grades and go out on weekends.
I was not supposed to watch a doctor hand my mother a bar graph depicting her chances of survival. My plans had changed.
In response to her diagnosis, I scratched plans to travel to South Africa and decided to take off the spring semester of my junior year. I couldn’t imagine the idea of being on the other side of the world while my mother suffered through chemotherapy treatments. I also couldn’t see myself caring about many of my classes.
This decision didn’t come lightly, and my parents were quite skeptical about the idea. I convinced them that I could still graduate on time and that my time would be better spent at home helping my mother through treatments. Through the winter months, I watched my mother undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy. While most of my friends were in Foggy Bottom or traveling the world, I was with sitting with my mother at the oncology center.
By Feb. 2008, there was a good indication that she would complete her treatments and be cancer-free by March. This miraculous turn of events was more than welcomed by my family, but it left me pondering an unexpected question: What now? My mother didn’t need me anymore and it wasn’t as if there were many interesting job opportunities in southern New Hampshire.
My next step was to make a new plan. After a few weeks of deliberation, I filled my frame backpack and boarded a red-eye flight to Rome. The goal was to make sure everything I had missed from a study abroad experience was packed efficiently into three weeks of touring Italy with nothing more than what was on my back. I relied on a few hostels but mostly on the numerous friends scattered around Italy who were studying abroad and willing to offer their couches.
I had a private tour of the Pope’s private gardens in the Vatican. I drank the fine wine of Tuscany while overlooking Florence at Piazza Michelangelo. I hiked along cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea. I somehow found myself at the most exclusive club in Milan wearing nothing nicer than a wrinkled collared shirt that I had stuffed in the bottom of my pack.
After my journey to Italy, I accepted a job teaching environmental education beginning in April. I lived at the base of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, known for recording the highest wind speed in the world at 232 miles per hour. I taught children about everything from how to pack a backpack to the fragile ecosystems of the boreal forest. Nearly every day until I returned to GW, I was hiking and teaching in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, far from the ring of a cell phone.
My experience came full circle last week when I was back in Foggy Bottom sitting around with a few friends on a typical Friday night. As I opened a bottle of Magic Hat #9, the quote underneath the bottle cap read, “When Plans Fail, Blaze New Trails.”
While no one in the room knew it, I realized that was the greatest lesson I had learned in the past year. During an experience that pushed my family to the breaking point, I spent more time with my parents and had the privilege of watching my mother survive cancer. I also traveled to Colorado, Utah, Italy, Barbados and hiked every day in the White Mountains.
I realized that I was fine with having my perfect plans thrown out the window. It is only when that happens and everything falls down that we have an opportunity blaze new trails.
The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.