Sunday, July 2, 2017

One Year Later

One year ago yesterday, we arrived in the U.S. from our two-year posting to Moscow.

And what a crazy year it’s been.

When we left Moscow, I was in a lot of pain from what turned out to be not two, as they told me in Moscow, but THREE herniated discs. (Turns out the doctors at the Russian hospital missed the third and most critical disc on the MRI - welcome to medicine in the Foreign Service.) I limped my way from Moscow to D.C., unable to even carry my own bag through the airport.

When we landed in D.C. it was hot and humid, just like today. We somehow got 6 people, 7 suitcases, 6 carry-ons, one cat and one Giant Schnauzer (plus giant crate) into a shuttle and made it to our temporary apartment, where we discovered that the cat litter we’d ordered in advance never arrived. So we dragged our jetlagged selves out into the city, in search of cat litter and something to eat.

My eyes felt like sandpaper. I seem to recall that one of the kids threw up at dinner, but I could be imagining that. After we found cat litter at Target - and we were too tired by then to even appreciate the fact that we were in Target - we walked back to the apartment. The sun was setting and fireflies were coming out. One of the girls - Kyra, maybe? again, this all seems like a dream - was terrified of the fireflies, having never seen them before, and refused to walk past them.

It was a really long walk back to the apartment, dodging fireflies the whole way.

It was a long summer, actually. I met with a surgeon about my back. I didn’t want anyone getting anywhere near my spine with knives or needles, so he agreed to let me try physical therapy before surgery. I went to therapy three days a week all summer long, slowly clawing my way back to normal.

It was so hot outside. We had to walk the dog multiple times during the day, but I couldn’t set a very quick pace. Any time I tried to jog, my leg gave out on me and I fell down. The therapist gave me all sorts of exercises to do and told me not to pick up anything heavy, not to run, not to bend over, not to go to the gym. Of course we were expecting a 5000-pound HHE shipment to be delivered. And those IKEA beds weren’t going to put themselves together. So I listened to the therapist as best I could, and then went back to doing the things one has to do to get through a move. Bart had to pull a lot of the weight - literally and figuratively - while I tried my best to keep up.

Every day we went back and forth between the apartment and our real house, trying to get it painted and cleaned up so we could move in when our stuff arrived. We’d take a break from painting to eat take out for lunch while sitting on the floor in the house - no chairs! - then bag up the trash to bring back to the apartment - no trash cans at the house, either.

Of course, the day the movers finally arrived with our shipment was the day my youngest daughter tried to blow up a balloon and accidentally inhaled it. So while my husband stayed with the movers, I spent the day at Fairfax Inova Hospital, where they had to put her under and go in search of the balloon.

So that was a good day.

(Actually, in some ways, it really was, because that balloon experience cemented my friendship with nurse Heather and doctor Melinda, two DS spouses who helped us through that experience and have since become good in-real-life friends.)

We unpacked. We moved in. And life went on.

It’s hard to move, no matter what, but it’s especially hard to move back “home” to the U.S. When you move to a new post overseas, people expect you to show up and they look out for you. Here, nobody really knows that you’re new, and people don’t automatically reach out to the new family. There’s no casserole in the fridge when you show up, no neighbor waiting to take you to the grocery store, no kids excited to show your kids the new school. We were fortunate that we had some friends from Jordan (who featured prominently in this blog, back in the day) living not far away - they took us phone shopping and computer shopping, and they loaned us a car until we could buy one of our own. And nurse Heather, who up until then had been a mere virtual friend, stepped in to be our “NOVA social sponsor,” so I quickly learned the best places to go for coffee.

We got through the rough spots, thanks in no small part to those folks, and we got down to the business of living in the States. Enrolled four kids in three schools, found a vet (another DS spouse - these women are amazing), furnished the house, fixed up the yard, remodeled the kitchen, fought dampness in the basement, hung some light fixtures (ah, who am I kidding? We made my dad do that when he and my mom came for a visit.), worked through more medical emergencies than I’d care to remember, spent way too many weekends at home improvement stores, taught the kids how to mow a lawn, celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter...

