It's not often in life you get an opportunity to see how loved you are. The opportunity to be reminded just how lucky you are. There are birthdays, but then those are almost obligatory. Random moments caught in time when someone tells you how much you mean to them...
But really, it doesn't come along that often.
My father suffers badly from diabetes. He has already lost one leg and it is an ongoing fight just to keep him with us. When I am away, which I often am, part of me is always with my family. I know I might need to fly home at any moment to be there for him and for them.
In early September I received a message from my mum. For many people, a message from Mum brings a smile and perhaps the occasional roll of the eyes. "Mum's checking up on me," goes through their mind.
For me, it's always bittersweet. I love to hear from my mum. Even while traveling. I don't like to go more than three or four days without there being contact between us. But, there is another emotion that gets stirred when I see "Mum" pop up on my phone. Fear.
"Hi honey, can you call me when you get a chance?"
So I make the call and get the bad news. There is a mark on Dad's good leg, the same kind of mark that led to the other leg being amputated.
It's funny how, what moments ago, seemed so important, "How many guests are on this trip? What are their names?!" can be relegated to the recesses of your mind in an instant as a flood of emotion explodes, and then practicality kicks in.
Ok, so I need to go home in a month. Check tickets. Book tickets. Tell the Backroads office the bad news. Tell my friends...
"But wait, you'll miss staff ride?!?!"
"Oh yeah...Oh well..."
This realization does hurt. Let me explain why. Each year, at the end of the Backroads season (early November) as a reward for all our hard work, Backroads takes all leaders on a trip somewhere in the world. Past destinations have included amazing places such as Crete, Thailand and California to name just a few. This year, it was to be Andalucía, Spain. An amazing landscape in which to host 236 leaders, office employees and of course the man himself, Mr. Tom Hale, Backroads founder and president. We ride our bikes during the day and we celebrate at night. It's quite the spectacle to behold: 236 people on bikes, almost like a Tour de Backroads.
It is an event we all look forward to all year, the one time when we will all be together. Our jobs, whilst being brilliant and liberating in the best of ways can also be stressful and sometimes you need an outlet.
Although Backroads Trip Leaders are spread throughout the world, we share a connection. You become very close with people when you spend 24 hours a day with them on a trip. You can go through the entire gamut of emotions in seven days. Then, when the week is done, you may be flying out for a different country the very same day. You can develop this great connection and then it's "see you at staff ride."
In a lot of cases, you may not see someone for the entire year until the next staff ride. But as with all great friendships, you'd never know it. The emotional greetings at the very beginning of the week speak volumes about the love that exists between all the leaders.
To really understand how much we treasure this one week, imagine being a kid again and it's Christmas Eve, that's what it's like for us as staff ride approaches.
But this year it seemed I would have to miss out. This saddened me, but priorities always have to be family first so it didn't take long for the feeling to pass.
A couple of weeks go by, not long before I'm due to head home, and I'm on my last trip of the season. Once again that fateful name comes on my screen. Mum.
Once again, the dreaded "Can you call me?" Oh dear. This time however, it's all good news. Dad's situation has improved. The mark has reduced in size and the operation, which at first was going to be quite dangerous, has been scaled back to a less dangerous procedure. The doctors seem genuinely very hopeful that all will be okay.
I speak to a doctor who reassures me that all is good. Mum then says to me
"Honey, thank you so much for coming home, but you don't really have to..."
This pricks my ears, "I could go to staff ride."
Then, the words "NON REFUNDABLE TICKET" come to mind.
"No Mum, I'll come home"
In all honesty, I would have gone home, regardless. To be with my family.
I tell all my colleagues/friends. They're very happy to hear the good news about my dad. One of them asks if, after the operation, I would consider coming back for Staff Ride. I think for about half a second before telling him that it's quite an expense to come from Australia. While talking to another friend later that night, she suggests Crowd Funding to get me back... never even thought of it. I mention this to my friend over a wine but really, don't give it another thought.
