I’ve felt the pull for years, to see what’s out there, how it differs from what I understand of the world. I’ve traveled distances to feed the pull. One destination, while still in the planning, thrilled me. Africa’s “Big Five” beckoned: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo. I had my telephoto lens and a new bush hat—wide-brimmed, khaki-colored, with proper ventilation at the crown.
I pushed aside months of gripping headaches and growing fatigue, instead buying airfare, getting vaccinations. Nothing was going to sideline me.
“You have a cavernous angioma.”
I looked at the doctor in his white lab coat with black stitching over chest pocket. Whatever it was he’d said, all I needed, wanted, to know was what we could do to clear it up before my safari. His next sentence slammed my stomach into my shoes.
“It’s a brain tumor.”
I looked at him, silent because I didn’t know what to say next. He looked back, silent because he was giving me the space I needed to realize my life had changed in that heartbeat.
I tried another surgeon, and another. I walked into each appointment with the hope I’d be told what I had was nothing to worry about, that the last doctor was mistaken, that I could get back to my life. Instead, they agreed I could not ignore it. I certainly could not fly. I could, they said, choose the date of my open-head surgery.
Scans showed my brain tumor was bleeding, causing the symptoms I’d been trying to downplay because they didn’t fit into my plans. Nonstop hiccupping, dry heaving, thunderous headaches, a paralysis that had started in my left foot and ankle. If the next bleed was severe enough, it might leave me with stroke-like deficits.
I was forty.
Trips, for years, had pulled me to places I wanted to see, taste, hear, learn about.
The goal? To come back richer, in some way, for having been there.
I was being pulled again, but that time to an experience far from savannas; to a place I knew nothing about, something malevolent at work inside my own head. A journey I never imagined I’d take.
The goal? To survive.
They got it all. After close to twelve hours of surgery, and three days before I’d have left for the safari I scrapped. It was benign, yet I return every two years for follow-up.
The pull returned a year after my surgery, to see what’s out there, what I might have missed were the outcome different. I remember, and mark, what I survived.
Standing feet from where it’s said Jesus Christ was laid after being taken from the cross, I remembered. Later that day, when I slipped a handwritten prayer into a crack at the Western Wall—penciled lines on a corner I’d torn from a sales receipt for coffee—I remembered. When I stood outside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, breathing in call to evening prayer as it crackled from a minaret and bounced through the courtyard; and, again when I stood before the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the temples of Angor Wat. When I floated in the Dead Sea, crossed the Sahara desert by camel, trekked to the next waterfall in the Amazon rainforest.
When I looked into the glass-filled wall of human skulls stacked stories high in Cambodia’s Killing Fields …
I have a scar at the base of my skull. When I look in my bathroom mirror and bring another hand mirror to my neck, I see outlines of the staples used to close my head. Sometimes, I trace them.
When life’s minutiae interferes and I return to the belief that small frets are the big stuff, I touch and trace.
The pull persists. To see what’s out there.
To remind me of what’s good, right here, when I turn again the key to my front door.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower