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Almost But Not Quite
It might seem strange to pause the whole Move-To-Portugal juggernaut for a brief farm interlude, but that’s what Filha and I are doing this week.
As Marido and our dog Vila cool their toes/paws at Setúbal beaches and dine on grilled sardines, Filha and I are spending a few days sweating it out in the Midwest humidity with my parents.
My mom and dad are nearing 80, and my mother has dementia. This morning, on the way to the swimming pool with my daughter riding in the backseat, my mom pointed out the windshield at the billowing drifts of cumulus lazing across the summer sky and asked, “Did you ever play the game where you look for shapes in the clouds?”
It was the third time she asked the same question on the 20-minute drive from the farm to town. The first time I answered, “Oh yeah! In fact, I see a bear with its mouth open, right over there.” The second time I said, “Yep. I did.” The third time I murmured, “Mmm-hmmm.” In the rearview mirror, Filha met my eyes and made a sad face.
There are worse questions to be asked on repeat, I suppose.
Dementia destroys the people you love by inches, erasing first your name and then your face. We’ve been on this journey with my mom for a few years now, and the last time I saw her was in January. Now, five months later, she seems about the same—but it’s a calculation that you do constantly, checking in with family members to compare notes and strategize about next steps if/when things take a turn. I left my sister a message yesterday, “She seems to be pretty stable, but she asked me what my daughter’s name was.”
Before I leave these American shores for good, I wanted to check in on my parents. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to come back. So it’s good to be with them for these final days.
But it’s itchy, as well.
Marido has been in Setúbal without us for a week now, and Vila joined him five days ago. He’s posting pictures from their walks to all the places I’ve stalked on Google Maps for nearly a year now. They’re strolling through Praça de Bocage. They’re hiking Serra da Arrábida. They’re getting sand in their toes at the Praia da Saúde.
Vila is pooping (and Marido is bagging it) along Avenida Luísa Todi, and sunning herself on the Juliet balcony at our new house. (The very same balcony that I hoped was juuust big enough for her to lay down on when we first saw photos of it online, way back in November of 2020.)
I love seeing these photos, but I’m jealous, too. I’m ready for that LIS airport reunion. I’m ready to start this new life.
So Long; Farewell, To You and You and You
We’ve been on a Farewell Tour for weeks now. At times it has felt like a really long funeral for the life we lived before. Some of the goodbyes with years-long friends were absolutely gut-wrenching—sobbing on all sides.
If COVID has shown us anything, it’s that we can remain connected to our dearest ones, even when we can’t clap eyes on each other in the real world. I know this chapter ending does not mark the end of these friendships. But, as my friend K said, it’s the nearness I will miss. The easy accessibility. The “I’ll be right there.”
Filha had an especially difficult last day of school. She has attended the same public elementary school in San Francisco since kindergarten, and lucked out with fantastic teachers every year. She’s fairly devastated to leave, even though next year would bring fifth grade graduation and an inevitable end to her career as a Lakeshore Leopard.
She’s always loved going to school (though she’s not a big fan of math), and was over the moon when in-person classes resumed in April. Zoom school never quite cut it for her. But she can’t help feeling that pandemic closures robbed her of a deeper school year experience with her teacher and classmates. “It wasn’t enough time,” she sobbed when I picked her up. “I wish I had more time.”
I had a momentary urge to spin up a momspeech about how “all good things must come to an end” but I wisely swallowed it and hugged her close instead.
These last weeks have been a time for profound grieving. Our life in San Francisco has been a good one, all things considered. It is only right to find it difficult to part with, here at the very end.
Another thing that’s difficult to part with? Your dog! Even when you know you’re saying goodbye simply so you can see her again on the other side. Last Wednesday, Filha and I took Vila to the Lufthansa Cargo warehouse at SFO, where she was to be shipped as freight to Portugal. (It’s the rule for stubby-nosed dogs.)
Although I hired a pet shipping company to help us facilitate all the details, there was some last-minute bureaucracy and a misunderstanding about a certain export form. So the last hour before we put Vila in her travel crate was fraught.
I was stuck inside a sticky office, waiting for the Lufthansa guy and the Pet Shipping lady to reach some sort of mutually beneficial bureaucratic understanding. Filha was out in the car with Vila (with the AC running), because I had thought I was only going to be in the office for two minutes.