A week later, I am flying home. Happy that I am returning under these circumstances rather than how I thought it would originally be.
I get home on a Thursday and go straight to the hospital to see Dad. He's in good spirits and very happy to have me home. He's very appreciative and tells me he feels a lot safer having me there when he is going in for the op. I feel validated in my decision.
The day after, he goes in for the operation. It is a complete success. He can come home in two days. Mission complete.
We pick him up on the Sunday and I settle in for what I assume will be an extended stay at home, looking after Dad...or so I thought.
I woke up on Monday morning and followed my usual routine. Shower, coffee and check emails... Yep, some Nigerian prince wants to give me some money. Apparently I am also in need of some kind of "growth" medication? Got to love spam.
Then I see an email from PAYPAL. The heading reads...
"McKynlee Westman sent you 20.88 EUR"
Did McKynlee owe me money and I forgot? What's going on here? Then the emails start coming at regular intervals... "Such and such sent you $$ EUR."
Bells start ringing in my head--crowd funding.
This goes on for a day before I get some clarification on the situation.
I am finally let in on the original email that was sent out, by one of my best mates, Luis Elorreaga. He has outlined my story to our friends, telling them of my dad and how there is a chance to get me back over for staff ride IF they can raise enough money... and they have responded in kind.
I am entirely humbled by the generosity shown by everyone involved, but I also know just how expensive a return ticket to Spain can be. And of course there's dad to think of.
I tell Dad about what's happened. He's amazed. He asks how much they have raised and at this point it's around the $700 mark. He asks what I'll do. I say it's all so wonderful, but I still don't know if I can justify the expense. Over the next two days more and more people donate and eventually the donations exceed $1200.
Once again Dad asks about the total. When I tell him, he looks me dead in the eye and says, "Do you remember the poem I told you before you first traveled?"
"Yes, Dad, of course I do. I recite it at the start of every single trip to my guests."
"Then tell me," he says.
I speak aloud the words that have come to represent my life:
"Twenty years from now you will regret the things that you didn't do, a lot more than the things that you did do. So throw off the bowlines, set sail out of the safe harbor, cast your sails for the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover."
These were the words my dad told me when I was 22 and about to leave for Europe for the first time. It was also the first time I saw him cry...
"Do you still believe in this?" he asks me. "Because, mate, not many people would have such a thing done for them. This just doesn't happen, you have to go. I have organized with your brothers and sister to look after me while you're gone. Now, go and book your ticket!"
I give him a hug and, yep, now I am in tears.
I booked my flight 10 minutes later.
The next day I flew out for what would be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Many thank yous were exchanged and many more hugs were given.
It was an amazing week in Spain. One of the most memorable of my life, and a lot of it was due to the love I felt from my fellow leaders. I was brought to tears on more than one occasion when thanking people.
You know that moment when you're climbing a mountain? Your legs are screaming at you to "STOP?" And you're screaming back "SHUT UP LEGS?" But really all you want to do is pull to the side of the road, lie down and sleep? Well I remember in one moment of agony when climbing the hardest mountain I have ever done in my life, looking over at two of my close friends, Levi and Mike, on their bikes, and just thinking "I am truly blessed, to be here, to know these people and to be involved in such a company where something like this is even possible."
So I told my legs to shut up a bit louder and I won the screaming match....just.
At Backroads, we are not just "workmates" and colleagues. We are roommates. We are shoulders to cry on. We are each other's' vents for frustration and happiness and sadness and joy. We are each other's' confidants. We are friends.
But, above all this, we are family. The people I work with are my brothers and my sisters (and in some cases uncles and aunties) but this is not an exclusive family. Once you get that polyester shirt with BACKROADS emblazoned on it, you are instantly one of us.
Some people say, "This is my family away from home"
We just say, "This is my family"
Once I was home, my little brother picked me up from the airport. "So, how was it?" he asked.
"Remarkable" was the first word that popped into my head.
"It says a lot about you, that they would do that for you," he said with a croak in his voice.
I shook my head and smiled, "No mate. It says a lot about them."