Tomorrow

Walter Payton quote We recently heard some horrible news about a family we knew from our school and church back in Chicago. The husband, a young and fit 42-year old, died unexpectedly last week, leaving a wife, four young children and a community reeling from the loss.  I’ve been shaken by the tragedy myself; heartbroken for the family and stunned by the cataclysmic rupture to their seemingly secure future.

Between that news and what I wrote about here, I’ve been thinking a lot about life and loss lately.  I think loss has a specific role to play in one’s lifetime. If it’s not so close as to tear apart the seams of your daily life, it becomes a trigger point for introspection: am I living the life I want to be?

I have a close friend who lost both her parents by the time she was a young adult. She once confided to me that she regularly questions her own mortality, measuring her life against the shortened years granted her parents. As a result, she travels often, experiencing as much of the world as she can with her husband and children.

“Why should I wait until we’re retired?” she has said. “I may be sick or gone by that time- better to give my children- and myself- these memories now, while I can.”

I know our own decision to move to Australia was borne of our belief in living a life without regrets. When P and I first began talking about a move down under, a refrain that continuously arose though our discussion was “We don’t want to ever regret that we never gave it a try.”

At the time, we were in the process of building a house for our family- what P would often refer to as our “Forever Home.” And while there is something lovely and stable and comforting in building a home for years to come, the timing felt off. In the process of working with architects and builders, the plans had grown unwieldy and in my eyes, we were going down a road that would close off other dreams and opportunities.

Ultimately, it felt wrong at the time and led us to question what we wanted out of life. And that led to a discussion of what we didn’t want from life- regrets because we didn’t listen to that quiet voice within.

I know many people questioned our move here- questioned its financial implications, its practicality and its effect on our children. To change midstream may have seemed drastic to others, but to us it felt right. It wasn’t an easy move, but it was one that has brought us closer as a family, giving us a unique lens though which to view our world.

It really doesn’t matter if your gut tells you to move across the world or to stay put within the warm embrace of your community, to change careers or to stay in your current profession, to have another child or to remain childless. What matters is to find the time to listen to the voice within- are you living the life you want?

Maybe you shouldn’t wait for tomorrow to find out.

Posted in Family, Life Down Under, Moving Overseas | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Phone Call

I lost someone yesterday.

Everyone I know that lives overseas has that fear- the fear of the phone call. That phone call that changes things forever, that magnifies the distance between you and your loved ones 1,000 times.

I received that phone call yesterday, and while it wasn’t unexpected, it still grabbed my insides and shoved them to the floor

She was the closest thing to an aunt I had. While not related by blood, there were a few years I didn’t believe that- how could a family with which we spent so much time, not be our relatives?

She was there for big and small occasions: trips to the zoo and to Disney World, family outings to museums and musicals. There were camping trips and canoe trips- and hours of watching the slide shows that resulted (this was the 70s and 80s- digital convenience did not yet exist).

There were snowy marches down State Street to see the Christmas windows followed by spätzle at German restaurants. There were ski trips and sledding days, beer gardens and Cajun food, bridal showers and weddings, and even handmade quilts for each of my babies.

When Paul and I had a second wedding reception in Australia for his family, she and her husband joined my parents for the trip down under- a small party of Americans who good-humoredly laughed and enjoyed the hospitality of rural Australia- even though they only understood roughly half of what was said.

I did know this was coming- I even made a quick trip home in October just so I could see her- a fact I hid from her at the time. To admit that I was flying all that way just to spend a short time with her was to admit that I was accepting the doctor’s prognosis- I knew our next trip home wasn’t soon enough.

And now I sit 10,000 miles away- after crying over Skype as my sister broke the news. I am too far to offer much comfort- to her family, to my family, to my mother who has lost her best friend.

I am too far to take part in the traditions and processes of seeing someone off. I will not be there for the wake, I will not be there to hug friends and family or to laugh softly in the memories awakened by the lifetime of photos on display. I will not be there for the funeral that follows- the gathering at the church, the procession to the cemetery and the final resting as we gather around in solidarity. I will not be there to comfort; I will not be there to say goodbye.

My youngest recently suggested an invention: a secret tunnel in her closet that, like the wardrobe of Narnia, would tumble her out in Chicago whenever she wanted to duck back for a quick visit.

I wish I had that tunnel now.

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Wired for Insulin

As I look back over my calendar for March, I see that I have spent nearly a third of it at Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital. Good thing the building and people are lovely, but I don’t feel any need to return for a while.

When our youngest was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes nearly 18 months ago, our goal was to eventually get her on an insulin pump. Because we have private health insurance, we would receive the pump without cost as part of our coverage, but there was still a one-year waiting period due to an insufficient number of Diabetes Educators (Diabetes Educators are medical professionals who have undertaken postgraduate study to specialize in instructing patients and their families on the management of the disease).

