September 7, 2016
“Promise me you will eat something, and promise me you will go to bed soon!” Jahnacia said.
“Yes yes, I promise.” I replied. But we both knew it was a lie.
I was noticeably thinner and the lines around my eyes were heavy as I clawed my way to the finish line, the bloody stumps of my legs dragging behind me. My two daughters (age 8 and 11) and I were to get on a plane the next day. After months of planning, we were leaving our Seattle home and moving to Barcelona – a drastic move that not everyone was supportive of.
It hadn’t been easy. Months before, I had started the extensive process to acquire long term visas for myself and the girls. Background check, financial documents, birth certificates, death certificate -proving I wasn’t abducting them away from a still-alive father, and so much more. Official documents had to be apostilled with the Secretary of State. Everything had to be translated and notarized by a certified translator and submitted in person to the Consulate of Spain in San Francisco.
Harder still, I had to pack up my entire home – over a decade of memories. I had to face all the hidden grief bombs that reminded me of the horror of John’s death – hand written love letters I had given to him on anniversaries and birthdays, still tucked into his nightstand; Burningman bling from the late 90’s in the attic of his beloved garage/mancave; his juggling pins which could be lit on fire – back from the escapades of his early 20’s with a fire performance troop. I forced myself to put our framed wedding photo in a box, sealed it, and let it be buried by an ocean of boxes filled with other broken dreams. It was all horrible, but I plodded on.
My instinct five months earlier, when I came up with this plan, had been to sell the house. I couldn’t breathe and wanted to completely shed myself of baggage and worries. I didn’t think I could start my new life if I was still getting phone calls that dirty water was coming back up out of the shower in the basement, or the neighbors were angry yet again over conflict in the shared driveway. But, my relator said I shouldn’t sell, said it was a good investment. And – another friend also insisted I keep it. “NO you can’t sell it” she said. “You need a home to come back to. I will live in it while you are gone and take care of it for you so that you don’t have to stress about it.” But, three months later, two months before our planned departure, her mother helped her buy her own home. I don’t blame her – she was going through a divorce and needed to get her kids settled, but yet again I was alone.
I knew I didn’t have the time or energy by that late hour to completely empty and sell the house, so I gritted my teeth and found other friends to live there. They agreed to live among my furniture if I packed up all my other belongings. I found additional friends to live in the two-bedroom apartment in my basement and care for my sweet nine-year-old Brittney Spaniel. I had provided the apartment for my late-husband’s mother and as part of this transition, I was coordinating her move to Alaska to live with her daughters. She was angry that I was pushing her out, making it harder for her to see my daughters – her grandchildren. And why shouldn’t she be angry? I had all the power and she had none. I tried to soften the blow by providing the funds for her daughter to add on to her home, so that there would be additional space, but nothing I did was enough. I was the bad guy. Still, I plodded on.
And of course, through all of this, I had to be a mother to my precious fatherless children. They needed so much of me. My eight-year-old Melanie was still sleeping in my bed many nights. It was summertime, and I was determined that they would still have fun, even though I had just SO much to do. We went to Wildwaves, mountain biked near our Leavenworth cabin, threw the ball for our sweet pooch in the river while floating around on tubes. In between the fun, I had to continue all the cooking, all the driving, all the packing, and all of the preparations on the other side – I worked through an agent to secure an apartment in Barcelona sight unseen, I set up a local bank account in Spain from my living room couch, and I completed the final arrangements with the semi-private tri-lingual school they would be attending once we landed in Catalonia. Through all of this, I had very little childcare – my late husband’s mother helped as much as she could and wanted to help more but had been struggling with pneumonia for months and truly needed to take care of herself. I was alone. Totally and completely alone.
The fact is, most of me didn’t want to go. Everyone thought I was embarking on a big vacation, to which I responded “Don’t you understand? I won’t have any friends. I won’t have any help with the kids. I will be a single mom in a foreign country, barely speaking the language. It will be hard.”
Isabella was excited, but Melanie wasn’t. She told me over and over “I do NOT want to move to Spain, mama.” “Why do we have to go, mama… can’t we stay here?” I tried to gently inspire her with all the things we would learn, all the adventures we would have, but she didn’t buy it. She was angry.
