I’m the oldest of six spunky, more-sensitive-than-we-like-to-admit kids, raised by the best parents you’ll ever come across. Our family landscape has changed drastically in a handful of years, going from a passel of siblings arguing over the last of the Lucky Charms and playing backyard soccer between two five gallon buckets, to graduations and weddings and new babies in a nanosecond. Currently, the family of eight has multiplied to eighteen.
We grew up in an old brick house, riding bikes on country roads to our grandma’s, and then home to eat dinner around the table. We were used to togetherness.
I got married first, and cried of loneliness for months even though I was only a few miles away. Then my sister Meg got married and moved over an hour away, and we all cried and wondered how we would survive not seeing her every week. A few years later, Jan got married. She moved clear across the country.
Having adult siblings for friends is one of the greatest delights. Adding long distance to our love is one of the hardest adjustments. Seasons change, holidays pass, hard and happy days go by, new babies arrive, and we’re no longer experiencing it side by side.
Jan’s first baby arrived a few years ago in the shadow of the Cascade mountains, right after Thanksgiving. A few hours post-delivery, Jan and Jordan left one hospital and drove to another where the baby had been transferred to.
We all waited by our phones, counting back the time difference from Ohio to Washington. When I finally heard her voice, soft with exhaustion, smiling as she told me her daughter’s beautiful name, then breaking when she said, “I just really want to hold my baby”, I wept bitter tears over the miles between the Yakima hospital room and I.
A week later they left the hospital, healthy and happy. But the plans to come home for Christmas were disrupted by unanticipated medical bills.
We couldn’t bear the thought of Christmas with Jan’s seat empty, without the new baby to cuddle. We all slipped some cash in an envelope and told them if it was possible, we’d do anything to get them home.
Weeks later, we made a ruckus in the Indianapolis airport, running in through the snow and sweeping Jan up, kissing the little blond head peeking out of her carrier. We spent the short days in a flurry of presents and photos and laughing in the kitchen over french toast and lefse and endless pots of coffee.
In a flash, the airport greetings faded to watery eyes and avoidant small talk, prolonging the inevitable goodbye.
As darkness settled on our last night together, we kissed baby faces and sibling’s cheeks and tried to laugh instead of cry. Then it was time and we exited fast, one more “love you so much” called around the porch.
When I’d put the last box of Christmas gifts in the car and fastened my daughters’ seatbelts and then my own, the tears I’d been holding back all day broke loose. I sobbed into my coat for the too fast days and the too many miles.
We drove around the house, and I looked up through my tears into the warmly lit windows of home, glowing out into the sleeting night. I saw my parents standing in the dining room, strong and quiet, looking on in affection as they cradled the baby a few remaining minutes. I saw my brother Jesse by his soon to be wife. His eyes had been dark with un-shed tears when I told him goodbye. They were standing in close, soaking up the last moments. Jes motioned big and Jan threw her head back, shoulders shaking in silent laughter. But my ears had already memorized the sound, and knew it to be the most contagious and free bursts of pure happiness. Jordan gestured in vivid animation as only he can do, and all four sets of shoulders dipped and bounced, inaudible joy flung through the windows and straight to my heart.
Jan has another baby now, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be home for Christmas this year.
I don’t know how to keep long distance relationships close, with babies and time zones and the fact that I tend to forget my phone can actually be used to make calls. For those of us whose emotions run on high power, whose introversion craves deep connections, whose love expression lives and breathes on quality time, but who’s dearest and best people are far away, relationships can become confusing.
Even when we are together, the connection isn’t always like I imagine it to be. Life, with its needy children and moods and exhaustion keeps rolling, and we are still our flawed selves. We struggle to keep up on the current events of our people, fall asleep at 9:30 on what could have been an all-night catch-up, and fear the shrinking in-commonness we sometimes feel with the ones we used to share everything with.
I tend to be all or none. If I can’t have it all, why have any? It hurts to stay present in the distance. To disengage seems a relief. I’d rather not look too closely at the packages wrapped with postage stamps instead of bows, because if I sit in the ache of that empty seat, traced the swirly handwriting on the mailing label, I might spend the happiest season of all sobbing.
I want to resent the miles, the changes, the days flying by like geese overhead.
But when we vacation in the Rocky Mountains, all of us driving in from the east and west to meet in the middle, or spend a few days together celebrating a wedding, I am ever more aware of moments.
I watch and memorize how Trav roams the kitchen bleary-eyed first thing in the morning, carefully selecting his daughter’s favorite cereal. How Dad’s eyes linger on each face when we’re all around the dinner table. How Adayah’s voice has a little whisper in it. How my baby brother is so close to being taller than all of us, but still has a little boy grin. How mom still folds our laundry when we aren’t looking.
Instead of wishing for what could be, what used to be, I want to get better at savoring what is: eighteen imperfect, delightful, funny, passionate people I get to call my family.
The window scene that cold, Christmas night delivered a gift given by the dreaded miles. The gift of not holding back. The miles are teaching us to say what we feel, to give another kiss, to laugh a little louder. Without them, the baby’s hair wouldn’t be inhaled so slowly, the deepest words of love wouldn’t roll off the tongue as freely. They are teaching me that these people are worth staying present for. That even in the pain of distance, love spans any space, trumps any change.
Here’s to savoring the moments and holding our precious people close this Christmas, even if it is across the miles.