by Julie Tollefson
Today would have been my mother-in-law’s birthday. A dozen years ago, Nona entered hospice with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. During the long days and nights that followed, she and I talked, often about her children and grandchildren and her hopes and fears for their futures. She was fiercely devoted to her family and took great delight in their delight. When I joined the family, it took me a few years to realize that, to her, a Christmas list was not a wish list; it was a shopping list. She loved to give her children and grandchildren everything they wanted. Seriously. Everything.
One afternoon, she told me that though she had little interest in travel herself, she regretted that she'd never sent my husband to Australia, a place he'd wanted to visit since he was little. Caught off guard, I stammered, “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he gets there. I promise.”
Which is how, in June, I found myself and my intense fear of flying on a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane.
The promise was never far from my thoughts over the years, but 2016 saw a confluence of events that made the trip make sense: Our son graduated from high school and, a few weeks later, we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. If ever there were a year to take a big trip, this was it. And when we asked the boyo where he wanted to go, he chose Australia without hesitation.
The trip was everything we hoped for and more. We saw kangaroos, wallabies, a koala so close to the trail we could have touched it, crocodiles, emus, a dingo, numerous tropical birds, tree frogs, and a few species of snakes (though not as many as my husband, a biology teacher with a passion for reptiles, would have liked). John added 154 bird species to his life list.
We marveled at the giant pines and stinging trees in the Bunya Mountains; hiked the Art Gallery trail in Carnarvon Gorge to see the amazing Aboriginal stencil art on the gorge’s sandstone cliffs; drove 40 kilometers off our intended path to visit a place marked on the map as White Blow, which turned out to be a huge chunk of quartz sitting atop a hill (not, as we had speculated, some kind of drug thing); stayed with generous friends of friends on a 140,000-acre cattle station, where I had the privilege of giving a bottle to an orphaned joey in the temporary care of station owners Karen and Angus Emmott.
We snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, drove a rented Barbie car around Magnetic Island, ate dinner at Sydney’s Opera House, cruised the Daintree River, and drove to the end of the road at Cape Tribulation (the end of our road— only four-wheel drive beyond the point at which we turned around). In all, we covered more than 4,000 kilometers in our rental SUV (a real car, not the Barbie car) and met and talked with dozens of interesting people during our three weeks in Australia.
Through it all, I kept thinking, “Is this real? Are we really here?” And then I’d look at the joy on John’s face and the wonder in my son’s eyes and think, “Yes, we really are here, and it is everything.”
Every night while we were there, I sat down and wrote about the day’s events. Preparing for this post, I re-read some of my entries, and I caught myself thinking, “Nona will be delighted when she hears about this.” She would have reveled in every story and every photo, and I’ve never been happier to keep a promise.