I lost my dad to leukemia the day after I had left America to teach in Uganda during the summer of 2012. Previously to traveling to Uganda, I had never been overseas, unless you count Hawaii. Teaching in war-torn northern Uganda was going to change my life forever; throw in the fact that my father died as soon as I left the States, and the summer of 2012 understandably became the most life-changing summer I have ever experienced. I had many adventures in Africa, all with my dad still residing strongly in my mind (you can read about many of these adventures on this blog). While in Uganda, I found that grieving is a long process and a hard struggle at times. Each person grieves differently; each person has to find a way to carry on from loss, and hopefully become stronger in the process.
When I returned to America from Uganda seven weeks later, I knew that the real grieving was just beginning. Reality sunk in, and it hurt, badly. Then I came up with an idea…an idea to help me honor my father’s life…an idea that would continue to change my life…an idea that would allow me to see the world and have many adventures, all while sprinkling Dad’s ashes along the way…an idea to carry on.
Below is part of a blog that I wrote on June 8th, 2012 while I was in London, England. I have updated/edited the blog since it was originally written, but it has changed very little. This blog is how The Carry-On began, although I did not know it yet.
I looked at him in his eyes as he squeezed my hand tightly. Although the rest of his body was weak and it took all of his strength to speak, his eyes were not; they were still strong, still the same eyes I knew as a child. They gave a distinct look of being firm and disciplined, yet wise and loving. These were the eyes of my step father…a solid rock in my life.
“Make memories,” he said to me as his eyes glistened with tears.
We embraced one last time before I got up and walked away; before I walked out of the house, out of Muncie, Indiana, and out of America to live abroad for the first time in my life.
Make memories. That statement was the last thing my stepfather said to me before I left my childhood home of Muncie, Indiana, to begin my journey to Uganda. Make memories. It seems simple enough: Go to Africa and do things and meet people you will never forget. As I sit and ponder back on this statement however, I wonder if the simplicity is misleading. Make memories…what does that actually mean?
I will be completely pushed out of my comfort zone while I am in Uganda. My comfort zone had its first real wake up call in New York City, actually, as I am not a big city person at all. I will be around a group of people for six weeks who are complete strangers in a country on the other side of the world which could not be any more different than where I am from. I will not have a consistent way to contact my friends and family. Those factors alone will force me to make memories. I will travel around Uganda in my spare time, seeing as much as I can. I will see the Nile River, go on a safari, play soccer in villages, and maybe even make my way to an orphanage which was started by a few girls who grew up in the school district where I teach. Those events will all hopefully be fantastic memories for me, but is that what my dad meant?
Make memories…make memories, not only for you, but for other people…make an impact…
…make an impact; that is what he meant when he told me to make memories. Create memories with other people, peers and students alike, that will last…memories that will have great stories and grand lessons…memories I can look back on one day and be proud of. My dad made memories…he made an impact.
Make memories… That would be the last conversation my dad and I would ever have. I left that day after saying goodbye to spend two days in New York and three days in London before leaving to Uganda to teach for the summer. On the morning of June 8th, 2012, while getting ready to go out and explore London for the first time, I received an e-mail from my mom telling me that dad passed away. The e-mail read:
Dad passed away at 12:50 AM surrounded by Barb, Jo and I. We tried your phone but it was off. All dad wanted was for you was to be happy. Go do good things and make him proud. Wish I was there to hug you.
Of course, he purposely had to wait until I was overseas to die; he was so stubborn that he wanted to make sure I still went to Africa this summer. Dad passed away… I re-read those words over and over again. I e-mailed my mother and gave her the number of our hotel so she could call me. After a series of frantic e-mails and my mom trying to get through for several minutes, the phone finally rang three times as I hesitated to answer. Maybe if I did not pick it up it meant that the news was not real. Finally, I mustered up the courage to answer.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi honey,” the warm voice of my mother replied. She then described the scene of the last few moments of dad’s life. He was surrounded by loving people and his last few breaths were peaceful.
“Should I come home, mom?” I asked.
“No. Dad would want you to keep going.”
I am traveling with another teacher going to Uganda, Sarah, and she was in the shower when I received the e-mail. I did not know how to react or what to say her, so I went ahead and said nothing. I tried to pretend I was normal; I tried to act as happy as possible while seeing London for the first time. Fittingly, we spent more than two hours walking around Westminster Abbey. This historic church not only has some of the most beautiful Gothic architecture I have ever seen, but it is also the burial tomb for some of history’s most famous and important people. As I studied these beautiful burial tombs, I could not help but think of my dad. He was selfless man and deserved such a tomb. How can I honor him like these kings and queens have been honored? I could not have picked a more appropriate place to mourn the death of my father. I will never forget Westminster Abbey. It was not until we got back to the hotel and I read many loving messages from friends and family that the news sink in. I could not hold in it anymore and I broke down in sobs. Sarah, a complete stranger at the time, was there to comfort me.
My dad made plenty of memories; he made an impact. He has had a major impact on my life, on the lives of my sisters, and our friends. Whether it was something as simple as teaching us how to dribble a basketball and lay off of the high fastball, or as important as being selfless, his impact is will never be forgotten. He made memories that I am proud to say I am a part of. I said the following in a blog I wrote in February, 2012:
“When one passes, he/she will not judged by the amount of years lived or the fancy things owned. One will be judged on his/her actions and contributions. Through your actions, Dad, you have impacted a lot of people. It will be these same people who will impact others using values learned from you, whether they know it or not. Someone can truly live forever by touching lives…My dad will still be here after he dies…just in a different form – through the lives and actions of other people. My dad has touched my life and I will continue his legacy through friendships, teaching, and coaching. Life is short…how will you leave your fingerprints on the world? My journey to Uganda started 23 years ago when my mom married Rob Hillgrove.”
As I prepare to leave London and fly to Uganda this weekend, I am at ease knowing that my dad will be right there along the way, making memories with me.
In loving memory of Robert M. Hillgrove
10/8/1953 to 6/8/2012
…there is just something about the number 8…the infinity sign…my baseball number since I was five-years-old…