Four women journey toward inner peace as they reconnect with loss through travel
A Sister’s Spirit
By Andrea Gromme
Searching for solace in Thailand after the death of a twin
Life’s dance came to an abrupt stop on Dec. 11, 1998. I awoke to NPR’s Morning Edition reporting a plane crash in Thailand. My mind reeled, denying the possibility that my twin sister, Helen Gromme, and her boyfriend, Chip Houseman, might have been aboard that plane. It was not impossible, as they were in Thailand working on a natural history film. Within a few hours, I received news from the film crew that Helen and Chip were indeed on that flight. Sixteen hours later, the U.S. Embassy called to confirm my worst fears. Helen and Chip were not among the survivors. Receiving the news of the loss of my twin sister instantly made me feel like an amputee; my soul was severed in half forever.
Thai Airways offered to fly my family to Thailand immediately to tend to the necessary details and perhaps gain closure. The night before our departure, the film’s producer phoned, urging us not to come. He proposed that he and the film crew handle the grim arrangements, so that we could preserve happy memories of Helen. Hearing the weariness and grief in his voice convinced us to cancel the trip.
Instead of going to Thailand, my family and friends gathered for a memorial service in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Helen, Chip, and I lived. Although the service provided some comfort, it didn’t provide closure. During the following months, I settled Helen’s affairs, reached out to all those who knew her for love and support, and even traveled to Peru hoping to escape my constant grief. But in the back of my mind, I knew that I would eventually have to go to Thailand to find peace.
My chance to travel there came almost a year later. On Dec. 4, 1999, Thai Airways invited my family to attend a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the plane crash in Surat Thani. My parents chose not to go, fearing that the ceremony would reopen their deep wounds. I decided to go and face my grief head-on. Two days later, my older sister, Alison, my boyfriend, and I flew to Thailand.
In Surat Thani, survivors and family members of the victims gathered beneath large ceremonial tents to pay tribute to Flight TG261. In the rain, I wandered a short distance away to see the crash site, where I hoped to confront my deepest fears. Instead of encountering a tragic scene, I found unexpected tranquillity as I took in the lush jungle regrowth teeming with life. I closed my eyes to savor the beauty and listen to the soothing chants of the Buddhist monks drifting from the tents. Then an Australian woman who had survived the accident joined me in this calming moment. We stood quietly together at the shores of the swamp and gazed out over the waters that had claimed 101 lives, yet spared 45. She described the events preceding the crash, which were not at all like the sensationalized accounts I’d read in newspapers and on the Internet. In fact, she said that no one even realized that the plane was going to crash until the last second. A wave of relief swept over me, ending the sleepless nights imagining my sister’s final terrifying minutes. Gathering stories from other survivors brought great comfort to me. Witnessing the triumph of the human spirit over tragedy and disaster filled me with new inspiration.
My cathartic journey came full circle when a British naturalist, Mark, who’d worked on the film with Helen and Chip, helped us retrace their footsteps through Khao Yai National Park, where they’d been shooting in the weeks prior to the accident. We chased the eerie calls of gibbons as they traveled through the jungle canopy, felt the spray of thunderous waterfalls, watched millions of bats stream out of a nearby cave at dusk as we sipped Singha beer on the veranda of the guest house Helen and Chip had last stayed in. I was electrified because knew that Helen had been living life to the fullest until the day she died.
Happiness for Helen slowly overtook my longing for her. Moving through a predominantly Buddhist culture reminded me to live in the present. Visiting the crash site and meeting survivors replaced my sadness with hope. Following Helen and Chip’s path on their last great adventure infused me with joy and renewal.
I realize that healing the pain of losing a twin is a lifelong process, but the memories and feelings of my trip to Thailand have sustained me and will continue to sustain me. Today, I try to approach each day, as Helen would, with a sense of adventure and freshness.
Andrea Gromme lives in Jackson, Wyoming, where she is busy saddle-training two Holstein cows that she plans to ride cross-country in Helen’s memory to inspire children to realize their dreams. For more information, visit www.moowalk.org.
Learning To Live Again
By Katie Cavicchio
In Nepal, the victim of a violent act triumphs over her pain and fear
I arrived in Nepal with the tenderness of the recently wounded. Walking through Kathmandu, I clutched the mace in my pocket with one hand and white-knuckled my backpack with the other. Westerners floated past, suntanned and blond-streaked from weeks on Southeast Asian beaches. They seemed open and unafraid as they flashed charmed smiles at the Nepali people who were offering them guide services, chessboards, and tiger balm. My fear and caution isolated me as I crept through the crowd with my chest caved in and my head low. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to go home.
