Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Life In Pieces

Maybe going back home only six months after moving abroad was too soon. Maybe going back to Portland, Oregon for a mere week brought along the realization that I had wasted so many hours in the four years I lived there not taking advantage of what that city had to offer. Maybe learning how to care for a newborn while feeling totally unready to bear my own children made me think I was a few steps behind in life. Maybe the time spent in my home state of Michigan, where the ones I love the most live, those that share my blood, made me confirm that I absolutely did not belong there anymore. Or maybe it was the cancelled flights, the night spent alone in a stale hotel room after a day of airport goodbyes, the spilled bottle of juice that had soaked the contents of my purse (including my laptop), or the fact that for a whole day I had been stuck in between getting back to my husband in Ireland and having just a few more hours with my parents, moving nowhere and having no way to call either party for the comfort of a familiar voice. Whatever it was, for one of those reasons or all of them combined, I found myself at JFK airport in NY, surrounded by hundreds of fellow travelers, with tears springing suddenly and violently into my eyes and no way to stop them but to hide away in a stall in the women's restroom, something I'd found myself doing quite often on these long journeys between all the places I've called home. But I've gotten ahead of myself, for the tears came at the end of my month back in the States, and before those tears came so much happiness and pure joy.

I had been looking forward to this trip home with an urgent expectancy unlike any feeling I'd had before, ever since hearing the day after my wedding that my younger sister was expecting something of her own. The moment she told us, I felt a piece of my heart crack in half and go in two completely separate directions; one piece melted into my sister's skin as I threw my arms around her, binding us together thru this happiness towards a new, yet unborn life that neither of us knew yet but already totally and completely loved. The other piece got stuck in the back of my throat and got me all choked up to the point of leaving the celebrating members of our family and hiding myself outside to cry and cry and cry - that piece of my heart was the realization that I was now legally bound in my choice to live thousands of miles away from all I'd ever known and how much I'd miss because of that choice. Now, because of this unborn thing, I'd definitely be coming back home sooner than originally planned; with my sister already three months along, I would be coming back sometime in April or May, and one winter in Ireland before returning for an American spring didn't seem like long at all. But the winter was long and I had never been more ready for a vacation from a life I had yet to truly settle into and maybe that's why this month back home was a whirlwind of emotions. It hadn't been enough time removed from America for me to be used to the distance and to feel that Ireland was definitely now my home; as if I'd spent six months in a still-plane hovering miles above the Atlantic moving not one inch closer to Ireland or farther from the States but perfectly suspended directly between the two, refusing to let me let go, inhibiting me from latching onto a thing. And so, having already been used to time spent apart from my husband, I kissed him goodbye at the airport in Shannon, for once not leaving behind a trail of tears through the security checkpoint, and happily boarded my fight.

The week in Portland was a flash, a blink of an eye in the timeline that will be my life. I was both saddened and at the same time, absolutely delighted to see that life had carried on exactly the same without me. Of course, I could never expect my close friends to wallow for years and years in my absence but it struck me as oddly poetic to see my belongings I had left behind sitting exactly where I had left them. No one had picked up the hand-crafted vase I had placed on the mantle so as to physically reminisce of their long-lost friend, or chosen to put my old lamp next to their bedside as a reminder to think of me whenever its light bulb glowed. I could have been more upset, but in a way, it comforted me. We all want to be missed, but it was nice to know I hadn't ruined anyone's life by going...The week wasn't short of laughs, excellent meals out, or plenty of time spent doing a lot of the things I used to do. But taking my usual busses, walking past familiar landmarks, coffee shops and boutiques, and seeing so many faces I didn't know but that seemed completely recognizable (for in Portland's uniqueness, comes a frightening similarity amongst its residents), I realized that I wasn't sad to have left, I wasn't pining for that life. Portland served its purpose for me during the four years I resided there, and although I missed my friends constantly (or wished to always be near an unabashedly pretentious veggie burrito and an unapologetically strong cup of locally roasted & brewed coffee), I found myself secretly giggling at all the little things that make Portland, well, weird. It rained and rained and I didn't miss that a bit (I get enough of that here, now) but on my last day there, as if the Oregon sky chose to either bless me for visiting or wish me good riddance, the rain clouds cleared and gave way to that typical yet always wonderfully appreciated perfect Portland summer day. I hugged friends goodbye, this time knowing that it could very well be years or so before seeing some of them again, and without any tears, boarded the next flight to return to Michigan.

