Note to new readers: Our family took in two foreign exchange students last August for the entire school year. Denmark is a 17 yr old girl. China is a 16 yr old boy. The U.S. is our 15 yr old son (Little Man). Israel, when home, is our 22 yr old daughter (Principessa), and Canada our 19 yr old son (Middle Man). I am The Secretary General. Smart Guy is Dad. Together, we are the U.N.: a home where laughs come daily, chaos reigns and borders fall easily, as we live like a real family. Know that no foreigners were hurt in the making of this blog post or in the incidents cited. All parties were aware that their comments were being noted, and pictures were used with permission, and assistance in editing for privacy. That said…
Today as I was driving over to work out: training for Machu Pichu, six flights of stairs up and six down, 6 times= 36 flights up and 36 down, mwhahaha (aching calves to show for it) and as I drove The A-Team came on the radio. Denmark and I both love that song and sing it all the time. It’s not a happy song anyway, but today it really got the best of me. I had been thinking about Denmark’s impending departure and all that has happened in the 10 months since she and China came into our family. Obviously, huge amidst those thoughts was my mother. One year ago she was plodding along, and we all thought she’d be around for at least a year or two… she seemed so determined to not go down with the sinking ship she was on. Huntington’s had taken so much from her, but not her willfullness. However, just a month after China and Denmark arrived, she fell, broke her elbow and then died two months later. Those two months in the hospital and then hospice were exhausting. My head was constantly torn between the kids who were settling in at home, and my mom’s rapid decline and death. It was surreal; stunning, frankly. While I knew she was deteriorating, that was not what I had envisioned, not what I was prepared for. Only recently have I realized what a fog I’ve been in for much of time since her death, most of the time that the kids have been with us. So, the song came on and I began to cry… and then cry harder. (Mom, when she still had a Monopoly on fun, with Middle Man and Principessa, 1998)
As I’ve mentioned previously, my life has been forged and founded on loss in many ways. My father’s sudden death when I was a child was a shocking introduction to the world of loss. My childhood prior to that had seemed mostly charmed, and suddenly everything seemed veiled in instability. There were several untimely deaths in only a few years and by the time I was a young mother, it wasn’t all together surprising to have Huntington’s Disease ram down our door. Since that morning when my mother called me to say that she too was positive and symptomatic, (my grandmother, who I was very close to- a second parent- had recently died of it), my world has been lived in the shadow of that on-going specter. I now live with the knowledge that my sister has it, my brother is likely positive and that each of my nieces and nephews may have it. I do not; and for that I am grateful… but it is a truly bitter sweet gratitude. In the past five years there have been four deaths, all with enormous impacts. Two, my aunt and my cousin, were in their 40s. (I would not have guessed that four months after this photo, mom would drop to 80 lbs and die)
So, I am not that person who is shocked when someone dies young. I grieve, but I am not looking for “reason” anymore. Loss is part of the fabric of my life and while I don’t lay awake worrying about that, it finds me in my dreams and is there to remind me that nothing is certain, and nothing is necessarily lasting. That said, and I’m certainly aware that it is not the cheeriest start to a weekend, this life of losses has taught me many valuable things as well: most importantly, to truly value what I have when I have it. There is little I take for granted, and if that was learned through the losses that came before, then for that I’m grateful. I take little for granted.
When China and Denmark arrived last summer, with a bunch of fresh summer produce from the Farmer’s Market, I wasn’t thinking about what it would feel like to see them leave. We weren’t even sure we’d keep them. I certainly didn’t imagine I would love them so much and that it would hurt to see them go. Our last night together we all went out for dinner- Principessa and Middle Man were both away and it was the nuclear 5 that we’ve been all year- It was a highly emotional dinner. The sun was shining and the San Juan Islands, the sail boats and water around us shimmered, the harbor a million diamonds. Anyone who lives here knows that perfect end of a San Juan day. We all laughed and shared stories of their time here. How China had greeted me at the airport calling me “Mum” and while that seemed so strange at first, Smart Guy/Dad and I came to love it. China’s early problems with “Mum’s cooking,” all so different than the insanely spicy food he has grown up with. He said “noodles” and I said “pasta,” and there was little similarity between the two. We laughed at Denmark’s adjustment to two brothers, having grown up with only a sister. Beavis and Butthead drove her mad and made her laugh every day! We relived the wonderful times we’ve shared and the difficult times they saw me through, when my Mom was sick and died and the homesickness and adjustments we saw them through. Such strong, wonderful kids to have supported me through such a difficult loss… even as they were only adjusting to living here themselves.
