What May Have Been

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck & Jeff Cruz
I bake banana bread and chocolate chip cookies. It’s the first thing I ache to do when settled into a house-sit, wooed by phantom aromas and the warmth of an oven, making full use of a stocked kitchen we rarely have access to otherwise.

We go to the movie theatre. Once, twice, three times in three weeks which is more than in the last two years. Movies used to be such a big part of our rooted life and this brief re-settling happens to coincide with our old favourite time of the year: Oscar season. We’re still woefully behind in terms of pop culture knowledge, but to even catch a glimpse of it again has been fun for both of us.

On Sundays Pete watches football and I curl up on the couch beside him with a book in hand. We scour Netflix and Hulu, and catch up on so many shows we’ve fallen behind on. We watch some really cheesy and shameful crap. Like, so embarrassing. I can’t even bring myself to share the titles here.

After a couple weeks of this sedentary life, we hit the gym. Once, twice, three times a week, more for Pete. I enjoy it more than I ever remember enjoying exercise before. I try harder. I figure that if I am there then I might as well push it (especially considering the fresh cookies waiting for me).

I was a gym rat for a period of time in our settled lives too, but only in earnest when I was off work for stress, I otherwise never found that time for myself. And I never wanted to go with Pete before either, bridled by stupid but typical insecurities. Somehow I felt shy of the way I looked while running and by the inordinate amount of sweat I produce. But now, like in everything, I just want to be with him all the time. And of course he’s supportive and helpful and happy to have me there. Now I’m embarrassed by my former embarrassment, but that is all a part of human growth I suppose.

It’s been interesting to compare this time house-sitting in Ann Arbor to the last few years of our settled life in Canada. After our rapid travel in Italy and a quick visit home, we find ourselves relishing the slow and familiar groove, albeit with some subtle tweaks based on the fundamental changes we have borne. It encourages us to have little flashbacks to what was, and maybe what would have been still, had we never left to travel over five years ago.

We find ourselves relishing the slow and familiar groove, albeit with some subtle tweaks based on the fundamental changes we have borne. It encourages us to have little flashbacks to what was, and maybe what would have been still, had we never left to travel.
Looking Back

Photo by Jeff Cruz

“What do you think we would be doing?” Pete and I discuss. Would we have gone to further lengths to have our own kids? Or adopted? Would we have been in the same oversized house for the two of us? Would we still be working in jobs that we neither hated nor loved, but that paid well? What would we be doing now if we hadn’t had that one conversation that changed our life?

Impossible questions, but they are often posed to us by others, and by us to ourselves. Usually we dismiss them with a resounding WHO CARES, as it now is what it is and the alternative path seems so foreign. But whether it’s the fact that our actions in these few weeks closely mirror times past, or that the blue walls and tiles of the bathroom are almost exactly what we once had (it’s uncanny!), these questions have resurfaced more fervently in our conversations.

The truth is that we weren’t unhappy with our former lives, but there were certain things we weren’t happy with. And I suspect that we would have simply tried to squash the percentage of us that was dissatisfied. Because we were doing what we should have been doing, and that should have been enough.

Although I think our old house would have been replaced by now, whether just swapped for another in a new neighbourhood or for something smaller inner city, our first few years together saw us move around a few times as it was. Now, on reflection, it seems that we were always searching for a community to fit into. We never found it, and I doubt we would have by now.

I would certainly have more than the one pair of fuzzy pants that I’m already wearing holes in while we’re here in Ann Arbor. Bigger salaries would have meant an accumulation of nicer things, some which admittedly would have been a novelty when we bought them, but then sat idly afterwards. Such a thought makes me sick to my stomach now – the waste of resources and dollars that could be better spent on adventure.

I’d like to think that I would have pursued more fulfilling work, but probably not. Even after what we had been through, enduring those events which caused all ambitious and competitive bones in my body to splinter and disintegrate, the ample pay check would have kept me from searching elsewhere. I may have lost my track to an executive position, but I could have still been successful at a more moderate level. I would likely have never known the freedom and bliss of being my own boss and working side-by-side with my best friend.

As for kids, we would perhaps be taking care of little humans in some form, whether I popped them out or not. I’m sure we’d love them, and I’d like to think we’d even be decent parents (because we are a kickass aunt and uncle, that’s certain). Or maybe we’d be those people who had kids but shouldn’t have, not emotionally able or willing to give them what they need.

Because while it is all conjecture to predict a parallel life, I do know one thing for sure – if we hadn’t summoned the courage to burst out of the existence we had, that intense need for change would have surely manifested in another way, and likely in dramatic fashion. Maybe I would have spiraled deeper into my trauma-induced depression. Maybe there would be no “we” to talk about. I definitely don’t like to speculate with such negativity, but I can’t deny those real possibilities.