The first couple of days home were spent lazying around my parent's house waiting for the inevitable phone call from Canada that there was a baby on its way. I had flown on my sister's due date and luckily didn't miss the birth. I'm sure of it now that my little niece was waiting for her Aunt to arrive before joining us all and sure enough, it wasn't until just a mere two days past that date that my sister gave us the go-ahead. My youngest sister, my mother and I excitedly packed overnight bags and started the three hour drive to London, Ontario, actually beating her and her husband to the hospital. When they did arrive, they did not even acknowledge our presence in the waiting room but checked-in and went right away behind closed doors (but there were a few minutes that passed while my brother in law gave the RN their information allowing my sister time to bang her head against the wall, lightly of course). I was filled with a sudden and overwhelming fear of how bad the pain must be if she couldn't even say hello and give quick hugs, it had been so long since we'd last seen her. All I wanted to do was hold her tight and tell her it would be ok, but I didn't know that for sure since this was something I had yet to experience myself. After a few meds were given out, we were allowed into the birth room to finally say our hellos and good lucks. She barely said a word, but I kissed her on her forehead, told her this is what she had been waiting so long for, that her daughter was about to be there for all of us to meet, and I let her squeeze my hand into oblivion as another contraction passed. Several hours later, dozing on and off, watching awful food television, and frequently readjusting on the uncomfortable leather couch, my brother in law came out to inform us all  - 7lbs 15.9 oz, 10 fingers 10 toes, dark hair and eyes and somehow, my father's exact same chin - our little Adelyn Marie had arrived healthy and without complications and if we liked, we could go in and meet her.

It was a feeling I can not quite find the words for, for hours before there had just been a few people in that room and now, there was one extra. Something brand new, someone none of us had ever seen before and all of a sudden - there she was, this hour old little human. I felt like doing a comical double-take between my sister's still swollen but now empty belly and this floppy little thing that couldn't even hold her own head up if she tried. Wondering, even though I have full knowledge, how it got from there to here. When they put her into my arms, I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that I was now holding the most expensive, precious and rare treasure I had ever laid eyes on, and that moment that her eyes met my own, I realized there was now a new love in my life that I had never known before. I had no words. My mind just kept repeating, I love you I love you I love you! over and over again and when I thought there would definitely be tears over such a tremendously new and exciting emotion, there was only the extreme joy of this beautiful new life that had yet to experience fear or resentment or anger but just whole & natural & pure, pure love. I honestly hoped that she could feel that, that she could feel how much we all loved her already.

I know I will forever look back on the week I spent at home with my sisters and this new baby as one of the best weeks of my life; even though I'm (hopefully) only a quarter or so through my life I know without a doubt that there won't be many weeks that could rise to that occasion and top those seven days.  Because I live so far away and maybe also because they were a little scared of being left alone with a new baby (don't all new parents have that feeling with the first child?), Audrey and Josh had asked me to stay with them for that first week after Adie came, along with my other sister, Betsy. We delighted in the task ahead of us, way over-enthusiastically changing dirty diapers, willingly waking at all hours of the night to rock a sleepless baby back to sleep, cooking meals and folding laundry, doing whatever we could to make this frightening new experience just the slightest bit easier for the new parents to handle. I watched with complete fascination at how quickly Audrey took to motherhood. I felt my heart soar to hear Josh singing to his baby girl while changing her clothes and would sometimes catch the way he looked at her, as if there was no one else on earth that could possibly compare and I realized I couldn't wait to see my own husband with that look in his eyes. One day, when the house was quiet, we prepared a bath for Audrey, turned the lights down low, lit a few candles. After she finished, she asked for us to bring Adie into the bath with her. I lingered only slightly, watching through a half-closed door as my younger sister (who used to dirty herself playing soccer or liked portraying Danny Zuko from Grease whenever we played pretend as children) now in the purest feminine act I had ever seen, nakedly bathing with her newborn girl, tucked gently between her thighs, softly pouring warm water over her tiny head, as Adie's little mouth puckered up towards her mother's breast. I forgot all about the tomboy of a sister I once had and promised myself to always remember this sacred moment of womanhood that I had witnessed whenever I think I don't have a clue about what it takes to be a mother. Apparently, it just comes naturally. Apparently, it's the most beautiful thing in the world.

The day before we were to head back to Michigan, I was attempting to rock our little one back to sleep. We had all started doing this funny bouncing walk through the house whenever we were holding her and today it seemed to be bringing her a certain peace. She wasn't getting sleepy but was contently looking straight into my eyes. I was amazed at how piercing her gaze was, as if she knew the sadness that was enveloping me in the realization that I had just one more day with her before it would be months until I held her again. I wanted to memorize everything about her new self at just one week old; the fierce darkness of her new eyes, the tiny furrow of her brow, the miniscule hairs that poked out around her ears, the strength of her little legs whenever she kicked at the changing table, the absolutely gorgeous scent of her head, the way all five of her baby fingers wrapped tightly around just one of my own, the one cry that would break suddenly- violently sucking in air and releasing it with such fervour as if she feared never getting fed again (a sound I found such happiness in despite the absolute desperation in its tone). I began to cry and I didn't want her to see me like that, weak and vulnerable, even though she herself was these things, even though I knew she had yet to understand what adult tears represented (they being so much more than the want for food or a clean diaper, a lack of sleep or desire for warmth). I watched her blink softly in the sudden afternoon sun that came from behind a cloud and through the window landing silently on her face and at that moment I hoped and hoped and wanted so badly for just a fraction of this memory of me holding her to stay hidden somewhere deep in her conscience.

