“Is that a ‘Mommy plane’?” my son asked while we splash in the turquoise-blue, saltwater pool surrounded by the buildings of my apartment complex that mimic villas along Venetian canals. He heard the airplane fly overhead and immediately shaded his eyes from the bright sun with one hand — little, tan fingers dripping water — to scan the sky.
“Yup, buddy, that looks like a ‘Mommy plane,’” I replied as I wondered about the passengers aboard, the destination of the flight, and what stories were being written by that particular flight taking off and touching down.
He and I count airplanes together.
My son is four and a half years old, and he understands that I’ll be flying away soon. Not being sure that he would quite grasp the concept of my “moving away” or “living abroad” without being worried or scared by the vast distance and time that those phrases imply, he and I have talked about my “taking trips” that would keep me away for a while with the promise that I will return for regular visits with him. We talk about how we will miss each other, and that missing someone is OK even though it is hard. Then he gets very excited in the way only little kids can when I tell him that we will stay together in a hotel during our times together. He loves hotels.
The truth is that I have no idea how difficult being apart from him will be. Once my fiance Andrew and I became serious and the idea of my moving to Liberia to join him at post became a real possibility, I knew it would not be fair to take my son away from his amazing Montessori school, his church, his friends, his extended family, and the wonderfully family-centered community in which he currently lives. So, his dad and I decided that our son would stay with him. People have told me what a selfless decision it is, what a mature thing it is to do, how loving it is to put my son’s needs before my own. It is nice to hear these affirmations because there are moments when I just really wish I knew how to be a selfish bitch so I could keep him with me. He is my baby, and of course I want him with me. I think to myself: that “selfish bitch” person would not make for a very loving and supportive mother or wife, but at least I’d have everything I want. When it comes down to it, though, I really don’t know how to be that kind of person.
Without going into detail, all three of us — Andrew, myself, and my ex-husband — are making sure our little boy has every support possible to help with this transition as we find our way to our “new normal.” And, as a friend recently told me: I need to keep focused on the wonderful things I’ll be able to show, give, and teach my son that I otherwise would not have been able to without entering life in foreign service.
Not long ago, I had a taste of this very opportunity when my son and I were reading a library book about Africa and came across a photo of the Hassan II Mosque in Morocco. “I’ve been there!” I exclaimed and then ran to fetch my laptop to pull up more photos that I had taken of the Mosque during a trip that Andrew and I affectionately refer to as our “first date.”
Finally, I am also trying to keep in mind that once Andrew and I leave Liberia next year, visits with my son will hopefully be easier (getting to Atlanta from Monrovia is a multi-legged, 30-hour journey); and once he gets a little older, I’ll be able to bring him to post for visits. Then I’ll really be able to show him the world!
Thinking these things over and over in my mind (which is already prone to worry) has officially exhausted me mentally and emotionally, and this week I arrived at a place where I was just done. I felt like I had hit a brick wall. Shockingly, the mental and emotional exhaustion hit me harder than the actual physical slamming of my body onto the ground in my cycling accident a couple of weekends ago. I am tired of thinking, tired of waiting, tired of worrying, and am just ready to get started with my next chapter in life.
I am ready to go.
So, let me come back to that “first date” I mentioned above.
As I wrote in last week’s post, Andrew and I were close friends before we became a couple. As the idea of becoming an “us” developed, we knew that everything about our interactions online, over the phone, and during video chats harmonized beautifully. Our communication, our sense of humor, our values and beliefs, our hopes and plans, and how much we admired and enjoyed each other have always felt like the perfect fit. Since we had previously only been around each other as friends, though, we wanted to make sure this effortless interaction translated in person.
This meant that we needed to go on an actual date! 🙂 The challenge: he was in Liberia and I was in Atlanta. So, Andrew decided to fly me to Morocco to (in his words) introduce me to the foreign service lifestyle in a place that would push me out of my comfort zone. He was testing me — my sense of adventure, my ability to maintain composure, and my ability to adapt.
Initially, — as often happens when I feel challenged — my spicy, Latina side came out, and I thought, “How dare you underestimate me!” Then I realized: he is an engineer who thinks twelve steps ahead in everything he does. He was already considering whether the life he could offer me would make me truly happy, and he knew he had to let me decide that for myself. And just like that, my stubbornness was replaced with appreciation and love.
As the date of our trip approached, I began counting airplanes whenever I was outdoors. How many would fly overhead? Where were they going? Who were they bringing together? Who were they pulling apart? Were there passengers on board who were anxious about what waited for them wherever they were going? Were they excited? How many of the travelers were leaving the country for the first time? How long until my flight? How long until my flight? How long until my flight?
I would wish myself aboard any plane that would get me to where I really wanted to be.
It finally arrived, and the trip to Morocco was wonderful and hilarious and beautiful and even challenging in some respects (more on cultural differences another time). At the end of it, though, our parting was more difficult than I anticipated. And each subsequent goodbye became even harder.
In between my times with Andrew, I resented the sound of airplanes flying overhead. It was a cruel reminder of how far apart we were. However, as one of our trips to join the other person approached, I would welcome the sound again, counting airplanes as his arrival or my departure approached, and one of us would be headed in the others’ direction. Whenever I’d pick him up at the airport in Atlanta, I would drive down I-85 and count the planes as they took off or touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson.
On his most recent visit, there were a couple of planes that I watched descend as I seemed to race them down the highway. I smiled to myself and thought, “That one! That’s Andrew’s plane.” I must have been the only fool grinning while driving in Atlanta traffic. My foot fell heavy on the gas pedal as I zoomed to the airport so I could find my guy and throw my arms around him.
Andrew and I have been long distance for long enough. And while we have been fortunate to meet up every 2-3 months to spend time together, anything over two months is tough and has become exponentially more difficult as our relationship progresses. This is especially because touch is a primary love language for both of us. So, even though we make quality time for each other every day, have wonderful conversations, hear each others’ voices, and interact through video, missing that physical component of our interactions — reaching across the table to interlace fingers; his arm around my waist or across my shoulders as we walk; my legs draped over his as we sit on opposite ends of a couch; kissing him because he says something so nerdy that I can’t help myself — is to miss a big part of who we are as a couple.
Therefore, I’m happy to say that I am back to counting airplanes. When Andrew comes home to me in less than a week, he’ll finally scoop me up just as he always promised, and we’ll start our lifetime of adventure together. It is a relief and a joy to know that this time I won’t have to watch him leave or walk to my gate in the airport alone as we part ways, and there will be no departure date taunting us menacingly in the background of our moments together, reminding us that we had better enjoy this time because it will be over far too quickly and won’t come around again for far too long.
Andrew and I will finally get on the same plane and fly to the same destination.
My son’s favorite movie right now is Moana, a movie about a girl who has always felt an intrinsic need for adventure and travel. She longs to sail on the open sea so she can find out just how far the horizon stretches and how far her ambition could take her.
I identify with Moana’s restlessness — her desire to explore and to challenge herself to go beyond the lines that have been drawn for her.
Her boats are my airplanes.
Her water is my sky.
And “if I go, there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.”