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Trees Like Glass
A midwinter trip to the Midwest
I have just returned from winter.
Real winter. Not the balmy version we have here in California, but the punishing Midwest kind that cracks lips and freezes lashes.
It was a quick trip to Illinois, the state that saw me grow up. We drove, four days out and three days back, crossing state lines from California into Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada (again).
I needed to see my parents—and they needed to be seen. And yes, all pandemic precautions were taken. We were as careful and safe as we could be. For the entire month of December, I tried to talk myself out of the trip. The COVID numbers in California have been disturbing, and it seemed risky to the point of stupid to travel.
But my parents are nearing 80, and both my sister and I live on the West Coast. My mother has dementia, and my father, though conscientious and endlessly kind, has never excelled at care-taking.
We have tried to line up assistance—visits, meals, check-ins—through their local church, to no avail. So my sister and I, along with our cousin who lives in Indiana, have begun to alternate visits. Regular check-ins so we can assess how my parents are doing—not just my mom, but my dad, too. Caregiving takes a lot out of you, especially when it doesn’t come naturally.
My mother has always been a natural caregiver. Straight out of high school, she studied nursing and became an RN. She was an officer in the Air Force Nursing Corps, and worked at the local hospital when my sister and I were small. When she stopped nursing full-time she still served as the school nurse at our private school, and was a nurse for in-home care and nursing homes once us girls had grown up and left home.
If the tables were turned and my father were the one suffering the loss of his memory, my mother would handle it, maybe not with ease, but with aplomb. She would know exactly what to do.
But this is not our reality.
In January, it was my turn to care-give. To check on pills and doctor appointments, update calendars and clean out the freezer. My daughter and husband traveled to the Midwest with me.
Visits to my parents’ farm are always a delight to my daughter, a California city girl who dreams of wild spaces and white Christmases. She was not disappointed on this trip, as the heavy, gray Illinois skies dumped freezing rain and four inches of snow not once but twice during our seven-day stay.
The day after the rain froze, we walked up the hill to the hog barn to feed S’more the donkey warm toast (his favorite) and check the chicken coop for eggs. The snow squeaked beneath our boots, loud enough to mask the sound of the trees. But when we paused and stopped moving, we could hear them.
The wind was blowing from the north, and the tree branches, encased in ice, shivered under the weight. It was the ice we heard, clicking and chiming as the delicate, frozen twigs swayed into each other again and again. We stood and listened, our breath freezing in diaphanous puffs.
“Trees of glass,” my daughter whispered. “They look like trees of glass.”
My fingers itched for a pen, the way they do when I feel a poem coming on. It felt like magic, that small moment. I held it close so I would remember.
One of the benefits of being together with my parents at this time was being able to share some big news with them, face-to-face. I last saw them in July of 2020, when we spent five weeks together on the farm.
Last summer, shortly after our return to San Francisco from the farm, my husband and I decided that we were going to move. It is not a decision taken lightly or made hastily. This city of fog and dreams has been home to us for two decades. We moved here from Chicago in our 20s, newly married. This is where we found our dearest friends, bought our first house, birthed our daughter. San Francisco is Home. And even though we’ve got our sights set on leaving, I know that San Francisco will always be home, in some part of our hearts.
But the city has changed over the years, and so have we. When the pandemic touched down in 2020, it flipped every single aspect of our lives sideways.
In that new reality, we began to ask ourselves the hard questions. The real questions. Is this it? Is this what we want our lives to look like? Is this where we want to be, is this who we want to be, is this how we want to be?
And as offices and schools and stores and airports and doors and distractions shut down, we sat together in the silence and listened to ourselves answer.
“No, this is not what we want. Not anymore.”
We began to wonder if, instead of putting our life back on its feet once the pandemic passed, perhaps we should flip it all the way over. Perhaps we should start from scratch.
My mother’s dementia played a role in my own answer to the hard questions. Because her mother, my Nana, had dementia also. I know the studies aren’t conclusive, and I am not my mother or my grandmother, but still… what if dementia waits for me, too? What if, in 20 or 30 years, I begin to lose my mind, my self, too?
When you look at the ingredients of your life, when you lay them out in front of you and really inspect them in the context of “If this is all there is, is it enough?”—well, the answers become really clear.
Lockdown, shutdown, sheltering in place, whatever you want to call it—pandemic life has made me look at everything differently. There is so much that is gone that I grieve. But there is so much that is gone that I now know I. Do. Not. Want. Back.
I do not want to run the rat race anymore. I do not want to work this much, to have to work this much to make this much money, to pay this much for a place to live. I do not want to tetris my schedule. I do not want to pass my husband on the way to the airport with my suitcase, as he returns from the airport with his. I don’t want the rush and fizz. I don’t want the drama.
I want to keep the slowdown. I want to keep the extra time with Filha. I want to keep the extended walks with the dog and the leisure of the mornings. I want to simplify everything.
Together, Marido and I made a list of the things we wanted. The things that remained important and precious when the usual way the world always worked fell apart.
Could we find those things—the slowdown, the time, the leisure—in some other town in the United States? Could we give up city life for something smaller and more bucolic but still American? Perhaps.
But the USA wasn’t on our list of things that remained.
Ever since we started dating each other, umpteen lifetimes ago, we have daydreamed about living in another country. “Let’s try Amsterdam!” we said. “Or Berlin!”
“We could go for a year,” we said. “Or three!”
We talked about it a lot, but we didn’t do anything about it. And so life settled and stabilized. We bought a house, adopted a dog, made a baby.
A few years ago, I was offered a job in Vancouver, BC, Canada. It was unexpected and I was unprepared. Our Canadian conversion conversations were hurried, because emigration felt imminent.
In that urgent haze, we visited Vancouver more than once. We drove around neighborhoods, taking notes. We met with immigration consultants. We told Filha to prepare to leave. We told our friends we were going.
And then it didn’t happen. (That’s a whole other story.) But in the process of considering Canada, permanently, a new door had opened. Over the past couple of years, we left it hanging ajar. We jiggled the hinges now and then.
This past summer, when we talked about the things on our list that really mattered, I said to Marido, “I am starting up my Vancouver job search again. We need to make this ex-pat thing happen.”
And he said, “Sure, but have you ever asked yourself why Canada?”
Why, indeed? We had been asking ourselves so many hard questions, but I hadn’t considered that one. I found I didn’t have any compelling answers, not after COVID, not after everything was upended.
Canada made sense for us back in the Beforetime, when things were “normal.” But normal was no longer sufficient. Normal was no longer desirable.
We crossed Canada off the list. And shortly after we returned from Illinois last summer, we made the decision to move Portugal.
For months, we’ve been planning and researching and discovering that once you make one “crazy” decision, it’s easier to make the next one and the next. So we’re not just moving to Portugal this year, we’re buying a house there. The deal’s almost done. We’re signing the deed next week.
We’ve told a few friends. I told my sister, over the phone. But to tell my parents—that required eye contact. That required an in-person revelation.
So, two Tuesdays ago in Illinois, as the we drove into town to pick up a pizza for dinner, I told my dad. My palms were sweating and my voice was shaking. I found I couldn’t take my eyes from the road, so there wasn’t any eye contact, after all.
I wasn’t afraid he’d get angry. That’s not who my dad is. But I was afraid he’d be sad. He’d be worried. I didn’t want to be the cause of that.
More than once as I was growing up, my parents said they wanted my sister and I to be independent, to be our own people, make our own choices. And they truly meant it.
“You left home a long time ago,”my dad said, “and that’s as it should be. You’ve built your own life, and I’m proud of you. Whether you’re in California or Portugal makes no difference to me.
“One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that it’s not the things I’ve done that I regret. It’s the things that I didn’t do. The risks I didn’t take. Those are the things I can’t stop thinking about—things I wish I would have done, but I didn’t because I was too scared, or I thought it was too risky,” he said.
“Maybe you’ll move to Portugal and it will be great. Or maybe you’ll get there and realize you don’t like it, for some reason. Well, at least you did it. At least you took the risk and tried something new. You’ll never regret that.”
We sat in thoughtful silence, truck tires crunching through frozen snow on the long country road that leads out of town, pizza steaming up the windows. I found myself swallowing tears.
“I think it’s great,” my dad said. “I think it’s great.”
There’s still so much to figure out. So much paperwork and packing and planning. Making the actual decision to move didn’t really take long at all for Marido and I. But making the move happen in all its minutiae, that takes quite a long time.
But that night in the truck with my dad—it felt like magic. I hold it close so I’ll remember.
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer