Monday, January 11, 2010

Thrown out backs and broken hearts

It's really not very nice to be super grateful when someone you love is in pain.

But this was the dilemma the girls and I faced early last week. Once Bill threw his back out, so definitively and spectacularly on the floor of our kitchen, on the morning of our scheduled return flight to Nice, via Heathrow -- how could we not be at least the tiniest bit thrilled that his sudden incapacitation had bought us all a few extra days in Brooklyn?

Here's what it looked like: Bill and I were shuffling around the apartment, packing things up and gradually getting ready for the day ahead, when he bent over to pick up something inconsequential from the floor. Suddenly, he called out in an awful and seriously pained howl, and went crashing down the rest of the way to the ground, his knees slowly buckling as he fell.

He slumped on top of his own open piece of luggage, half-on and half-off, and went totally still.

I asked, in my quietest voice, "You OK, honey?"

He was even quieter. "It's my back. I'm fine but I'm going to have to live here on the floor from now on. Without moving. We can figure out the details of how I will eat and drink later."

His back has "gone out" in a similar sort of way in the past. But never quite so completely that he literally couldn't (perhaps more like wouldn't) move from the position in which he found himself.

I am embarrassed to say that I did not react quite as quickly and helpfully as I might have, for several reasons.

First, I was too calm. I had popped an Ativan first thing that morning to cut down on the awful pre-flight anxiety from which I suffer, and which I so cruelly inflict on anybody who gets in my way. A herd of elephants running through the room would certainly have gotten my attention just then, but perhaps not triggered a whole lot of alarm or emotion. So this man quietly whimpering on the floor didn't register the usual 11 on the Launa-Richeter scale.

But second, I really was not at all ready to leave, and instantly recognized this temporary back problem as just the reprieve I needed. There had been too much emotion, too much love, too much of just about everything during our two weeks home. Although we knew we needed to get back for Abigail to go to school, not one of us wanted to go. So while I felt awfully bad that his back hurt so much, particularly at that specific moment, I knew that back spasms aren't permanently disabling.

I loved our time back in Brooklyn, and before he fell down, had been furious with some unnamable force responsible for having scheduled the return flight. (Of course, that would be me.)  So let's be clear here; I wasn't exactly cruel. Just conflicted.  We never questioned that he would be OK eventually, just not quickly enough for us to get on the plane that evening.

Which brought me to the third reason I did not at first show adequate distress at his plight. The fact that he was lying so still on the floor meant that I would not have to spend that particular evening on an airplane. For me, that is the definition of relief: Not flying. Or, if I am flying, having said flight land safely to its final destination.

So while I hope I was nice enough to him, this perfect man who had so surprised and floored me just the night before at the birthday party, I could not be 100% disappointed by this awful state in which he found himself, a different sort of floored.

"You'll be OK, sweetie," I said, in my relieved, druggy calm.

A quiet whimper came from the floor. "Can you just find me some Advil?"

A few days later, after some rest, and a number of carefully chosen exercises and painkillers, he was good as new. We changed our tickets so that we would arrive a week later than we had planned, and spent the week taking the kids to museums, movies, and playdates.

So if I like it so much in the Var, why all the sadness about returning? Here is the answer, as far as I can tell: As stellar as the domestic and physical landscapes of the Var, the world of Brooklyn is equally so. Being around all those people I've loved these past 40 years made me happy, then oh-so-sad to say goodbye for another six months.

The day before, I had worked myself into racking, choking sobs just pulling down the strings of white lights hung so carefully by Katie and Toni. I had cried leaving Jackie's house after the party, knowing I wouldn't see her for months. I cried watching Grace and Amelia struggle with their goodbyes, knowing they were both our victims. I cried again watching the girls say goodbye to the dog, aware that I was putting them through this sadness for reasons I could not promise were all for their own good. I cried even harder hugging my mother goodbye.

After all that crying, it felt like a pretty super reprieve -- at least for the three of us who were not injured -- not to have a single thing to cry about. Bill fell to the floor, and bought us a week we hadn't expected. We worried about him, but all felt guilt knowing that we were rejoicing a whole lot more than we were worrying.

