My mom rarely took vacations. A mother to everyone she met, she was a thoughtful, selfless woman who made other people’s burdens her own. She hardly took the time to sit, much less treat herself.
On my wedding day, she declined makeup and hairstyling and instead spent the afternoon ironing bridesmaids’ dresses and crafting centerpieces, slipping into her own unflashy gown moments before my brother walked her down the aisle. That night after the reception, when I left to catch the last bus to the hotel, she was still in the kitchen washing glassware.
When I became an adult, I started treating her myself, insisting she board a plane and meet me at a destination I’d picked for our mother-daughter vacation: Key West, Florida. San Juan, Puerto Rico. Port Aransas, Texas. I loved my mom the most on those trips. Away from her typical responsibilities, she was relaxed, open, and excited about new places and experiences. She was a stranger from the woman I knew back home, where she was mired in an eternal flurry of cooking and cleaning.
In February 2013 I booked a suite at San Diego’s famous Hotel del Coronado, a place with poolside cabanas and a $93 brunch, where well-dressed servers deliver piña coladas to daybeds in the sand. I urged my brother to join us, and Mom flew from Atlanta, her thinning hair covered by a blue headscarf. I didn’t know then that this trip would be our last.
She was in the midst of ongoing chemotherapy treatments, but she treated breast cancer like any other event in her life—it was a project, something she was in control of. In the beginning, she bought a pink three-ring binder and dutifully filed away the piles of paperwork that came with every doctor’s visit. She insisted on driving herself to and from appointments. And rather than dropping everything to travel the world, she worked.
In San Diego, we zigzagged through the zoo, watched whales from the deck of a 90-foot boat, and laughed until we cried pedaling a four-person surrey bike through the streets of Coronado. At a café in Ocean Beach, over burritos and fresh-squeezed juices, I told her and my brother I was pregnant.
Just over a year later, on April 21, 2014—four days shy of her 59th birthday—my mother sat up in bed for the last time. I spoon-fed her final meal to her: vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s chocolate syrup on top. Moments later, I wiped away tears as I spoon-fed oatmeal baby cereal to my 5-month-old daughter, Avery. The next day, my mom’s eyes stayed closed and her breathing slowed. I briefly left her side to warm a bottle for Avery. When I came back, she was gone.
Afterward, I responded like my mother would have, diving back into my harried routine: Get up, drive to daycare, work, drive to daycare again, wash bottles, repeat. My husband, Dan, and I saw Avery for an hour in the morning, and an hour or two at night. The weeks went by, and as our daughter grew more animated, we grew more discontented. About that time, an idea started bubbling in our minds. What if we just said no? No to climbing the career ladder, no to counting vacation days, no to spending $1,000 a month on daycare so we could maintain a dual-income household. And yes to quitting our jobs, selling our house, and venturing to the American Southwest to see as many national parks—and beautiful, interesting places between them—as we could.