Editor's note: Coral Thede first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project's "Voyages: Life-changing experiences through travel." The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
So, there I am in Paris, the city of my dreams, in an absolute downpour. I had gotten off at the wrong train stop, my phone was about to die, and my hotel just canceled my reservation for the night — and the next five — without any explanation.
I’m sitting there crying in the corner of a fancy café, sipping a cold cappuccino and the only French I know is from one semester in 8th grade. I have no place to stay and the sun is about to set.
This dream that had been 16 years in the making was quickly starting to feel like a nightmare.
Then I did what I normally do in times of trouble: I grabbed my journal. I wrote down May 9th, 2019, followed by: “Holy s***. I feel like I’m gonna pass out. The hotel I booked canceled on me. I’m trying to keep it together, but not so much luck. It’ll all be OK.”
And OK it was, but it took a lot of long, left turns to get right here.
After my father died, a sign from the universe came in the form of color
I grew up like many of you, in the France of the Midwest — aka, Iowa. My hometown is Reinbeck, where most of my family lived and still does today. I had my grandparents up the alley and all my cousins a few blocks away. It was a sweet, slow and simple place to spend a childhood. I assumed I was going to live and die in the zip code of 50669.
Until we moved to the big city of Norwalk. Going from a no-stop-light town to minutes away from downtown Des Moines opened my eyes to a world I’d only caught a glimpse of before. My travels up until that point mostly consisted of family road trips around the Midwest.
It was at Norwalk Middle School that I got to take French, even though my dad thought it was more important that I took Spanish, but those classes were all full. That was the semester I became obsessed with French cafés, Parisian decor and all things Eiffel Tower.
A lot of moments in my life have felt like that journal entry. Like on the one hand, I’m gonna pass out. On the other hand, it’s all gonna be OK.
Until it wasn’t.
On Feb. 20, 2018, my dad, Craig John Thede, passed away. He was my lifeline and my lighthouse. He was my compass and my road map and my very best friend. He was the rock that let me roll. His death was sudden and tragic and messy in ways I didn’t know death could be. And at 52 years young, he was just gone.
That year, my entire ecosystem was disrupted and my world turned upside down. His death didn’t just break my heart — it shattered it into thousands of pieces that I alone had to somehow put back together. I struggled to exist in this world without him.
It was a tough winter and a blurry summer and later that fall I got a text from my friend Shanna. She sent me an article for Pantone’s Color of the Year announcement.
For those that don’t know, Pantone is a very big deal in the paint/branding/marketing world and every year they pick an esteemed color to embody a fresh beginning of what is to come.
The chosen color for 2019? Living Coral.
It was bright, bold, vibrant, energizing and life-affirming.
I don’t know if you know me or not, but I am a master manifestor and a believer of divine signs. And this was a big one. After a year of loss, I was ready for life.
So I went to India.
Dad's words encouraged me to travel
I spent my 29th birthday under the fireworks of a New Year’s Eve night in Jaipur. What was a simple “hey what are you guys doing tonight” to a group of fine looking gentlemen, turned into bar hopping around the city, singing country karaoke at the dj’s house and eating a piece of birthday cake. I still have no idea to this day where it came from. We watched the sun rise as 2018 set.
Being a New Year’s baby, my birthday always seems like a special time for life-changing things and this year was no different. Except for it was.
It was my dad who had instilled this sense of travel in me. He worked hard and saved his whole life for a retirement he never got to take. A life he never got to live. A world he’d never get to see. But he knew I would. He knew I’d be here one day, doing this.
He even wrote it down, in one of my most prized possessions, a journal with an Eiffel Tower on the cover and this inscription on the inside:
Coral's 21st Birthday! January 1, 2011:
Coral, I have always imagined you sitting at one of the famous Paris sidewalk cafes drinking a cup of coffee, scribing in your journal. Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso have at the quaint tables of the famous Les Deux Magots and The Cafe De Flore offers an inspiring view of the Eiffel Tower.
I can also see you sitting on one of the many benches or parks that line the Seine River. If you must drive, please take a taxi around the Arc de Triomphe; twelve streets converge here!
One day you will be here! I love you Coral! Happy Birthday!
So I did this for him. And for me ... because of him.
With no destination in mind, I traveled to 13 countries
India was actually a trial run for what was to come. After that trip, I knew what I had to do. I came home and dyed my hair Living Coral.
Then I quit my stable job in Ames, moved out of my cute little Sherman Hill apartment, and booked a one-way ticket to Germany.
I booked an AirBnB for 10 days and that was it. After that, it was three months of no agenda and all adventure. It was sort of my own version of "Eat, Pray, Love."
And gang, I ate. I prayed. And I loved.