The love I once had for traveling alone—my need for it—had been destroyed in one evening, four years previously. I had taken a walk on an empty beach in the Canary Islands. Traveling alone at 18, I was trapped in a naive worldview that included a false sense of safety. So enamored was I with other cultures and exotic places, I never imagined I could be in danger while traveling. I didn’t know to feel vulnerable on the beach that night, until headlights flashed behind me. All at once, a wave of panic swept my core. A car stopped 10 feet from me, where the gravel turned to sand. I retreated toward the water, faint with an acute sense of danger. The headlights blinded me, so I couldn’t see the driver, but I heard him shouting over the waves, something in Spanish—rapid and desperate.
“No hablo Español!” I screamed, paralyzed, aware that I had nowhere to run. The door opened, and the driver stumbled through the soft sand. He lunged and snatched my right arm. Pressing a rusty blade against my mouth, he forced me into his car. I felt certain that he would kill me. Over the course of the night, this man raped me repeatedly, speaking of his wife and infant daughter, his “how you say, coca … cocaine?” addiction. At times I get flashes of memories—his oily skin and acrid breath, the child’s car seat he shoved aside to lie down—but I cannot remember exact details. I know I bargained with him for a promise not to kill me. He finally fell asleep when the sky turned predawn gray, and I slipped from the car and ran like hell back to town. In the next two hours, I threw whatever seemed to matter into my backpack and caught a flight bound for Los Angeles. I lived in Pennsylvania, but I didn’t care; I just wanted off that island.
After that, I crawled through my college years, sleeping with the lights on and an ice ax under my bed. I spent countless hours on the pink velour chair in my therapist’s office, staring hard at nothing. I was storing my pain in an unreachable space. I didn’t have the language to talk about what had happened to me, about what was keeping me withdrawn and afraid. Somehow, I knew I needed to travel again.
I also knew if I waited too long, I would talk myself out of it. So within a few weeks of getting the idea, I had booked a flight to Nepal, a place I’d always wanted to visit, a place that, at the time, symbolized for me all that was peaceful and possible. In retrospect, I don’t know how I worked up the nerve. It seemed like a great idea … until I spent my first night in Kathmandu, feeling vulnerable and lost, trusting nothing and no one.
By the next morning, I felt a little better. Roosters called me out of sleep, and I smiled, realizing that I had survived my first night. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and stepped into the bustle and motion that was morning in Kathmandu—slick Nepali men in jeans, young European travelers in saris, dreadlocked Australian teenagers with backpacks on their shoulders, silver-haired Nepali women with baskets bending their backs. My heart pounded and I smiled: I was traveling again, and it felt good.
That evening, saffron light illuminated the Kathmandu valley, and I joined Nepalis and exiled Tibetans in circumambulating Bodinath, a Buddhist temple. I walked beside barefoot monks in crimson robes and women from the high plateau with turquoise threads braided into their hair. They cycled through prayer beads, kept their heads low, and softly chanted Om Mani Padme Hum, which is a mantra said to invoke compassion.
I had risen to the challenge, I had grieved, and I was ready to go home. A few days later, on March 6—the fourth anniversary of my assault in the Canary Islands—I was trekking near the border between Nepal’s Lower and Upper Mustang regions. Lower Mustang is the northernmost point trekkers can walk with standard permits, and the border is heavily patrolled. I sat on a low stone wall between the two districts and thought about being banned from the space before me. Three giant steps and I would have stood illegally on Upper Mustang soil, but armed guards eyeing me from their posts squelched any desire I had to test the law. I was content to be, to think about space that is allowed and space that is not, to think about my borders, about the boundaries I establish and patrol in my own body.
I climbed the steep hill to the community temple, seeking an unearthly power to help me put an end to the pain that still lingered inside me. I watched my hand, brown from mountain sun, turn ancient bronze prayer wheels, and asked to be relieved of the fear I was carrying from one horrific night that was not my fault. I asked to learn to see the beauty of the high desert of northern Nepal and forget the sands of the Canary Islands. I asked to move on, to feel confident again.
Wind blew the red dust of the plateau into my eyes, and my tears fell to the ground. I watched clouds encircle snow-covered summits in the distance and realized that I had risen to a challenge, I had grieved, and I was ready to go home.
Katie Cavicchio has lived and played in Colorado for almost two years and is getting restless to hit the road again.
