Traveling with family, overcoming grief

It’s often said that the best part of traveling is coming home to one’s family. For me, the best way to travel is to bring the family.

Early this year, I decided I had had enough of pandemic confinement, and proposed to my children that we all take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe together as soon as travel restrictions were eased. I suggested a cruise because it’s simpler, less costly, and a more exciting way to travel if you are a group.

The death from COVID of a younger brother made me profoundly aware that life was indeed short, and that people of my age had very limited time left to be with their loved ones. I had saved enough to pay for the seven-day Greek Isles tour of Norwegian Cruise Lines, which was offering hefty discounts to entice passengers back, but I had to tell each family to take care of their respective airfares.

My wife Karina and I had dreamed of someday taking all our children and grandchildren on a Mediterranean tour. We went on such a tour (by bus!) when we were young students in England who were just starting to build a life together as a newly married couple. We thought a Mediterranean cruise would be a fitting way to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary in 2018. But it wasn’t meant to be.

No more trips abroad, her cardiologist sternly advised after I took her to the ER the day after we returned from a quick trip to Singapore. She had caught pneumonia, further burdening her diseased heart. But planning for that dream cruise with the whole family served as a great incentive for her to get well.

As fate would have it, Karina’s health did not improve, as her doctor had precisely warned me. She died the following year, 2019, barely six months after we celebrated our 50th. In her final weeks, she continued to hope that she would be well enough to accompany me in September that year on a trip to Japan, where I was to receive the Fukuoka Asian Prize Award. Why don’t we bring everybody to Fukuoka, she said, clearly sensing this was our last opportunity to be together in more cheerful circumstances.

Heartbroken and disoriented, I didn’t feel like traveling at all after her death. It was my children who prodded me to go, with everyone accompanying me, as a tribute to their mother’s final wish. I realized that, like me, they had lost the main anchor of their lives and were looking for another chance to regroup and recuperate after her funeral.

And what an uplifting trip it turned out to be for everybody. On the night of the awards, Crown Prince and Princess Akishino were the special guests of honor. It was a formal event with very strict protocols. But the friendly royal couple would not be deterred by the formalities. Instead of heading for the exit at the end of the ceremonies, they came down from the stage to meet the relatives of the awardees who were seated in the front row.

Princess Kiko first approached my daughter Nadya, who was holding a framed black and white photograph of Karina. “This is my mother, Karina,” she proudly told her. “She is with us in spirit; she wanted all of us to be with our father on this very special occasion.” My irrepressible grandson Xavier mustered all his charm and boldly introduced himself, ignoring reminders that he was not supposed to speak unless he was spoken to. I could feel tears welling in my eyes as I proudly watched my children and grandchildren carry on a spirited conversation with the Princess.

A party of 14—four children and their spouses, five grandchildren, and myself—was not always easy to accommodate in a typical Japanese restaurant. Most of the time, we found ourselves seated at different tables, with the kids being herded together at one table by their Ate Julia, now 22, the eldest of our grandchildren. They all loved Japanese food and were always served first because Julia could speak Japanese.

But the best part of the day was breakfast. I wisely declined the suite at a five-star hotel that had been booked for all the awardees and their companions, opting to stay with the rest of the family at the modest Monte Hermana Fukuoka. Its breakfast buffet of Japanese and Western dishes was an instant hit with everybody. I realized that breakfast was the best time to bond.

This was a pattern we kept on the cruise ship we boarded in Trieste, Italy, in June this year. The Garden Café breakfast aboard the Norwegian Gem, which became our home for seven days, proved to be everyone’s favorite. The fact that more than 60 percent of the staff of the boat—including all the restaurants—were compatriots made the cruise all the more special. The ship itself was only half-full, which meant that there were no long queues at all the ship’s venues and shore excursions.

It didn’t take long for my grandchildren—aged 3, 6, 10, 13, and 21 at the time—to find their bearings aboard the Norwegian Gem. To be able to visit a different Greek island each day and then return to the familiar comforts of a gigantic boat built like a hotel with all types of activities and amenities was a fabulous and novel experience for all of them.

Of course, any of us could have caught the virus while abroad and, instead of seeing new places and enjoying each other’s company, might have found ourselves in forced isolation in our cabins or confined at a quarantine facility in a foreign country. Normally, this possibility would have terrified me. But one of the lessons I learned from Karina before she passed on is to always try to focus on the future you seek rather than on the future you fear.

Merry Christmas, everyone!