I will also admit to you and the small handful of strangers who might stumble onto this sentence that Bill and I spent a lot of our time in Brooklyn wondering about the wisdom of our family's crazy adventure -- the one I had fought so hard over the summer, had refused so hard to believe could be good. The same adventure that had changed all of us so completely, and had opened us up a whole range of new and different flavors of joy. 

The first week or so back in Brooklyn, we described the trip in such glowing terms.  But after enough time back in the Brooklyn mindset, enough pointed questions directed our way, things didn't seem so clear. In a place that values work and education over all else, it was hard to explain a year in which neither one was at the center of our worlds. Away from the Var, away from the way that things make sense there, it all seemed so random, and possibly even hurtful to the girls to ask so much of them, and to take them so far away from everything they love. What if we were actually making them hate France, we started to wonder?

Taking this year away from our lives had first seemed so horrible, and then so terrific, then impossibly hard, then liberating. So perhaps not surprisingly, it now was feeling simply, purely ridiculous. Why would we leave a place -- and leave people -- we love so much?

I say this, also having recognized, through hard-won experience, that the members of our little nuclear family are not such likely characters for an upheaval of the size we have chosen this year.

Since May, we have sold one house, rented out another, quit two jobs, slept in at least a dozen different places, and all learned to negotiate an unfamiliar country in an unfamiliar tongue. After having spent our children's entire childhood before this year both working pretty much full time, we remade our lives with both of us staying home for the time being. And after having both girls as students of one school -- mine -- we then sent them to a rural French school we knew nothing about, then just as suddenly took up homeschooling.

You can call this all "flexibility," and our actions since putting ourselves in this mess "responding to a compelling challenge." Or you can just call it strange and stupid.

This is particularly strange, and particularly stupid, since it takes the four of us much more time than it takes normal humans to get ready to go in the mornings. We rarely leave the house without a tussle of one sort or another. Leaving for big trips is even worse. When we travel, Bill always wants us to get together and hold hands and say why we are thankful for what we've experienced, and what we are most looking forward to in the next step of our journey. Usually at that sort of moment of packing up our stuff and trying to get everybody the hell out the door, I don't want to hold hands. Instead, I usually am so tense that I want to strangle him with a wire.

If you were using the language of early childhood educators, you might say that our family does not transition awfully well.

Katie brought this fact up with me as I was weeping on her sofa one afternoon just before the back-throwing-out episode. I was conscious that we had to leave, and I wasn't ready to go. Katie's daughter and mine had also been having a difficult time with the fact that they would be apart, and had spent several hours fighting, and also weeping, and overwhelmed by the fact that they would not see one another for many months. Months might as well be years, for kids their age. They were sad, and I was sad too. In fact, I was almost too sad to even be much help to them. I was a big puddle of mixed emotions. I was not handling this well at all.

Wise Katie to the rescue, for the perspective shift with a half twist: "Why does everybody so value being able to handle transitions well? Why is that such a great thing? Isn't it good to really be able to feel sad when something is ending? Not just to shove it under the rug, but to really think about what you're losing and gaining in the change?"

Katie is very smart. I had never thought of it this way, as I was always so focused on trying to be the sort of person I was not. The person who breezes through transitions. The person who always looks ahead, never behind. Who is sure that it will all work out in the end. The person who has no need for Ativan, no sudden urges to strangle her beloved husband. Ever.

I am not this person. I stress the small stuff. I get overwhelmed; I weep; I snap at the people to whom I should be the most kind. Often these weeks, it has been the good things that have overwhelmed me, but the hard truths can make me fall apart as well: the lurking guilt, the wondering-if-we're-doing-the-right-thing. I despise my own sheer fear of getting back in an airplane. (And this time -- no thanks to the diaper bomb terrorist -- probably with even kookier new travel restrictions and skittish flight crews. Could they really make us fly all night without any blankets?)

It doesn't matter that I know that my regular life would also have had me sweating, wondering, full of self-recriminations, what-if's and petty distress. Had we kept our jobs, stayed in New York, things almost certainly would have been significantly more challenging for all of us than they are now. Even school would have been hard this year for the girls if we had stayed home. Why? Because while we adults persistently misremember what it was like to be a kid, school is always hard. Not intolerably hard, but hard in a way that life is hard. We've traded one sort of hard for another. It's just that this one is happening so very far away.

