Today my 4-year-old uttered those 6 words, the exact ones I’d been dreading since we started this whole odyssey three years ago:
“I don’t want to go to China.”
Last month he was worried about our house and to who would take care of it while we were in China. During that conversation, I realized that he was more worried about his toys and beloved books, so I assured him that we could take most of our things. That leads to talk about getting new suitcases, which made him very very happy and excited about moving again.
Today he asked where we would live after China. This is the one thing, that question for which I have no answer. A year ago I would have said “California” without a doubt. Since we moved to Orlando, Los Angeles transformed into our “Moscow,” that illusionary place where we’d all be happier. Los Angeles is still a big contender, and Pirate Dude loves visiting there, so he’s okay with that idea.
Just okay, though.
He wants to move back to Florida, and why wouldn’t he? He’s lived here since he was 16 months old. His whole life is here. His friends are here. His school is here. His “places” are here. He knows this place.
I tried to get him excited about another adventure. “We might move to Europe after China!”
“It all depends on where your Daddy and I find our next jobs.”
“Daddy’s job is here.”
Wow. It was hard enough to explain the freelance versus 9-5 lifestyle to my grandparents, never mind a 4-year-old who craves consistency as much as he craves adventure.
I don’t think I satisfied him, but soon after he coughed and said he was too sick to go to school. Then we spent fifteen minutes negotiating where his germs are (“In my body”) and how sick is too sick to go to school and yes, of course your teacher will call me when you feel sick. They always do.
I wrote this at the beginning of my Trailing Spouse Tales journey, right when we’d moved from our home in Los Angeles to Orlando. Originally published on Medium August 23, 2015.
We were in line to see the Pompeii exhibit at the Natural History Museum and our son was six months old. A gentleman there (presumably with his grandkids) pointed to Lil’ Pirate Dude and said pointedly:
“He won’t remember it.”
My husband recovered much faster than I did from the rage and tactfully answered, “Maybe not details, but it sure will make an impression.”
Cut to fifteen minutes later and at each display, our son screeches in delight (also blew some raspberries, but I think he was just in that phase).
We have always lived life with LPD (Lil’ Pirate Dude) under the belief that he comprehends his surroundings. Now seventeen years old, he surprises us daily with what he understands.
So when we knew we may pack up the only life he’s ever known and move from Los Angeles to Orlando for a new job, we involved him in the process the whole way. I bought three books on moving (one with stickers!) and posted a huge countdown calendar on the wall. If we’re being totally honest here, the countdown calendar was as much for his parents as LPD. I knew we could prepare him pretty well for the packing, and the moving truck, and the big emotions he would witness from his parents. Those topics are well covered in children’s books. He got really good at waving goodbye through all the parties and personal lunches. Just like the times we’d drop his father at the airport for business trips, LPD sometimes got serious but seemed to understand it was just a change. Not necessarily good or bad, just a change.
There is one aspect of our move, however, that is not covered in any book: the four of us would spend about two months living in a hotel: two very stressed out, homesick adults, one toddler and one fourteen year old, grumpy dog (Did I mention our dog had been diagnosed with cancer the week before we left?).
I debated adding those pages between The Berenstain Bears packing up their moving truck and arriving in the big tree house in Bear Country, but never got around to it. In hindsight, I wish I had done it; again, more for me and my husband than our son’s benefit.
Well, our first hotel (yes, I said first. We are currently in our second) was pretty lackluster.** It was clean enough and the employees were super nice. It was cheap and close to my husband’s job, and let me just say again: it was cheap. I was so concerned about our dog when I booked it that I didn’t realize we had two twin beds and no room for a pack N play. To keep our son from falling off the bed, I co-slept. (To put this in perspective, before we left LA, he was sleeping by himself 9pm-5 or 6am in his crib and then co-sleeping until 7 or 8am. I called it “snoozing” him to get a tad more sleep.) But in that scenario, we all shared the bed as a family. In the hotel, my poor husband slept alone. And as much as I love co-sleeping, I had begun to really enjoy those few hours when my body was my own again.
Also, for someone who just moved his family cross country so he could pursue a job opportunity, I do believe my husband could have used more warmth overnight. Not to mention that time to reconnect as a married couple is pretty vital. [Hey Mom and Dad, skip this next sentence] We found time to just be with each other, even if we had to be quiet about it. But it was less the sex we needed and more of the togetherness. We met in Los Angeles. We had almost fifteen years of friendships and had stumbled into being parents there. Just as every night before we left, we had to ask ourselves “Are we really moving to Florida?” to ensure we were both in this together, keeping that connection and dedication during that dreary first month would have helped.
Not sharing a bed aside, the main problem is we just had no room. Even downstairs, there was barely a lobby and one elevator. There were two burners that sort of worked and one table for both eating (reminder: toddler) and working out the details of our new life.
