Five days ago we woke up in a cramped hotel room around the corner from the now-empty apartment that had been our home for the last four-and-a-half years in downtown Washington, D.C. Our move to El Salvador entered its final stage. Larina fed Luca and began getting him ready while I dashed to the apartment to retrieve the supplies (read: milk) we left in the freezer overnight. I gathered the remaining bits of trash and took one last look at the life we etched into the place made visible by the traffic patterns and dust outlines on the rug, all of which stared back at me. Then it was time to leave.
Our airport experience that day was a new frontier for Larina and me. We were now three travelers instead of two, and with much more luggage. Of the ten bags we carried, six were for Luca. We wrestled with a car seat in a taxi. We were now the people slowly roaming the concourse; the kind I typically zoom past in my haste to make a connection to wherever. Even if we wanted to move faster, we could not. Our exhaustion, which had been building daily like snowfall in recent months, simply would not allow it. The three days prior to our departure only worsened our condition. No surprise then that we all fell asleep immediately after take-off. To understand how we arrived at this point of weariness requires going back to Luca’s birth in July.
Hospital experiences are by nature tiring. They can trigger the fight-or-flight reflex. Sustained, that higher-alert sense slowly grinds against your energy reserve like sandpaper against wood. We planned on being there at most three days. We would stay for five. And I had the easy end of the bargain. Larina endured the harder burden of two-and-a-half days in delivery limbo until Luca was finally ready. In the end, Larina pushed Luca out with such force that the doctor literally caught him mid-air.
The days immediately following our return home were equally punishing. Lactation consultants visited us. Luca’s weight was an issue, which meant weigh-ins at the doctor’s office every few days until he was back to his original birth weight. In addition, he was born with a tongue tie, a procedure easily fixed with a 20-second procedure involving a finely-tuned laser. We scheduled an appointment a week-or-so into the future, but a space opened within 48 hours of our arrival home and we scrambled to grab it. All of this was complicated by the fact we had no car. City life is easy to navigate when you are childless. Arranging rentals and on-demand cars (think: Zipcar), with all of the requisite baby gear, was an added stressor. Were it not for our parents (mine lived close by and Larina’s flew in from the other side of the country) helping us get some much needed rest or a night out, we surely would have cracked. I call that initial period “the onslaught” – a never ending barrage of tasks that, like chess, require you to always think two steps ahead.
We moved into August and September trying to get our legs under us. Adjusting to parenthood is like using a noise machine as a sleep aid for the first time. It is blunt and does not immediately fade into the background. (Four months in and I still feel the low-level hum of adjustment at work.) We navigated fits and starts of some kind of routine. I returned to work while Larina burned through the months of leave and sick time she pre-emptively accumulated to serve as maternity leave. In addition, myriad tasks awaited us in preparation for the move to El Salvador:
physicals and medical exams for travel clearances, passports, birth certificates, and various other documentation for the baby. We arranged Luca’s Baptism and shopped for a car on the weekends. It took three weeks and various shuttling between D.C. and Dulles, Virginia to find the car, secure the loan, and complete the attendant paperwork. Immediately thereafter we stumbled through the byzantine process of arranging the car to be shipped abroad.
The calendar turned to October and we rolled right into visiting Larina’s family in the inland Northwest. The visit itself was not stressful. In fact, a change of scenery and time with family and friends was exactly what we needed. However, flying with a newborn for the first time was like being lost in the woods. When you become lost, your senses are heightened. You pay more attention. Larina and I had roamed those airports on previous trips but paid little mind to things like family bathrooms. This time we looked for them – and other resources – as carefully as one looks for trail markers in back country.
We returned to Washington a few weeks later ready for pack out, the final push before El Salvador. Larina had a week-long offsite training and I prepared to handoff my projects at work. Our apartment was overrun with boxes of supplies to send with our clothes and furniture. Not an insignificant portion of those boxes included yet-to-be-assembled furniture for Luca’s room. We retrieved boxes from storage to pack appliances. We donated a mountain of “stuff” to Goodwill. Finally, the day came to orchestrate the movers who would sort, ship, and store all of our material possessions.
The first team, responsible for shipping all of our belongings, arrived last Tuesday. We spent the day designating items to be sent by air, known in State Department parlance as the UAB, or by land/sea freight, known as the HHE. The UAB arrives sooner and is supposed to be things you want/need more immediately. Gear for Luca comprised the lion’s share of it. (We began sensing a theme.) The HHE, more subject to ports and customs the world over, arrives much later.
The second team, responsible for items designated for storage, arrived the following day.
Despite involving much less “stuff,” the day was equally long. Both pack out days included trips to our storage locker to retrieve items we either wanted to take with us or put in further storage until we return. We were drained when it ended. Tracking these things in the moment – what stays, what goes, which shipment it goes with, etc. – is a constant game of defense against the possibility that something does not land where it is supposed to. For example, back in 2012 when we left for the Dominican Republic, all of my socks, except for those I packed in my suitcase, mistakenly went into storage. That was easy to remedy. Mistaking a box full of papers for my job would have been entirely different.
With everything shipped or stored and the moving crews gone, we immediately transitioned to the hotel room Larina’s mom had been using. She traveled back with us to D.C. and helped with Luca while we finalized the move. We had the room through the morning of our departure, a morning that began at four o’clock. Larina packed, I closed out the apartment, and we were off to a new country.
One foot in front of the other. Hour after hour. Day after day. Not caring about much beyond the task in front of us. That is the most succinct description of our final two weeks in Washington. It was a far cry from the glamourous description others have shared with us about how our life looks and sounds to them. As exciting as this lifestyle can be, and for as many times as we have done it individually and as a family, leaving family, friends, and the familiarity of home always hurts. But knowing we’ll go back sits on the horizon like a lighthouse, ready to guide us in at some point in the future.
For now, our adventure in El Salvador begins. We have been here barely a week with another list of to-dos: safety briefings, photos, and paperwork. Local sponsors (people who “adopt” newcomers) help with trips to the grocery store and other needs. Currently we are trying to discover a groove that works. Regularly timed feedings dictate the day and will do so for at least three to four more months. A standard morning process remains elusive. Luca still does not sleep well, which means we don’t either. A year from now we may look back on this window more fondly; one more in a string of adventures and stories that comprise our family’s tale. We might even remember details that have escaped us, the kind that creep back with time, space, and a much lower level of stress. We look forward to that day.