Travel, loss and memory

by Steve Brock on August 3, 2016

Panting GingerWhat I’m about to write is unfinished business. I likely should not even share these thoughts until they are better formed and understood. But because I’m wandering in the realm of emotions here, I fear that by the time I gain a more complete intellectual understanding of it all, I will have lost the deeper power and meaning of the experience.


Four days ago, we had to put our beloved Labrador Retriever, Ginger, to sleep. I always thought that expression – putting an animal to sleep – was a euphemism: no one wants to own up to what you’re really doing. But after stroking Ginger’s head as the vet gave her the injection and she gently closed her eyes for the last time, I realize how appropriate the phrase is.

All during the almost 13 years that we’ve had Ginger, whenever a family member would project human emotions or perceived understanding on her, I would say, “C’mon. She’s just a dog.” But as any pet owner of good will and generous spirit learns, that’s not really true. Ginger wasn’t just a dog. She was our dog. And now part of us is gone.



Today I ran into a friend I see every few months. My wife and I have been praying for her husband who has been battling cancer for the last few years. I found out today that he recently passed away.

I think the tears that came unbidden mattered more than any words I could say to her. Tears that flowed easier for me due to my own sadness. If grief were a game of comparisons, I would lose. But it’s not. Grief is instead something we simply share. Something we stumble our way through…together.

My friend said how hard it is now to be only a person, not a couple. To find a task at home that required her husband’s strength. To see an object of his and remember. And then she wondered if that will last: Will she reach a point where she ceases to remember? She worried that she might forget him. I have wondered the same thing about Ginger. But then I assured her she will not. And here’s how I know.


GingerYesterday I walked through the park where we used to let Ginger run free to retrieve a thrown ball or stick. If I had to convey in one single image of what pure joy looks like, it would be Ginger running toward me, stick in mouth, full throttle in undiminished, exquisite happiness.

People refer to “a stab of pain” when a memory hits hard. But it’s more, to me, like a constriction. In your throat, your lungs, your gut. That’s how it was there in the park. The memory came and then a wave of sadness washed over me even as I was beginning to reassemble the pieces of that memory. And slowly, amidst the sadness, the happy time came into focus only to have that overshadowed by the realization I will never see Ginger run with such joyful abandonment again. Pain. Tenderness. Loss. Delight. Repeat.

As I thought about it, the moment reminded me in a very small way of that bittersweet feeling you have when traveling. Where you encounter people and places that move you in ways you didn’t know you could be moved. And then, even as you are wanting to stay forever in that moment, you’re not. You are the one moving. Away. Beyond. Back to a life so unlike what you have just experienced.

I realize that longing from a trip and the death of a loved one aren’t even close in impact and importance. But they do share this: They are feelings, conflicted ones. And both are forms of loss that have taught me something important: how to nurture a memory.

I know how to stay in that moment of deep pain or mere discomfort long enough for it to settle into something more. Something redemptive. Something that, while hard, will eventually reinforce and clarify what is good. And I believe my friend understands this as well.

But if she does not, I will share that with her. For it is in sharing and reminding, of laughing together at the good memories and being there for each other during the hard ones, that we hold onto what we have lost. We will, on our own, eventually lose some of the details and fine points in what we remember. But through each other and the artifacts of life – objects, familiar places, photographs and stories – we will be reminded. Of a sweet smile, a tender touch or in my case, the sheer joy of a dog running with a stick.

We won’t forget.

Ginger and Connor

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You can go back, but…Part 2

by Steve Brock on March 18, 2014

Freiburg Baechle (mini-canals)I hadn’t planned on having a Part 2 to the last entry on my return – my re-visit – to Freiburg, Germany. But Cathie’s comment to it triggered a thought worth exploring more.

The question was, can you go back to a place you spent a lot of time in years ago and do so with fresh eyes? In general, I would say yes, given that enough time has gone by and that you’re aware of the need to see things anew.

So why wasn’t I able to do that in Freiburg? Because it wasn’t the place itself that created the nostalgia. It was the people I’d known in that place that made it almost impossible to re-visit the same location in an objective manner.

When we have deep emotional ties to people in a place, that place is forever affected in our thinking. As a sad example, we have some friends who recently lost their infant child. Now, they feel compelled to move from their apartment because just the walls of the building remind them of their departed son.

Some places stick to us like that and remind us of the people we can’t help but associate with the locations. I can’t look at the river in Freiburg and not think of times lying on its bank with friends talking about dreams of the future. Or see a particular street and not recall quiet walks with other friends, discussions that today seem both naively idealistic and yet somehow lacking in my busy “adult” life.

I think of racing with other friends late at night, crisscrossing the many Baechle, the water runnels/mini-channels that line the old streets of Freiburg. Or hanging with German friends in a crowded pub whose owner seemed to have an odd obsession with German punk and, curiously, the music of the American singer Steve Winwood. Or enjoying a piping hot bratwurst on a cold afternoon staring up at the cathedral as a friend shared a more private side of himself than I’d ever known before.

All these people, these memories, are tied to this place. So to see it with fresh eyes is not only difficult, but something I may not be even willing to do. Seeing the place anew – creating new memories – runs the risk of erasing or at least diminishing the old ones.

Memory is such a fickle thing that I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk. Too much good – too many memories of wonderful friends – are tied to that place. I think the older we get, the more tightly we clasp these memories – nurture and protect them – even as we realize how ephemeral and even unreliable they are.

As someone who constantly harps on living in the present, I find this idea of clinging to memories hard to admit. But I think it’s true and it explains why we can’t – or don’t want to – see some old places in new ways.

How about you? Ever been to a place so connected with friends or family you care about that it is hard to separate the place from those people?

We tend to travel to experience the new. But sometimes we find value in the old as well. How we balance these two desires is one of the joys – and challenges – of traveling…and of being human.

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Remembering what we don’t understand

by Steve Brock on January 27, 2014

Brugge- canals and buildings

As I get older, I understand fewer and fewer things even as I know more. Why, for instance, as I sit tonight on a plane flying home from a business trip in Alaska, do I suddenly think of Brugge, Belgium?

One memory cascades against another. I remember the place as it was when we visited last summer. But I also consider my own memories of how I pictured it before the trip. Sometimes, as if recalling a dream, I confuse the actual with the imagined. Anticipation of a trip can be that powerful that the expectant view of the place competes later with the real memories.

I have heard explanations for why this is, why our memories are as trustworthy as a thief. But still I don’t understand it fully when confronted with its reality.

So what comes to mind about Brugge tonight on this airplane thousands of miles away? Moments. Vignettes. Glimpses.

The crowds when we first arrived. I knew it was a popular city being a UNESCO World Heritage site, but still I had expected intimacy and not the jostling of so many other tourists on the main drags and in tour boats.

Brugge tourists

Water and stone. The numerous bridges and canals restrained by walls of brick and rock, moss and roots and passages of boats and time.

Brugge- canal and bridge

Brugge- canals

Music. Wandering one warm evening in the southern haunts of the old town. As hot air balloons floated I heard the sounds of Bonnie Raitt live in concert a hundred feet away performing in an amphitheater on the other side of an inviting row of trees.

Brugge Balloon

Smiling later as I passed her modern tour busses parked cozily along a centuries-old street.

Bonnie Raitt Busses

Light. A morning exploration of the town, in particular the old Godshuizen (or almshouses), a cluster of houses built for the poor by rich merchants from the 14th to 18th centuries.


Or the filtered sunlight of the lonely (at that time of day) chapel at the Beginjnhof, a 12th century nunnery still in use today. I sat in reverent silence there until a nun entered as I was leaving. We mutually reacted with surprise and smiles as if the presence of another was both unexpected and yet somehow fitting.

Beginjnhof Chapel

Food. The heavy iron pots that embraced the Flemish Stew at a particularly cozy restaurant while the “Fries Angel” hovered nearby with inexhaustible replenishments of pommes frittes.

Flemish Pot

Or the delightful meal we scarfed down, grateful that the owner had squeezed us in on a busy night between existing reservations.

Why I recall all this now with no known triggers (smell being the most common), I do not understand. But I do recognize the familiar nature of meaningful travel to revisit itself upon us months or years after a trip.

I don’t have to understand the wonder of travel to appreciate it. I have only to be grateful for it…and remember.

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When your trip goes awry – Part 1

by Steve Brock January 4, 2013

The first of a series on how we can’t recreate what we felt on a trip and what happens when everything seems to go wrong while traveling

Read the full article →