For the past ten months we have been a family and I was given an opportunity to pull some magic out of a questionable hat. All of last year I was working on pulling myself out of a quagmire of self-doubt and dark times. I was questioning my ability to move forward and do something worthwhile, that excites me and fills me. I was feeling like a difficult friend, a questionable person in general, and mother, who can’t seem to be the person that I want to be for my kids. Honestly, it has occurred to me many times that I’m better suited to being an aunt than a mom. I love my children more than anything els I can think of; and I say that without a second’s hesitation. But, I’m not the greatest mom material. High strung, filterless, insecure and unpredictable, and I have little in the way of early role modeling for this marathon… My mother’s example was dubious at best, though I always knew I was loved fiercely. My kids know that too, but I would have liked to have done better in this role. I was in the middle of purging many of these demons, when these two kids landed in my nest. It was a fragile place at best, for them to land.
That said, there was no better place at the time and it gave me an unanticipated chance to turn things around and work on demonstrating the changes I was working on in myself. We were all very fortunate. The two kids who ended up with us were both great kids who were grateful for a place to stay, that wasn’t the lousy situations they were heading into when they left their home countries. We were flying blind and just grateful that once we’d said yes to both Denmark and China, it went as well as it did. And it went very well for most of the ten months. There were some rough patches, no doubt, as I’ve noted in previous U.N. updates, but overall we all hit the lottery when it comes to good experiences and wonderful outcomes. Asked individually, I am certain that each of us would say that we see ourselves as family. We love each other. We are so happy that we ended up together and that we all grew and came out better people at this end of the journey.
And so, the end of the journey was bound to be rough. Saying goodbye is a just another loss. We all hold onto the hope that we’ll see each other again, and in this case the chances are fairly good, but we will no longer wake up to each other, joke around the dinner table, or share the amazing times we’ve shared for this year. We won’t get to tell each other about our days and or giggle over Chinese idiosyncrasies, and Danish accents. There will be no one to enthusiastically exclaim “Oh, Rice!” each time I make it (which will be less often now). I’ll miss the wonderful bond that Denmark and I shared, facing three obnoxious males each day. The potty humor and silliness, that we could mutually roll our eyes at is now on me alone, though the humor will be dimished. Our family, the family I made, is a more serious lot. We could learn a thing or two from the U.N.
Departure round one: So, as things go in the U.N. the departures were not easy. That was almost predictable. We can barely cross from Canada to the States smoothly, so International flights were bound to be a drama. Denmark was the first scheduled departure. Friday we spent the morning getting her things ready, staying calm and avoiding eye contact. It seemed like a perfect day… too perfect. The sun was shining; Mt. Baker was out and we were happy to have the morning together. We went out for sushi because she loves it and sang along to songs in the car because there were no boys to complain. I drove her over to the high school so that
Beavis and Butthead U.S. and China could say goodbye where they had asked to meet us at the office, for one last hug. When we arrived, they came bursting out of the office, each wearing the Danish soccer shirts Denmark had given them and carrying the Danish flag. They emotionally stoically wrapped her in the flag and showered her with hugs. China was a mush ball. Despite appearances, China is not as tough as it would have us believe. We got to the airport, my favorite airport employee waved her baggage fees and we said our goodbyes at security. It was really hard. Yet… Somehow it didn’t feel like a goodbye. It wasn’t.
I pulled over just outside the airport and sat in my car, feeling like something was amiss and the phone rang almost immediately. Denmark’s flight from here to Seattle was delayed by an hour. No worries I said. Just sit tight and I’m sure it’ll work out. In reality, I felt pretty uneasy about the entire thing. Sure enough over the next hour the delays mounted and in no time we were made aware that she could not make her flight from Seattle to Amsterdam. Delta was willing to put her at a hotel near the airport and get her out today. No. Not having my 17 yr old daughter alone at a hotel outside the airport. So, Denmark came home again. Oh the fun with had with this turn of events! China, can you get the groceries from the car? I could see the “why me?” cross his face as I didn’t ask two other kids in the kitchen (who both knew Denmark was in the car). We videotaped China’s reaction and laughed for the rest of the night.
