I knew something was wrong when my phone buzzed.

My wife, Karen, and I were in Barcelona with Peter and James, two friends from England. We had strolled from the beach to an open-air market on the Moll de la Barceloneta, a popular promenade teeming with pedestrians and bikers. Karen bought local honey; Peter and I picked up a six-pack of craft beer.

Who would be texting me?, I thought. I’m a travel introvert. I’ll post a photo on Facebook to show I’m alive, but I like being inaccessible. Friends and family know this and rarely contact me when I’m abroad.

The message was from my brother-in-law, Bill.

“Call or text me,” he wrote, “or call/text your sister.”

My instant reaction: Something happened to mom.

My mother was 75 and in decent health, especially for a lifelong smoker who often ate popcorn for dinner. But she’d been struggling with falls, which were becoming more frequent.

I texted “What’s up?” and tried not to worry. Karen chatted with Peter and James about dinner plans as we walked the Via Laietana, one of the city’s major thoroughfares.

My phone buzzed again.

Mom was dead, Bill said. An apparent heart attack.

Damn.

Damn, damn, damn.

Even before my mother’s death, before I’d barraged myself with unanswerable questions—Why wasn’t I there?—the trip had been…challenging.

It started with a sore throat in Manchester, England. By Birmingham I had developed a stiff neck, a steady cough, and a raspy voice. Days later, after flying to Barcelona, the neck pain was so severe I could barely raise my head. Soon, explosions of agony were triggered by the simplest of activities: eating, walking, breathing.

For a year, I’d fantasized about this trip. Now I was trading tapas for pain meds and emailing funeral plans to friends.

And yet, today, six months after (Read more...)

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