I might need a vacation… from vacation!

2 people, 6 months, 13 trips, 4 countries, 14 cities, and way too many frequent flyer miles to count. After all that, it’s official: I miss my bed.

Since August of last year, Andy and I have been traveling constantly, both for business and for fun. It feels like we’ve slept in every bed but our own, and I think our dog is starting to consider the kennel his real home. Our condo is just a place he visits sometimes, although its amenities do include complimentary chew toys.

At first, going to so many different places was exciting. Vegas, Europe, the Carolinas… Andy and I flew everywhere for everything: to attend events, see family, work on a business project, and of course, take a real vacation. Pretty soon we finished all the airline crossword puzzles. Then Andy started saying the flights felt too long, but since I often fell asleep before takeoff and woke up after landing, I really had no idea what he was talking about.

Other than visiting our families in Houston and Rochester, NY—which are always our favorite trips (Are you reading this, Mom and Dad?)—I think there were 3 vacations that stood out from the rest of our Crazy Travel.

The first was Ireland. Andy had to go there for a conference, so we decided that I should tag along and make it our first international trip together. His conference was held in the tiny town of Nenagh, where I spent my days exploring (and re-exploring) all four blocks of the main square, and then writing in a wonderful little café. To many people that might sound boring, but I felt both exhilarated and relaxed at the same time. There’s something about Europe’s combination of cobbled streets and contemporary culture that puts my soul at ease.

When Andy was done working, he and I traveled to Dublin for the weekend. We toured the old jail, Trinity College, the infamous Temple Bar area, and the zoo. And of course no European trip would be complete without a castle and a cathedral. Pretty much the only things we didn’t see were a leprechaun and pot of gold. But Ireland was as green, rainy, and hospitable as promised, and we really enjoyed our time together there.

A month later, just before Thanksgiving, we rendezvoused with my parents in Las Vegas to celebrate my twenty-fourth birthday and my dad’s ______ieth. (I don’t think I’m allowed to say how old he is.) My half-sisters met us there from Phoenix, and together we had a whirlwind couple of days. We visited Hoover Dam and Red Rock Canyon, and we saw Cirque du Soleil’s “O” as well as the Blue Man Group show. The whole weekend was a blast, but the best part was that my dad had his wife and all three of his daughters together to celebrate his milestone birthday.

Last but not least, Andy and I met up with his parents to attend and celebrate his younger brother’s graduation from the US Marines boot camp. I’ve never had a friend or family member in the military before, so that weekend at Parris Island really affected me. Anyone can have an intellectual opinion about our military, where it is, and what it’s doing. But when there’s a body, a face, a person that you care about who is serving—when your emotions get involved—that changes everything. Rather than think about Andy’s brother being deployed, I’ll just say that we were extremely proud of his accomplishment in becoming a Marine, and honored to have been a part of his graduation experience.

For better or worse, the end of 2009 meant the end of our Crazy Travel. Was it insane, expensive, and exhausting? Yes, absolutely yes. But was it worth every mile, every penny, and every minute away from my bed? Yes, absolutely yes.

Moving out, moving on

This past summer has been one of milestones. Along with my own Masters graduation, my sister graduated from high school in two different ceremonies. For those of you who do not know, my sister has mild mental retardation. She does not always know how to think about herself, because she isn’t “normal,” yet her developmental disabilities are not as severe as most of her peers.

Her first graduation was at the private school she attended for high school. It concentrates on special education and has been wonderful for her development. The ceremony was intimate, and my sister spoke to the parents and teachers about her gratitude and aspirations, like attending the community college special education vocational program. I admit, as with all her ice-skating and music recitals, I teared up.

The second graduation was at the public school she is zoned to. She wanted to attend this ceremony because it was what a “normal” teenager would do. My sister has sat through three of my graduations, all of which were large, extravagant events. She understood and craved the ceremonial rite of passage of hearing her name, walking across the stage, and receiving her diploma. So my parents worked with the school and the school district to ensure her right to walk across that stage.

Thus, after 21 years, my sister graduated from high school. To be honest, I really never thought this day would arrive. The day she would finish school. The day she would decide she must go to college. The day she would move out.

My sister’s graduation and move are just a small part of our story. My family has come a long way — from bearing the burden alone and not knowing what to do, to creating a nonprofit organization and interacting with other families openly. And my sister, well, she is making decisions. She is moving into a group home and continuing her education.

Of course, none of this has been easy. Even though moving to a group was my sister’s wish, she is met with mixed feelings about it. She understands this is a necessary step into her future, but at the same time she is uncomfortable with so much change. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before — when she switched schools or a friend moved away — so we know she will adjust and be happy. As will we.

There are many families with stories of sons and daughters who were able to reach these accomplishments and make transitions successfully. I hope that they all share their stories, because I believe that this support, sharing, and understanding is what helps other families with similar situations make it through. It certainly helped mine.

It took my family over a decade of strength, perseverance, and openness to just get where we are today. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. But as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and friends, we all have to make the journey together. It will never end, but it will always be worth it.

The gift behind the gift

Instead of gaming consoles, iPods or new DVDs for Christmas, I wanted something a little different. Upon my request, my mom bought me a pair of tights that cost, well, probably too much. Keep in mind that these are fashion industry standard, polar Wolford tights. As warm as pants, they are perfect for cold temperatures and even snowy weather. Yet, no matter how I try to justify these tights, most people would never understand buying them.

I know, because I thought the same thing a month earlier. A good friend was buying cold weather, business-appropriate accessories with her parents at a high-end department store. To me it seemed ridiculous to make such a fuss over belts and Ugg boots. But while those may not have been my choice picks, I am just as guilty of overspending on items that I consider necessities and others consider trivial.

So why would our parents, who have preached about the value of hard-earned money, even consider buying us such expensive items? Because they love us and believe in us. At the risk of sounding materialistic, the truth is, our society tends to attach beliefs to purchases. Some people buy hope, others buy dreams. We associate these values with certain objects and brands, and they become part of how we communicate our feelings, whether affection, appreciation, or anything else. (The rest should come from the heart, of course.) When you buy an engagement ring for your girlfriend, or a car for your 16-year-old, or a computer for the college-bound son, you are expressing your hopes for their success.

With the end of the holiday season, it’s important to remember that the value of the gifts we gave and received has nothing to do with their price tags. Whether they cost a fortune or a penny, it’s the thought and meaning from our family and friends that really counts.

For my friend, who is attending a prestigious law school in the Northeast, her parents see these purchases as aids for law firm interviews and the impending winter. As for myself, my parents believe that the impression I make on people (like my summer employer who I returned to work for over Winter Break) is worth a pair of tights. Our parents have confidence that we can make our futures happen, and they want to express that as much as they can. I am grateful that they see our success in sight.

So my tights may have cost more than most, and they may seem like a strange present in comparison to what most people want for the holidays, but my mom and I are okay with that. We know it’s not really about the tights. It’s about the love and support of my parents. My mom just wants to keep me a little bit warmer in the snow as I keep forging my path. And because I know she’s standing behind me, I’ll do my best to make her proud.