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The Trip

A trip of a lifetime with a friend...

“Who wants to go with me to Israel next year?” Margaret threw the question in the middle of the group of friends who were enjoying themselves around the fire. No one said much and on a whim, I decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to spend time with my best friend who has fought cancer the past eighteen months.

“I will,” Margaret looked surprised, but then a big smile formed across her face, “Great, you know it is with our church group?” I hesitated for a split second, it was not that I wasn’t religious, it was that I had my run-ins with overzealous church people and even Margaret, in the beginning, was not comfortable about the fact that I was gay. This trip was not about my feelings though, it was to spend time with a friend due to the uncertainty of her future and I don’t want to be looking back and thought if only.

“No problem,” her smile told me that I did the right thing.

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I told Margaret that I would go with her on the trip when I still had my old job and got paid three times more than I earn now, but with my new job I literally I could not afford the trip anymore.

I asked her to meet me for coffee to break the news to her. We made small talk until she asked me directly what I wanted to see her about. A lump quickly formed in my throat, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I won’t be able to go to Israel with you anymore. I am sorry, but I struggle to make end’s meat every month and I don’t have the money,” I knew I rambled, but I felt so guilty.

Margaret stayed quiet for a few seconds and when I looked up to meet her eyes I could see the disappointment, “It is ok, I will see if I can find someone else to go with me,” our coffee date ended shortly after I told her about me not going with her anymore.

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I have worked day and night to get the company through a due diligence and we were almost finished when I got a very unusual message from my boss one night. She was in the hospital for bronchitis and I saw her that afternoon when I took her a gift basket, ‘We must talk about your trip.’

When I came back to the company five months ago I told my boss about me and Margaret’s trip to Israel, but I never told her that I was not going anymore, ‘I am not going anymore, sorry forgot to tell you,’ her response came quickly, ‘No, why are you not going anymore?’ For a moment I thought about lying, but I didn’t want to do that, ‘Honestly, I actually just cannot afford it at the moment.’

There was a long silence before a very surprising message came through, ‘You still want to go? I was thinking of paying you a bonus for all your hard work on the due diligence.’

I sat frozen and did not know what to do. Do I still want to go? Yes, I did wanted to, Margaret was still sick and could not foresee the future and would like to spend some quality time with her, ‘Yes, I want to go to spend some quality time with Margaret.’

The follow-up message came through quick. ‘Find out if they still have space, I will pay your trip as a bonus.’ My feelings could only be described as a complete surprise and a hefty dose of could not believe. ‘Thanks, I will find out, and I don’t have the words other than thank you.’

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My first message was to Margaret, she was over the moon with happiness and my second message was to the tour organizer. She came back that she would let me know the next day. Before 9 am the next morning the tour organizer let me knew that although the tour was closed they could add me on but they will have to have an answer by 12 pm as the airline was holding the ticket on reserve.

My boss did not know the price the previous night so I messaged her the amount and if they could go ahead to book the ticket. I knew she was in the hospital and could not phone her. By ten to twelve, she had not answered my text yet and I took it as a sign that I should not go, ‘I have not heard anything from my boss yet, so thanks for your effort but I would not be going.’ The tour organizer almost came back immediately, ‘They will hold the ticket to 1 pm, maybe your boss will give you the go-ahead before then.’ At a quarter to twelve my phone went off, ‘Price is ok, tell them they can go ahead and book the ticket.’

From going to not going to go to not going I was going now.

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It was twelve days before our trip when I got the phone call from Anton, Margaret’s husband, “Hi, Tanya, sorry to let you know, but I have rushed Margaret to the hospital, she was in a lot of pain. The doctor just came back with the results and cancer has spread to her bone marrow, liver and lungs. Her liver is not functioning at the moment,” I stood still, the emotion ran rampant through my body, “Ok, I will come by and visit after work.”

When the phone call ended I burst into tears, the shock of her unexpected and sudden deterioration was a lot to handle. It was five minutes to five, the end of the workday anyway, I packed up and left work for the hospital.

I stopped at the hospital and climbed out and bumped into Anton, Margaret’s mother and her two sons who also arrived to visit her. Her mother took my hand as we walked towards the hospital entrance. My heart started to thud, the situation must be worse than I thought. We entered the room and I had trouble to keep the shock from showing on my face and I tried not to burst into tears. She sat halfway upright in the hospital bed, her eyes unfocused with no sign of the formidable woman I have known for twenty-five years. Margaret was a shell, she looked at me and smiled, but even her smile was hollow.

“So you decide you want to stay in bed the whole day,” I tried to lighten the mood. She smiled again and started to speak and I got another shock, she was not able to string two words together that made sense. I wanted to turn around and flee, but this was not about me or my feelings. I stayed and talked and laughed on the outside and cried on the inside. After an hour I made an excuse about work that still needed to be done and that I needed to feed the cats and left. As I climbed into my car I started to cry and I kept on crying until I stopped in front of my house.

