Of all the people in my life, the person with the fewest personal belongings is my brother, Alan. Like a modern nomad, he doesn’t stay in one place all year round but typically lives in Thailand for the autumn and winter, somewhere like Los Angeles, South Africa or Nepal for the spring, and the UK for the summer. Having no fixed abode prevents him from acquiring clutter. He can generally fit everything he needs in a suitcase and small carry-on bag. I admire him for the lightness of his lifestyle, especially because of the heaviness that he has had to deal with for his entire adult life. When he was 19 he was struck with leukemia, almost two years after our mother had first been diagnosed with the same disease. His was a child’s type of leukemia and was easier to treat, but the chemotherapy and radiotherapy were brutal, and although he reached remission within a year of treatment, he relapsed a year after we lost our mother. He was eventually cured of the leukemia by a bone marrow transplant from our sister, but he has suffered numerous side effects from the treatments – hip replacements, shingles, cataracts in both eyes (he’s a photographer!), an undermined immune system that has resulted in two recent bouts of double pneumonia. It is a wonder that he can get up and do anything, let alone travel the world taking stunning photographs.
Today I sent him a backpack. He’d mentioned he needed a new one and I was clearing out the garage today and found one that Theo had used briefly for school until it had hurt his back – it was too big. Though not a precious jewel like the ring I gave my sister, the backpack struck me as symbolic of Alan’s life as a traveler and one of the bravest adventurers I know. He may not ascend the world’s highest mountains, or plunge into the depths of the sea, but he has faced death on so many occasions and overcome more fear, loneliness and despair than anyone else I know. I know that for Alan, being in touch with his family is more important than any material object. He is currently thousands of miles away in Chiangmai, in northern Thailand, and I don’t make enough time to talk to him. With the gift of the backpack, I am also sending a promise to carve out more time to talk and the hope that we will see each other again very soon.