I guess we’re Virginians now. But I really miss living overseas. There’s no big adventure to be had, moving into a suburban house on a suburban street in Anytown, Virginia. No big adventures, but plenty of costs associated with such a move, so you’re sort of bored and stressed out, all at the same time. But the few non-State people to whom I tried to explain this feeling just didn’t get it at all. How could you not be happy living in the Greatest Country on Earth, they wondered? Some of them even seemed to think it somehow unpatriotic to want to live outside of the U.S. Those people, I think, don’t understand that diplomats and their families are some of the most patriotic people you’ll ever meet. We choose to live outside of the U.S. because we choose to serve our country in some really hard places. We choose the hardships, and we learn to welcome them or work around them. Coming back here, where everyone speaks English and everything makes sense, but nobody really knows or cares where you’ve been or what you did while you were there, is somewhat unsettling.

I stopped trying to explain it to anyone who wasn’t a diplomat. To my fellow diplomat spouses, I didn’t need to explain what I was feeling. They all understood.

They say the hardest time to move a kid is before senior year, and the second hardest time is during middle school. Well, we moved a junior and a middle-schooler, and I have to say: they’re right. It’s just so hard for a kid that age to show up at a new school and start from scratch. It’s hard at any age - my youngest got off the school bus sobbing every day that first week, and it shattered me to watch. But it was harder to watch the older ones struggle through it, because they were much more closed off about their problems. Kids that age aren’t exactly chatty on the best of days.

But you know what? Every single one of them made it through the school year, and they all excelled in their own way. When school ended a week ago, my youngest got off the bus sobbing once again - this time because she was going to miss her teacher so, so much. The others came home talking about plans for the summer, and sleepovers, and snacks, and swim team, and all of that “normal” suburban Virginia stuff.

They are settled. We are settled.

I am working, part-time at least. I’m back in the gym, doing many of the same things I did before I injured myself - no surgery required. Bart likes his current job very much, even if it keeps him a bit busier than he’d probably like. I have a gym membership, and bus stop mom friends, and a few people I can confide in when things get hard. Bart and I take the dog for a walk together most nights, saying hi to the neighbors in our very own neighborhood, a neighborhood full of fireflies that no longer terrify the kids.

The house is unpacked. Pictures are hung, furniture is put together and in place, the lawn mower is in the garage next to the bicycles and the car. We have built a life in the suburbs, and we are making it work.

Did I mention we bid again this summer?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's Gone: The Neighborhood Edition

Somebody stopped by my house today with a parting gift (which I loved, thanks so much...).  After she left, I read the note she'd attached to the gift, and she seriously brought me to tears with her kind words.

It made me think - I sometimes take the people around me for granted.  Or anyway, I assume they know what I think of them. But really, why don't we take the time to thank the people who help us settle in at each post?  The time flies by so quickly.  We bond hard and then separate fast. And sometimes the people we've been relying on to get us through don't even know it.

So here's a partial list of the neighbors who got me through it.

Beth is one of the first people I met here.  She was throwing a party for newcomers the week after I arrived at post, and I'd heard about it, of course, but I didn't figure she meant to include me, since we'd never met.  My social sponsor and soon-to-be friend Karla assured me that, yes, Beth did mean to include me.  So I went. It was fun, and I met lots of new people.  More importantly, I discovered that Beth was the backbone of the post.  She's always looking out for the new people, always making sure people on their way out have a proper send off. Always smiling, even when she has reason not to be.  Always calling up to see if you want to stop by for tea on a rainy afternoon.  I wish I could be as outgoing and spontaneous as Beth.

Tamara and I arrived within days of each other, and she's the perfect neighbor.  You can be sure if you need a teaspoon of cumin or a can of pumpkin, she'll have it.  She'll laugh till she cries over a smashed watermelon. She'll stop by with a meal if she hears that you're sick.  And she'll swear up and down that no, she didn't hear you fighting with your kids this morning at breakfast. (The walls are thin and she's such a liar...) We've had some fun together, she and I, even when we've only been running errands or trying to find our way back to the Embassy.

Melica got here when we did, too. She's fearless, that woman.  She'll go anywhere, try anything. When I'm tired of being a parent, she'll let me send my kids to her house.  When I'm tired of cooking dinner, she'll invite us for a potluck - and believe me, when you have four kids, you don't get too many invitations that include your entire family. She doesn't stand on ceremony - she'll invite you in even when her house is a mess, and she'll never notice when your house is looking less than sparkly.  Wherever she and her husband go, much laughter ensues.

