The 2017 eclipse fell on my father's 75th birthday. He, my mother, and my oldest brother, the only one of my parents' six kids who lives close to them, watched it from the yard of my childhood home. My adorable father, a retired science teacher, proudly wore an eclipse t-shirt, his birthday gift.
As the moon and the sun worked the celestial magic that my father insists was in his honor, we all checked in via text and Skype from backyards around the country and across the pond. We were as together as we could be, a modern family bound by technology and our sincere desire to share the natural wonder as well as the family milestone. I guess this should have made me happy. But it didn't. Instead, I felt that familiar loneliness.
Instead, I felt that familiar loneliness.
I felt sad for my dad, who should have had more stargazers and happy birthday singers in his yard. I felt sad for my kids and their cousins, whose relationships are sustained through as many visits as we can muster and via Skype, text, emails, and phone calls.
We need each other, and we make this work. But it's hard. Sometimes it's helpful just to say that out loud.
Spinning away from the reality of things
Sometimes it seems like this pain is too tender to discuss. It's ongoing, and we can't change the factors that make the distance necessary. So we try to put a positive spin on things. But that sometimes clouds the emotional reality.
Yes, we make it work. Yes, we are showing our kids the degree to which family matters; that they are the ones we long for and spend all our vacation time and money gravitating toward.
But there's a lot of worry, loss, and loneliness when you're raising your kids far from their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. And sometimes, you just can't spin that.
Routine vs. occasions
Different things bring the pain to the surface, like recognizing missed opportunities. My father-in-law is a professional musician. When the kids struggle with their music lessons, I feel the distance. We haul the instruments (of course one is a cello!) when we visit, and the kids have a special grandpa session. It's dear. But as I watch, I realize how much we need him not just as a moonlighter, but as part of our routine.
Occasions don't cut it. I want these people who mean so much to us, who understand us and the kids, to be a part of our routine. It would be such a help if I could send the kids over a couple times a week. It would not only help the kids with their music, but it would give them special access to their grandfather's expertise. It's so exciting to see him in his element passing on his wisdom.
I feel the same pang when I watch my nieces' and nephews' recitals and games on YouTube. I want to be there. My cheering and clapping doesn't have much impact when I doing it alone at my kitchen table. I would love to have my nieces and nephews think of my house as their second home. I want all the gossip about their friends and their lives. I get it in doses when we are together, but I want to be their routine, not their occasion.
The value of face time
Professionally, I write about work, and I'm always extolling the value of face time. I'm a huge fan of telecommuting. I've happily done it for years. But I know firsthand from my experience that when it comes to communication, face time earns us the good stuff-engagement, creativity, and closeness. Face time matters.
Physical togetherness sparks important things.
There's a clumsiness, a stiffness, and a distance to electronic interactions. Physical togetherness sparks important things. We share more generously and comfortably than when we communicate electronically. We bounce ideas off each other and create new ones together. Yes, our digital interactions offer a good lifeline, but it's not the best conduit for fostering closeness.
The precedent for this
My grandfather was versed in Gaelic. When my mom was a kid, neighbors who had been Americanized away from their traditional language would visit with letters from family members back in the "old country" for my grandfather to translate. My mom explained that at this time, when families would immigrate to the US, they knew that they would not see their extended family again.
They came to America for new opportunities, the same reasons that so many people now live far from family. This paradigm has age-old precedent, and I'm glad we have many more ways to deal with distance now. But it's difficult. And sometimes we need to put that weight down for a moment so we can acknowledge how heavy it is.