Travels with Charlie

Jessica Collins and Charlie
Jessica Collins and Charlie

“It’s stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” my mom says in a soft, quiet voice, tears streaming down her face. We had just received the call we all were dreading from the oncologist. My grandfather Charlie had been diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of months left to live. With the dream of studying abroad in Morocco always in the back of my mind, I was one semester away from achieving it. Now there was a barrier in the way. How could I even consider leaving my family behind with the unknown time left with Pops? Without another thought, I said, “I am not going to Morocco anymore.” My family all stared at me in complete silence. That was when my grandfather said with a soft voice, “You are going, and I will be there with you along the way.”

For the past 21 years, I have lived in the small town of Falmouth with my family. My extended family also live within a mile of my home. Each day was like the next. I had the same routines: I went to school, helped my grandparents, picked up extra shifts at my job, and volunteered in the community. Since I was a little girl, I have struggled with severe anxiety. New things always created a high level of fear, so sticking with the same activities provided me with the sense of safety and comfort I needed to function. I grew up living with my grandparents and loved every minute of it. They have been my role models and greatest supporters in life.

I distinctly remember the day I got off the bus at my grandparents and walked through the front door with a “big ole shiner.” Their jaws dropped as they saw that almost half of my face had become black and blue. Then Charlie said with a smile, “Who did you get in a fight with, and did you win?” He knew he’d get a laugh from the story. I remember sitting on his lap in the green flowered recliner, explaining to him how the guys at recess didn’t like that I joined their basketball game, so one of the kids had thrown the basketball at my eye as hard as he could from a couple of feet away, and I got knocked out. Although concerned, as any grandfather would be, Charlie expressed that he was proud of me for being brave and not letting anybody get to me. I refused to tell him the name of the kid who gave me the black eye, so he chose the name George. Since that day, every conversation with my grandfather would start with him asking, “How’s George?” George became our imaginary friend.

The best way to describe my relationship to Charlie is the Abbott and Costello duo, most famous for their “Who’s on first?” act in the 1940s and 50s. We brought the best out in each other, we spent most of the time making each other laugh until we cried, and we were inseparable. Charlie was the most compassionate, outgoing and robust human being I’ve ever known to walk this earth.

“Have you ever wanted to travel and learn about places outside the United States?” The student representative asked us in the large lecture hall at UNE filled with underclassmen. Upperclassmen shared their stories of the semesters spent all over the world. They were recruiting us to spend a semester abroad. For me, Tangier, Morocco had an irresistible allure. The campus looked beautiful, there were coordinated trips all over the country, and of course, there were camels! This opportunity fascinated me, but I was hesitant.

The fear of the unknown was my greatest worry. I had never left the country. To me, this wasn’t a small step like going to college out of state where it might take a few hours to visit home. Tangier meant venturing across the Atlantic to Africa. I had to accept being thousands of miles away, where returning home would not be an option for four months. I turned to my best friend, Charlie, for advice. He reassured me that my fear was understandable, but by passing up this opportunity, I would miss out on the experience of a lifetime.

I realized he was right. If I didn’t seize the opportunity and take on this journey for self-discovery, I might never get the chance to learn more about who I am and what I am capable of accomplishing.

In May of last year, my best friend was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer that was rapidly spreading to his entire body. With an unknown time left for him to live, I quarreled with myself on what my plans for school would be. I remember how in the final conversations with him, only weeks after his diagnosis, he’d repeat three phrases: “I am very fortunate,” “Stay strong,” and “I’ll be right there by your side.” Not once did I ever hear him complain or fear the road approaching its end. Instead, he provided me with the last bit of support and guidance to help me move forward once he was no longer physically here. There was no better mentor than him, as I was about to take on one of the most challenging adventures of my life. “Okay,” I told him. “I’ll go.”

On June 10th this past summer, cancer won, and on that day, Charlie became my guardian angel. Shortly after he passed, and a month before my departure for Tangier, I walked into a tattoo parlor with a small slip of paper in hand. The words, written in my grandmother’s handwriting, were, “You’re the wind beneath my wings” from the song sung by Bette Midler. It symbolized who my grandfather was in my life. The words are now tattooed on my back as a way to physically carry him with me every day. I packed my suitcase, got on a plane, and left home behind. I was not sure what the next four months in Morocco would be like, but I was excited to see what adventures lie ahead.

At first, being in Tangier didn’t seem to require Charlie’s guidance. The university planned our trips and held our hand. That is, until the day my friend Taylor said, “So, we have this weekend free. Let’s plan a trip?” Taylor was sitting across the room.

“Like the weekend that’s four days away?” I responded.

“Yes, that would be the one.”

“It’s so last minute, and where would we even go?” I still didn’t believe she was serious.

“I’m not sure yet; let’s look at flights.”

I sat on her roommate’s bed in awe. How could we randomly pick a place, jump on a plane and leave for the weekend? We had no plans! I was still adjusting to Tangier, and now just a couple of weeks after arriving, I was talking about jetting off for yet another new place.

“Italy, we should go to Rome; flights are cheap!” Taylor was up on her feet waving her arms. “Let’s do it!”