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Margaret went from at her worst when I saw her to getting better, but the cancer had been destructive and her liver was not working properly and there for she could not start with the chemo treatment. She received radiation treatment to get her well enough to start with the chemo treatment and was kept on a morphine drip to reduce the pain.

One week before our trip she acknowledged for the first time that she was not able to go anymore. I didn’t want to go anymore as well after she told me, not alone and without her, because this trip was going to be our time to spend together. Margaret told me to find someone who wanted to go in her place, I asked a few people, but it was very short notice and I could not find anybody to go until a friend suggested I asked a retired colleague from work who has never been overseas and she said yes, all was settled then, Margaret wanted me to go to see everything and that was what I was going to do.

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The Tuesday night before the trip I went to visit Margaret again in the hospital, she looked much better and most of the spark was back in her eyes and we laughed and talked as if nothing was wrong. We talked about hospital food, her swollen ankles, the upcoming trip and I felt like my old friend was back. She told me about her first hospital sponge bath that morning as she was too weak to have a shower, “And there I was completely aware of everything and I had nurses giving me a sponge bath, the last of my dignity I was clinging to, gone,” she smiled wryly.

I did not know what to say, there were sadness and the sound of giving up in her voice. It made my throat closed up. She looked at me and for a moment I forgot she was sick, then Anton walked in and broke the spell, “I have to go, still lots to do before Saturday.” I walked out of the hospital to my car, without tears this time.

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Saturday came too quickly and I still had so much to do, I planned to visit her before I left, but time caught up with me. Only once I was packed, at the airport and through customs, did I had the time to text Margaret, ‘Sorry wanted to come and visit again, but ran out of time.’ It did not take her long to come back, ‘Yes!!! I had hoped to be able to say goodbye before you left!!!’ I smiled.

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The flight was long, ten and a half hours in a claustrophic seat to Istanbul and then another hour and a half to Tel Aviv. I tried but could not slept on the plane and I could barely kept my eyes open on the five hour bus ride to Eilat with a few refreshment stops on the way.

The hotel was definitely not one of the best, but it was semi-decent and clean. Sonia and I walked down to the seaside and chatted for an hour or two, we looked out over the calmness of the sea and it calmed my mood for being in Israel and not with my friend back home. When the dark started to roll in and the lights of the city started to sparkle, we walked back to the hotel and sat down for our first meal in more than twenty-four hours. I enjoyed the food and loaded my plate with local food and especially the olives.

After a fabulous dinner, we went back to the room and I went and sat on the balcony that looked out on the sea. It was a beautiful view and I listened to music and enjoyed the view. I was tired of the travelling and decided to get into bed early, Sonia was still in the bathroom taking a long shower, but I was tired and wanted to sleep. Just before I climbed into bed, I checked my phone. There was one text message, ‘Margaret died at eight fifteen tonight.’

My legs gave in and I sat down on the edge of the bed, Sonia came out of the bathroom at that time, I threw my phone down on the bed and indicated to her to read the message, whilst I struggled to breathe. My whole body went numb, I did not cry, I did not talk, I did not do anything except sit there trying to breathe. Sonia read the message and I thought she said, “I am sorry for the news,” but I cannot really recall hearing anything she said. Then my shoulders started to shudder as my chest started to heave, the shudders were silent, then all the emotion came flooding back and I could hear the wailing that went along with the shudders. No tears fell from my eyes, the shuddering and heaving and wailing whilst my eyes were still dry. Then the floodgates broke open and the tears streamed down my face, where I was numbed a moment earlier, I felt every emotion all at once, shock, anger, the unbelievability of the situation, I read the message again, the emotions rolling over me going through spikes and dips. Images of her face, her mannerisms flashed through my mind, I was never going to talk to her again, joke with her or drank a good bottle of wine and just be in her presence again.

I knew she was now pain-free, she was happy again, she could dance like no one was watching, she could run free, I knew all of that, but at that moment I did not want to say goodbye and I was on the other side of the continent and not there with her. The regret of not going to her on the Friday night, of coming on this trip so far from her was like hands around my throat that strangled every bit of life and breath out of me. It manifested physically and I could not breathe again and the panic overtook my body, but I managed to get some air in my lungs and I started to breathe again. Although I could breathe again, the pain was intense and it went on and on for how long I could not remember as my brain threw every image of her at me and every lost moment I did not spend with her.

