My husband is a pretty straightforward guy. He gets up before the birds start singing, he is on time for everything and, if you ask him a question, he’ll answer you honestly. And, as such, he has a habit of telling the truth when people ask how he likes living in the US. Every time, he replies that it’s ok, it’s good, but that he’s left his two older kids in the UK and that’s been hard. Just like that. And it’s always more than the questioner was expecting — more detail than they wanted to know, more personal than they were expecting to hear. And more than I wanted him to tell them. They’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable, he is… he’s just him, answering the question the only way he knows how.
“Oh!” they always say, a little shocked, a little concerned, but trying to hide it. “How old are they?” They’re expecting to hear that his other two children are in their early 20s and so it’s all ok, really. When the reply comes that they’re in their early-mid teens, they are shocked all over again. “OH!”, like clockwork. And I feel all the accusations that I believe are suddenly running through their minds: He left his children!… How could anyone do that?!?… He left them for her!… Did she make him do it?!?…
The truth is that he didn’t leave them for me, and we tried everything we could think of to stay. Neither one of us wanted to leave Britain, but we were between a financial rock and a hard place and we honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it work, no matter how we reworked the numbers. Leaving Britain — leaving them — is something we both regretted at the time, and more and more with every day we’ve been here. And we will put it right, just as soon as we possibly can.
But the people asking a casual question of two foreigners they’ve just met… they don’t know that. They have too much information, but not enough information… enough to condemn, but not enough to understand. And in that moment — the moment after they say, “Oh!” and then nothing more — everything becomes very uncomfortable, everything slows down, and we all stand — hesitant, expectant — in the silence. And then someone, us or them, breaks it with some lighthearted comment about how it will all surely turn out alright in the end and, gosh!, such a hard economy in which to make a move like that! We all smile, tightly instead of genuinely, and carry on…
It happened again today, at a bagel shop we go to, with a Greek lady we’d just met. We all followed the script perfectly. But this time, when we smiled and carried on, I broke from the usual dialogue and mentioned that we’d been thinking of having M’s son maybe come and live with us for six months (or is it three months? however long a visa will allow…). It’s not something we’ve shared with anyone before, let alone a complete stranger, but we’ve been talking about it for a while. It’d give the two of them the kind of day-after-day time together that they haven’t had since his son was starting primary school, and it’d give his son a wonderful opportunity to experience America in a way most Brits never do. I was surprised to hear myself speaking the words and giving life to the idea like that but, as soon as I did, it felt good. And the Greek lady’s face lit up.
“Yes! YES!” — she grasped at the positive spin — “It would be so good for him! And you could get him involved with something to do with kids his own age… He could make friends!” We were all smiling now.
I had already mentioned my parents — it’s my standard answer to why we’ve moved here: the grandparents, the grandchildren…! And they always emailed with so many opportunities…! I don’t mention the rock or the hard place — no one really wants to know that in casual conversation. But the Greek lady began waxing on about the good of our situation — such a rare response given M’s unnerving honesty — and now she brought up my parents. She said, “It is good for you to be able to be near your parents for a while,” and then looked right at me. I could see that she meant it — this wasn’t some sugar-coated babble to smooth over the uncomfortableness. She had lived abroad for twenty years, away from her family… she got it, how tough it is for everyone, the balance needed on both sides.
It is good to be near my parents. For as much as I complain that they drive me nuts, it is good. And they won’t be around forever — they’re not young anymore — and even though I know they won’t be around forever, I don’t think I’d really thought about it that way until today, in that bagel shop. My parents are here now, lively and young enough to enjoy having us so nearby, to know and enjoy their grandchildren.
There is no relationship with as much responsibility as that of a parent to a child: M’s relationship with his kids trumps my need to see my parents or their need to see the girls — absolutely, hands down. We need to go back to Britain for their sake, and we never should have left in the first place. But I have family that I’ve been away from for 15 years, and I have missed them, and now I am getting the chance to have some little time to be near them, while I still can — and there’s a certain validity to that. Talking to this Greek lady, I think she was the first person to hear the news of M’s children, to be shocked by it, and then to still go on and take the whole situation into consideration, to acknowledge that there are two people in this partnership and that we both have been away from the people we love. No one can ever doubt that his kids have the higher priority but… well, it felt good to be part of the equation.