Return Home

by Mary Beth

The year in New Zealand came to a close, and it was time to return home.

“But why?” asked every single person we met, every single day. “Why go home to Covidland, where there are riots in the streets, where there is no national leadership and no end in sight to this virus?”

We had no answer. I couldn’t honestly claim that our visas were going to run out, since the New Zealand government was helpful enough to extend all visas like mine without any fuss. My job in New Zealand was still there. We probably could have stayed another year if we had wanted to.

Sometimes I said, “Because the grandparents would have murdered us if we had stayed another year.”

But a more accurate answer was, “Because it’s our home and we’re homesick.”

It was hard to say goodbye. Of the 24 patients I saw each day, about half had seen me before, and some of them had seen me many times before. Some of them made visits just to see me before I left, and some of them brought me wrapped presents with beautifully written notes. A few I called to say goodbye and check in on one last time – the teenager I diagnosed with metastatic cancer, the depressed and anxious patients I had been talking with weekly or monthly, the victims of abuse, the young women who loved the lockdown because they were so terrified to leave their houses that they relished an excuse to stay home. Most of them had made some sort of progress in our time together. My chronic disease patients – the ones with poorly-controlled diabetes, and emphysema from smoking for 60 years, and heart failure – they all came in to see me and demand an answer to the question of what they would do when I left. I took the opportunity of starting a few more people on Champix (the New Zealand name for Chantix, the smoking-cessation medication) but otherwise I didn’t have answers for them. It was like having to go through a painful breakup multiple times in the day. I have to choose between two lovers, the United States and New Zealand, and I am choosing the United States. I know it is a big mess and New Zealand has its act together and it is a wonderful country and I will miss it. But in the end I am still choosing the USA, and I am leaving you.

Annie did well saying goodbye. She has a solid group of friends in New Zealand; she plays with them every day in school, has had them at her birthday party, and has gone to their birthday parties. We talked about video-calling them from the United States, but it’s not the same as being with them. Time is a difficult thing for Annie to wrap her head around right now, so she doesn’t quite understand that it will be years before she sees them in person again, if she does see them again. But she knows it will be a long time. We’ve really talked a lot about her friends back in the US, especially her best friend before she left. And Annie has kept very positive, throughout all the good-byes. Only once did she break down, a few days before we left, during dinner. “I want to stay in New Zealand,” she cried. “I don’t want to go back to America. I want to stay in New Zealand.”

She has told me repeatedly that when she grows up, she is going to marry Henry, the little boy who lived down the street from us in New Zealand. Then she will move back to New Zealand and become a New Zealander forever. She enjoys saying this particularly because I always tell her that she is not allowed to live halfway around the world when she grows up – she has to stay close to home.

On Annie’s last day of school, she was the star of Mat Time. She got to sit up at the front next to the teacher, and she got to choose the Mihi stick and was the first to say her Mihi, “Ko Annie toku ingoa”. I came in to watch. She sat up very straight and spoke very clearly. Her best friend came in for Mat Time even though she didn’t usually come to school on Thursdays, and gave Annie a framed photo as a present. Everyone in school put a bead on a string to make a necklace for Annie to wear in the airport. It had a special smooth shell in the middle, so Annie could rub it instead of sucking her thumb. Then they had homemade chocolate chip cookies I had made the night before.

We tried to prepare Cora, too.

“Coco!” I would say. She continues to correct us if we call her Cora. “What are we going to go in soon?”

“Airplane!” she would answer happily.

“Where is the airplane going to go?”

“Up – up – up inna sky!” And she would reach up as high as she could towards the sky, and smile.

Cora was not upset about leaving anyone. Her teachers were sad to see her go, but she left school on her last day with a light heart and a head full of airplanes.

The last week was challenging, more challenging than we had expected, with some very unexpected and very unpleasantly large hurdles. But some of our friends in the community stepped in to help – especially the church community. Up until the last minute, it was hard to believe we were actually leaving because there was too much to be done; there wasn’t time to do it all. It didn’t help that people kept asking, “Are you really leaving? How are you getting out? I thought there were no flights in or out of New Zealand. I thought they had all been grounded. The country is in lockdown.” And, “I heard last week that they had totally stopped all flights in and out of New Zealand because of the recent cases of COVID. Didn’t you hear that?” And, “But you can’t leave! You can’t get out of New Zealand! It’s impossible!”

It’s hard to have faith in a computerized airplane ticket when you have so many people telling you it’s wrong.

We arrived at the airport with our four 50-pound suitcases and our two 15-pound smaller suitcases, our backpack and the little ride-on suitcase for Annie, along with our two carseats and a bag of food. And my purse.

We managed to load them up onto a couple of trolleys and get the trolleys in the door of the airport before Cora realized that she was in a really, really fun and exciting place. She bolted. I grabbed her.

We pushed the heavy trolleys a little farther, up to the check-in station. Cora wriggled away and bolted again. It is hard to hold onto a very strong toddler when you have 10 pieces of luggage to worry about. This time Peter grabbed her. She wriggled out and ran, even faster, in a new direction. She put her heart and soul into outrunning her father. The airport had so much room to run – she could really get up some speed. When he grabbed her again, she gave a desperately disappointed squeal, arched her back, and tried to hurl herself out of his arms. Peter had a very heavy backpack on his back and a bag of food on his arm. He held on to her as best he could but couldn’t hold on for long. I was talking to a representative from Air New Zealand who was helping us to check in. She had to do a lot of typing on her computer.

