What Makes Us Run

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What Makes Us Run

Words by Dalene Heck

A few times, when in deep, reflective talks with various people interested in discussing our lifestyle, we’ve been asked this question: “Are you running away from something?”

I can’t deny that there is some slight truth to an affirmative answer. Given the tragedies that plagued our lives during 2007, there is a desire to get far away from the painful memories that plague us. To leave behind the too-large home that we failed to fill with children, to not have to drive by the establishment that housed my sister’s funeral. To escape the corporate-culture that defines our old city, after being sucked dry of all our will and ambition to succeed.

That is part of it, but it definitely doesn’t define us or our travels. It is still much more about fulfilling a lifelong dream to constantly eat, hear, taste and breath foreign cultures. Because if we’ve learned anything, it’s that life is far too short to not spend every waking minute doing exactly what we love.

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that life is far too short to not spend every waking minute doing exactly what we love.


And can we ever truly escape anyways? Given today’s modern technology, we can still be highly involved in what goes on in our old home town and with those we love. We’ve used chat sessions to provide advice to friends going through difficult times. I can still conceptualize the stress that accompanies driving on Calgary’s busiest thoroughfare, and easily empathize with my friends on Facebook when they complain about it. Our family problems are still our family problems, no matter how many miles are between us. Never mind that this lifestyle presents newly created (and unescapable) challenges to be faced. After over three years, we still grapple with being ‘out of mind’ of the people left behind. There are few worse feelings than being forgotten or feeling inconsequential to those you love. We’ve learned that such drifting is inevitable, but that realization doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

What we can be thankful for is that in this lifestyle we have created, we have created the flexibility to run back if we need to. During the last week of our time in Wisconsin, when we were both scrambling to draw those satisfying final ticks on our to-do list and also prepare for the next stage of our travels, we were halted in our tracks. A rapid build-up in the intensity of frantic phone calls from home had flight search engines firing on both computers. I needed to go back.

Within a couple of days I was flying a bizarre pattern over the US, from Minneapolis to Phoenix and up to Edmonton. I hitched a ride north with an uncle I hadn’t seen in ages, and finally made my way to the side of my ailing Grandmother.

What we can be thankful for is that in this lifestyle we have created, we have created the flexibility to run back if we need to.
I was there just in time to get a glimpse of her beautiful eyes and hear her voice. My own had become muted, I struggled to find any words that weren’t choked by tears. Just a few months prior during our family tour of Alberta, she was her vibrant self – full of laughter, stories, and repeated jabs at me for her suspicion of my cheating at regular card games.

Her health declined only recently and quite quickly, being admitted to the hospital only a few days prior to my trek north, and in just a couple of hours after my arrival, she closed her eyes for the last time. She hung on through the night, with her children, myself and another granddaughter sleeplessly attending to her. Never a minute passed without her hand being held, her head being stroked, her mouth being kept moist by a wet sponge. We gasped every time her breath appeared too staggered – we all knew she was going, but still couldn’t bear the thought.

And then, just 27 hours after my arrival, as her beloved family began tucking into Sunday dinner brought graciously by another of our kin, she took her last breath. I sat at her side with my hand on her arm, waiting desperately for the exhale that never came. Still at a loss for words, I waved for everyone else to come to the bed. The room erupted.

I could fill pages of what my Gram meant to me, our family, and her entire community. She had a giant personality and a booming voice always laced with laughter. She was a beacon of joy, a pillar of strength, and a loving matriarch for so many. I truly believed that she might find a way to outlive us all; life without her had never previously crossed my mind.

And as I sat with her in those final hours, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. I hope she knew I was there, that I would have done anything to make this transition time for her as comfortable as possible. That in giving her that peace, I was giving it to myself as well.

I hope she knew that I would have run from any corner of the earth for her.

I am so thankful that in this life that we have built for ourselves, this life that does not bind us, I am free to run in any direction I choose. I can run both away or back as I need to.

That is part of its beauty, especially in tragedy.

Gram Coates

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  1. My condolences Dalene,

    As Caro commented above, i like to think of travel as running towards new experiences too.

    I could totally relate to your tragedies left behind. My 3 year gap year cut short when i was 21. I went home for my annual visit and my father was struck to death trying to stop a burgler robbing a local grocery store and then having to stay home to raise my then 14 year old brother.

    Now almost 18 years later i’m finally able to resume travelling albeit with a husband and three kids in tow. Getting away for us meant starting afresh, and like you leaving our too big house behind. The loss of two 6 figure incomes due to the recession. Our savings being depleated.

    Travelling for some reason gives me a sense of urgency to make the most of my time wherever i am.

    Thank you for reminding me to make the most of my time with this post. Even while living abroad, i get a little complacent.