Fortunately, Melbourne University was running a research study on children and the cognitive effects of using an insulin pump versus insulin injections. If we agreed to allow our youngest to participate in the research study, we could leapfrog to the front of the line.

Figuring a few electrical shocks to the brain wouldn’t harm her too much, we assented.

KIDDING! No electricity was used- just a few tests of the paper and pencil variety…

So consent forms were signed and within two weeks we were commuting to the hospital for the closest thing to a med school class I’ll ever find myself in. I took notes, I used highlighters- there was even a test at the end (take-home, thankfully).

It felt as if we were diagnosed all over again and I say “we” because Diabetes does affect the whole family.

Since she’s gone on the pump, mealtimes are suddenly flexible again, our vocabulary has changed slightly (“Did you bolus for that apple?”), school uniforms have been altered and we’ve had a lot less sleep (initially testing blood sugars every two hours around the clock made me feel as if I had a newborn again- a complaint I was vocalizing until I realized the woman I was speaking to had four-month old twins… yes, I’ll shut up now…)

If I had any concerns, they were how she would feel about having a medical device attached to her nearly 24 hours a day (she can take it off up to 1½ hours for contact sport, swimming and bathing). My fears were unfounded as she has relished the freedom to eat according to her hunger and not in an effort to keep her blood sugars in line.

If my heart broke a little, it was her happy expression as she gazed into the mirror, her pump hidden in the pocket of her school uniform. “You can’t even see the pump,” she gushed, “I look like a normal girl!”

But she’s happy and healthy and that’s what is most important. This is just another chapter in our crazy journey of diabetes, but one I think she will handle just fine.

Posted in Diabetes Should Be a Four-Letter Word | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Camp I-kant-wate-tu-go

Australian school camp

Our happy camper

I dropped off our twelve-year old at school several days ago, loaded with a sleeping bag and luggage. He was heading off to camp, four days at a beach location two hours from Melbourne. In addition to sharing a bunk house with a bunch of fellow Year Sevens, he is spending his time swimming, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, hiking and generally not missing us at all.

Going to school camp is an iconic Aussie experience. Even our youngest has spent one night sleeping at the school in an effort to “get them ready for camp.” Every year, Australian school kids head off with their mates and their teachers, returning a few days later, bleary with sleep-deprivation but full of stories that will be excessively retold during the remainder of the school year. Phones are prohibited, so save for an emergency, there is no contact while they are gone.

Last year, our oldest’s camp experience included horseback riding, an activity which did cause low levels of consternation among some parents.

You’re American- your son has probably ridden a thousand times,” said one nervous parent to me.

Apparently, growing up in America is like growing up in a Western movie.

I love the concept of the school camp. It’s such a prevalent part of the education system here- one that breeds independence and builds friendship. In contrast, I have been to just one school camp in my lifetime, in seventh grade.

I remember very few details about Camp Laredo Taft- it was located along the Mississippi River, the dense forest surrounding the camp made perfect hiding places for jumping out to scare your friends, and it was there that I learned that chewing Wint-o-Green Life Savers at night produced sparks in our mouth.

Life changing stuff.

It’s funny how many Australians assume that I have been to camp- summer camp. Based on Hollywood movies, legions of American kids are shipped off to summer camp for weeks at a time- experiences that either provide the backdrop for a coming of age, sexual experience, or produce post-traumatic stress disorder with an emphasis on chainsaws and hockey masks.

I hate to bust the myth wide-open, but I never knew anyone who went away to summer camp as a child.

As for my son, I expect to pick him up when he returns from camp- sun-kissed, happy and exhausted. I expect to hear stories of adventure and laughter, and some mischief-making as well.

This school camp thing Australia has going- it’s not half bad.

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Fleeting

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The other week, my oldest grudgingly posed on our front porch in his new school uniform (minus the blazer and tie- too hot) before setting off for his first day of high school.

Australian high schools start at year seven rather than year nine, skipping that tortuous American experience known as “junior high”. They also, at least in Melbourne, breed a new level of independence in that high school kids are expected to find their own way to school.

For my oldest, that means a ten-minute walk to the train station, two stops on the train and a final 20-minute walk. He has it relatively easy- only one form of public transportation and no need to change lines.

Still, it’s a big milestone for him and has opened the door to greater levels of responsibility.

For me, it’s an even larger milestone. Where once my children’s childhood seemed to stretch out in front of me with no end in sight, a hazy oasis has begun to form in the distance. And I’m not sure I like it.

During the past 13 years that I have been a mother, there have been times when the demanding monotony of parenting has nearly overwhelmed me. The diapers, the cleaning, the tears, the messes, the constant vigilance, the simplistic conversations, the repetitiveness… If I had to play Memory or Old Maid one more time; if I had to read All About Trucks again…

There were times I felt as if those years would never end- that my needs would always be secondary to those of the little people around me. I loved and adored them, but could I please finish one cup of coffee before it got cold?