Lori and I didn't get to know each other until more recently, but she's just the kindest person. She showed up midway through pack out two weeks ago and told me to give her a grocery list.  What an amazing gift that was - at the end of a long day of packing out, there was a pile of fresh food in the refrigerator, no thanks to me.

I met Hilde when I first got here, and our kids have been in and out of each other's houses for the past two years. We don't see each other as often as I'd like, but she's taken one of my kids under her wing and it's nice to know he has a second house to call home when ours isn't working out for him. She's one of those moms who makes the full-time-job-plus-parenting-gig look effortless. Plus which, she makes amazing brownies and she's always willing to share...

I don't see much of Branka, either, but she was one of the first people who asked me on a friend date. We went to lunch together and had a great time.  Why does she have to be so busy?  Oh well.  We'll grab lunch together again in another country, I've no doubt.

Yzo and Isa - it took me a year to learn to tell them apart.  But they basically adopted my daughter.  I think she spent more nights sleeping at their house than at ours.  They always had a hug for me or for my daughters, and when they left post it seemed suddenly a bit less sunny around here.

Mickey has taken in my other daughter.  I'm going to have to make sure Ainsley doesn't attempt to stow away in their luggage, because she much prefers their house to ours.  What's not to like?  Her door seems to be always open for my youngest, any day, any time. She makes homemade spring rolls and noodles rather than sending her home for lunch.  She has a great laugh and a better singing voice.

Rim.  Everybody knows Rim, and Rim knows everybody.  In my next life I want to be as fearlessly outgoing as Rim. Sarah, too.  She always leaves you doubled over, laughing.  (Well, except for when she's giving you a shot in the rear.  But the world needs nurses, so I'll forgive that one transgression.)  Kelly -  I've never met anyone who is quite as much of a friend magnet as Kelly.  She draws you in with her laugh - you can hear her a block away - and then keeps you close because she's so beautiful, in and out. If you ever get a chance to serve at a post with Kelly, you're going to want to do it.  There's nobody else quite like her out there.
 
Then there are my gym buddies.

Suzie is fierce in the gym, an awesome workout partner.  She's smart and strong and serious. So inspiring on so many levels.

Janet makes me laugh.  When I'm in a bad mood, I seek her out because I know the mood will pass. And she's committed - you can't skip the gym on a Janet day, because you know she'll be there waiting for you.

Alamanda is the strongest woman in the gym.  When I start feeling cocky, thinking I can pick up heavy stuff, I look over at what she's doing and I shut myself right up. If I ever get in a bar fight, I'm bringing her and Areti as my backup.  Those women can throw a kick like nobody's business.

Annabelle is patient and calm and so strong.  Renee curses like a sailor and runs circles around me, even while she's laughing. Tina inspires me to program burpees, just because she hates them so much (yet has gotten so good at them). Peggy sings show tunes and tells slightly off-color jokes while we're swimming. Everything's more fun when she's there.

So many others - some still at post and some long gone. It's been a lonely post for me in some ways.  But when I travel door to door in my mind's eye, I realize I have so many friends here.  More than I can count. More than I can describe in this post. I've gotten sappy enough already.

So pay it forward, my friends.  Go seek out someone who has helped you at post and tell them.  Don't wait until they're leaving.  People need to know when they make a mark on your soul. My soul is feeling happily scuffed up today.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Pack Out

In this small house
Made of brick and stone
Built on laughter
And all our dreams and hopes
In this small house
Together we have grown
Made a family
Made us all a home
   - Michelle Featherstone




We've spent a lot of hours moving from place to place, B and I.  By my calculations, this is our fourteenth move together.  That's a lot of bubble wrap.

You'd think I'd be good at it by now.  But nothing really prepares you for it, for taking your house apart, piece by piece.  Taking pictures off the walls.  Upending junk drawers.  Ruthlessly culling the end-of-year art projects.  Giving away too-small sweaters and shoes. Going through every item you own, one at a time, trying to decide: is this worth keeping?  What does it mean to me?

Every move I try to convince B to toss this one bowl that I hate. But for him, it has a history.  So it moves with us every time.  Every move I try to think of something creative to do with the multiple baggies full of mystery coins that we drag from post to post.  Each time I toss them back in the junk basket, that basket full of things I can't quite bring myself to throw away. All those Christmas cards that I keep in my drawer?  Right before we move, I look through them all and think about the people who sent them.  Then I throw them all in the garbage. I can't quite decide if that's a morbid habit or a sweet tradition.