Maybe I would still be buried under my trauma-induced depression. Maybe there would be no “we” to talk about. I definitely don’t like to speculate with such negativity, but I can’t deny those real possibilities.

Dalene in Train Mode
So we will soak up the comforts of this house-sit, this brief semblance of our former life, and be grateful for it. Parts of it we find soul nourishing, and even crave when we’re on the road, so we will take advantage of those bits which are most satisfying.

And we welcome this unexpected cause for reflection which has proven to be gratifying and affirming. As comfortable as I am sitting here in my PJs, watching reruns of Project Runway (okay, I’ll admit to ONE of my guilty pleasures), my bags are just a few weeks away from being packed and moving again. Our appetite to see the world has proven to be insatiable, and we will happily indulge it together.

We may always wonder, but never ever will we regret.

25 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • November 24 2014

    We all don’t find the truth we need in the same place. It’s not wrong or right, it’s a personal decision. I don’t usually speculate too much (or too long) on what would have been if we had decided to just hold on to that incredible amount of money we saved instead of taking 14 months off. There’s no price for it. Not in time or dollars spent. It was just what we needed and wanted. It’s evident you two made the best choices for you and your relationship. It’s so inspiring not only to see you do something different, but to see you do something that makes you individually, and as a couple, so blissfully happy. And not fake happy – like *real* happy. What a gift.
    Carmel recently posted..THREE WEEKS LATER, WE FINALLY SEE THE CITY

    • November 28 2014

      You are so right Carmel – and I would never expect that either of our decisions would provide the exact same thing for everyone – it is so personal where we all find what we need. Glad your trip provided you guys what you wanted too!

  • November 24 2014

    Thought-provoking post. I think what most people are missing is the ability/comfort to take risks, grow, and change. For you guys, it meant a complete lifestyle change, but there is such a middle area that too few people explore, whether it’s dramatically downsizing, going back to school, changing jobs, taking a year off, or any of the other big life changes that push us to learn and become our better selves.

    • November 28 2014

      You are absolutely right Jenna, I think too many people get caught up in the “should be” and don’t venture out even a little bit. It doesn’t have to be a complete change to make the difference, but too few are even willing to try little steps.

  • November 24 2014

    I am glad to see we are not the only ones who wonder about what our lives would have been like. We often time wonder if we would still be a “we” as well, with the stress and lack of connectivity that we had while still in our corporate lives. Instead, and most important, even more important than the countries we have been to or the sights we have seen, is that we are happier together now, and closer to each other than ever before. For that, I am grateful, and would never look back.
    Amber recently posted..Lunch With an Italian Winemaker – Corte d’Aibo

    • November 28 2014

      Sounds like such a similar journey. 🙂 Hope to catch up with you guys on the road someday, I think we’d have a lot to talk about!

  • November 24 2014

    I think you make a great point at the end that it is natural to wonder, but that we shouldn’t regret. I think part of the point of living the traveled life is that we want to live a life without regrets, the choice of that life included. Hope you enjoy the rest of the house-sit!
    chewy recently posted..A New Yorker’s bucket list for the holiday season in New York

  • November 25 2014

    Beautifully expressed. We only traveled for 14mths before returning to “home”, but have been itching to get back on the road ever since. Even though we are back in the familiar, and appreciative of what that offers, our souls need to be awoken with new horizons and new experiences. While we prepare to head back on the road in 2015, we are fully aware of what we do leave behind, but as you say… while we may wonder what might have been… we will never regret following our hearts.
    Rhonda recently posted..A Churning Mind

  • November 25 2014

    For many years now we have been trapped in that bubble; the bubble that says we conform and follow the rules. The only question I frequently ask is – who’s rules? The start of 2015 sees that change for us and I can’t wait. At present, one of us is struggling to get up in the mornings because they have grown to really dislike their job, the other is trying to regain health so that we can do more together. The stresses of our current careers have forced changes upon us that we have contemplated for years but never had the guts to do. We know we will have the ‘what if: moments but we know that, had we stayed doing what we do now, we would have had ‘what its’ of a different nature. Life is always going to cause you to think about the alternatives – whatever path someone takes they need to make sure that its the one comfortable for them at this current time. In the future, that of course, may change.
    Tam Gamble recently posted..The Indrawn Heart: An Estonian Journey by Max Boyle

  • November 25 2014

    Sometimes I wonder what our marriage and life would be like if we’d have been stationary too. Instead we started traveling almost immediately after the wedding reception and we’ve just lived on the road ever since. I’m glad that the pause in travel has reaffirmed your choice. I think our decision has made us a stronger couple too.
    Kalli Hiller recently posted..Japan..has the best of these in the world

    • November 28 2014

      I think travel has the power to easily make or break a couple – it is marriage on speed! Glad it is working for you guys on the road as well. 🙂

