Pisa, Italy, 2008
When you’ve seen, felt, even smelled how quickly life as most of us know it can unwind, the phrase, “life is short,” isn’t cliché or abstract, it’s real. So if you’ve ever had a wish or wild hair, you know the time to act is now. That’s why I’m planning to take a big “time out” to travel with the kids. The plan: travel internationally for about a year.
Travel, and opening our door to people from other countries, was part of Sean’s life and mine before we met. I lived in Luxembourg as a high school exchange student for a year, and stayed in the Grand Duchy again for 6 months while in college. Sean hosted a German exchange student, Max, before we met. Together, we hosted a Swiss student, Angi, before we had kids. Anne, also from Switzerland, nannied for us for half a year after Fiona and Finley came along.
Sean and I sent ourselves on a belated 3-week honeymoon to Europe in 2001, then to St. Lucia in 2003. After Fiona arrived in 2004, when she was about a month old, I asked her doctor how soon I could bring her on a plane. “She’s healthy,” He said. “You can take her now. Babies need to eat, sleep and poop. As long as Fiona can do those things, she’ll be fine.” Fi and I flew to South Carolina two weeks after that conversation. She performed her duties (or, her “doodies”), and I ran a 15 kilometer race.
Have Diapers, will Travel
Fiona got her first passport when she was one year old; shortly after, Sean and I took her to Switzerland and Portugal for two weeks. Still eating, sleeping and pooping, Fi adjusted well. She survived an 8-hour transatlantic flight, car trips on windy mountain roads, and parents who ate too much Swiss cheese and Portuguese salted codfish.
We brought Fiona and new baby brother, Finley, to Mexico in 2006 when Finn was three months old. He nursed quietly on the plane, and we were delighted when the passenger behind us said, “I didn’t realize you had a baby up there.” Another Stanelun traveler had entered the flying fold.
No one marveled at silent children on the flight to or from Italy in 2008. By then, Finn was almost 3: Fiona was 4. They made noisy American entrances, exits, chomped previously-chewed gum and lunged at train tracks. They slurped fettuccine and enjoyed (a little too much!) their first sips of (non-communion) wine. Italians called them “bella,” (beautiful) and “bambino” (“child,” to which Finley remarked, “I’m not a bad beano; I’m a good beano.”
Global Fantasy Meets Local Reality
You know the saying about making lemonade from lemons? My fantasy version of lemonade is more than the American warehouse club container of corn syrup and yellow dye #4. I want limoncello from Italy, limonade from Germany, citronnade from France… Of course, we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes, I think plan is a four-letter word. I’ve witnessed too many plans splattered on life’s windshield like a gnat. That’s why I haven’t, until now, told the masses (okay, all 3 of you still reading this) about my plans. I’m skeptical of my abilities to rent, dismantle and pack up an entire house, coordinate at least the first few legs of our journey, plus take a couple domestic trips with the kids before leaving Spokane August 13th.
Trip Delayed = Trip Denied?
Why the rush? A few logistical factors: 1) my dad has rented an apartment in Paris during September; 2) I’d like to visit other friends in Europe in October; 3) I figure once we’ve started traveling, why risk re-entry back to our “normal lives” before setting out again? Then, there’s the mental stuff: As a well-traveled, wiser friend pointed out, if we wait another year to launch our adventure, we may not launch at all. By then, we’ll be more settled. Fiona will enter 2nd grade in 2011; Finley will start kindergarten. I’ll be another year older, with nagging health issues more likely to worsen with time than improve. Better to cut and run now before the next year of school, next diagnosis, next catastrophe that will tie us to a major medical center for an extended term.
Your World is a Box
When someone you love is critically ill, your world gets smaller each day. You make the same drive to the hospital, park in the same garage, and walk the same path (take the elevator from “L6” to “M,” turn right, left, right again, take the Tower elevators to floor 2, or 5, or 6, or 8, or, God forbid, back to floor 2 – the ICU). You cancel almost every plan you had. You stop looking at the calendar, especially as holidays approach, and you watch helplessly as hope for a homecoming disintegrates.
Nearly everyone you know will visit Disneyland or Hawaii during this time. The rest will fly to Arizona or Las Vegas. Meanwhile, you eat standing up in a hospital room or in the cafeteria. You get a furlough for work, children’s events, to sleep, for church, and even to visit with friends. But you remember, always, you are tethered. Even a long leash is still a leash. You are painfully aware your loved one lives in an infinitely smaller box. You feel guilty. You suck it up, go to bed, and wake up the next morning to start all over again.
For this sliver of time, the kids and I not tied to an institution. That could change tomorrow. So I’ve hired a property manager who’ll help rent and oversee our house while we’re gone and a travel agent to (hopefully) save me from the time suck of online bargain shopping. If (and this is a HUGE if) I can get organized enough to donate, sell, pack and find a place to store our things, we’ll leave Spokane August 13th and return about one year later.
Sean and I talked about spending a year abroad during the 10 years we were married. He even encouraged me to apply for an Irish passport (my grandfather was born in Northern Ireland), which I received in 2003. While Sean was not the plan-the-itinerary guy, he had the vision and the enthusiasm for someday reinventing ourselves somewhere else that was in line with my own desires.
My (tentative) plan: visit family and friends in Michigan, Ohio and Florida mid-August before arriving in Paris September 5th (my 40th birthday). Spend 3 weeks in Paris with my dad and his wife; linger another 6 weeks in Europe (staying with friends, and other home stays if I can arrange them) before heading to South Africa for a month to stay with a friend. Then, onto Australia for 3 weeks and New Zealand for 6 months, where Fiona and Finley will attend primary school.
Birth of a Kiwi Dream
Why New Zealand? Two days after Sean died, I spoke with a woman who was widowed 8 years ago, leaving her to raise 4 children on her own. Suzanne said, “We honor him by living the best and most vital life we can.” She recommended 2 books: One about grief, the other about travel (called, One Year Off, it’s the true story of a family’s trip around the world). Suzanne moved her family to Hamilton, New Zealand for a year after her husband died. She said, “The kids loved having that opportunity…the youngest, who did kindergarten, even took home a New Zealand accent.” It was also a respite from pity, a way to go to the grocery store without hearing, "I'm so sorry..."
Fiona and Finley know we’re taking a trip. Fiona wants to see penguins, and Finley wants desperately to be in kindergarten, which he can start next February in New Zealand. Finn also sometimes says, “I don’t want to leave our world,” and Fiona asks me to stop talking about the trip so she can tell me about a new game, or beg for ice cream.