There is a world elsewhere

My father died on the day after my 23rd birthday. Now, almost 25 years later, I often wonder what things would have been like – what I would have been like – had he survived. These thoughts find a sharper focus now because, when my father was my age, he had less than three years to live; less than three years between him and his first and fatal heart attack.

So, what would I do if I were 22 again? For one thing, I would have told my father to get his blood pressure checked, lay off the fatty foods, and do some exercise once in a while – taking care to emphasize to him that neither walking to the pub each night, nor playing snooker, count as exercise.

While doing any one of these things may well have prolonged his life beyond his 50 years, I at least know I need to pay attention to them in order to avoid a similar fate. Despite a rigorous exercise regime that often borders on the extreme – or maybe because it does – the blood pressure medicine that many years ago my doctor said would be an inevitable part of my future has finally been prescribed. I wish it hadn’t taken my father’s death to highlight the risk.

I remember one of my last conversations with my father as if it were yesterday.  I remember it because it has dictated the course of my life ever since.

I had just informed my parents that I was leaving home to live with a work colleague in his north London flat. To a family that has always (and I mean always in a Domesday Book sense) lived in the same old, dreary north Kent town, London seemed like a different world.

In retrospect, it was this venture into a new, independent phase of my life, this striking out on my own, which probably made my father focus on his own frustrations. With words that, after his death a few weeks later, initially haunted, but ultimately inspired, he said, “Please make sure that you don’t ever get stuck in a routine. Don’t do things because you’ve always done them in this way, on this day, at this time. Have the courage to do something different, something unexpected”. I was 22 years old.

The conversation turned to my father’s hopes for his own life, now that his first-born son was on the move. He talked of his desire to add more variety, to see more places, to spend more time with his wife. He was more animated and optimistic than I had ever seen him before, which made the infinite sadness of his death almost unbearable.

But there was one word – whether said or implied – that I took from the whole conversation: regret. Regret for a life not led; regret for opportunities not grasped; regret for things not experienced.

As my grief began to fade in the months following his death, and with my initial quest for independence abandoned, the word continued to stalk me. I promised myself that I was not going to let regret skulk in the shadows of my life, awaiting its moment to pounce. When I reached the age of 50, I was not going to look back and say, “I wish I’d done that”.

I threw myself in front of whatever opportunities came my way, however dubious the invitation. I soon found myself bungee jumping off of bridges in New Zealand, skydiving, sleeping on hostel roofs in Jerusalem, roaming the Jordanian desert – and meeting as wide a variety of people as I could have possibly imagined. I realized that there was, indeed, a world elsewhere – and I couldn’t get enough of it.

In 1995, with my not-yet-sated wanderlust having made me gloriously impecunious, I was offered (and, of course, blindly accepted) a job in Moscow. The stories of my three years in the Russian capital could fill a book or two, but the chaos of the city, its energy, the petty bureaucracy and occasional police beatings gave me a fresh perspective on life – and on the type of people I would want to be part of mine. It wasn’t so much that I reinvented myself in Moscow; it’s that I forgot who I was before.

I met my wife (a Russian area studies student from Maryland) in Moscow. We married in 1999, the same year we moved to Zurich. Our daughter was born there and was just shy of her third birthday when we moved to New York. Two years later, and having had our fill of harsh winters and rented accommodations, Charlotte, North Carolina became our home. We’ve been there ever since.

And none of this would have happened had my father awoken, as normal, on August 3rd 1989. His death triggered a chain of events that placed me where I am today. I have a gorgeous, intelligent wife and a daughter of whom I couldn’t be more proud. I’ve lived in four countries and visited over 70 others – and still don’t think either count is high enough. I’m a citizen of a country my father never visited.

Of course, we cannot know what would have happened had we pursued a different course, whether of our own volition or as a victim of circumstance; whether because of a decision as trivial as opting to take an alternative road home or a circumstance as tragic as the premature death of a family member.

But we all have those pivotal moments – sometimes more than one – which divide our lives into “before and after” segments on a timeline. And, more often than not, our pivotal moments are represented by things over which we had no control, i.e. they happened to us; we didn’t make them happen.