I've gotten pretty good at the logistics of moving.  Stack all of your artwork together against one wall - when the movers pack it all together, it's easier to unpack and sort at your next post.  Same with your knick knacks: if you gather them from all around the house and put them all in one place for the movers, you're more likely to find them intact at the other end.  Bag and label all of the bedding by family member so you aren't sorting through 47 fitted sheets when you unpack.  Give the kids freezer bags to sort and store their stuff for moving.  That sort of thing, I can do.

But watching all of my possessions disappear under piles of cardboard and bubble?  That I never get used to.  Looking around the empty house is hard too.  It always seems dusty and tired, with nail holes and dirt marks on the walls where pictures once hung, gum wrappers and lego bits on the closet floors.

Anyway.  We're halfway through this pack out.  By tomorrow night the house will be ours-not-ours.

I wrote this article about pack out, years ago, when we lived in Beijing.  It still rings true for me.  Ghosts. Everywhere ghosts.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers

I was one of the lucky ones.  I grew up knowing, with 100% certainty, that any time I needed him, anywhere, for any reason at all, my father would show up. If you grow up with a dad like that, you're way ahead of the game from the very beginning.

Santa Barbara, CA, some time last century


I am one of the lucky ones.  I married the same type of guy - the one who shows up and puts in the hard work and puts the needs of his family before his own, every single time. 


Beijing, China, 2009


We are celebrating Father's Day by rushing around frantically (or, in my case, limping around at a snail's pace), trying to get everything ready for the movers. We'll plan a real celebration for another day.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

It always gets worse before it gets better.

There I was, pack out looming, in incredible pain from a presumably herniated disc.  And it wasn't getting better.  They were giving me the strongest pain pills in the Embassy arsenal, the kind that require multiple signatures and secret codes to obtain from the pharmacy.  And it was hardly making a dent in the pain. My leg cramped up so severely whenever I tried to stand that I'd collapse onto the floor and lay there until it passed.  Then, to make things worse, my whole leg went numb. How you can have blistering muscle cramps and novocaine-caliber numbness at the same time, I've no idea.  But I'm here to tell you it is possible.

The medical staff here arranged for me to get an MRI.  They even sent somebody to pick me up and take me there, because I couldn't walk more than a few steps without collapsing in a heap of pain.

The MRI revealed not one, but two herniated discs, one of which was pressing right into some big important nerve bundle, blah, blah, blah, need more pain pills, please.

That explains why I can't feel my left leg, I suppose.  That nerve is apparently going crazy and sending all sorts of messed up signals down the line.

In an instant, it seems, I went from being a person who can do jumping lunges and pull ups to being a person who can't pull on my own pants. This is not an easy transition for me.  I'm used to being the helper, not the person in need of help.  

This past week, though, I was definitely the person in need of help.  And boy did my neighbors come through.  We had a kids' party scheduled at our house last weekend, and two other moms showed up with enough cookies and brownies that I didn't have to cook anything at all.  Three meals showed up on my doorstep.  One neighbor brought me a bunch of kale from her garden. (I know what you're thinking: kale?  But you can't buy kale here, and I adore it.  So it was an awesome get well gift.)  Some of my clients gave me a massage gift certificate.  Others offered to supervise the pack out for me.  Seriously, people have been so, so helpful, more than I ever could have expected. B has taken up the slack in the house, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and stooping to pick up everything I drop because I can't bend over.

This all started a week ago Thursday.  It is Saturday night as I type this, nine days later, and I'm slowly feeling better. I still can't feel my leg, which seems like a bad thing.  But it isn't cramping up too much as long as I move slowly. I'm nowhere near pain free, but at least the pain is tolerable. And I can actually bend over to retrieve the things I drop, as long as I take my time. I'm off of the high-powered pain killers, which is good because those things made me loopy.