  • November 26 2014

    Q & I relate to this so much. We were actually quite happy with our jobs before we took our career break, but we felt like we needed to escape and that we didn’t want to push out our RTW trip out any longer. Now that we’ve done that and came back to corporate jobs that we actually enjoy, we’ve settled in, got married and have gotten used to routine and normalcy which is hard because there are so many more places around the globe we want to explore. We certainly miss life on the road. The question lies… how much longer can this go on before we take another big break?
    Gerard ~ GQ trippin recently posted..2015 travel plans: There’s something about Europe

    • November 28 2014

      I imagine that is a very tough question! I always imagine that if we ever even tried to settle down, it couldn’t last for long. That’s why we’ve never tried. 🙂

  • November 26 2014

    Thought provoking post, thank you. I think that place of “not unhappy” can be very dangerous because it’s easy to convince yourself to stick with the status quo – “it’s good enough”.

    At the same time, always wanting and searching for more/different can be equally dangerous because you never really settle in to gratitude and contentment – it’s hard to embrace and be mindful of the present when you’re constantly wondering about the future.

    Personally, I find it challenging to balance (I love to imagine possibilities and therefore sometimes forget to truly BE in the moment).

    Remove the ‘shoulds’, get quiet, listen to your inner voice, take action, celebrate – this is an ongoing process and perhaps one of our greatest life challenges/lessons. It’s about finding our own right path, hopefully without judgment and inspired by our own truth.

    Here’s to life’s adventures…whatever that may look like for each of us.
    Marla recently posted..This Could Be Your Biggest Risk

  • November 26 2014

    Thanks Dalene for a thoughtful post. Happy travels!

    • December 7 2014

      Thank you Marilyn! So nice to hear from you!

  • Tammy Young
    November 26 2014

    There are always ‘what ifs’, regardless of the path you take, that’s why there are so many sayings about it – ‘the grass is always greener…’, ‘you only regret what you haven’t done’, ‘the path not chosen’, and so on. I sometimes find myself wondering what I would have done with my life if I had not found myself pregnant at 21, but that is wishing away my beautiful daughter; what if we had stopped at two children – there goes another beautiful daughter. I think what we need to remember is that every choice we make is right, at the time that we make it, and we should have faith in our younger selves for the choices they made, whether they led us down a path that make us happy or not, because years from now, you may question the choices you make today, but for today, they work.

  • November 29 2014

    Thought-provoking post! There’s a lot you can wonder about when you experience travel, which is not as possible to everyone. If you’re happy, you’re doing the right thing!
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..INTERVIEW: Ziggy Marley on Jamaica, Ganja & Reggae’s Evolution

  • December 9 2014

    For us it was what if our Airstream hadn’t been stolen, and then what if Tim hadn’t been laid off in NYC, and then what if we hadn’t sold our business. You can drive yourself crazy with what ifs. But life moves forward and the what ifs don’t matter anyway.
    A Cook Not Mad (Nat) recently posted..CARDOON TWO WAYS

  • December 9 2014

    Great post – and I mean that. I really love your personal style and honest exploration of emotions and thoughts, which actually must be quite hard to write. I also have never seen sepia photos work so well as in this post! Good luck with travelling on 🙂
    Charlie recently posted..When I Met the Man Who Built His Own Paradise

  • Ralph Gebhard
    December 15 2014

    Hi..Just started reading your posts. I am a member if Travelers Century Club…heading ti Myanmar for several weeks Jan. 12..will be country 121 for me!! I could not live without the travel I do..Onward and Upward..skip

  • February 16 2015

    I have to curse you, Darlene Heck! I’m supposed to be working but your site pulls me in time and again. I’ve only just caught up on this post. I’ve always loved the raw honesty of your writing. Keep traveling, keep inspiring. Always.

    • February 18 2015

      Darlene Heck thanks you for your kind words.

      Respectfully,
      Dalene Heck 🙂

  • August 15 2015

    Your words resonate so much with me right now! We just wrapped up a housesit that reminded me of our former life. It was so great because it felt so familiar and eased the weird feeling(I can’t even describe it, kinda crazy sad) that maybe we will have to go home soon.”What would have been” is ringing loudly in my ears! We moved on with no less excitement than any other departure, thankfully,You guys inspire us so much. We love this lifestyle, but I feel we hold ourselves back from success to sustain it somehow. Reading your stories always seems to validate my feelings. Thanks for the look through the 5-year lense of experience.

    • August 15 2015

      Hey Tracey, thanks so much for your comment, and as always, I’m humbled to hear how we may help you in your journey in any small way even. I know what you mean about “holding yourselves back”, we went through that as well. I have faith that you will all figure it out and do what it is best for your family! 🙂

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