I broke out in a sweat. “Seriously, Taylor, are you sure that is a good idea?”

“Why not! It would be so much fun.”

Now I was even more terrified. Then I typed “must-sees in Rome” into my browser, and a list popped up on my screen. I began scrolling; first, there was the Trevi Fountain, then the Vatican, Pantheon, Colosseum, and the list went on forever. There were so many places to visit, plus the food looked delicious. I’ve always wanted to taste real Italian pasta and pizza. By the time I was done researching and viewing tourist photos, I was convinced.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I told Taylor. In my mind’s eye, I could see Grandfather Charlie giving me the thumbs up.

Once we finally booked the plane flight, we started making a list of all the places we hoped to see. That is when our classmates Nicole and Hien decided to join, so the four of us coordinated the trip together.

Days seemed to fly by, and the next thing I knew we were getting out of bed at six in the morning and starting our adventure. We spent hours taking taxis and trains to Fez, and a plane to Italy. The adrenaline rush of heading to Italy kept me going and wide awake the whole time. I looked out the window as we started to descend, and my stomach began in a mixture of excitement and anxiety. The adventure was beginning.

Once we landed and got through customs, where I got my fancy Italian stamp, we spent the evening walking around and getting settled into the Airbnb. The following morning, we tried our best to get up early so we could start exploring the busy city outside our door. Despite the crazy traffic and fears of disaster, we decided to rent scooters to help us get around quicker.

Sitting on the back of the bright red Vespa, I held my phone with Google Maps opened up. As Taylor was driving, I shouted out the directions, turn by turn. We were less than three minutes away from the Trevi Fountain when the blue line on the GPS rerouted us in a big loop, and it felt like we kept going in circles around the city.

As we swerved in and out of cars, speeding around on our Vespas in the middle of the snarled traffic of Rome, I was brought back to a New Year’s Eve family get together many years ago. We all sat around the table playing Imagine If, and it was Charlie’s turn. We all had to vote on “If he was a part in a vehicle what would he be.” The options were the steering wheel, the horn, the backseat, or the GPS. Unanimously, we all agreed he would be the GPS, and that was the truth. No matter where we were, he could always get us to where we needed to be. There, in Rome, I pictured Charlie sitting right next to me pointing his finger—“go right,” “go left,” “up ahead.” Sure enough, my guardian angel took us down an unmarked side road to the Trevi Fountain.

The day seemed to fly by, and I found myself eating almost all day trying as many dishes and desserts my stomach could handle. I was tempted to be finicky since I have always been a picky eater. Once again, as I stared at the menu in an elegant Italian restaurant, Charlie came to mind. Whenever my family went to a restaurant, I’d always sat across the table from him so we could make faces around the menu, and when people weren’t looking, we’d blow spitballs through the straws at each other. Since I never would stray from the norm, he would always challenge me, and he would bet me a nickel that I wouldn’t try something different on the menu. Time went by, and I got older; I realized he had a hidden goal. It was to encourage me to experience life to its fullest.

Keeping that in mind, once the sun began to go down, my friends and I returned to our place, and we got dressed to go out for the night.

We started the night at the mind-boggling Ice Club—inside, everything was made of solid ice. Our drinks were even poured into a cylinder-shaped icicle. We only spent a little time there since by the time we found the place they were closing. The bartenders recommended a tavern called “Scholars” just around the corner, and they were open until the early morning.

At Scholars, I stood with a glass of rum and Coke leaning against the wall in the bar, which was crammed and had an infectious energy. It made you want just to let loose and have fun. My friends and I spent most of the night chatting, dancing, and singing to throwback songs blaring through the loudspeakers. At one point, my friends and I got separated. I thought nothing of it until I was approached by two tall buff looking Italian men who tried to put their hands on me. My hands became cold, my heart was racing out of control, and I was shivering with anxiety. I felt cornered and alone. At that moment I decided to close my eyes and try to calm myself. I could hear and imagine Charlie saying with a big grin, “How’s George?” That was all I needed to push my way through the two predators and locate my friends.

As I tried to fall asleep that night, Charlie’s words of wisdom rushed through my mind, and I swear I heard him quote the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” The next morning, I woke up and launched into another day of adventure.

That weekend I thought about Charlie on every Vespa Ride, during our day in London, the flight back to Fez, and the train ride home. My grandfather showed what it meant to be tough even in his final days, and in my travels, I proved to him that I, too, could be tough.

Back on campus, after taking a nice hot shower, I turned my back to the mirror to see the words, “You are the wind beneath my wings” tattooed across my shoulder blade. I took a deep breath and envisioned Charlie looking down with a big thumbs up to show how proud of me he was. I was spontaneous, overcame obstacles, tried new things, and fought back with my anxiety instead of letting it always win. Now I was the one saying “I am very fortunate” to have had the opportunity to explore.

Although I continue to grieve the loss of my best friend, I consider myself fortunate to have had the most beautiful guardian angel watching over me and continuing to guide me through life even from heaven’s pearly gates. He is the “wind beneath my wings.”

Jessica Collins is a Health, Wellness and Occupational Studies major at the University of New England.

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