Burnt Out in BrusselsMay 15th, 2009 at 17:04
It would be five years later (see “The Five AM Conversation”) when I would realize that the transition of our relationship was complete and that she would no longer set the context and tone of my life or be a necessary “star” in my personal cosmos (though she would continue to be dear to me and an asset in my life).
My mom’s teenage and young adult years were spent with peers mostly from families much more well-to-do than her own, and she was well aware of (and at times coveted) the trappings and advantages of people of means. One of those trappings was travel abroad, and the personal broadening and gravitas it conveyed on you (rightly or wrongly) in these higher circles. At age 47, my mom had never been outside the US and Canada, but was determined that she and her sons would no longer be vulnerable to the judgment of the snobs of the world.
My mom, the talented, creative, outside-the-box improviser that she was, lacking the financial means for a conventional sojourn to Europe, worked out a way to do it on the cheap. At the casual suggestion of a friend at one of her parties, my mom put an ad in the Oxford University paper that she was willing to trade her house and car in Ann Arbor Michigan for the summer for a house and car in England.
In response to that ad, a letter came from a young couple in Oxford (the husband wishing to attend a summer program at the University of Michigan) that they wanted to take her up on her offer. My mom (without the Internet in those days to help her) managed to do the necessary research to find a cheap charter flight for the three of us to Europe and back, flying from Detroit to Amsterdam in late June and then returning from London to Detroit in late August. Since we would arrive in Amsterdam several days before the house in Oxford would be available to us, my mom spent precious remaining dollars booking a hotel in Amsterdam for those few days followed by a train from Amsterdam to Calais and a channel crossing via hovercraft (what could be more of an adventure!) to England.
I don’t know if it is endemic of right-brained creative people like my mom and I, or just a personal family curse, but we aren’t good at keeping a large set of needed bits of information in our heads, so we need to make extensive use of lists and other planning and organizational devices to keep it together. Despite our best efforts to plan, we are subject in a bad moment not to remember a key bit of information, panic, which causes our minds to go blank, increasing the panic and our sudden total disability.
We had one such instance when our ride to the airport came to start us on our journey, and my mom suddenly could not remember where she had put our passports, and despite all her careful planning, went into a total panic. My brother and I, aware of this proclivity in her (and not yet shouldering enough responsibility to have the occasion to discover it in ourselves as well), would derisively (and to try to protect ourselves from sharing the psychological trauma) call it the “Ten Second Rule”. She would invariably lose track of something crucial (like the car keys or in this case the passports), panic, and then ten seconds later (or fairly quickly at least) find the thing she had lost but be traumatized for hours afterwards contemplating how tenuously she maintained a grip on things. Our bigger-than-life, iconic parental figure was duly humbled and quiet for the entire forty-five minute journey to Detroit Metropolitan airport.
Anyway, pushing this story forward to the point of it, we made our flight (barely!), arrived in Amsterdam and successfully got to and ensconced ourselves in our hotel, adjacent to a beautiful plaza in the middle of the storied canal city. After our several nights (a significant expense on my mom’s very tight trip budget) we got to the train station and boarded our train to Brussels where we would change trains to Calais for the Channel crossing. I don’t remember exactly how it came to be, but we got to Brussels late and my mom took a wrong turn in the station and we missed our train to Calais.
At this point, normally subject to panic perhaps, she managed to keep it together, find out that there was a nice hotel not far from the airport and hired a cab to take us there. I don’t remember the hotel name, but I do remember the lobby with its high ceiling and antique curtains and couches, including the one we sat down on to regroup. My mom did her best to communicate in English with the desk clerks only to learn there was no room available in the hotel, and the alternative lodgings suggested all involved logistical complications that were daunting and problematic in one way or another. It was at this point that my mom lost it and started to sob in the big crowded lobby of this hotel so far from home in a foreign land.
This is the point where a fifteen-year-old (me) does not want to have anything to do with a blubbering parent. The only thing more humiliating (in my thinking at that moment) than a crying adult in a public place, was to be the dependent kid of that crying adult sitting there next to her demonstrating complete powerlessness to do anything about it and feeling every set of eyes in the place looking and judging. And I imagined that someone would shortly volunteer to help somehow and my mom would be reduced to utter obsequiousness and humility which would also be humiliating (me projecting my own self-esteem issues of course).
Again, as I said at the top… the things that inspire you to step up! Before anything else happened I said pointedly to my mom something to the affect of, “Listen… here’s what we need to do.” I laid out a plan where we would get something to eat at the hotel, since we were all tired and hungry, then take a cab back to the train station and set up shop there for as long as it took to find another train to Calais. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was a path forward and more that my mom, in her temporary diminished capacity, was capable of piecing together.
So we executed my plan. Found the hotel bar to have some sort of sandwiches and then got a cab back to the train station. I helped my mom negotiate with the station agent and we found an evening train to Calais. We would deal with what to do next once we got there. Turned out we got to Calais too late to do the channel crossing, but got good advice on a nearby reasonably priced hotel where we spent the night and were able to relax and regroup. The next morning we took our space-age hovercraft ride across the Channel to the English side and then by a wonderful open-air double-deck bus on a beautiful early September day to London and another bus on to our destination in Oxford.
After rising to the occasion in Brussels, I took more ownership for the trip in general, and my mom relied on me as her co-planner and car trip navigator. It was weird sitting in what would be the driver seat of an American car, as my mom braved driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and I encouraged her onward as we would explored the country on three- or four-day excursions from our home base in Oxford. She later would joke proudly with friends about how I took over in Brussels, embellishing the story as she always would do, and how I relentlessly forced the three of us to see every cathedral and castle in England.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Responsibility