Of Loss, Role Models, and Storms

On the Road, Campeche, Mexico

Rocketing down the highway, drops of rain nipped at the tops of my legs. I leaned forward into the wind, as if propelling the motorcycle forward through force of will. The road wound through hills in front of me, enormous dark storm clouds gathering behind. I had been outrunning the storm for the last 20 miles— what had been a pile of dark clouds on the horizon had become a dark mass overhead, the edges tinted green when the sun would have been setting, the rest a writhing mass of turbulent shapes overhead. I didn’t know storm clouds well enough to determine what type of clouds I was seeing and what they meant, but I knew what was coming.

I was 10 miles away from Campeche, my destination that evening after a grueling 11 hour day on the bike. Most of the way had been spectacularly beautiful coastline with miles of white sand beach dropping away to my left into the perfectly green, clear sea. Bright green lizards scuttled across the road, butterflies floated at the edges and all sorts of birds swooped overhead. I had crossed bridges to islands, small fishing boats in the water below, and followed the flat winding road all the way from Oaxaca to Campeche state, almost 500 miles to the North-East.

I was so close— but even screaming along the highway at 85 mph, the wind streaming my hard behind me, I could seem to outrun the dark mass of clouds that was always there behind me.

***

Oaxaca City, Mexico

“Who were your role models growing up?” Brad asked me.

Brad Mendenhall of Cosmic Gepetto was interviewing me for a podcast about my experiences on the road, and what it was like as a solo female adventure traveler. Although it shouldn’t have, the question took me by surprise. It was my first podcast interview talking about my experiences on the road, and even though being a strong woman is a huge part of my life and image, where it stemmed from wasn’t something I thought about often. Growing up, my role models existed in the pages of the books I read voraciously— Matilda, Maniac Magee, Lyra and Hermione Granger, I read all of Roald Dahl books and read about his time in South Africa on the RAF, about the snake catcher who would be called when a green mamba had gotten into someone’s house. I’ve lived in books most of my life, but people were harder to identify with for me. People weren’t a constant like books were.

“My Aunt was a big inspiration to me as a child,” I said finally. “Although I only knew her as a child, hearing about her stories growing up gave me the inspiration to know I could do whatever I wanted, and that was enough for me.”

***

My mother’s elder sister, 6 feet tall and spectacularly beautiful, was at the heart of many of the adventure stories I was told as a child. Aunt Amy, an Amazon who would read me and my siblings tea leaves and tell us our fortunes as children. We knew all the stories about her, her narrowly missing being eaten by a shark in Thailand, how she would jump out of restaurant bathrooms to escape bad dates, how she swam through klongs (narrow sewage canals in Thailand) to skip school, and how she barely escaped being stung by a man of war on some exotic beach.

“Tell us the shark story again!” we’d yell from the back seat of the old green Impala my Mom used to drive. “Tell us about the jellyfish!” My Mom often talked about her fiery red-headed sister, and her wicked sense of humor. Up until I was 6 years old, my siblings and I would make day trips with my Mom and Aunt to a circuit of thrift stores, where we’d hunt for bargains. My Mom and Amy would treat themselves to a soda at 7-11, calling them brain burners. We were to young to know how little money we had then, so the brain burners and the excursions to thrift stores were always exciting to us. We’d make it into our own adventure, hiding in shopping carts, all of us wanting to be with Aunt Amy and hear her stories.

After the thrift store there would always be a treat waiting for us back at her house, a box of Entenmann’s mixed donuts: three powdered sugar, three cinnamon + sugar, and three plain. While my brother and sister and I would debate over which flavor of donut to eat first (powdered sugar), my Mom and my Aunt would sit on the front steps drinking iced tea, my Aunt smoking a cigarette.

“Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy’s house!” We would shout as kids, racing up the steep hill to the gate, the words running together to form a chant, “AntTamy, AntTamy, AntTamy!” My sister and I fighting over who got to ride in Ant Tamy’s shopping cart, showing her what we found at the thift store, and waiting for her approval of our bargains. Ant Tamy on her front stoop, Ant Tamy in her Volkswagon beetle, Ant Tamy with cancer.

After my grandparents died when I was 6, my family had a falling out, and we moved away. The memories of who I was in relation to my Aunt Amy at age 6 was something I held onto for 14 years, until I would see my Aunt again, when we found out she had cancer.

As I grew older, I held onto the person I was crouched in my Aunt’s shopping cart in thrift stores. The girl who reminded everyone so much of Amy herself, this person I didn’t know save my childhood memories, but who was such an integral part of me. This heroic goddess I had heard so much about, this beautiful, daring woman I hoped to be just like. I remember even at 6 recognizing I wanted my life to be full of adventure. All I’d ever wanted were those same adventures, those stories. I remember getting my driver’s license, and right after the test thinking, I have my driver’s license Aunt Amy! And, in the back of my mind, I could go visit her, now. I remember birthdays and life changes and successes, always successes, thinking of her. Comparing myself to 6 year old Dani thinking, I wonder how like her I am now?

**

“You may tire of me

as our December sun is setting

because I’m not who I used to be.”

Death Cab for Cutie

***

***

Cape Town

One Thursday night, I had a voicemail from my Mom on Skype, telling me Aunt Amy had been admitted to the hospital. “Larry found her unconscious in the morning when he woke up, we’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom said. The flight home from Cape Town was long, usually around 24 hours. Even if I found a flight the next morning, I’d still be a full day away from home. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom repeated, the Skype connection breaking up.

The next evening, my Mom called again from Skype. I could hear the tears in her voice, and my whole body constricted. I remember the room going completely silent, holding its breath, as if the room had been waiting for this moment. “We’re all headed to the hospital now, the doctors told us to say our goodbyes.” I sat in my empty apartment for hours, in the dark, seeing the lights sparkle off in the distance on Table Mountain. My computer buzzed, another Skype call.

My Mom was openly crying this time. I could hear my family in the background. “We told her you love her, and wished you could be here,” my Mom sobbed over the phone. We were all together over the phone, during the last few moments of my Aunt’s life, before they pulled the life support. While I slept halfway around the world, she was gone.

Aunt Amy, Ant Tamy, my godmother, my inspiration, the woman who swam with sharks, a piece of my family, my history, was gone. Never again would I see her coming through the front door at Thanksgiving, or smell the scent of a cigarette on her clothes. I wouldn’t be able to ask her about her stories, or know her as an adult. She was gone, and I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.