I’d go on to visit 13 countries: taking a ferry to Finland, singing Taylor Swift with street artists in Norway, watching the Spice Girls live at Wembley Stadium in London and even getting my purse stolen in Barcelona. I tell ya, nothing grounds you quicker than being alone in a foreign country without any identification or forms of payment — or SPF 100 sunscreen.
That summer, I also made it to the motherland, the land of my ancestors, the one place I wish I could’ve taken my late Grandma O’Neil: Ireland. On a two-week road trip on the other side of the car and on the other side of the road, I devoured the green scenery and fulfilled a longtime dream of exploring as many Irish pubs as I could. And boy did I. I don’t think I paid for a single Guinness the entire time I was there.
But there were also plenty of times on my travels that were tough. I felt lost and alone and overwhelmed. I even felt guilty — Should I be back home grieving, like everyone else? Was it really fair to take this much time for myself? In this way?
It was difficult to give myself permission to be present and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Until Paris. The dream destination. And the rain, and the hotel cancellation, and the crying in the corner of the café. It could have been a nightmare. But then something so random and beautiful happened.
Before my hotel canceled on me, I had bookmarked an AirBnB experience, where people host various events in their home. This particular one was for a house concert. In my moment of self-pity, I thought I might as well make some friends and listen to some music while I’m here.
So I messaged Roger, the host, to see if I could come and if he had any recommendations for places to stay nearby. He said yes, his place actually. How convenient.
In the midst of grief, I found gratefulness and a new purpose
Roger was an American who lived in Paris for 20 years and his home was just two blocks away from the café where I had taken my refuge. I met him at the gate and as he walked up to meet me he said, “Well, hey there stranger, sounds like you’re having some trouble.” Totally something my dad would say.
And that’s when I knew it was all gonna be alright.
I followed Roger into the courtyard and stopped dead in my tracks as I looked up. There. It. Was. The Eiffel Tower.
He had already walked ahead of me before turning around to say, “Oh, I know right? What a view.”
That first night in Paris I got to watch the Eiffel Tower light up at midnight from the terrace of my beautiful, new temporary home.
In fact, I felt so safe and comfortable and content in Roger’s home, that I longed for one of my own. It was there that I actually Google’d "homes for sale in Des Moines, Iowa," and found the little blue bungalow I reside in today.
I was supposed to be in Paris for five days and I ended up staying for 12 — at about a third of the price I would’ve spent at that pricey hotel I can’t even remember the name of. Roger’s place allowed me the power to pause.
It was there that I gave myself permission to feel my feelings but also to enjoy these moments. I decided to stop feeling guilty for not being home, stop feeling like I was running away, stop feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there.
I realized that I was grieving, but I was also really grateful.
I finally understood that it isn’t either or; it’s yes and always and onward.
Paris as a whole turned out to be what I call a major “dad moment.” There were many dad moments throughout my travels and in the years that have followed. They’re moments when it’s supposed to be raining but the sun comes out, or you find the perfect parking spot downtown or certain people and places are put on your path that just ... align. It’s when the universe reminds you just how much you are cared for. That it has your back and you better believe it. The more you believe it, the more you’ll feel it.
Of the many voyages I have embarked on, and the many, many more I hope to take, I recognize how important it is to lean on others. To let people help you along the many winding roads this life can take you.
And most importantly, to trust yourself. To trust your intuition, listen to your gut and let go of all the other bullshit. To notice those little winks and signs from the universe you feel called to and lean into them.
I’m not here to make light of darkness, but to see the light through it. Through writing and storytelling, comedy and music and of course, travel, I intend on living my life on purpose — in Living Coral.
In the words of my father, the ones I now have tattooed in his handwriting on my left arm: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, no regrets.”
May you venture on to whatever voyage you feel called to next.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Coral Thede is a spirited performer who entertains audiences around the Midwest and across the globe. She is a singer, storyteller and well-traveled soul. Coral is the creator, producer and host of Des Moines’ best-selling comedy show "Tits Up!" Wherever she goes, light and laughter are sure to follow.
Become a teller
The Des Moines Storytellers Project strongly believes that everyone HAS a story and everyone CAN tell it. None of the storytellers who take our stage are professionals. They are your neighbors, friends or co-workers, and they are coached to tell by Register journalists.
Want to tell your story at one of our upcoming Storytellers Project events? Read our guidelines and submit a story at DesMoinesRegister.com/Tell.
Contact email@example.com for more information.
Hear past storytellers
WATCH: Mediacom rebroadcasts stories from the most recent show on MC22 periodically; check local listings for times. A replay is also available at YouTube.com/DMRegister.
LISTEN: Check out the Des Moines Storytellers Project podcast, which is available on your favorite podcasting platforms.
Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines storyteller Coral Thede leans on travel to grieve dad