Death, Dying, Love, & Europe (& COVID?)
(AKA when I think about this year as a most-likely terminally-ill cancer patient)
Megan Nelms wrote this memoir in the summer of 2022. She wanted to document how much joy she squeezed out of life — even as it neared its end. Let this be a reminder to seize every opportunity and "do all the things," as Megan would say.
So memorable. So Megan.
For more backstory, visit About This Project.
When I made plans for 2022, I knew that, statistically, I would die within the next five years. In fact, five years was a best-case scenario, so I wasn’t going to allow myself to be complacent. I’d undergone two stem cell transplants for a very aggressive form of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). My goal was that, as soon as I was able to travel, I’d be on the next flight to Paris to squeeze every moment out of my remaining time.
I’ll start off by saying I graduated medical school in 2021 with $371K in student loan debt, and without a penny to my name. Of that, $20K was in interest alone. Due to AML, I was in no shape to start a residency, and I ultimately had no job prospects at the time given how post-graduate medical education works in the United States. I relied on help from family, friends, and credit cards to finance my travels, knowing I would likely not be alive long enough to even remotely worry or care about these expenses.
If I do live 20+ more years, the joke will absolutely be on me
— and I’ll be grateful for it.
So, in November of 2021, I hopped on a plane to Paris with my mom, my sister, and my Aunt Pam, who kindly arranged buddy passes for our six-day jaunt. Why Paris? It was an easy direct flight from Atlanta and a good way to start my travels while medically fragile. At the time, France was strictly enforcing COVID-19 masking and vaccination policies, and as an immunocompromised cancer patient, it felt like a safe place to start.
Paris did not disappoint. You hear about people being disappointed by the lack of hospitality, the dog shit littering the streets, and the smell. I still loved it. And I knew I’d need to come back again for a longer stay. I ate at one of my bucket list restaurants, Frenchie Rue de Nil, which had the Michelin tasting menu of what dreams are made. I met my favorite celebrity chef, Gregory Marchand.
My sister and I even met some lovely French boys (stone-cold hotties, I might add) and the night was straight from a movie. We spent the entire night drinking French wine and gin fizzes — talking, laughing, attempting to speak French. We ended up at their flat and “dot dot dot,” as Sophie from Mamma Mia might say. Warning: There will be more Mamma Mia references.
Suffice it to say, after two years of cancer treatment, I had an amazing trip. During my six days in Paris, I decided I had unfinished business with the French.
I knew I would be back.
I would take French lovers, attempt to learn the language, and travel all over the country by train, and that’s exactly what I did. When I returned home from my six-day trip, I immediately booked a small flat for two months in St. Ambroise, located in the 11th arrondissement of Paris.
It would be the longest and farthest I’d ever been from home. I would be mostly alone, but I was in remission, my blood counts were excellent, and it was as good a time as ever to pull the trigger and take the trip of a lifetime. I might not have another chance like it.
When I think about how far I’ve come in 2022, I think about how terrified I was when I arrived in France. I was lonely, I couldn’t speak the language, I felt crippled to leave my apartment just to go get groceries. I felt like a failure. I almost turned right around and went home.
[Fast-forward to the beginning of June, where I navigated from Paris, to Sofia, Bulgaria, to Athens, Greece, even taking a ferry to Paros in the Greek Islands. I hopped on a random ferry to Antiparos just to explore another island — alone. I started my day with a Greek breakfast, cappuccino freddo, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, then finished with a solo dip in the Aegean Sea.
I had to leave Paros alone when my friends got COVID-19, just to barely make a flight in Athens after a very delayed ferry ride. I went from hardly being able to leave my tiny Parisian flat to navigating all over Europe with ease. I went from needing assistance to use the restroom and bathe (just 6 months prior) to walking an average of eight miles per day, just to explore different neighborhoods and cities.]
I remember navigating a three-hour train ride to Normandy with my dad. We arrived in a quaint, gentile medieval town called Bayeux with a breathtaking cathedral dating back to 1077 in the presence of William the Conqueror (who is supposedly my 33rd great-grandfather, but that is another story).
We backpacked through St. Laurent sur Le Mer, walking miles and miles from Omaha beach through rural Normandy, thinking we would surely get stuck there without taxis or Ubers. We talked about using our glass Orangina bottles as makeshift weapons if anyone tried to fuck with us. (Don’t worry, the people were lovely, but it did get scary-remote at times.)
We hopped on the wrong train to Caen instead of Paris but made the most incredible memories. We stopped at a one-man restaurant for a local and truly authentic veal roast in Reims (La Fontaine) after a champagne tasting on an empty stomach at GH Martel. We explored the Reims automobile museum, which was like watching a kid (the kid being my dad) in a candy shop. We felt like true adventurers.
Seeing my dad’s amazement at the cycling culture, the mastery of the French canal system, and his unimpressed attitude towards the Eiffel Tower was a treat in itself. Anywhere Greg could get un bière et une cappuccino (~et voila~), he was then having the best moment and meal of his life — no matter what it was.
My dad can find joy in any small moment, and I learned a lot from him on this trip.
Aside: To this day, my dad knows my love language is picking up the odd Orangina he can find in specialty shops and surprising me with it. I type this from a hospital room, looking at a black bag full of eight glass bottles of Orangina.
I remember guiding my mom to Reims as well, 45 minutes by train to the Champagne Region. We toured the beautiful Champagne caves at Ruinart — Hitler’s favorite champagne, which seemed like an odd brag. We saw the Pommery properties and Chateaus. We walked through Reims to find a quaint family-run restaurant on Valentine’s Day and enjoyed a delicious homemade risotto special and tarte tatin for dessert. We could see the Notre Dame de Reims from our hotel window, and what an incredible sight it was.
We ate incredible fois gras at Las Crayeres Chateau. We also ate not-so-great escargot at a traditional establishment that I will not defame for fear of French retribution. We ate the best roasted cauliflower of our lives at LouLous (the Louvre restaurant, not the most authentic establishment I’m sure, but wonderful nonetheless). I also recall my mom’s sheer panic as she walked through the never-ending catacombs, as I struggled to control my laughter at her expense.
I remember exploring Paris and Amsterdam with my friends Tabitha and Andreea and how enamored they were with all things Paris. It was like seeing it through new eyes all over again. After four weeks in Paris, I had come to the conclusion that “If you’ve seen one cathedral in France, you’ve seen them all” — already a jaded mademoiselle, if you will. Tabitha and Andreea changed this for me, taking time to marvel at every architectural detail on 35-mm film as we wound through tiny cobblestone streets. We thrifted together for hours upon hours.
I was infuriated when we missed our train to Amsterdam and had to stow away on the next available train. But I soon calmed down and remembered we were on our way to mother-fucking Amsterdam, so how could I stay mad.
I recall the coffee shops, terrible weather, and the death stairs up to our flat. There were canals, the red-light district, amazing cappuccinos, and all the disgustingly fulfilling tasting menus.