I cried myself to sleep that night and when I woke up the next morning there was a second of normality before the loss took hold of me again and I found myself crying again. In a haze, I showered and gotten ready for the day, packed my suitcase and made it downstairs to breakfast, I was barely able to keep it together. During breakfast one of the other tour members phoned me and asked me to come to her room and I knew that they got the news as well. I went up to her room with dread, I was barely keeping it together as it was and didn’t need the emotions of the other people on top of my own. When I got to her door, it was open and she stood there and it was the previous night all over again and my flimsy control broke. Everyone in the room cried and I could not deal with all this emotion at this moment, but I had to. As soon as the control had broken, I grabbed at it desperately to get it back. After fifteen minutes of hearing condolences and everyone’s crying, I was able to get the control back into place, but it was not a perfect fit and it took everything from me to hang onto it. I left the room and walked back downstairs to the reception area, indicated my suitcase to the bus driver and he loaded it in the bus, I climbed into the bus, took my seat and turned my face to the window away from everyone and there was a clear barrier in place shouting to the world to leave me alone.

After everyone was on the bus, the tour organizer announced Margaret’s death to everyone as there were a quite a few people in the tour group who knew her, but my control was so fragile that the moment I heard her name it tore another hole in my fragile control. For the next twenty minutes on the way to Timna Park, I worked hard to get my tears under control. Only once we were there I contained the sorrow somehow and focused on the film they showed us about the park, I tried to take as many photos of the park as I could trying to focus on that as well. We climbed back on the bus to go to the replica of the Tabernacle, which was higher up in the park. We got to the site and I could hear the excited buzz on the bus, but I was numbed with sorrow. As we got to the Tabernacle and went on the tour, I could see the wonder of the moment on some people’s faces, for me at that moment it was nothing but wood and linen. I felt I disrespected the moment and felt guilty about that, but my sorrow over the death of my friend possessed all the emotion I could feel. We got back on the bus and I continued to stare out of the window, I felt broken at that moment.

We drove a long way that day and I cried a lot and other times just stared out of the window, I tried to work through my grief the best I could. There was a lot of regret over things I didn’t do but I could not go back and change anything. At long last, we got to our next hotel on the Dead Sea. Sonia and I had a great room with a magnificent view of the Dead Sea. Like the previous day, we went for a long walk, she has known me for a long time so she knew I needed space, but as we walked I spoke to her a bit about what I felt, which helped me to get some of the grief out of my system. For a little while, I concentrated on the walk, the bit of talk and the view and I did not feel the death of Margaret so intensely as I have felt it throughout the day. After our walk, we went for dinner, it was a delicious buffet and on a whim, I decided to start with dessert, then I moved on to the main course and by my fourth plate, I could barely move. Sonia decided I needed some more exercise and she made me go for a two-kilometre walk afterwards and I cursed her the whole time, it was the first time since the previous night that I laughed.

Back in the hotel room, I stood outside on the balcony when some of the tour members sat down at tables below with two bottles of wine. They laughed, joked and I felt an acute pain in my chest when I saw the friendships, old and new, enjoying life and I knew I will always be the outsider, bordered on socially awkward, the one person always looking in as Margaret was not there anymore, the one person who always brought me into the fold. I went to sleep, too tired and emotionally drained to think more about my friend.

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I woke up more refreshed then I had the previous day, I almost felt normal. We had a big breakfast and got onto the bus again with our suitcases, ready to see some more sites and go to a new hotel that evening. Our first stop of the day was Masada and the depth of the story spoke to me as it was the first time I heard the story. I took photos and join in conversations with my fellow tour members, keeping a tight lid on my emotions.

We climbed back on the bus and stopped at Ein Gedi nature reserve, Qumran and Bethabara where three of the tour members got baptized in the water of the river Jordan. There for the first time, I felt her presence and I knew Margaret was with me there, I knew she would have gotten baptized as well if she was with me on the tour. That was the one very big difference between us, she was deeply religious, I was religious but not as deeply as she was.

On our way to Beit She’an I got the message that Margaret’s funeral was to be on the Friday before our return from Israel. That broke the control I have carefully built up, this trip has cost me the chance to say goodbye to my friend, it cost me being there for her funeral, it has driven me into a dark spiral. The darkness I have fought against enveloped me and I didn’t know how I would be able to get back out of this one. I decided against my better judgement to ask for help and then I got ignored by the same people who had praised religion all day. I then knew I should not have trusted them.

I had two glasses of white wine and was most probably a little bit drunk, and as I stood up from the bar, I had two choices I could join the rest of the tour members who once again sat outside, joking and drinking wine or I could go back to my room and retreat further in isolation. I made the decision that I knew Margaret would have wanted me to do, I walked outside, sat down, poured myself some red wine into a plastic cup and joined the conversation.

I knew I will still cry a lot, but I was here in Israel on the tour that was her greatest wish and I knew that I could not hide anymore as that will do her wish for me a disservice, I will enjoy this tour as she would have wanted me to and I knew that some places she will walk with me.

 

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