I can’t remember exactly what we talked about, but what I do remember is the bright, cheery sound of her voice. It was probably mid-afternoon in New Zealand, perhaps my little brother had just woken up from his nap, and she chatted to me about normal life and made me feel as though I wasn’t alone. It was such a warm contrast from the deadly quiet, pitch black streets.
I’ve never been very good at goodbyes – especially at airports. I feel like I’m meant to cry, or be overwhelmed with emotion. Instead I clam up and feel numb, distant, unreachable. Looking back now, I can see how hard it must have been for my mum to say goodbye to me before I boarded my flight to France when I was 19 years old. I was only going for six months, I had a return ticket, yet it was the first time I’d left home for longer than a few weeks. I remember sitting in the McDonald's at Auckland Airport, picking at some french fries, while my mum tried to make conversation about my trip. She might as well have been talking to a brick wall – my mind had completely shut down and felt detached from my body. I was on autopilot.
I hugged my mum goodbye and stepped through the customs gate. It wasn’t until I made it through security and was waiting to board the plane that I felt truly alone, and wished my mum was still by my side. I remember feeling guilty for not being more responsive to her questions, for not showing her how much I’d miss her – I was too overwhelmed by the prospect of flying to the other side of the world to talk.
But I shouldn’t have worried. Little did I know that my trip would spark some of the best conversations my mum and I had ever had. Growing up, I always loved to come home from school or later, university, and tell mum about everything I had learned that day. She was always more than happy to listen, no matter how much I rambled on and on and on (and trust me, I’m an expert rambler!). I always looked forward to our afternoon chats in the kitchen. This didn’t change when I arrived in France. Every day I was excited to tell my mum about the new things I’d seen. Whenever something funny, inspiring or sad happened, I’d think, “I can’t wait to tell mum”.
Isn’t it funny how you almost become better at communicating with your loved ones when you're miles apart? We’d text, email and talk on the phone nearly every day. We didn’t bother with small talk, instead we’d get straight to the heart of what was on each other’s minds. Our conversations were honest and full of love.
One of my favourite things about my flat in Lyon was that it had a phone with free calling to New Zealand. I didn’t have to worry about setting up a Skype date or waiting for mum to email me back. I could race home from university or work or a night out with friends, curl up on my bed and be connected to home almost instantaneously. I’m not sure I’ve ever told her how much those regular chats meant to me. Or how disappointed I was on the days she wasn’t home!
One conversation in particular stands out in my mind. One day, I had to be at the airport before dawn, which meant I needed to leave my flat at around three in the morning to walk to the train station. I lived less than ten minutes’ walk from the station, so the thought of catching a taxi was ridiculous, but I was terrified to be out on my own at ‘witching hour’. I didn’t feel safe. It might sound small – a ten minute walk – but I was so nervous I barely slept. I hated the thought of wandering the streets alone… I felt as though I could disappear and no one would even notice.
The only thing that got me out the door at that time was that mum had promised to call me on my cell phone and talk to me until I reached the station safely. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about, but what I do remember is the bright, cheery sound of her voice. It was probably mid-afternoon in New Zealand, perhaps my little brother had just woken up from his nap, and she chatted to me about normal life and made me feel as though I wasn’t alone. It was such a warm contrast from the deadly quiet, pitch black streets.
But perhaps more reassuring than the sound of her voice was her rock solid faith that I was going to be just fine. She had no way of knowing whether the streets were safe, but she didn’t feed my fear. She could have told me to change my flight, or she could have filled me with dread and worry. Instead, she trusted that I had made the right decision and told me exactly what I needed to hear, and her reassuring words of encouragement made me feel safe and loved.
The funny thing is, I know that if mum had been in my shoes, she would have been worried too! We’re both worry warts, but when one of us needs a gentle push forward, we don’t give room to each other’s fears. We urge each other forward, always, even when things can seem scary or unknown. This ten-minute conversation was just one of the many times mum encouraged me to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when I was overseas. I felt anxious often, not because I was in any real danger, but because I was living independently for the first time in my life – and I was in a foreign country, speaking a new language! Mum could have very easily jumped on my fear train, but instead she let me figure things out on my own.
When she said goodbye to me at Auckland Airport, she did so knowing that her daughter was flying to the other side of the world without a place to live – but she didn’t once try to interfere with my plans or be overbearing. She simply trusted me to make the right calls, because she had 100 per cent faith in me. I don’t know if I’d be the person I am today if she hadn’t cheered me from the sidelines as I spread my wings.
My mum doesn’t think of herself as a cool, calm and collected person. And you know what, often I’d agree with her – like me, she can let her emotions run high! But I don’t think she gives herself enough credit. Whenever I need to lean on her, she transforms into a pillar of strength and no-nonsense support. In the days before I was due to fly back from France, I had several terrifying nightmares that my plane would crash. I once called her in the midst of a panic attack, hyperventilating because the dreams felt so real. I told her there was no way I was getting on that plane. She later told me that of course she was worried. But at the time, she told me what I needed to hear: “It’s just a dream, Jess. Don’t give it another thought. You’ll be absolutely fine.” I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight back – I couldn’t wait to see her face waiting for me at the airport. I may have found my wings in France, but I knew I’d always need my mum.
Author - Jess van Roekel
Jess co-created Travelher.org and is a freelance copywriter based in Auckland, New Zealand. She's an avid reader with an overactive imagination, and loves dreaming up new ways to see the world.