By the time I came out, Filha was in hysterics, and I would have gladly joined her in unrestrained sobbing if only there were another adult around to handle the business end of this particular goodbye.
Luckily, I found an understanding warehouse guy who didn’t back away in yikes when I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve never done this before and I’m a bit upset to say goodbye to my daw-haw-hawg!” (That was the bit where I started blubbering.) He helped me tape all of Vila’s air waybills and health certification documents to the top of the crate, (because I had forgotten to bring packing tape, as you do) along with a fat ziploc bag of dog kibble for her 24-hour layover at the Frankfurt Air Dog Terminal.
Vila seemed mostly bemused by all the tears leaking out of Filha and myself. Right up until the point when we zip tied her crate door shut (I did remember the zip ties) and the warehouse guy wheeled her away. Then there was a definite “Excuse me, whuuuuuuuut?!” vibe rolling off the poor pup. (Middle-aged lady pup, since she’s 8.)
Ugh. It was rough for all of us. Especially since Vila’s particular transatlantic adventure took upwards of 45 hours. Finally, Marido called from Setúbal and said, “I’ve got her!” And then sent a photo of her sleeping it off at the beach. Whew.
But I couldn’t breathe too easy, because the very next day we had to say yet another big farewell to Filha’s best feathered friend, FeeBea.
Feebs is a Green-Cheeked Conure, which is a small parrot native to South America—and though FeeBea herself was born in a U.S. pet store, her relatives in the wild are endangered. This means that in order to leave the country, FeeBea needs a CITES permit. Two, actually: an export permit from the U.S. and an import permit from Portugal.
Normally, this would be a bit of paperwork and a 60-day wait. But thanks to COVID timelines, it’s a 6-7 MONTH wait. We filed the necessary papers on March 2. We have two or maybe three more months to go until FeeBea is cleared to join us in Portugal.
So last Thursday evening, the night before we left San Francisco, Filha planted a kiss on her downy wee head and handed her over to our friend Jen, who is an experienced bird lady and will take excellent care of her.
I expect the FeeBea-less transition to life in Portugal to be tougher than a FeeBea-full transition would have been. We’ve had the birb since she was a baby, and for three years now she’s been Lu’s faithful (and sometimes fractious) companion. Their bond only intensified during pandemic lockdown times, when we were home at all hours. FeeBea spent a large part of her days hiding in Filha’s hair, pooping on her shoulder, and riding around in the collar of her shirt.
We nicknamed her “Adventure Birb,” because she’s truly up for everything. Hikes. Roadtrips. Ice cream. Dog grooming. Whatever Filha is doing/eating/wearing, FeeBea wants in.
Adjusting to a whole new life in a whole new country with a whole new language after you’ve just said goodbye to the only home/school/friends you’ve ever known is a tall order. Doing it without your best birb fren is even more daunting.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a Portuguese birb fren in our future? (Not to replace the Feebs, of course, just to be her sister-bird!)
But we’re not quite there yet. We’re still on this side of the ocean, for two more days.
And in these final days, as I pack the suitcases (again) and weigh them (one more time), I’ve been thinking about all the ways in which our lives have been rich. Rich in friendship, rich in the ways that my parents love us.
I don’t believe it’s a bad thing to be so sad about leaving. (Because even though I am very excited to start this new chapter, the weight of all these goodbyes has dampened the thrill, for now.) I think this grief just means we loved well, and were loved in return.
That is a gift that I will hold close, as the clock finally ticks down and the plane doors close on our life in the United States.
Tomorrow morning, Filha and I are driving 92.7 miles to get COVID tests for travel to the EU, since they don’t have quick enough results out here in the countryside.* Friday, we say our last goodbyes to Mimi and Papa. And then, we fly to join Marido and Vila.
We are ready. Vamos lá!
*I will confess to one more bout of the disaster brain I spoke of in my last post… I’ve been anxious (for no factual reason) that Filha will test positive for COVID and then we’ll be stuck, adrift, on this side of the sea for who knows how long. I will let my shoulders fall when we’re buckled into our seats on that Lufthansa jet, wheels up and nothing but puffy clouds below. Wish us luck!
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer