What 16 Days on a Bus With My Dad Taught Me About Life and Loss

I lost my mom to cancer when I was 25, and realized she was the glue that held my dad and I together. To bond, we set off on a trip though Spain and Portugal—just us and 40 retirees. The journey changed my life

Ishani Nath
father daugher relationship

The writer with her father in Toledo, Spain

Last year, my family of three boarded the plane to India, but only two of us needed tickets. My dad’s blue backpack contained our passports, an unlocked cell phone, and my mother’s ashes. My mum never really talked about the possibility of her death, mostly because she was convinced that if she lived hard enough, that day would never come. The one time she broached the subject was to request that she be laid to rest in the Ganges, just as her father had been. Now, we were on our way to release her ashes into the muddied waters of the sacred river, 150 km from where she was born.

I was never a “Daddy’s girl.” Mum was my ally, the one who would share juicy gossip or listen to me whine about work, while Dad could rarely keep the names of my friends straight. But he was my first call for real-life problems, like attempting to file my taxes. When it was just me and Dad, our conversations sounded like news bulletins of the day’s top stories: Work was fine, how about you, what movie do you want to see?

My Mum found out she had advanced ovarian cancer in 2008, when I was 19, and the diagnosis pulled our family together. By 2014, the bad news started to outpace the good, and the three of us clung even tighter. But in 2015, we fell apart. I remember curling up against my dad on the sterile, plastic-covered couches in The Ottawa General Hospital’s cancer ward. He said, “It’s going to be just you and me, bud.” Four months later, it was.

Releasing Mum’s ashes was the end of her story, but the beginning of a new one for me and my Dad. In an effort to avoid reality after saying our final farewell in India, we embarked on a 16-day bus tour of Spain and Portugal—a journey we hoped would help us reconnect after losing the person who once held us together.

Our trip began in the lobby of a ritzy Madrid hotel. Amid pillars and golden statues, we met 40 of our new travel companions, each about four decades older than me—the only people who opt for an upscale vacation in the middle of November. Father-daughter duos are not a common sight, and I later discovered that some of our fellow travellers wondered whether my dad was my sugar daddy—a notion that will forever give me the heebie-jeebies.

At the outset, Dad and I thought we would break from the tour’s scheduled excursions and wander the Spanish streets ourselves. But we quickly ran out of things to talk about, especially since neither of us wanted to bring up Mum. We navigated Madrid’s bustling sidewalks, speaking only about directions. “Where should we eat? I don’t know, what do you feel like? I’m not sure, what about you?” And on and on it went. By day three, we had signed up for nearly every group activity for the rest of the trip: Want to eat paella on the beaches of Costa Del Sol with dozens of retirees? Hell yes. What about a visit to Picasso’s childhood home in Malaga? A flamenco show in Seville? A stop at the forever-under-construction Sagrada Família? Yes, yes and yes, so long as we wouldn’t be alone together.

At each destination, all of us would pile out of the Mercedes-Benz bus and take photos as if the monuments were Kardashians and we were the paparazzi. But when Dad and I compared our snapshots of cobblestone streets and cathedrals, his captured a place’s history or impressive pieces of art, while mine were mostly of candid moments among locals. We were on the same tour, but we were seeing the world through entirely different lenses.

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The writer and her new friends at La Boqueria Market in Barcelona

As we headed to Portugal, we got to know the people on our bus and we told them about Mum’s passing. I expected their brows to furrow with forced sympathy, but instead they nodded knowingly, faces soft with understanding. Unlike my twentysomething friends back home, who struggled to find the right things to say to me, these people had lived long enough to experience loss. They’d been there. Sharing tapas and wine on a warm night in Valencia, Carolyn, a stylish 49-year-old Aussie with an infectious laugh, told me she too had lost her mother early. “You don’t get over it, but you learn to live with it,” she said.

Our days quickly fell into a routine of eating local delicacies (read: an absurd amount of Portuguese egg tarts), visiting grandiose churches and napping on the bus. Dinners were increasingly followed by drinks with our fellow passengers, and laughter flowed as readily as the sangria. By the end of the trip, one woman had unofficially adopted me and even cut my steak into bite size pieces at dinner, insisting that she did it for her grown sons all the time. Meanwhile, Dad made his own connections, and ended up wandering the streets of Barcelona, drinking beer with a new crew of bros.

He became particularly close with a heavy-set Australian with square glasses and a dirty sense of humour. While walking the streets of Salamanca, the Aussie nudged Dad, pointing out a “caliente señorita” who swished by our tour group. I expected Dad to blush or dismiss the comment, but instead, he nodded and grinned, like a 16-year-old being asked about Kate Upton. I squirmed. Was I supposed to play Mum’s role here and scold him? Was I wrong to feel weird? After all, he was single now.

At the end of our tour, a small group of us took an early morning trip to a monastery perched atop Montserrat, a mountain outside Barcelona. Mum was a Hindu, but she always lit candles in churches and gave me money to do the same. Throughout the trip, I had searched for an opportunity to carry on this tradition, but all of the churches we visited now had electronic candles where patrons paid to flick a switch. It didn’t feel the same. That morning, as the sun began to warm the mountain and before the crowds rolled in, Dad and I finally had an opportunity to light a candle for Mum.

We picked one out, placed it prominently among the others, and lit the wick together. At that moment it hit me that, for the first time, I was lighting a candle not for Mum, but in her memory. I began to cry. Dad pulled me into a bear hug, blocking out everything beyond his embrace. In that moment, we were exactly what each other needed. Even though we had lost Mum, it finally felt like we had found our family again.

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