Seeking Closure In Tibet
By Asia Wright
A young woman visits the mountain graveside of a father she never had the chance to know
On Oct. 13, 1980, an avalanche swept four climbers 2,000 feet down from where they had just set up at Camp II on Minya Konka (Gongga Shan). The avalanche buried the men on a ledge, injuring all of them. My father, Jonathan Wright, suffered the most severe injury, a broken neck. Within a half hour, he took his last breath in the arms of his climbing partner and best friend, Rick Ridgeway.
My father received his first assignment as a photographer for National Geographic at the age of 23. Over the next few years, he traveled across six continents, photographing a multitude of subjects and establishing himself as a capable cinematographer as well. He found beauty in everything and everyone, but something about the Asian continent in particular captured his heart. Tibet’s landscape and the will of its people took hold of his imagination.
The 1980s marked the opening up of one of the most desired mountain playgrounds in Asia. After 30 years of concealing the land of Tibet and its people from outsiders, the Chinese government admitted the first climbing expedition there since China’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s. My father was invited to film the ascent of Minya Konka, a 24,000-foot peak that straddles the Tibetan region of Kham and China’s Sichuan province. The journey proved to complete a part of my father’s life; as he wrote in his journal shortly before the avalanche, “If I were to die tomorrow, I would feel as though my life had been fulfilled.”
Nearly 19 years after the accident, accompanied by the man who held my father as he lay dying, I embarked on a two-and-a-half-month journey to find the place my father had loved and ultimately died pursuing. At the time of the accident, I was 16 months old. Needless to say, my father’s death was not a tragedy that struck my consciousness with an immediate blow. I didn’t suffer a “loss” of my father so much as I suffered from his consequential absence. Although I tried hard for much of my young life to pretend I knew him, he remained a character in my imagination. The only tangible connections I had to him were his photographs and his writings. Many times, when I thought about my father, I dreamed not about a person, but of the places that seemed to symbolize his essence.
My hope on this journey was not only to find the site where my father had perished, but more important to understand the places that ultimately defined him. My hope on this journey was not only to find the site where my father had perished, but more important, to understand the places that ultimately defined him. We began in Nepal, exploring mountain communities and steep trails during the day and visiting with old friends of my father’s and Rick’s at night. Next, we traveled across the Tibetan border and northward to a mountain sacred to Buddhists, Mount Kailas, where we joined pilgrims on the sacred three-day circumambulation of the mountain known as the khora. Buddhists believe that making the arduous trek cleans your soul of sin. The more times you complete the journey, the more pure you become, and upon completing the trek for the 108th time, you are believed to reach instant enlightenment.
On the second day of the khora, an 18,000-foot pass marks the highest elevation you reach and the place of greatest celebration. When we reached the top, hundreds of prayer flags flapped in the wind, and wind horses, small pieces of paper with prayers inscribed on them, blew around freely like large pieces of confetti. Everywhere, people were embracing. At first, I was overcome with happiness and a feeling of fulfillment, but almost instantly I was struck with an overwhelming sense of sorrow. I began to cry and, for the first time on the trip, felt pain at the memory of my father. At that moment, I felt closer to him than I ever had. I wanted him to be there with me. I wanted him to be the one giving me the experience. I cried uncontrollably as I tied a silk kata to one of the lines of prayer flags, then looked around me at the other pilgrims, still joyous. They were celebrating life, not death. This is what my dad would have wanted me to see. That’s when I had the sense that he’d been there with me all along. He had given me this experience.
We visited my father’s gravesite at the end of a two-month pilgrimage that continued across the northern Tibetan steppe. During this time, I climbed a 21,000-foot peak, lugged a 70-pound pack while ski touring in mountainous terrain, and endured extreme weather. The importance of these feats did not strike me until the final day of the journey, when I climbed the flanks of the mountain that had taken my father. Seeing his dilapidated grave was undeniably emotional, but it was different from my experience on Mount Kailas. My emotions here were sparked by the reality of his physical presence, yet I felt more distant. I reflected for the first time on the events of my trip. I had learned many lessons amidst the joy, the awe, and the sorrow.
I know I will never get definitive closure on the loss of my father, but the awareness I gained during my time in Asia allowed me to accept his death. The experience also motivated me to pursue my own life with new perspective. I now know how to find strength in my weaknesses and, above all, beauty in life.
Since her trip to Tibet, Asia Wright has been busy exploring other parts of the world and finishing a degree in environmental design.
Flashback To Father
By Jean Weiss
A trip to Iran is a daughter’s chance to forgive a divorce
The teahouse on the edge of the Shrine of Abraham was perched high in the canyon on the outskirts of Pas Ghaleh. Three friends and I rested there as we trekked through this small village north of Tehran on our way to climb Mount Tochal.
