The Great Mistake

Recently we started reunification talks. It’s more complicated than it used to be. Once upon a time, I could hop on plane and be home in a few hours. Now, things are different.

Getting home is a complex, multi-phased, time-consuming affair. It’s weirdly reminiscent of the end of WWII with its logistical nightmare of getting millions of service members – spread around the world – de-mobbed and home.

New Covid cases in the Netherlands are way down from their peak, things are improving. This means Der can wrap it up and fly home, to 2 weeks in home quarantine. The day he arrives, my parents have to leave.

They will tag team the drive back to Northern California so they can be home in a day. Then they too will have to do 2 weeks home quarantine. But after that, my mother can drive down and relieve me at my post, which means I get a mom hug, after months and months.

After a few days sorting things together, I can then drive up to see my Da, and get some Da hugs. After a couple days of that, I will drive up to some friends in Washington, and kip overnight in their horse stall. Who doesn’t love the smell of hay? From there, it’s a straight shot home and into 2 weeks of home quarantine.

And then, God willing, by June, we’re reunited. Like I said, complicated.

I knew from the start the US would screw up the Covid 19 response, and badly. But I thought, 6 months max. I didn’t think when I volunteered for this that a year on there would be a second wave or maybe it’d be two years till there’s a vaccine.

That light dawned as time went by, people died, and governments (state and national) dithered. You know two months in, when you’re in one country, you’re Significant Other is in another, and your folks are in a third, things are bad. And when your love letters start to get held up because planes are grounded and everything is going by boat? Yeah, you know this is long-haul bad.

Still, you’re locked in by then. And after a certain point, you stop thinking about anything except today. You still envision a future, but it’s kind of fuzzy because you’re just keeping your head down and trying to move forward. It’s one foot in front of the other, till you finally get “there” “someday.” Even though where “there” and when “someday” is have faded from memory.

For us, the where and when was supposed to be a cabin on a lake this August. We’d put a deposit down before all this happened. By March, we didn’t know now if the cabin would be allowed to rent to us, or if there would be money to afford to rent it, or … I just stopped thinking about it. Because it didn’t seem important anymore. But that’s probably why I should have been thinking about it.

Early on, because Der was in a way different time zone (he’s +9 hrs) and working full time — really more than that, trying to save businesses and people’s jobs — and I was working and caregiving, actual conversations became a once a week, on the weekend kind of thing. Talking didn’t seem so important.

I’d write letters. Actual paper letters. I like the personal touch, and adding little cartoons. He likes the surprise of finding them in his box. He’d call my phone, while I was sleeping and it’s off, and leave a message, poem, sound of some birds in a local park, street noise outside his apartment, a picture of his stars.

Once a week, he’d send a song, a link to a youtube video usually. The very first was Michael Bublé singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” I’m a musical purist. I think Michael is great guy, but as a singer I’ve always thought “Meh.” I was surprised Der would send me that version.

But I’m open minded. I listened, really listened, and I have to say, every night since, as I fall asleep, I hear that song in my head and I feel better. It’s like a warm hug as I drift off into a peace-filled sleep. So hats off to you, Mr Bublé.

Later I was sent “Love is a wonderful thing” Michael Bolton. Then there was the “Steam Heat” ironing video.  Nat King Cole’s “Our love is here to stay” topped the charts one week. Other romantic songs of various eras by crooned by various male singers followed.

A few weeks back he sent me “Annie’s Song,” by John Denver. The lyrics list a lot of things that, looking back, Der and I actually did together. So he (a clever friend, actually) created a photo montage to go with. It was, at the time, for lack of a better term the best kind of schmaltz in the world.

But now I look back  That song, that’s when things took a bit of a turn.

The next was “I’ll be seeing you” (sung by Bing Crosby). It’s from a 1944 Christmas movie of the same name The movie is about two stranger who meet, each with a terrible secret. After which came “Everything I Do,” by Bryan Adams. The lyrics are hugely romantic and the song is a very intense declaration.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention. I should have seen the red flags. But I didn’t notice the escalation, because it was slow, and subtle. Which brings me to The Great Mistake.

