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Monday, April 9, 2012

Crash Landing

Big, Fat American Life, Part Two
Crash Landing

It’s week two of My Big, Fat American Life. My dad and stepmom have left, my house mate and her two kids are gone for Spring Break, and now, it’s just Fiona, Finley and me. We’re a threesome again.  Euphoria about returning to the Big, Fat American Life is rapidly dissipating. I’m crash landing.

My kiddos have no school this week. I need to finish unpacking the house, so I send them to day camp for three days. I finally have exactly what I wanted: time alone in my Big, Fat American house with my Big, Fat American clothes dryer and Big, Fat American central heating system. It’s tranquil, comfortable, convenient and – lonely. It’s so damn lonely I could cry. So I do.

For two days, I can’t stop crying. I’m unpacking photographs of my former family: the one that included Sean. There we are, smiling up at Barb’s camera from a bench in her back yard. Finley’s one-and-a-half. Fiona’s three. Fi wears her best open-mouthed toddler smile and Finley sports a Jack-o’-lantern grimace. Both kids hold pine cones. Sean and I look healthy and happy in matching shades of brown. This is one of my favorite family photos. It makes me cry.

So do pictures from Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg and Vancouver Island. Sean and I built our emerging long-distance relationship with letters, plane tickets and pictures. Marriage and kids meant we’d need two more passports and two more plane tickets. I open a tan plywood wine box and find our old passports: Fiona, the Toddler, Finley the Baby, Sean the Dad, and me, the Mom. Sean expired before his passport. So unfair.

I sort another box of pictures and discover the wedding invitation my aunt matted and framed. Even with its silver-plated, creamy-bordered beauty, it’s a relic. Obsolete.

Dawn Marie Picken and Sean Michael Stanelun, together with their families, invite you to….

To what? I’ve no idea what to do with this past-life souvenir, so I leave it in its basement box.

I also haven’t decided where to place the rest of Sean’s ashes, which rest in a brown plastic box labeled with his name.  The kids and I scattered several tablespoonsful from the tip of Northern Ireland to the bottom of Africa, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Before we left Spokane, our friends brought flowers, shrubs and trees for the backyard. We combined hydrangeas, a cherry tree and sunflowers with Sean’s ashes. Sean is everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere. Nowhere.

I set the Sean box, encased in a red velvet drawstring bag, in a corner of the foyer. I don’t tell anyone who comes to the house, “Hey, say hi to Sean – he’s in that box, on the floor.” Instead, I leave the box there quietly. I look at it several times a day and sometimes even talk to it:

“Do you believe it, Sean? We’re back in the old house. It’s a mess. I have sooo much to sort through. I got rid of lots of furniture before we left and now I’m buying stuff – again. I wish you could help me. I wish you were here.”

Sean was a man of few words. He doesn’t respond.

I can almost hear him, though, when I attempt stupid moving tricks: trying to hoist a king-sized mattress alone, or building a gi-normous sleigh bed by myself, or rolling a kitchen table across the front yard.

                “Uh, hon. Better ask for help on that one.”

Sean’s voice isn’t the only one encouraging me not to gift myself a hernia or dent the drywall. Another man’s words bounce inside my head: Pete’s. His cautions are loving and pragmatic. Pete knows the girl-who-thinks-she-can-do-it-all-but-really-can’t requires (on occasion) help with a hammer.

I hear the other voice – of partner, boyfriend, lover – and my eyes well. Tears take over. Whatever I think I need to do must wait. The only task I can manage is to sit at the new-from-Craiglist oak kitchen table and cry. What the hell have I done? Why am I not with Pete? I miss him so much it hurts – physically hurts. Even though the mammaries ran dry when Finley weaned, this pain reminds me of how it felt to be separated from my babies when they were breastfeeding. It’s a longing. An emotional and physical need.

I plug in a digital photo frame. Several dozen shots of the family-that-was-us dissolve, one after the other. It’s Sean paddling a canoe; Sean and I at the hospital, celebrating our tenth anniversary; Sean hugging Fiona on her first day of kindergarten, days before he got sick. I’ve already watched this slide show a hundred times.

I need new pictures. I load dozens of photos from our adventure, mostly from New Zealand. I watch as an image of Pete on the beach in Whangamata melts to a shot of Sean reading to the kids. Pete. Sean. Kids. Me. Pete. Sean. Kids. Me. We circle around each other like a Mobius strip –the pictures are two-dimensional images existing in three-dimensional space. They, too, make me cry.

I pull myself together enough to call my friend, Leanne, a TV reporter in California.

                “I understand what you’re going through,” she says. “It sucks. And it really hurts. I’m so sorry you have to feel this way. But remember, it’s early. You’re still adjusting. And you’re mourning Sean again.”

Leanne gets called out on a news story.  We’ll finish our conversation later.

I call my mom in Ohio. She’d planned to come to Spokane around Mother’s Day. I pitch a plan:

                “How about if we celebrate Mother’s Day together and then you can spend a week with the kids while I go to New Zealand? If I have a date in the near future where I know I’ll see Pete, I'd feel so much better. If I could just get a week with him…”

I’m like an addict. Just one more fix…

Mom sounds dubious, but says she’ll get back to me.

That night, I start crying again after Finley pretends not to hear my request to set the table for dinner. I. Am. So damned ALONE. Bwahhh!

                Finley says, “What’s wrong, Mommy?”

Sniffle. Snort. Blow nose. Repeat.