I went to Iran with a spirit of adventure. I was there on assignment to write about the first ascent of a mountain. I would investigate what it’s like to rock climb wearing a long tunic, by law the required dress for all women in Iran. I planned to research what it was like to be an American female in a restrictive culture that for the past 20 years had been closed to the United States.
At the teahouse, a slow, steady breeze refreshed my skin as I sat on a platform covered with carpets. We talked and waited for the tea to brew, and our host, the Iranian mountaineer Abbas Jafari, offered me a tray of dried dates.
“Where are these from?” I asked him incredulously.
“They are from Iran. The south,” he answered.
The brewed tea finally arrived, and as I sipped it, I could not stop thinking about the dried dates, the same kind my father introduced me to when I was little. My parents served them at our house during holidays and special dinner parties. Seeing the dates there in Iran was an unexpected overture to my past, a chance for me to come to terms with a loss from many years ago.
In 1967, when I was 5 years old, my parents called their three children into the kitchen to tell us they were getting a divorce. Engulfed in my father’s arms, I trustingly looked up at him and asked what divorce meant.
Today divorce is common. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Hardly anyone would compare the sadness a child feels when her parents split up to the tragedy of an untimely death or to being the victim of physical violence. Yet divorce remains painful, a silent suffering that is, in the best of situations, a loss of the way things were.
Our knowledge about how best to deal with divorce has grown over the years. When my parents ended their marriage, many of the people around us handled it awkwardly. My best friend’s mother was sure I was using the wrong word when I told her my parents were getting a divorce. She simply couldn’t believe it was possible. At the time, no one knew effective ways to deal with child custody, and we ended up seeing our dad only every other weekend. Some family members viewed my parents’ ended marriage as shameful, and when I visited them, I could tell they felt sorry for me.
My father remained dedicated to his children after he moved out. He took us on road trips to visit our grandparents, and to the beach, where we dug clams, played in the ocean, and built bonfires. He had a room for us at his new house, bought us two kittens, and let us bring our friends over. He was enthusiastic about every one of my choral performances, plays, and interesting trips. Still, I desperately missed his presence in the day-to-day routine of my life. When he and my mother ended their marriage, it felt like I’d lost my dad.
In Iran nearly 30 years later, the dried dates remained on my mind for the next two days as we climbed the mountain. I wondered if my father’s influence and presence had shaped me more than I’d realized. He’d traveled to Iran during the time of the shah, in 1957 and again in 1963. He’d brought into our home the Persian carpets, batik tablecloths, and copper wall hangings I’d grown up with. He’d invited Iranian exchange students to stay with us while they studied at the university near our home. On my trip, I began to get a better sense of what my dad must have been like as a young man. I also began to realize that his spirit of adventure and joie de vivre had rubbed off on me.
As my friends and I drove north from Mount Tochal to the Caspian Sea, I envisioned my dashing young father, a Kirk Douglas look-alike, fraternizing with the Iranian people, sharing their sense of humor and passion and their easygoing attitude. I remembered him telling me about nearly dying from hepatitis after eating contaminated vegetables harvested from an Iranian village field. I recalled the encouraging telephone conversation we’d had just a few weeks before when he found out about my trip. “Jeannie, that’s great!” he offered enthusiastically. “We’ll have to compare slides when you return.”
Iran had changed since my father traveled there. For the last 20 years, Iranian law has required women to cover all but their faces and hands. I had to cover up, too. It was easy to lose touch with my body, hidden beneath a long tunic and scarf. Was it still there? My face and feet, separated by a long ream of material, felt disconnected from one another. Each night alone in my tent, I found it a relief to take off the tunic and see that the person I knew remained beneath.
I began to understand the poignancy of this covering up and how it tied in to my relationship with my father. One such night, I began to understand how this covering up tied in to my relationship with my father. In the mid-’60s, we didn’t talk about the loss, the devastation of splitting a family. I was too young to know and express my hurt when my father moved out of our house. For years I’d cloaked the role he had played in my life, suppressed my feelings about this loss, as if beneath a long tunic. And now it was time to uncover. He’d influenced me more than I’d acknowledged. I felt a new camaraderie with him, a new understanding and acceptance of our relationship. Through this discovery, revealed to me in the form of dried dates, I was able to grieve my parents’ divorce and the situation it left me in. In Iran, I found the space to forgive.
Before Jean Weiss took the position of editor-in-chief of Delicious Living, she was the vice-president of content for GearGoddess.com, the senior features editor of Women Outside, and the senior editor of Women’s Sports and Fitness.