It was the weekend. Der was out in the countryside, with “Luke” the friend that helped him create the “Annie’s Song” photo montage. Luke works in marketing and is an awesome photographer in his own right. I sensed a photo montage love song was in the making for this week.

We were all talking, about the Great Escape, and being on a homeward bound trajectory at last. It was all going well. I remember there was laughter. And then, right when we were wrapping up, when I should have said “I love you.” Or maybe asked about the cabin by the lake. I said:

“I wonder what will happen in the Fall.”

It was an extemporaneous statement. Apropos of nothing. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t the opening salvo of a discussion of future events. It was just me thinking out loud, unpremeditated.

There was a really long pause, then a burst of heated words like a sudden cold  downpour on a warm summer’s day. Not all of the words were in English. Luke was silent. I imagine he too was caught off guard. Or maybe, being Luke, he was filming some B roll.

I didn’t catch every word, but I got the gist.  The impact of America’s botched Covid 19 response on the entire world was so bad America might as well have been dropping nuclear warheads on other nations. That was the gist. There were a few other “American” things sworn about, but I won’t repeat them. You get the picture.

Now, two things of note here. In cross-national relationships there’s typically an unspoken pact. I can bash the US because I’m American. He can bash the Netherlands because he’s Dutch. But you can never bash your Significant Other’s homeland. That he threw that rule not just out but through the plate glass window? Pretty surprising.

The second thing is, anger is useful. It always tells you something you need to know. This is true of your own as well as other people’s. Der popping off to me (not at me), about something as abstract (and out of my control) as my government’s incompetence in a public health crisis being equal to malevolent total annihilation of the world? I found that weirdly interesting.

To me, the fact my country was being raked over the coals, made it feel like there was a also personal dimension involved. Somehow. And all of it together made me wonder what Der was actually so “down to his boot tips” angry about. I never got a chance to ask. He hung up on me at the end of his meltdown. No goodbye. No “I love you.” Not even a “I can’t talk now.”  Nothing. Just a short silence, then a click. And we were disconnected.

I have to confess, I was a little perturbed as well as perplexed.  I thought we were handling the long-distance thing fairly well. But clearly something was being held back from me, bottled up so tightly that when the cork popped, it flew a mile. I wasn’t blaming him, okay maybe a little. But I’m not mind reader and at 5500 miles away, he’s a cold read at best. Give a girl a clue!

I didn’t want to make things worse, so I waited. Eventually, I thought, I’d get a text or call in the night. I wasn’t sure I’d respond right away when it happened, but I expected something, a statement, explanation, maybe an apology. A day went by. A second day. A third. I started to wonder. Three business days was a long time for Der to remain incommunicado.

Because people are suddenly getting sick and dying, I sent a text to Luke, asking if they’d made it back to town ok, because I really didn’t know even that much. He sent me an email back. The subject line was “I was told to delete this.” But being a professional, who’d done a bunch of work, that was never going to happen. “This” was a black and white video featuring Der in a cowboy attire, hat and all, set to Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

The song is about lovers who parted, regretfully. They will never, in this life, get back together. But he thinks of her every evening and imagines walking hand in hand with her again “up yonder,” “in a land that knows no parting.” In the case of Luke’s film, that land was BC’s mountains and featured a montage of color pictures of Der and I, hand in hand, walking there.

So, my take away was, Positive side: love + reunion. Negative side: not in this life + Der wanted the whole projected destroyed. Of course, the destruction could have been a reasonable request. Der had just gone off on America and you can’t get more American than Willie Nelson singing a century-old country music classic. Had it been sent, it might have come off as a further, somewhat twisted, insult or even a break up video.

I didn’t see it as anything but another love song. I’d assumed when he told me about the trip to the countryside with Luke to “refresh the soul with a little beauty” that it was a euphemism for making a new video, drinking in a field of daisies, and otherwise having a bit of fun. Strange thing was, this didn’t look fun. It looked serious, kind of painful, sad even. Der looked leaner, beat down, haggard. It’s a look that works well for the song, but maybe was it reality?