Whether you’re 22 or 52, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you choose to react that makes the difference. Our reaction defines us. You can choose to get angry, you can wallow in self-pity, or you can resolve to see the event as a catalyst for action that, if you’re honest with yourself, you should have taken long ago.

As my 50th birthday draws ever closer, I already know I’ll be able to look back with very few regrets about things not yet achieved, and with a significant amount of pride in those that were. And I’m healthy enough to have confidence in my ability to make some significant inroads into the “not yet achieved” list.

If I were 22 again, I hope my father would have the same conversation with me; encouraging me to explore, take chances, have fun. I hope I would take his advice as seriously as I did the first time.

My last 25 years have contained more variety and been more fulfilling than, as a naïve 22 year old, I even knew to dream of; it would have been selfish to expect more. But I occasionally wonder what would have happened had I ended that conversation with my father with the question, “When was the last time you went to the doctor’s for a check-up?”  If I had said that the first time, maybe we would be spending today comparing notes.

#ifiwere22

NICK ORCHARD
25th May 2014

10 thoughts on “There is a world elsewhere

  1. Nick, very moving and inspiring. While you and I had chatted about some of the countries you had worked in, I did not know the motivation. As you say, and, as you have described so eloquently, in all our lives there are “before and after” moments; it is good to reflect on these nexus moments from time to time and marvel at where we are while memorializing the event.

    Take care,

    Raymond

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  2. Nick. Wonderful thoughts and well written. It is a sad reflection of “our generation of fathers” that they were not as conscious of keeping healthy as they might be. Like you there are so many things my father did not live to see. So glad to have shared a few of those years with you at CS

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  3. Definitely words to live by! The event the defines my “before & after” is the death of my middle daughter in 2009 when she was 10 months old. As you say, and as I would like to believe, we didn’t make it happen, but it happened to us, to Lila. She was diagnosed with a very rare brain tumor (ATRT) and at the time was the 25th child ever to have been diagnosed, and also the youngest. Many lessons were and continue to be learned by me, my husband, and my two daughters, one of which never got to meet her. Here are the life lessons that we learned from Lila that we have posted in our house:
    1) Life is better with a soundtrack
    2) Life is worth fighting for
    3) Kids are really resilient and stronger than their parents
    4) Nothing is really in our control
    5) Life is so short, so live in the moment and enjoy it!

    And one that I will add, work is NOT that important 🙂

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  4. Well written and simply inspiring. It makes you think about what is really important in life. Please know that by writing this you will make a difference in someone’s life. It makes me step back and think about my health and how I need to take better care of myself. Yes, work will always be here. Reading your article and Milicent’s comments were emotional for me.

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  5. Hi Nick,
    Your post caught my attention because my Brother and I lost our Father when I was fifteen, sadly to cancer. There is so much about my life that I know would have been completely different if he had still been here, so I read your story with similar questions in my mind about my own age compared to my Father’s (I’m forty nine also, eight years older now than when he passed). Sadly he had taken himself to six different doctors looking for an answer, it was the sixth who recommended getting the needed testing done. Only occasionally do I let myself be unhappy about his loss now. Interestingly I think my Father would have been a more conservative influence in my life. I know that I’ve experienced many things that I otherwise wouldn’t have – including in some unexpected quarters, things that lend confidence in places where I can see other people are not very sure of themselves. I wish I could keep all those things, but still have him here also!
    Thanks for sharing your story and as a result the moments I’ve spent thinking about my own Dad today.
    Kind regards Evan

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  6. Hi Nick
    I have just found this. I remember that morning so well, all the goings on in our road. Your writing is superb. What a life you have lived since Crestway and the local Bank! Warm regards to you all
    Lynda Attwood (Gunson) number 14!

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    • Hi Lynda,
      It’s great to hear from you. I’m glad you liked the article. Please feel free to share the article and my blog with friends, family, random people in the local supermarket, etc. I’m trying to write a new article each month, but I’m not always successful in achieving that goal; this job thing that we rely on to finance our travels has a habit of getting in the way! I’ve been living outside of the UK for 22 years now, but still manage to get back to Crestway at least once a year (although we missed last year). I hope all is well with you and your family. Best wishes, Nick.

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