So I knew, in the rational part of my brain that sometimes gets control of things, that taking the girls somewhere new for a year was not too hard for them, even if sometimes they felt sad or uncertain or afraid. Because, as I had seen on so many other occasions, it was also, and often, really really really great for them to experience life in this new way, with us right alongside, cheering them on.  

We have scheduled ourselves for the first open flight we could get for the same price as the cancelled tickets: a night flight that arrives at Heathrow late morning on Monday, landing in Nice in the afternoon. It's already tomorrow in France, a new day getting itself ready for us.

So here I am, writing to you from the waiting area at Terminal 8, Gate 4 at JFK. Dutiful travelers, we arrived three hours early, and got our selves and our stuff so thoroughly scanned. We sat in the food court, and ate snackfoods of all the kinds we are most likely to miss while we are gone: junk pizza, cali roll sushi, lo mein, pretzels, fried chicken. It tasted pretty yucky, but not as yucky as junk food had tasted us when we had just arrived from France. Our taste buds, as well as our tongues, fully adjusted back to the old ways.

All four of us soaked up our spare week, saw friends we had missed, and took our leisurely time enjoying our old world. Our French fell away completely, and we no longer needed to translate in and out and up and down to get from what we wished to say to what could be understood. During that time, as France faded away, and Brooklyn took hold in us, the doubts that had crept in grew and multiplied.

I imagined that the extra week would calm us all down, but it isn't any bit easier to leave this time around than it was in August. In August, we had filled the kids' heads with all kinds of fantasy stories about how cool everything would be. Now they are going back to an experience they know, warts and all, and their parents can no longer even pretend to pull the wool over their eyes.

And in some ways, even though I was so thoroughly enchanted by what we discovered in France, it is worse for me as well. The contrast between the social joy of these three weeks home, in contrast with the difficulties of living in a foreign world now feel so very stark.

So why are we leaving? Why are we getting on this plane? I guess it is because we have a vague sort of faith -- faith that when we get there, when the relief of a safe landing sets in, and we climb back into the Renault, we will find ourselves glad. Glad like we were before, glad like we will be again. Glad for the challenges as well as for the time we have left together to have adventures. Bill feels this the most powerfully, and is using all of his mighty enthusiasm to propel us forward, as we drag our six feet against his tide.

He is in fact the only one of all of us excited to be heading back, or at least he's the best at reciting the articles of faith: we will have adventures. We will learn more French. We will enjoy being together. We have so much more to see. He keeps reassuring us, leaning over the seats to tell us how happy he is that we're on phase deux of the big adventure.

But it's not nice to be grateful while someone you love is in pain.

This time around, it's Bill who feels gratitude while the rest of us are hurting.  I can only assume that, like his thrown out back, our heartbreak won't be permanent. It's even possible that the pain of the transition will evaporate, every bit of it, as we get back to our routine and recall all the beauty, time, and experiences that we can't seem to call to mind while in Brooklyn.

I wish I could say this with his confidence, but I'm not yet convinced.

And since this hurts more than I had thought it would, all I want to do is lie here and try to keep from moving.  

(End of the day update for any other worrywarts out there: we flew from NYC to London, from London to Nice with precisely no incident whatsoever. All flights on time, no turbulence to speak of, all of our panic out of the way early on. From one home to another, safe and sound.)


  1. Glad to hear the Bill's back is better. That you are all back and better.

    Your friend is wise, indeed - why do we think that transitions ought to be easy and smooth and well-accepted? Why do we expect that of ourselves or anyone else? I sometimes wonder why we have expectations at all. Mine tend to be dashed or exceeded, almost never met head on. So why bother? Why not just "let it be" - whatever "it" is?

    Happy Aups adventures!

  2. Winter is a hard time to return to any place you're not sure about, provided it's not close to the Equator. I often wonder why they don't put up special decorations and twinkly, darkness-conquering lights in February, when the going really gets tough; people are going to be excited about Christmas regardless. But I digress. When spring starts to arrive, your sticking-around is going to pay off visibly. Until then, adventures. Let's get together! And welcome home. xoxo