    1. Annie, thanks for sharing your story here, and I am so sorry to hear about your father – what an incredible tragedy. I’m so glad that travel is a priority in your life and in your family’s life. I totally understand the sense of urgency that you speak of (and am happy for it)!

  2. So beautifully expressed. I’m happy for you that you made it back to be in her presence for one last time. Although it never seems to be enough time, at least you know you did what you could.

    I think about this idea of running away a lot. There are times when I feel overwhelmed and want to run away and I see this trip we’re planning as an escape route. In light of losing my brother, it looks like I’m trying to run away, but then I remember, “this is what I wanted long before anything really bad happened.” I know it in my heart that this is my dream–not to run away, but to give myself the freedom to move and explore.

    1. Another great perspective Carmel, a wonderful way to look at it. And I suppose none of us ever truly run away anyways, if we do have plans to go back, even to visit. All those same places are there, the same people, the same problems. We may just be looking at them from a bit of distance….

    1. Thank you Ashlie. The thought of participating in a transition as such always would scare me, but now I know that it actually is quite comforting and peaceful to be a part of it. I am so grateful I was there.

  3. Sincerest condolonces, Dalene. This is very moving piece of writing coming stright from the heart. Glad you made it back to be with you gram. Big virtual hug from Scotland x

  4. This was so well-written on such a tough subject. A nagging fear of mine when living so far away is that something will happen to someone I love and I won’t be able to get back in time. I’m happy for you that you were able to. The ‘running away’ theme seems to be common among long-term travelers and expats… I prefer to think of it as running toward something else, because you can’t ever run away from yourself no matter how hard you try.

    1. Thank you Ricka. And that is very true, we can’t run away from ourselves. But I’m okay with saying that I am running from former surroundings and lifestyle. What we are running towards? I don’t know – we’re not big goal setters. πŸ™‚ Just a better life, I guess, which we have definitely found.

  5. Sincere condolences Dalene, from the two of us. On the topic of running away, I often ask myself this very question. Albeit, I do look forward to building a life back in Ottawa, I have many times run away from realities back home. Now, I like to think (or try to) to see travel as running towards new experiences. Thank you for this lovely post.

    1. That is a great way to look at it Caro. We are gratefully running towards a better life for ourselves, without a doubt. That is part of it, but I also fully acknowledge that there is some running away. And I’m okay with that. πŸ™‚

  6. Good job Dade. You chose a great picture of your gram. To me I remember her always looking the same, no matter how any years went by. I am sure she was happy to have so many people with her at the end. Although, with the size of your family, it surprises me that that many people could fit in a room though. A little magic working?

  7. Oh Dalene πŸ™ Your post brought me to tears. There are no words to describe the feelings and emotions that pass through you when you are present for a loved ones passing. Thinking of you guys xo

  8. Sincere condolences on the loss of your dear Grandmother, Dalene. And yes, you are so blessed to have been able to be at her side at the end.

    I’ve now lost both parents at different moments whilst far away. For my Mother, I was able to make it to her side across the country and be there the moment she breathed her last. To me it was THE greatest blessing to be able to physically be there by her side.

    For my Father… sadly it was a phone call from afar from my brother. And to this day, I still feel a little hole in my heart not to have been at his side.

    The truth is, none of us know what tragedy might befall our loved ones (or ourselves) from moment to moment, so I’m sure your Grandmother would agree that no matter where on the globe you might be – the most important thing is that you’re following your dreams.

    1. No fair, not allowed to make me cry with comments Dyanne! (But thank you.)

      The thought of being present at those last moments always terrified me, but I realize now what it means to be there. It truly gave me so much peace, and like you said, I think I would have had a little hole in my heart if I hadn’t made it.

      My Gram was a traveler too. Although I know that she wished I was home where she could keep closer tabs on me, I think she was still pretty happy for us. πŸ™‚

  9. They say that what we see in others (either negative or postive) is often what is in ourselves. Seems to me that your Gram’s joy and strength is living on in you. That’s what you can honour.
    Thank you for a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. Sending you sincerest condolences.

  10. Losing a beloved grandmother is heartbreaking. Sharing her with us is inspiring. Thank you.

    You and Pete aren’t “running away” from your life, you are living it to the fullest… whatever direction it takes you to and from.

    1. Thanks Genny. Yup, I just like to think that we are running wherever the road happens to take us. If it leads us home, then so be it, and I am so grateful to have made it there this time.

  11. Condolences to you. I am so glad you were able to come back in time to say goodbye.

    My guess is that she is now in a wonderful place, playing cards with someone I might have known.


    1. I used to think it was such a scary prospect to be there for the final moment, now I know how comforting it can be. Glad you felt the same way.