Oh, these were the hardest goodbyes I had ever had to say. Our car was packed, we were set to go. I knew Betsy was sad to be leaving, but it couldn't compare to my own melancholy as our distances from our sister were incredibly different, mine being hours & flights and miles and oceans away, hers just being miles...I absently wandered the house for a bit, attempting not to make eye contact with Audrey, knowing immediately that I would burst into tears. I hugged Adie so tight, as tight as one can hold a newborn without squeezing the life from them, I briefly contemplated hiding her away in my suitcase and then decided it was best to just have one of my own someday. Then finally, came the time to hug my sister goodbye and the inevitable happened the moment we wrapped our arms around each other, the tears were too much, this was a parting unlike any other. I knew she feared her ability to do this on her own and I felt that in the tightness of her grip around me...don't leave me don't leave me...and my precious sister, I hope you know how hard it was for me to leave you for now with the arrival of the first of the next branch of our family tree I felt sick with the miles and time between us. I felt physically how far away from her family I would always be, how much I would miss, how little our children might know each other. Ours was a bond that increased a thousand fold during this week, as if we were now chained together somehow and neither of us wanted to let go. But we never really let go, do we? I kissed her and told her not to worry, that she was already an amazing and attentive and loving mother and that she'd be fine, more than fine, that she had a husband who would die for her and their daughter and that I would always be "there" for her. I gave one last look to Adelyn in her bassinet and tried once again to memorize every detail. How ironic that she had yet to say a word to me or express any love in return and was the newest member of my family, the one I knew the least, but somehow she was the most difficult one to say goodbye to. I kissed her little head and whispered her name and she cooed ever so slightly before slowly closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep, my absence in no way affecting her day, the knowledge not yet there that I just wouldn't be around that often during her life. As we drove away, I hid my red eyes behind sunglasses and wondered, for the millionth time, if I truly did have the strength to survive so far away from my family.

So there I was, crying (again, I guess there had already been a lot of tears during that month...) in the middle of JFK. I numbly boarded that plane, after a 24 hr delay, angry that I had been prevented from getting back home, saddened that I had lost extra time with family, and luckily had a seat at a window so I could stare in that direction and hide the flow of tears from fellow passengers. They wouldn't stop, no matter what I did and as we took off down the runway I felt as if there was some string attached to my heart that was pulling tighter and tighter and tighter for every hundred miles we lifted higher into the sky and that eventually my heart would be completely torn from my body and left behind to float back down to earth. I attempted desperately to stifle the sobs that were now coming from deep within my soul, and I feared I couldn't help crying out in the middle of this plane, loud enough for anyone within five rows to wonder if some animal had just died on board. My hand flew to my heart and without even thinking I repeatedly patted my own chest as if to calm it, to soften its violent beating. I cried for the next hour, thinking about the scent of my father, the way his eyes went all watery when he dropped me curbside at the airport (goodbyes at security have become too hard for me as I hate getting patted down while crying). I thought about the softness of my mother's voice when she said she was so proud of me, the way she reminded me so many times to pack a few granola bars for the trip (which, of course, I still forgot to do). I thought about how much laughing I did with my youngest sister, the brief visits with my brother, the beautiful mingling of my other sister's new mother smell that exactly matched the top of her baby daughter's tiny head. I knew these memories were going nowhere but that I was now on my way thousands of miles east, going somewhere far away and were memories enough to live off of? How often would I see my parents throughout the rest of their years? How well would my nieces and nephews know their Aunt Amy? Why did my family have to be so close and loving and well-matched, to the point that we probably would have chosen each other as relatives if choosing your family actually existed? And how was it possible that I had been lucky enough to marry a man that actually was worth moving far away for? I knew I'd never regret the choice I made, I would just have to live always in pieces, leaving little bits everywhere I go in places I cannot stay, never really whole. What do they say? Home is where the heart is? Oh, all the homes I've had, all the places I've left my heart...

Oh, all the life that will be lived without me there...
All the life here in front of me I have left to live...
And there's nothing left to do but keep on living.