July 15, 2013
I’m sitting in the international departures area at the Auckland airport, on my way back to the States. It’s not that I’m homesick – in fact, I need more time to settle into the new country before returning to the old. But life splats across our windshields in strange, messy ways, leaving trails of moth wings and smudges of mosquito blood on a surface that grows grottier each day. Somehow, through the mess, you see the sign pointing home.
The reason for the return this time is family. Sean’s sister, Stephanie –a major support for me while Sean was sick – is herself experiencing crisis. In late May, after crushing headaches and an episode where she didn’t recognize her hand as her own, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Glioblastoma, stage three or four. Her husband, John, set up a Facebook page called Steph’s Army and suggested we google the diagnosis to read the average prognosis. Anything measuring average life expectancy in months is gasp-worthy. The tumors are inoperable, so the first round of treatment is chemotherapy and radiation.
If I learned anything from Sean’s illness and death, it’s don’t wait. Not that I have issues responding – to anything – like health crises; Finley’s lack of urgency to dress himself and get out the door for school most mornings or Fiona’s failure to practice her maths times tables. My motto: let’s do it/fix it/find it yesterday. My lack of patience is practically tattooed across my forehead: “I DON’T WAIT,” it snarls in black and scarlet. To call me Knee-Jerk Ninja would not be unfair. However, it’s never too soon (or too late) to love each other. We do that best face-to-face.
While Steph hosts another out-of-town family member, I’ll head to Spokane for three days. I’ll see friends and conduct bits of business: discover whether the home I own still stands, whether grass still grows and walls remain intact, discern how much painting might need done before I can try (for the second time) to sell mi casa next spring.
I’ll meet my Dad and his wife in Seattle, and visit with my sister, Heather. We’ll share stories and glasses of wine. We’ll drive together to Olympia (just over an hour south), where I’ll spend just over a week with Stephanie and her family.
I don’t imagine I’m providing giant favors via travel – of course, I’ll help wherever I can, drive when needed (Steph's not allowed behind the wheel), cook if Steph wants a night off in the kitchen (she’s regained control of her stove)… but really, I’ll be there, because like so many of us who love Steph, the bugle’s Reveille has sounded in my head, saying, “Just go.”
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, draws a comparison between a likable narrator and great friend,
…whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, “Hey, I’ve got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma – wanna come along?” and you honestly can’t think of anything in the world you’d rather do.
I’d drive to the dump in Petaluma with Steph. She’s that cool.
Staging the Musical
Getting there is tricky from seven-thousand miles away – a little like trying to stage a musical starring two crazed children who have two weeks off school for winter break. I enlist my co-producer, Pete, who’s past the point of dress rehearsal and opening night: he’s part of the regular, New Zealand-based company. Pete has offered to keep the show going while I’m gone. The PAHT-nah will juggle kids and work for three days before taking the production on tour to visit family in Hawke’s Bay. The roles of set designer (cleaner), costumer (wardrobe) and chef will be split between Pete, his family and the kids. The roles of chauffeur, chef and child-minder will also be shared by friends and parents of my kids’ friends. Our production company has grown.
Several days leading to the trip feature the same kind of frenetic movements that precede most adventures. I get wonky before travel, whether remaining on this island or hop scotching the globe. You’d think I’d have lost pre-flight jitters by now. It’s not so much the flying I fear (though turbulence still has me nervously eyeing the drinks cart to see if I can coax another wine from the flight attendant), but the thought I WON’T GET EVERYTHING DONE before I leave. What if I forget to pay for kids’ holiday program? Or leave a load of wet towels in the washing machine? Or fail to return the toilet key I accidently pocketed from work?
I enlist the kids' help with last-minutes chores like folding laundry. I bark at Finley after he dons my sports bra and jeans. Meanwhile, I’m on the phone to customer service, trying to configure my new international phone card.
“FINLEY!” I say, using the exasperated tone I reserve for phone solicitors and small, insane kids, “Why do you ALWAYS have to act up while I’m on the phone? Can’t you act your age?”
Did I just say that to a seven and-a-half-year old?
Finley says, “Mom, I AM acting my age.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call in more help while I’m gone?” I ask Pete. Several friends have said they’d be glad to share kid-minding duties.
“No, Hon,” Pete says, “We’ll be fine.”
Based on his history of watching Fiona and Finley while I gallivant with girlfriends, or enjoy a four-night writer’s retreat, I’m inclined to believe him.
Airport Smiles and Smells
My tribe brings me to the airport an hour early, which is about 45 minutes too soon at Tauranga’s tiny terminal. Check-in takes two minutes, there’s no metal detector, no security screening, and one departure gate. Finley runs circles around us, swatting Fiona with her own scarf.
Fiona hands me a note. “Here, Mommy,” she says, “I made this for you.”
The four-inch square piece of paper is bedazzled with sparkly stickers spelling out, "I WILL MISS YOU." The ‘M’ is a side-lying ‘E.’ On the front of the card, Fiona has scrawled in brown marker, ‘to the best Mom in the WORLD!’ I flip to the inside page, where Fi has written, ‘I LOVE YOU’ 17 times down the side, and once again, in large puffy letters. The next page reads,
Dear Mom, I will miss you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much and love you a billieone times. Hope you have a safe trip and lots of fun!
Love: Fiona P.S I love you way way way more than a billieone times!
Oh, how I’ll miss Fi’s pixie face and Finley’s hillbilly grin. And my PAHT-nah’s strong arms and warm neck...
Pete tells me to enjoy my freedom, tell everyone hi and don’t worry, everything will be fine at home. I’m too tired and dazed from organizing and re-re-packing to believe I’m actually leaving for two weeks.
Tears well in my eyes, but before waterworks can start, something else happens. Finley (he wouldn’t cop to it, but we’re pretty sure it was him) has released an odor that smells like fetid, four-month-old eggs rolled in dog poo.
It’s time to go.