  12. I’m so sorry for your loss. I cried while reading this. You have an beautiful way of expressing your thoughts and this touched me in that place that knows someday we too will experience this profound loss.

  13. I’m sorry for your loss Dalene, you did make it on time. Yet leaving is not running away from, but running to what you want, something most people only imagine doing but never do.

  14. Beautifully written Dalene. Accept my Condolences. I myself lost my Grandma last month due to which I was absent from any kind of blogging activity. Travel is a soothing balm though, it calms the nerves and takes the mind off.

    1. I’m so sorry about the loss of your Grandma too Arti. And you are right, travel is a soothing balm! I feel so blessed to have been able to make it back home, but am very happy to be back out on the road now. It is healing me!

  15. Aww, sweetie, I’m so sorry about your grandmother. As someone who lost her grandfather last month—and only just got back from vacation 36 hours prior—I know what you’re going through.

    Loved this post. Beautiful.

  16. I am so, so sorry for your loss, Dalene. What a beautiful remembrance. You really hit on a key point regarding the rest: Your problems are yours to keep and don’t go away because you flee. I am (finally) fine with being single, but people always try to tell me it’s Vegas. Um, I was single everywhere else I’ve lived, too. I’m pretty sure it’s me! I left for Costa Rica job-less and therefore insecure and with a lack of identity. I worked on those issues there the same as if I’d stayed in California… I am lazy and complacent and always really relied on starting over, moving, “running away” to constantly re-energize me. Now that I’ve tried the stationary thing, and have come to terms with the spinster thing, I am contemplating what to do next. And when the time comes, I will be so happy to “run away”!

    1. I’m glad you understand Abby, that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The point is that it IS re-energizing – to be able to find your way in a new place all over again!

      And you? A spinster? I don’t believe it. Not yet… πŸ™‚

  17. Really amazing writing. “There are few worse feelings than being forgotten or feeling inconsequential to those you love.” — This sums up one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with in traveling.

    1. And like us, I wonder if you ever anticipated that before traveling? I don’t think we did – at least not to the extent that it has affected us. I suppose some of those relationships were meant to fall by the wayside, and probably would have with travel or not…

      1. Perhaps I could have anticipated it, but I couldn’t have imagined the emotional impact it would have on me. I’m about a year and a half into this now and I’ve made peace with it. I’ve stopped trying to connect with everyone and have a small list of people back home that I still make every effort with — that has helped πŸ™‚

        1. For those people we disconnect with, I think that it probably would have happened over time anyways. If the relationship can’t stand some distance in between, then it’s probably not worth it. Sad realization, but true I think.

  18. So sorry to hear about your grandmother. I’m so glad you were able to get back to see her.

    I think most of us have something we’d like to run from, and like you said, we really can’t completely run away from it. But doing what makes you happy is important, and if living a life of perpetual travel is what makes you and Pete happy, than that’s what you have to do. You can’t live your lives for anyone else. I know that feeling of becoming insignificant to those back “home” and it is tough. But hopefully they all understand that being there physically just isn’t the right life for you, just like living in Atlanta isn’t right for me either anymore.

    I hope you’re doing ok. Big hugs from me and Andy!

    1. Thanks sweets! I am doing okay, I get hit by moments of extreme sadness, but overall, I am good. It probably would have been a different story if I hadn’t made it back in time, but being there has brought me a lot of peace.

  19. My grandmother is the only reason that I worry about leaving anymore. At 87 she is the oldest living person in our family (historically) so we’re all wondering “when” – although, she is super spry so I can’t imagine it any time soon.

    1. I hope it is not anytime soon Erica! My other Grandma, who is 95, is in unbelievably good shape. We all think she will definitely break 100! Here’s hoping…

  20. Dalene, I’m so sorry for the loss of your grandmother. That was a beautiful post and I am glad that you were able to be by her side, without worry of vacation time or family leave. You could rush to be with her and stay as long as you needed. It is a blessing to be able to do that.

  21. This past year, I too endured an unexpected and tragic loss of a close family member. My sincerest condolences goes out to you. I often wonder myself during my travels if I am running away from something. When after thinking about it, I realized, I’m actually running towards something instead: to the way of life I want to have and to be free, just like you.

    1. So sorry to hear Sherry, my condolences. We all have our own way of looking at our travels, in a search for peace with our unusual decisions, I guess (we are the weird ones here – haha!) I’m glad you found yours. πŸ™‚

  22. Your description of being by your grandmother’s bedside was verbatim what I experienced- down to keeping her mouth moist with a wet sponge. It moved me to tears- thank you for being so open about this, and allowing me to remember, yet again, what it meant to have such an amazing, hilarious, courageous woman in my life that was my sweet grandmother.

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