Departure round two: I had told everyone that we must leave our house no later than 3:35 this morning. I got to bed at 11:45 and set my alarm for 3:20. At 3:42 China banged on our door and woke me straight into a panic. Smart Guy had been called to an emergency and had not heard my alarm, I’d slept through it. I threw on clothes, raced up in an instant sweat and yelling: “Get your things in the car!” They were both sitting at the counter, wondering why I was late, China’s bags still not loaded… Oops. Luckily, the drive to our airport is a good ten minutes faster with no other cars on the road and all green lights. We were there in barely 15 minutes. I dumped all their stuff at the curb and urged China to get in line right away; we were all concerned about getting him booked through to his city in China. Denmark’s reservation already noted all the issues we’d remedied the day before (extra bags, extra weight- we tossed the 5 lbs of peanut butter). I went to park the car. Just as I was pulling into the lot, my cell phone rang. “I left my wallet in the kitchen!” Denmark told me anxiously. Seriously? Seriously! Today! She had to fall apart today? Ten months of being the one always on her game; ten months of making the boys look bad and today she blows it!
I pulled up, ran in and helped them get in the line. I gave China a big hug and kiss, just in case they made him go through security before I could get back, and I burst into tears all over again. Back on the highway, back through the empty streets, back through the green lights. Smart Guy met me near the highway looking pretty ragged, having been up much of the night, working, himself. We exchanged some rolled eyes and the wallet and I was on my way back to the airport for the third time in twelve hours.
Both kids were sitting by security, the other travelers already at the gate. China got a good laugh at the idea that Denmark had messed up on their last day, not him. “I am the favorite child now!” He beamed. And then, the tears really came for all of us as I held each one and wished them safe travels. I was relieved to see them leaving together, but seeing them both leave was so much more final. I stood by the security desk as they made it through x-ray and the rest of security. Exhaustion washed over me and the poor kid at TSA tried not to watch me blubber. China and Denmark both paused and sent air kisses; we all called I love you, and they went through the gate.
I drove home as the sun was coming up. There was a light rain, more of what we should have expected than the bright sunshine when Denmark set out on her first departure. At home I went out on the deck and waited. After they’d gone through security, Denmark had called and I’d told them that when they flew over the house I’d be standing on the deck watching. I was. I realized how seldom I am up at that hour, as I listened to the birds singing, the train slowly passing, the rain hitting the deck. I stood there taking it in until the buzz of the plane drew closer. The cloud cover was too low and I couldn’t see the plane, but I could feel my kids watching out the window. So I sent one last air kiss and waited until the sound of the plane faded.
After note, or Departure 3: As I finish this, Denmark has not had it so easy. Her flight from Seattle to France has been delayed by at least an hour and there is a big question as to whether she’ll make her connection from Paris to Copenhagen. It’s stressful and there have been lots of phone calls from her to me and from me to her parents in Denmark. I’ve spoken to Delta (second mechanical delay in 12 hrs, not a good record!) and they assure me she’ll get home today/tomorrow (it’s +9 hrs there), but we don’t trust them until she’s home eating leverpostaj. China is in L.A. his flight to China boarding. He’s called several times and texted me as many. His last call, I could hear the flight crew calling people in Chinese. He’s excited and sad, missing us already and us him. Such a brave boy to travel so far and land with us.
I keep waiting for the two of them to come upstairs, waking up late as these three teens often did on a Saturday. I’ll be looking for them and missing them for a while, but this loss is temporary. We are a family now, and we will find each other… here or there, sometime in the future. For today, I am not taking any of it for granted. The tears represent hugs, endless laughter, learning about each others’ cultures, angry words and sincere apologies, moments when I wanted to pull my hair out and moments when I beamed with pride.
Most often loss reminds us that we have loved, and been loved. Losses that are permanent force us to look at each moment that is special and not take it for granted. We will not always have those moments with those we love. They pass. Other losses are a reminder to work harder to hold on to the bonds we forge. These kids are part of my life now, part of my family. The year we shared represents different things to each of us, but love is the thing we all share and that makes this loss bearable. These tears remind me that I love big, and that is a rich thing. They remind me to continue working on change, and to embrace the things I don’t want to change. The tears remind me that we will find each other… and we will all laugh again.
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