                Fiona responds, “She’s sad about Petey.”

                Finley asks, “What about Daddy? Aren’t you sad about Daddy?”

Sniffle. Snort. Blow nose. Repeat.

                Fiona, who bears more wisdom in her 45-pound, eight-year-old body than many people three times her size and age, says,

                “Daddy’s dead. Petey’s still alive.”

Bingo! At least one kid gets it.

Do I get it? Do I understand no amount of creature comforts and bargain shopping can fill the void left by the physical absence of the man I love? Facebook and Skype are second-rate surrogates for face-to-face communication. TJ Maxx, Ross and Costco (American discount stores) are shitty stand-ins for sex (And no, I did not have a store-gasm in the Ross housewares section. That was someone else). At this rate, I’ll be bankrupt and frustrated, lying beneath my cheap designer cream-colored comforter or sitting on my striped silver clearance aisle chair.

I wanna go home.  Bwahhh…

Sniffle. Snort. Blow nose. Repeat.

Maybe I don’t know where home is anymore. I created this dilemma. I was supposed to portray a tourist with my kids, not play house with a boyfriend.

A neighbor invites us to dinner. Stepping into her home is like wrapping in a familiar blanket: it’s warm and comfortable. Over tortellini, bread and a large salad we swap traveler’s tales. Our friends were a hospitable, loving nuclear family before we left. They’re still a hospitable, loving nuclear family. Mom, Dad, kids. Our neighborhood cultivates these domestic squads like a damp field propagates moss. An ancient sensation gnaws my gut: Maybe it’s jealousy or simply the recognition I’m other-than. It’s like I’ve shown up to the prom stag. I knew most other prommies would have dates, but I can’t help feeling bitter about buying my own corsage.

I wasn’t a third wheel in New Zealand. Am I riding a tricycle, again? How long do I wish to ride the tricycle? I’m guilt-ridden about rejecting the three-wheeler. After all, I’m independent. I’ve schlepped two whinging American small fries around the world. I can ride the trike.

I don’t want to.

Finley must’ve picked up the same vibe, because as soon as we get home from dinner, he says,

                “I miss Daddy. I wish Daddy were here.” Finley pauses, then adds, “I miss Petey, too. I hope he doesn’t die before we get back.”

Yeah, kid. Me, too. I miss Pete. I miss New Zealand, with its constant, companionable rush of ocean; orange sunrise on the sea’s surface, my friends’ laughter and support; the landscape with 12 shades of green; the chance to run outside year-round… Even running the Mount. Even running the dreaded Mount, followed by Leisure Island and (bugger) Mount Drury. I’ll run them all in succession when I return.

I return a call from my former flat mate, Amy, an American who lived in En Zed six years before moving back to the States. She says,

                “You’ve still got a foot in both worlds. It’s early. And you haven’t given Spokane much of a chance.”

True. So I’ll stay put and forever wonder what could’ve been with Pete on the other side of the world.


I’m applying for a visa to work in New Zealand, so I can return without paying extortionist rates to put my kids in public school (about $8,500 per year per child). There’s no certainty I’ll get the visa – I must first pass a criminal background check (easy, I think) and rigorous medical exam (not so easy). And I need to figure out whether I can afford to live in En Zed for longer than a year. The last question will answer itself after I enter the (notoriously low-paying) Kiwi job market.

My American friend, Tina, a solo mom of four living in New Zealand recently posted a quote on her Facebook wall. It said,

A Universal Rule on Decision Making...

“Don't make them, until it's time to make them. Unless you already know what you want, in which case, however, there is no decision to be made.”

I have no decisions to make.

I get heaps of unsolicited advice –some of which is worth remembering and repeating. One such piece came from my house mate who said,

                “You’re here now. Enjoy the now.”

I will. I am. The tears have (mostly) stopped. I’m reuniting with friends and cafes, running familiar routes and seeking new groups. I’m starting to network for contract jobs, enrolling the kids in soccer and attending our old church.

Be here now. It’s the best wish (and if you’re so inclined) the best prayer. Be here now.

Sniffle. Snort. Blow nose. Repeat. If only the Partner could be here now.


  1. What a journey. What a full life you have...what a full life you had. Some people never find love...u found it twice blah blah blah...I'm sorry you're sad Dawn. Good luck with your visa.

  2. Thanks, Katie. I feel blessed to have had this full life in a short time span. And I'm already feeling better after taking a small step towards dulling separation anxiety pangs. I'll tell you about it next month :)

  3. Omg. I am so with you. I'm 8 days into my 17 trip to the US and I ACHE to get back to NZ. And it's not just the partner. It's everything about the magical land pulling at me. Hang in sista. Keep us posted. I understand the decision- or lack thereof. <3

  4. My heart aches for you and Pete and Sean and the kiddos..though they seem fine and tickled in the USA. A wee comfort that I reach to...the Christian Mystic Julian of Norwich.. all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well....I think the Dame Julian had the right idea...it is the trust thing I can't get...
    Then there is the African philosophy Unbuntu
    that puts forth the idea that we are all connected and any thing that happens to one of us happens to us all. So you hear the power song on the plane and know you are connected to Pete. You see the photos and know you are connected to Sean..and then precious Fi who knows all about connectedness and anquish..I just want her to know the joys of nitrous and hand waxes..in a dentist chair...

  5. Oh, Polly - how can it be I'm just reading this for the first time? Beautiful. Just beautiful, and so apt. "All shall be well..." Indeed.