Cora wriggled out of Peter’s arms and down onto her belly on the floor. Peter grabbed her wrists. She squealed again and wrenched her wrists out of his hands, rolled over, leapt to her feet, and ran off, cackling gleefully. Panting, Peter ran after her, the backpack thumping heavily on his back. Annie, who was lying on her back in the middle of a thoroughfare, laughed and sucked her thumb even though I had told her she wasn’t allowed to suck her thumb at least until she arrived home.

Peter caught Cora but she was in eel mode, slippery and boneless and impossible to hold on to. The only way in which she differed from an eel was in her volume. Eels are generally silent but Cora wanted to express her disapproval. She made sure everyone in the airport understood that she was not happy about being restrained. Peter dragged her back to us. The person at the computer continued to type. Cora escaped another two times before the lady finished typing and the tickets began to print slowly… slowly… out of the machine. As they printed she explained that we would have to go to the other end of the airport to drop off the car seats at Oversized Luggage. Our shoulders sagged. Cora used the split-second loss of attention to escape again.

The voyage involved a short hour and a half flight to Auckland, then a race through the airport (through the bustling domestic terminal, on a ten minute walk outside, to the desolate abandoned International Terminal) to get on a second flight to Los Angeles. This was a 12-hour flight that left at 9 pm and arrived at 2:30 pm the day we left, meaning we traveled a few hours back in time. It also meant that the children’s biological clock thought that the flight was 9 pm to 9 am, and so they slept a lot, or ate, intermittently watching Mickey Mouse and Sesame Street on the seat screens. It was a peaceful flight. Then we spent the night in an airport hotel, woke up at two in the morning, and got on an early-morning six-hour flight from Los Angeles to Boston, where were picked up and delivered to our house in Connecticut. Luckily, for this third flight, the children’s internal clock told them it started at 1:00 am and lasted until 7:00 am, so they slept for much of this flight too.

The time in the airports involved a fair amount of walking, and required cooperation from both children. Cora and Annie both had to wear their gumboots for all this walking, because they were too bulky and heavy to pack. Both girls’ gumboots were a little too big for them, so neither of them was thrilled to wear them. Annie agreed, grudgingly, but Cora was not interested. She put the gumboots on, took a few steps, whimpered “Too big! Too big!” and pulled them off. We repeated this a few times, doggedly shoving them back on her feet, walking a few steps, and then watching her fall to the ground again and rip them off her feet. And then Cora won. She spent the next day and a half happily trotting around airports in her socks, and we wound up carrying her gumboots after all.

The trip was broken up in the middle by a visit from Aunt Katie and Uncle Rob, who live in Los Angeles and came to the airport hotel, bearing lots of food. They had tested negative for Covid, and coming from New Zealand we were all negative, so we spent a few hours eating and drinking, an oasis in the middle of a challenging trip.

And then we were back in our own home, and even though all the furniture was mysteriously in the basement, it was our home in our own neighborhood, and our neighbors were there, and instead of the temperature being in the thirties it was in the eighties, and we were happy and exhausted.

And so began a time of swimming in the neighbor’s pool, of dinosaur popsicles, of resetting toddler internal clocks (less fun) and moving a lot of furniture (more fun than resetting toddler clocks but less fun than swimming). Cora discovered the joys of staircases, and we discovered the joys of searching frantically for old possessions (baby gates particularly) that appear to have mysteriously disappeared. And then we discovered the subsequent joy of realizing that our youngest child has superhuman strength, and even if we put heavy furniture in front of the staircase she can (through sheer willpower) move the furniture out of the way.

In terms of their old toys, we agreed on a plan before we arrived home, because we knew it would be very exciting to find a whole house full of forgotten toys. The plan we all agreed on was this: the attic would be treated like a toy library. We would go up once a week, and each girl could pick out a few toys, bring them down, play with them a little (tidying them up immediately after playing with them, every time), and then bring them back up to the attic after a week to trade for new toys. Everyone agreed that this was the best plan. Annie started calling the attic the “toy library” while we were still in New Zealand.

Needless to say, within an hour or two of arriving home, the house was littered with toys from the attic. Doll house furniture, wooden cookies, stuffed animals, puzzle pieces, plastic dolls – we were tripping on them, they were getting broken and kicked under couches. Annie was repeatedly informed, over the next few days, that if she didn’t clean up her toys, they would disappear and she would never see them again. Unfortunately she generally had to explain that she was far too tired to do any cleaning. Presumably she used up all her energy in scattering the toys around the house. Cora enjoyed cleaning up, as long as no one ordered her to clean up, and as long as someone sang the clean-up song. If no one was around to sing it, she sang it herself: “Teeeeam up, teeeeeam up, evybody, do ya shaya,” she sang, collecting all toys and throwing them into whatever receptacle was handiest, mixing puzzle pieces with plastic plates and dress-up clothing. Occasionally Cora cleans up while her sister is still playing with something, and then she gets screamed at. When this happens, Cora pauses for a moment, looks at her sister, and then sings more loudly as she picks up whatever toys need to be teamed up, and hurls them into their box. Nothing can stop her, not even Annie’s tears or shrieks.

We also spent some time in Maine, which seemed to be teeming with life compared with New Zealand, probably because of all the insects and small mammal life – the ants and bees and mosquitoes, the dragonflies, the chipmunks and squirrels and mice, and also the fish and frogs. We saw a bald eagle, and we were almost attacked by a loon when the girls and I were paddling out on a pond in a kayak and got too close to the loon and its mate – it rose out of the water on its legs and flapped its wings aggressively at us, and gave a haunting, piercing shriek. The girls did each get stung, simultaneously, by a bee (“Bad bee! Tib! Tib!” Cora said, all afternoon. We all agreed with her that the bee deserved to go to its crib). But otherwise it was wonderful.

And now we are home again, and here to stay.

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