Oh yeah, and my son was still recovering from pneumonia (almost couldn’t fly here on schedule) and both my husband and I had bad coughs while our lungs got used to the new air.*
Every day, LPD and I drove Dan to work, walked our dog, ate breakfast and got the hell out of that hotel because otherwise, our dog would just growl at us all day. There was literally no place in the room we could go where we wouldn’t be in her way. Some days we found playgrounds that allowed dogs and that made it better. As great a companion as Sadie had been, she’s just old. She’s in pain, and she needs space. Staying in a hotel room just gets boring for a dog.
An interesting aspect to the hotel life is meeting other guests. The breakfast they offered was minimal, but LPD liked seeing all the people. So we brought avocado, eggs and other healthy food downstairs to eat. I looked at LPD as he stared in fascination at other hotel guests. He was fascinated with the languages he heard around us. He tried to get the kids his age to play with him. He mostly just charmed the parents whose kids were older.
I looked at him as he wiped the table the way he’d seen me do a million times, wiping away the avocado from his face, then smiling at me. I wondered how much of this experience he would remember, and if not detailed then how much of an impression it would make on him. What kind of impression would it make on him?
I surprised myself with my lack of fear over the possible answer. He treats everything as an adventure, and even in the weeks to come when we’d find harder times, our little boy thrived. He played with his trucks and he played hide and seek and he asked to take baths and he watched his father somehow cook a tasty, healthy meal for us in the kitchenette that was smaller than a shower. If LPD wanted quiet time, he pointed to the chair by the window and sat there, staring in silence sometimes, gabbing to us about the trucks parked there overnight, watching the wind rustle through the trees and noticing the signs of an impending thunderstorm. You get a lot of practice at recognizing thunderstorms in Florida summers.
While living in a hotel (still) stresses out me and my husband, LPD takes it all in stride. He loved all the houses we visited while hunting for one to buy but never seemed weirded out when we returned to a pretty dismal, yet adequate place to sleep.
More than anything else, he saw me and his Dad hold on to our family and count on each
other for support to get through this time. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to feel how unhappy we were with our living situation. The only indication LPD made that he needed more space or privacy was when he claimed an empty diapers box as the place he would put “his things.” One evening, he simply packed all of his toys, shoes, anything loose into this box and it became his place. Sometimes he would turn it over and just have a toddler-sized chair in which to sit. We got two more boxes eventually and they became building blocks. You never saw a happier kid than LPD with his boxes. We packed up the whole room and moved to a nicer hotel for the second (hopefully last) month of temporary living and he made sure his boxes safely made the trip.
He also learned how to use an elevator (counting on his fingers up to two) and began actually peeing in his potty (we had introduced the idea because he was interested but never pushed him into “training”). His imaginative play skyrocketed. Hide and seek among bushes outside the hotel became the funniest thing on earth. We learned that at one of the many Splash Pads (an extravagance coming from drought-stricken Los Angeles), kids would play with you if you had a ball and/or a bucket. So we brought both. He saw people playing basketball and guess what? He loves it. When we needed to run errands and check our mail, he was perfectly happy exploring the mall near our PO Box, eating breakfast at the tables outside the Publix market, watching this new world begin their morning.
None of this comes as any surprise to those who know LPD. The part that surprises me, and in ways we can’t even fathom yet, is the emotional maturity he’s gained in these six weeks. He knows when his Dad needs an extra hug. He knows that I’m there most of the time he’s awake and so he’s free to explore within my sight and socialize or take his own quiet time to sit in the grass. He understands that Dad goes to work; so he wakes up, then marches directly to his father (even when that is the shower) so he can spend all the precious time possible with him. He makes sure that his Dad has his wallet and work id and glasses before he leaves the room.
Even on the hardest days, either emotionally hard or because he and I are only running errands to finally close on this damn house, LPD laughs even louder. He sees the adventure, brings the joy and appreciates all the love we have for one another. He thrills in pointing out new lighting fixtures, tall domes, and ceiling fans. He hears me and Dan get on each other’s nerves faster than usual, then talk it out or drop it because we know it’s the stress, not each other. He sees our spontaneous embraces and giggles before running into our legs, making himself a welcome part of our hug. When he’s frustrated or angry, he tries his best to communicate and we try our hardest to listen, to interpret sounds that haven’t quite made it to words yet. Hell, sometimes that’s better than how me and Dan communicate.
By September, we will hopefully be living in this really cute house we found. LPD will have his own playroom, I’ll have a writing office and Dan will have a spacious kitchen. We will make a house into a home and continue our adventures as weird ass free range West Coast parents in the Southern United States. We’ll save to make the most of Dan’s international business trips, turning some into family adventures. We’ll work on having a second little pirate.
Many difficulties during this hotel life will be distant memories and some may carry into the transition. Whatever impression it’s made on LPD, it will be part of him. After these first few weeks, I believe it has made him even more resilient and empathetic. I believe the bond of our little family, even when our grumpy dog is grumping, sticks with him and makes him more secure in the knowledge that we are here for one another. We trust each other and we are building a life together.
And this life requires us all to be strong when we feel strong, and be willing to admit to one another when we feel sad and, more importantly, when we need help. It requires us to embrace the positive as we acknowledge the negative.
So I really do hope he remembers the hotel life. I know it has made an impression on him; by virtue of his own good nature, he has made it a positive experience.