I'm letting go of my visions of an organized pack out.  The air freight went out on Friday, not much thanks to me.  I stretched out on the living room couch while the movers packed up the contents of the dining room, which is where we'd stashed all of our air freight.  Monday and Tuesday are the big packing days - we'll have a crew of 4-5 Russians crawling all over the house, packing up the bulk of our possessions. (The air freight was just a small supplemental shipment of dishes, pots, pans, bedding - all the things you need to get a household up and running.)  Theoretically, I'm supposed to be supervising the pack out, making sure the movers use the right paper and boxes and labels, but we'll see how I'm feeling by then.

If I don't get significantly better by early next week, we will probably re-arrange our flights and I'll leave here early to seek medical help in the States.  I'm hoping to get better and depart as scheduled, along with the rest of the family.  But we're keeping our options open for now.

Only about 12 days to go before we leave Russia for good.  Here's hoping I don't spend them all on the couch!

The air freight, awaiting the packers.



Friday, June 10, 2016

In Sickness and In Health

Our pack out begins one week from today, and so I have spent the last three weeks focusing on preparations for that big day.

Getting ready to pack out is no small task in a 3-story house. There are endless piles of welcome kit sheets and towels to be carried up and washed.  Our own bedding for 6 people needs to be carried down, washed, folded, bagged, labeled and then carried back upstairs to the air freight staging area.
Vases to be washed, closets to be purged, papers to be shredded, toys to be sorted.  Up and down the stairs, room-by-room, drawer-by-drawer, until it's time to make dinner.

You don't have to do all of this, of course. You can leave the movers to toss everything together and trust that it'll all get to you mostly intact on the other end.  But that just makes the move-in at the next post more complicated, when you find one snow boot packed in a box with your bottle opener, three partially used candles and a ziplock bag full of random coins.  Oh, and you'll finally find every missing tupperware lid and unmatched sock tucked away in that box, but it won't matter because now, on this side of the globe, their other halves will have disappeared. No, best to do as much sorting and purging as you can before the movers ring the doorbell.

That is how I found myself halfway under a bed awhile ago, trying to pull toys and books and stray candy wrappers out from underneath. My butt was in the air and my shoulders were wedged under the mattress as I twisted to reach those last few legos so I could pack away the bin.  A tiny red lego lay tantalizingly out of reach, but I didn't want to get up and walk around to the other side of the bed for the sake of one small lego.  So I reached harder.

That's when I felt the pop, and I knew I'd done something very not-good to my back.

It's been up and down from there.  I've been in bed some days with a heating pad, but other days, I've felt more or less okay.  Yesterday I taught one class at the gym and worked out with 3 separate clients, and I felt pretty good.  I figured the worst was over.

We had a going away reception to attend last night. It was lovely, except for the fact that while I was sitting there chatting with one of the guests of honor, I felt a searing pain travel from my lower back down to my knee.  It kept getting worse, and the other guests looked at me strangely as I wriggled around in my chair, contorting myself in an effort to find a pain-free way to sit, sweating and gulping in air.

It didn't work. I finally excused myself and hobbled home.

This morning, I couldn't stand up straight.  Trying to walk was agony. One leg was painfully contracted and I could see my leg muscles spasming under the skin, all freaky and alien-like. The ibuprofen I've been taking didn't even make a dent in the pain.

I found out the meaning of those "in sickness and in health" vows B and I took almost 22 years ago.  It turns out he really meant them. He cancelled all of his morning meetings and took me to the doctor.  It's normally just a 5-minute walk away but it took us about 20 minutes to cover the distance, him cracking old lady jokes and me clinging to his shoulders, holding back tears while he half-carried me into the office.

Turns out I've herniated a disc in my back or some such thing. I am now hopped up on pain meds, lying on the couch while my husband waits on me.  Seriously, this hurts.  I've pushed out babies without an epidural so I know from pain.  This is about a 9.5 on the scale o' pain, and the only reason I wouldn't classify it as a 10 is because it's only affecting half of my body.  Pushing out a baby without an epidural, by the way, is about a 9.7. But then at least you get a snuggly little baby at the end of the day.  With this, I'll just get 2 more muscle relaxers.  Which by the way, are they even working?  Because I still can't stand up without lightning bolts of pain shooting down my leg.

So, to recap: T minus 7 days until pack out, and I can't even stand up without doubling over in pain. On the plus side, though, B just made the trek to Starbucks and brought back my favorite drink. I love that man.

I wonder if we had something in our wedding vows about how to handle pack out in a situation like this.






Please. Write your own stuff.