I left New York in 1999. New York was home, as much a home as I ever had. New York is where my family lived, the only family I had. I left behind my parents, brother, and sister, and moved 2500 miles across the country.
I was in my late 20s. Back then, 2500 miles didn't seem like much. Just a 5 hour plane ride, I said. I could fly there and back in one day. As I did one day in September 1999 to interview in San Francisco. For the interview, I took the first flight out of JFK to SFO. That night, I was back in New York. That same night, I decided to move west. It had been my first visit to San Francisco.
If I didn't like it, I could always move back, I thought. Decisions can be un-done.
The decision to move was impulsive. I didn't have as much a reason to move as a reason not to. "Why not?" was my attitude. I was young and single. No responsibilities and no attachments. I was offered a job, and that seemed good enough. All San Francisco offered was a job and two acquaintances. The rest of the city was a stranger.
I didn't think about what that meant until I was asked to provide my emergency contact at my new job. Suddenly, I realized that my closest family member -- in fact, my entire family -- was on the other side of a continent. On the form, I wrote in my father's name and his phone number with its Long Island area code. And then wondered about the three hour time difference. What if I were injured in some horrible accident and they needed his authorization to operate? Would they catch him in the middle of the night? Would he answer the call in his pajamas? Would he be able to find a flight out in an emergency?
Lately, I've been wondering about this decision. Not the decision to live in San Francisco, but the one to move myself 2500 miles away from my family. This decision made on the whim of the day, given not much more thought than choosing a soup or salad for lunch. My cavalier attitude.
We live 2500 miles away from our little guy's grandparents, his cousins, his uncle and two aunts, the only relatives he has in this country on my side of the family. To try to overcome the distance, we skype once or twice a week with my parents. We pop open the skype window, click their login name, and wait for the ring tones. When they respond, there is always an initial flurry of just sound, no images, as they try to find the right icons to click.
"Can you hear us? Why isn't it working? Is it working? Oh, I think I see them. Can you hear us? Is the baby with you?"
Then their faces appear. Two bobbleheads, illuminated by a florescent light behind them. My mom is always in the center, where she sits in front of the computer like a train conductor. She is the one who knows how to operate it. Even though the computer has been occupying a corner of their living room for two years now, my father does not know how to turn it on. Sometimes, when they are not online, I call ahead the traditional way. My father picks up the telephone, and as soon as I say, "Should we talk on the computer?," he responds, "Your mother is starting the computer now." In their household, it is her job to manage the kitchen as well as the computer.
So when they appear on screen, my mother sits on her throne. My dad hovers in the periphery, sometimes to my mother's left, sometimes to her right. As he shifts from one leg to the other, we catch parts of his chin, cheek, mouth, nostrils and at times, even his eyeglasses in the corners of our screen.
"How much he has grown. Look at him now. He looks like a little boy. Already no longer a baby. He's so much taller, and his eyes are so big. So handsome!"
The initial few minutes are always the same. The gushing, the fanfare, the exclamations of surprise at his growth, even though they saw him a week earlier -- and said the exact same thing.
"Over here, over here, look at us. Can you see us?"
They waive their hands, lean in closer, widen their smiles, and make clucking noises for his benefit.
On our end, Jeff and I hover around my 13 inch MacBook on the futon, one of us holding the little guy on our lap. We pick up the baby and try to present him the best we can. I'll often pick him up, let his legs stretch out, and pass his body from top to bottom over the screen, so they could see his full length. I'll also push the computer further out so that the video camera can capture the length of his whole body on screen. After, we'll tilt him over closer to the screen as his head flops forward and his arms flounder as they try to reach out to touch whatever they can.
Usually, at that moment, my dad will exclaim, "Look, he sees us! He sees us. He's reaching out to us. Look at him smiling!"
Then they will have an E.T. moment, where the two ends will try to touch across the screen.
In the way my parents lean forward and gaze at him, I could see how much they want to touch him. And hold him. The way I hold him every day, his little body bundled against mine, and nuzzle my nose against his neck, kiss his cute chubby cheeks, and inhale the sweetness of his baby scent. The only way to experience a baby.
I then vow to plan a trip to visit them -- sometime soon, really soon. But once I start thinking about whether I need to take the playpen, the car seat, the stroller, and the infant tub, I wonder if it would be easier when he's a little older. Then I think about having to take my breast pump on the plane and find a way to pump in that hole of a bathroom or under a blanket in my seat, I start wondering if my parents can't fly out to see us instead. Until I find out my mom's back's been acting up.
That's when the distance I created for myself seems like a burden and not the liberation I used to believe it to be. I'm sure it served some purpose and gave me an escape when I desperately needed it -- and probably still does to some degree from the sense of suffocation that can come from a family that has overtaken you, like overgrown ivy around a building. But nowadays, I seem to have lost memory of that suffocation. Instead, I wonder why I live 2500 miles away from them and what it means to be a family. Are we a family if we live 2500 miles apart but see each other once or twice a year? I guess we are a family by definition, so maybe the better question is what kind of a family are we. What does it mean that we live like this? For whose benefit? Why has it become so normal, so commonplace to live as we do?
Now with the baby and with my parents' aging, the passing days seem precious. I don't want them to miss out on him, and I don't want him to miss out on them. They are on opposite ends of the timeline of my life, and I want those two ends to join and form a cohesive circle, as I think a family should. That my parents should live out the rest of their lives so far away from us seems unacceptable, even cruel. But the thought of moving to the East Coast seems unthinkable. Not with our lives here, with our friends, with our jobs, without East Coast snowstorms and New York cynicism. The roots we have grown here seem too deep to uproot. So Jeff and I talk about the prospect of my parents moving out to California, but it's not so easy to move others to suit your own purposes and notions, especially when the others are set in their ways -- not too dissimilar from the way we are.
So we talk about planning a vacation with them. Maybe a trip to Hawaii. Days filled with sun, the beach, and carefree togetherness. Protected time where they can have their fill of the little guy to last them for the time being.
I think about the day when our little guy will grow into a man. And I wonder if he will move away from us. That thought makes my heart ache and I start to miss him already.