But still, I knew deep down we had to leave.
Jahnacia went to bed around midnight after helping me pack for hours. I stayed up until 4am in a panic – I still hadn’t finished digging important documents out of my office that needed to be scanned before leaving. I sent a frantic email to Bev, whom I had entrusted with the one signed copy of my Last Will and Testament earlier that day, giving her some final instructions as to administration of the estate should anything happen to me while I was in Spain. I sent an email to the new tenants, apologizing for the fact that I would likely not be able to finish packing up the last of my kitchen and bedroom closet, asking them to put the final items in boxes to be stored in the yoga studio.
From 4-5:30am I slept a restless, dreamless sleep. I woke up without an alarm in order to finish packing my clothing, my laptop, snacks and distractions for the girls on the long flights, international power adaptors, the sleep medication my doctor had suggested I use once I arrived, to see if I could finally reset my sleep patterns once I was in a new environment. I began to stack the suitcases by the front door – 6 checked pieces at a full 50lbs each and 4 carry-ons. I would have help to the airport, but after that, none.
At 9am Pat, the father of my late husband, arrived. He was there to say a final goodbye to his grandchildren. I told him, out of earshot of the kids –
“I am on the edge of breaking apart. My PTSD is kicking in. I will have to completely ignore you. I need you to distract the kids.”
I said to the girls “Please try to get along this morning. I’m having a tough time getting everything done and am worried we will miss our flight.”
“I don’t want to go.” Melanie responded, arms crossed.
At noon, my friend Brian arrived. He was to take us to the airport in his enormous van. I had asked him to arrive an hour early – we needed to leave for the airport by 1pm. I wanted to get to SeaTac 3 hrs before our international flight, because I knew I would struggle – so much luggage, plus the kids, and – I had worked so hard, I couldn’t let anything get in the way. I had asked for his help because I knew he could hold space. I knew he could maintain calm when I could not.
“What can I do?” He said.
I shouted instructions at him and he did my bidding. By 1pm I was not ready to depart. I hadn’t eaten anything since 6pm the night before and felt woozy, as if I might pass out. My hands had a slight tremble. The last suitcase still wasn’t fully packed. Random possessions were still strewn about, and people were going to move in the next day. I said to Brian –
“Come with me to the garage.”
The detached garage was behind the house. John had always told me – he bought that house for the garage. It had been his wood-shop, his man-cave, his place to escape, and now it was mine. I was shaking and almost hyperventilating but by then was experienced enough with these episodes to communicate externally while simultaneously breaking down.
“Brian, I am on the edge of a full panic attack. I know we need to leave for the airport now. I am not ready. I know I shouldn’t be in the garage – I need to be inside, eating, getting the kids shoes on. But if I don’t calm down, my PTSD will take over and I will become completely unable to function. “
“What do you need?” he said.
“Just stand here and be calm. I am going to just try to breathe. I have to pull it together or I will never make it.”
So, I walked in a circle over and over there in my man-cave. I gasped for breath. I fought the adrenaline. I wiped away tears. I could not stop my body from trembling but I managed to not lay down on the dirty cement floor and succumb to the darkness. After about 10 minutes, I said
We went inside and I ran back and forth through the house for 45 more minutes. Brian heated up leftovers, put a plate for me in the kitchen, and sat with my kids and Pat while they ate. I shoved a bite in my mouth, ran to the bedroom, threw a few more items in the suitcase while I chewed, ran back to the kitchen, shoved another bite in, threw some items in a box in the living room, back and forth.
By 2pm (an hour late), I said “We have to leave NOW. If there is traffic, we won’t even arrive two hours before the international flight.”
Brian had the car loaded. I asked the kids to pee one more time. Pat said his goodbyes and left. We got in the car. I was still shaking. I expressed fear that two of our carry-ons were overweight and that they wouldn’t let me on the plane. I knew I was being completely ridiculous but adrenaline coursed through me and the intelligent part of my brain couldn’t fight the irrational and idiotic fear that had taken over.
We made it to the airport, through security, onto the plane, and (many hours later) into our AirBnb in Barcelona.
And so it began.