When they first started school, there were some tears, but there was also a tiny spark of relief. Slowly, slowly, I was chipping away at that all-encompassing dependence to get small pieces of myself back. To remember who I was before I was a mother… someone who loved books and newspapers and long (uninterrupted) conversations in cafes.

Back then, it seemed almost weekly that an elderly woman would stop me in a store, one hand outstretched in supplication.

“Enjoy this time,” I would be advised, her wrinkled eyes glistening with distant memories. “They grow up so quickly.”

I would nod and smile back as I juggled babies and groceries, one eye on the toddler wandering just outside my reach. “I know… everyone says that.”

But I didn’t know… not really. At least not until the other week when my son walked out the door, a new chapter unfurling before him.

Because suddenly I can see the end, where it once seemed too distant to comprehend. More of his childhood is now behind him than before him; the years to adulthood are approaching with an urgency I can’t control. I have crossed over to where the soft chubbiness of my babies is but a memory hidden in the sharp angles of adolescence.

As someone who craves control and order, I’m turning this realization into action. During sports games and dance classes, dinnertime and homework, I am pouring this understanding into my presence. Listening to my children, eyes intent on their faces, memorizing the planes and curves of each one.

I feel that their poured foundations are solidifying- my opportunity to impress life lessons is closing. I must use this time wisely, remembering that life isn’t a series of events to tick off, but moments to embrace fully.

I’m practicing this by carving out one-on-one time with each child; seemingly casual interactions between us that are actually conscientious on my part.

At least, that is my goal amidst the routine of daily life.

They grow up so quickly.

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The Gift of Time

In late December, I finished up a short-term, full-time work assignment. With Paul’s new job starting in late January and the kids off of school, we were suddenly given a gift:

Time- just over 4 weeks of time.

Time to explore new parts of Australia, time to visit friends, time to play board games, swim in rivers, go to the beach and ride bicycles. We did that and more, crisscrossing our way around Victoria, with a trek into New South Wales to visit friends in Sydney.

There were zoo visits and river rapids and waterfalls and ferry rides and boogie boards and camping trips and even a couple of days exploring Melbourne with some Chicago friends who made the trip down under. To the point our children begged for a few days at home “sleeping in our own beds and doing nothing.”

But our situation wasn’t unusual; most Australians take time off during January. Like August in Europe, life slows down a bit in the summer. Families head off for several weeks, people take to the road, to the beach or just hang around their homes. Don’t expect much business to be transacted, this is a time to breathe before things heat up again.

If there is one area where life in Australia drastically differs from that in the US, it is the concept of vacation. The rest of the world shake their heads at America and the measly two weeks the average worker gets off each year. But those two weeks are just an average- the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not require employers to provide paid vacation time. None- not one day.

Australia, in contrast, requires employers to provide 20 days of paid vacation leave, in addition to the eight national holidays scattered throughout the year. And Australia isn’t necessarily at the top of the list in this regard. I came across the following graph that illustrates how the US is lacking when compared to other advanced economies across the globe.

Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research

Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research

Some may defend the United States’ policy as a matter of economic prudence. But job-related stress contributes to health issues, absenteeism and lost productivity, factors which the Bureau of Labor Statistics approximate to a $344 billion cost to business annually.

So maybe time off shouldn’t be considered a gift, but more of a right. A right to connect with our loved ones, a right to explore the world around us, a right to step off of the hamster wheel and to breathe a bit.

Because it will always be there, waiting for you to get back on.

Posted in Life Down Under | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Go With The Flow

So… do you have a verdict on where to live? United States or Australia? Is it an even race or confusing or do you just go with the flow as long as you are happy?

A friend from Chicago ended a recent email with the above questions. As we’ve just passed the two-year mark for our move to Australia, it isn’t surprising to receive inquiries like these. Two years is a good chunk of time- although it’s gone quickly, it should be enough time to gain perspective and direction… shouldn’t it?

Ironically, the author of the above statement is an Aussie who has lived in Chicago for over a dozen years. She and her Australian husband are far from home and as their families celebrate Christmas holidays with a backyard BBQ, her children speak with an American twang and build snowmen behind their house.  She is intimately connected with questions of home and family and in her e-mail I read a hidden question… a request for confirmation… are we doing ok here? Is it ok to spend years and years away like this??

I’m not sure where we’ll end up, but neither am I ready to make a decision today. We enjoy life here- all of us do and we’re not at this point ready to walk away from everything Australia has to offer us.

There are questions floating in the air, most of them involving our children and their schooling, but we still have some time before hard decisions need to be made. Until then, we are living each day knowing that for now, we are right where we want to be.

So…

Do we have a verdict? No.

United States or Australia? Is there a third choice?  Because I’m not closed off to other places either.

Even race? It’s a close one.

Is it confusing? Sometimes.

Do you just go with the flow as long as you’re happy? Yes.

Posted in Life Down Under, Moving Overseas | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments