Sep 20 2013

Homing In

We went from being homeless to holding the keys to three apartments. The friend who loaned us our first temporary apartment in Barcelona decided to delay her return – for romance – so we didn’t have to rush out of her place. We moved to a second temporary apartment, but I still needed to return and pick up a few things I’d left at the first one and give it a good cleaning. chairs_in_salonThe signing of the lease on what is our official apartment was a friendly procedure, though De-facto and I took our time and scrutinized the fine print. We’d waited an extra weekend to move in, we figured our new landlord could take an extra hour or two to make sure we understood all the terms of the lease. I walked out of that meeting with three sets of keys jangling together in my purse.

We have a found a place to live.

We have just enough mattresses to sleep on. There are not quite enough chairs. Those at the dining table get moved to our desks during the day, to the girls’ work-table when it’s time for their homework and back to the table for dinner. The dishes and cooking utensils that came from Paris are just the basics: plates and bowls and cutlery, a few fry-pans and pots, a soup/pasta boiling pot and a casserole dish. The only glasses I brought were wine glasses. I’ve made a few purchases to equip the kitchen, but otherwise we’re living lean until we can make the next trek to Paris and return with more of our dishes and cooking tools. The new cupboards are slowly getting stocked with food, but still seem bare compared to those in Paris, stuffed with bags of lima beans and boxes of rare grains and spices left by friends and guests. I can never bring myself to throw those food-stuffs out, convincing myself that maybe I could use that 4-year old bag of red beans for a winter stew that somehow never materializes. It’s rather nice to be liberated from the cramped cupboards and old boxes of dated food. Though there are adjustments to be made: food shopping is different in our new neighborhood. The products are unfamiliar, the stores are smaller and sparser, the hours of operation, slightly inconvenient.

I knew that even after we found an apartment, even after we moved in, there would still be tests. You can’t get internet service until you have a bank account. In order to get a bank account, you need a special number. Actually you can get a bank account without that number, but you still need that number in order to get internet service, or anything else for that matter. But you have to make an appointment on-line in order to get a special number, which you can’t do, if you don’t have internet. None of this is a surprise. The same conundrums and catch-22s existed in Paris when I first moved there, and are endemic to any bureaucratic system, anywhere in the plugged_inworld. You have to home in on the key obstacles and figure out how to overcome them, one at a time. In our case, kind Canadian neighbors below us with boosters on their wifi are generously loaning us their signal until we can get our own.

There is a constant churn, the feeling of going around again and again without making progress. My inefficiency astounds me. Destabilized by our busy departure and the uncertainty that plagued our first weeks here, I am too slowly getting my bearings in this new city. The temporary quality of our life is palliated now by the fact that we did manage to get the apartment we loved and have moved our two van-loads of possessions out of storage and into our new home, but we are still far from settled.

These days I long for the Camino. That bliss of nothing to do each day except walk from here to the next place, a place designated solely by my whim or fatigue. Late, quiet afternoons to write, read, rest without any obscure children’s school supplies to buy in a foreign language in a city you don’t yet know by heart. Everything slow and deliberate, one boot in front of the other. It was easy, then, to be centered and calm.

It’s been harder to keep that spirit in the midst of finding a home, still a challenge as we work to set it up, all the while trying to be empathetic to the girls as they adjust to their new teachers with new classmates and new languages. I am afraid I’m failing on that front. I pick the girls up at school and ask the right questions, but I’m not always fully present with them, not really hearing their answers. There’s too much chatter in my own brain, keeping track of the tasks I have before me, my own professional obligations to address while still running about the city opening bank accounts, buying shower curtains and drinking glasses, returning again and again, and again to the Vodaphone store to activate a Spanish phone number that for some reason refuses to function and yet despite that, has a contract that cannot be cancelled. The dirty clothes were piling up and I couldn’t find a single laundromat. Another trip out the door with the Visa card in hand, a new washer and dryer finally delivered yesterday, the washing machine has been churning ever since.

This morning Buddy-roo complained of a stomachache. She averted her eyes, making that face she makes when she wants me to know she’s unhappy. Yesterday she went to the nurse’s office at school because of her tummy. I don’t think she’s faking it – though that’s not beyond her – I think it’s the stress of a new school and a new environment. Short-pants appears to enjoy the new school more than her sister, but she still has frequent melt-downs. Yesterday she couldn’t find her Spanish classroom, and became so upset that the surveillant at the school office made her sit down and have a cup of tea. The day before, she stayed after school for theater only to discover the class wouldn’t start until October. She left the building so flustered that she got lost on the way home.

Last night the full moon streamed through the shutters of my window, painting short stripes on the floor beside the bed. There were some noisy kids outside. The moonlight was too bright, or its energy was tugging at me. I laid awake, restless, or worried, or overtired – or all of the above, wondering if I would grow to regret this decision to move. I slid out of bed and into the living room and sat in the dark, in one of the comforting green armchairs that used to be in my mother’s house. I listened to the night noises of our new apartment and thought about the night noises of our place in Paris, the death-rattle of our on-its-last-leg refrigerator, the scampering of mice from underneath the cupboards, the sound of our neighbors on their joy_doorcreaky staircase. Funny how I miss those noises. I miss my life in Paris.

But that’s part of the ride. It’s easy to focus on all the bits that are difficult about moving house and moving to a new country. I’ve done this before and I know that I need to keep my eye on the prize, to remember what happens if I keep looking the right direction: new friends and expanding experiences. I need to start homing on what’s in store for us here, all the things that are new and possible, and just around the corner.


Apr 26 2010

Growing Pains

She changed into her pajamas in the living room, doing a funny kind of half-dressed jig to entertain us, happy to laugh and happy that we were laughing with her. I said something that made her run away from us – a pretend threat to pinch her, or a comment about her lack of underwear. She turned too quickly and stubbed her toe on the base of the couch. (We are at our country house, where there’s a sagging, old futon with odd parts of metal protruding from the bottom.) She shrieked and exploded into tears.

De-facto and I remained seated at the table. It’s not that we are insensitive, but early on we agreed to be the parents that wait a beat (or two) before coddling our children after they have hurt themselves, reserving our rushing-over-to-console-efforts for those boo-boos that actually merit such earnest concern. We were, perhaps, too cavalier about this when Short-pants was a little toddler. She’d tumble and we’d quickly suggest to her, “you’re okay!” Later we came to understand that she thought “you’re okay,” meant “ouch, it hurts!” After a fall, she’d jump around, in obvious pain, shouting, “I’m okay! I’m okay!”

She sat on the couch and screamed again, her face in a grimace, red with tears. “I’m always hurting myself!” she cried.

Short-pants does stumble a lot. She trips and falls more frequently that most children her age – and I know that 8-year olds can trip and fall a lot – but she is constantly nursing a hurt toe, foot or knee. She moves with short, jerky motions, especially when she is excited, which often causes her to bump into something and bang or bruise one of her appendages.

Part of this is related to a broken leg at age 4 that was, unfortunately, set incorrectly, a fracture which, though we’ll never be sure, we believe is related to her brain abscess. She had just learned to walk again after a coma and two brain surgeries and six motionless weeks in a hospital bed. She overestimated her strength while hanging on a bar in the park, fell on her leg and broke it, after which she spent eight weeks in a cast and then had to learn how to walk again. Except after the cast came off, the leg was longer and slightly turned. This would set anyone back a bit, let alone someone with a little neurological story like hers.

We were diligent about physical therapy, until one day it felt like she spent too much time going to medical appointments and that maybe the best therapy for her was to just be a playful kid. The French doctors all agreed, a bit too readily, “Her legs will even out, you’ll see, pendant la croissance.” During the growth. I could tell they were mocking my concern – I was one of those obsessive (American) mothers and if I’d just relax it would all be fine.

This is the line we walk – all mothers, not just mothers who’ve been hospital mothers – the fine line between advocating for your child and obsessing over her. I don’t want to hover and try to direct everything in her life. But to what degree is my role as parent to make sure she has the best care possible and that we’ve done everything we can to help her? It’s not that she has to have perfect legs and run like a gazelle and win every race. I just want her to be able to move comfortably and do the things she wants to do. And when she’s an old bat, I don’t want her to be in pain because her pelvis and back are all messed up because her leg was never attended to.

We’ve waited a few years, and the croissance is indeed happening, in amazing spurts, but her leg is still longer and it’s still crooked. She’s not really getting stronger or more coordinated. If anything, she’s discovering that she’s not as swift or steady as her school friends, and starting to shy away from physical activities where she knows this will be apparent. We try to encourage her, with modest success (De-facto has her playing basketball and the practice is helping) but we don’t want to nag her and make it larger issue than it already is.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time for an expert opinion, so I returned to one of the PTs who’d worked with her before. He was terrific – said all the right things to her about finding a physical activity she loves and practicing and working at it. He gave me that look that said I know you want me to fix this and I can’t, but she can, if she works at it. He gave us some exercises to do together, but of course, I haven’t been so diligent about it. I’ve not been very diligent about my pilates, either. It probably doesn’t help that her mother is much better at laying in bed and reading than running laps at the basketball court.

I looked at De-facto. “I wish I knew what to do to help her move more fluidly,” I said.

“She’s missing a little part of her brain,” he whispered back. “She’s a miracle, remember?”

I do remember those awful days when Short-pants was in a coma, when all I wanted her to do was survive. I bargained with someone above to keep her with us in any condition. A funky leg that makes her a bit uncoordinated and a left side that isn’t as strong as her right side? No problem, we’ll take it. Just give her back to us. That’s what I would have said. More or less, it’s what I did say.

Short-pants hobbled over to the table and folded herself in her father’s lap. I listened to him talking to her in his low, soft, reassuring voice. He explained it all to her, how maybe she falls and trips a lot because of the operation on her brain, and how it takes her a bit longer to learn to do physical things. He put all those big-person concepts into littler-person words so she could understand. And maybe, he said, it all had to do with the thing that was in her brain, but maybe not, we’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is she can do anything she wants to do, just sometimes she has to work longer to get her body to learn how to do it.

He always knows the right way to frame things for the girls, to tell them the truth without talking down to them or being patronizing. He’s the best explainer there is.

Short-pants rested in his arms, taking in all he said. I watched from across the table, admiring the two of them in their embrace. Then she pushed herself up, out of his lap and limped around the table to me and curled her lanky legs up in my lap.

“Don’t worry, mama,” she said, “I’m okay.”