He went to the Netherlands to help save the core EU business, which was shaken because of Covid 19. The North American side of things was supposed to be okay, but over time it too became shaky. He always made like it was not a big deal. Everything was fine. But, maybe when he joked about having to sell the house, closing the NA office, and contracting back to the EU, it wasn’t a joke?

So, I got over myself rather quickly, took a rash financial action, and sent Der a text, just 3 words. I have this theory that all human communication can be boiled down to 3 words. Think about it (3 words). I love you. It’ll be OK. Sure you can. Where are you? I’m so sorry. I need help. See what I mean? All 3 words. My 3 word texts are something Der and I have laughed about in the past, so I sent 3 words: Cabin rental paid.

Another day went by.  A text finally appeared, a link to  Air Supply’s “Without You.” The title makes it sound like a break-up song. It’s the exact opposite. It’s an “I can’t live, if living is without you” song. And when I heard that, it finally clicked.

It wasn’t about America’s pandemic response, per se, it was about the accumulation of loneliness, loss, homesickness, financial set backs, and watching the world you’d built collapsing in, again. All that, he could cope with. But when summer ended and fall returned, bringing SAR CoV 2 with it, we’d be ripped apart again.

He’d never stood in the way of my going in January. He’d never said, “please, don’t go.” We agreed, this was life or death, this was the practical solution. We both agreed it had to be done, and painful as it was, we had to be apart for several months. That was then. Now the world was on a mobius strip that no one was getting off, maybe for a couple years, till there was a vaccine. But we’d never talked about it.

We were busy living in the now, surviving. I’d never talked about the distant future. He’d never talked about it either. But subconsciously, he’d been talking about it for awhile, through the songs. Slowly, over time they’d changed. The hope had been going out of them. Love was a wonderful thing had become blue eyes crying in the rain.

The lake in summer had become to me a fuzzy we’ll be “there,” “sometime.” And the future to him had become so distant it was taking place “up yonder,” in the afterlife! But I wasn’t aware of that consciously. And maybe he wasn’t either until I cracked the door with an off-hand remark about the future, the Fall. Then it became real. He couldn’t stop himself saying what he truly felt. He couldn’t do this again; he couldn’t give anymore.

In a normal world, I’d have packed my bag, cleaned out my paltry bank account, and jumped on the first (possibly plague infected) plane bound for Amsterdam. But, it’s not a normal world – and I’d paid for the cabin rental in full. So I called my Da. I told him what was going on. He said in all honesty he’d had enough togetherness with Mum. They could probably use some apart time now. He was sure she’d be happy to stay with Gran, even if it meant staying till 2021.

Then I talked to my mother. She said, of course she would cover “the duration” and she was sure she’d see me and Der, at Christmas, if not Thanksgiving. (But we know Christmas, home, together, probably only in my dreams?… Cue Mr Bublé.) And really, she added, if her mother was going to die, shouldn’t she be the one there? (This where I get that ability to turn a “stroll through garden” conversation into “up the garden path” — where you get mugged — situation.)

Finally, I spoke with my Gran. She said death was out there, and you shouldn’t seek it. But life was out there too, and you should seek that. The world would continue spinning, things – good and bad – would keep happening. Don’t wait for a perfect time in a perfect world, they’ll never arrive. But you can be perfectly happy, now, despite that. Just be sure to call regularly and visit now then.

I went for a long walk quite late that night, 11 pm, to think things through. As I crossed a small bridge, I paused to look at the moon reflected on the channel of water and listen to the chorus of cheerful frogs. Then I noticed some thoughtful soul had left a paper heart, taped to the rail of the bridge. On it was handwritten 3 words: You’re not alone.

I took a picture of the note and sent it to Der. Because when someone tells you “I can’t live if living is without you,”  “You’re not alone” on a heart, on a moonlight bridge, is definitely the right answer. It was morning in the Netherlands. I thought he’d see the text when he woke up and respond later. But before I could pocket my phone, a reply came:

Arriving YVR 9th.

I felt myself smile a smile born of true happiness. Something I realised I hadn’t felt in quite a while. I guess, truth to tell, I’d been bottling up some things to gut it out as well. And as for my Great Mistake? As mistakes go, this one turned out pretty great. Yep, love is a wonderful, wonderful thing!




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