December 2005, a lifetime ago, I started writing my column for Literary Mama. Ethan was nine years old. Dan and I had been a couple for a mere five months. Chandler—Dan's guide dog—was no doubt an adorable puppy with outsized feet, though he wouldn't come into our lives for over a year.
Doing It Differently. When I gave the column its title, the difference I had in mind was disability. Surely our story existed in the fact that I'm a mom with cerebral palsy raising an able-bodied kid with the help of my blind boyfriend. It's true that we had a lot to figure out, given our specific limitations as well as our sometimes surprising strengths. But, these days, what I think of as most unique about us as a family is the fact that we've never, all three of us, lived in the same place at the same time.
Dan and I fell in love in a single sitting. We'd met at a writers' retreat and liked one another right away, but it wasn't until we were each settled back home—he in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philly, and me in Hoboken, New Jersey, just outside of NYC—that we realized how much. A week after the retreat I emailed Dan, attempting to sound friendly but nonchalant as I wrote that I enjoyed meeting him and hoped we'd stay in touch. That same night he called me. I thought it was his way of answering my message, but later learned he hadn't checked his email all day. Our conversation, which lasted four hours, held the spark of newness but also somehow felt familiar, even inevitable. From that night on, whenever I picked up the phone and pressed in the number to his house a hundred miles away, I felt as though I was calling home.
I've long been what my mother used to call a phone person. As a teenager, the first thing I'd do when I got home was call my best friend Amy so we could continue whatever discussion we'd started on the walk from school. In my twenties, I'd carry the communal phone on its long cord from the living room into my bedroom late at night so as not to wake my roommates as I talked to writer friends out west for whom it was still early evening.
It would seem then, that I was made for long distance. And who better to love across the miles than a man whose attraction to me would grow, not by gazing into my eyes, but by listening to what I had to say? Yet, while our arrangement did have its perks—a bit of pampering for the one who made the long commute on a given weekend, a perpetual honeymoon state, an enforced break from whatever was on the to-do list back home—I can be rather fragile when it comes to parting ways.
Dan learned early to be careful with me on what we came to call Goodbye Day. No fraught discussions on Goodbye Day. No making love. Always a plan for when we'd be together again. Of course we talked about the possibility of living together. But proximity to his mother and twin brother kept Dan rooted where he was and, while I considered making the move, I ultimately couldn't bring myself to put that kind of distance between Ethan and his dad. Richard lived in our mile-square town and, by sixth grade, Ethan could walk independently between our apartments. I understood that this made him feel less like a kid from a broken home. Rather, he was a kid with choices, with two homes, and he moved freely between them. I told myself that this could be said of Dan and me too and, to make it feel true, I began calling my bedroom ours when he came for the weekend, and referring to his house, on its quiet, tree-lined street, as our country home.
If any one thing sustained us during the four to five days a week we were apart, it was the nightly ritual of a leisurely call. After I'd finished reading with Ethan and tucking him in, I'd ring Dan and we'd stretch out on our separate beds and talk.
"You realize we've clocked more hours of conversation than most couples who've lived together for decades," Dan once pointed out. I'm sure he's right. He and Ethan also figured out how to build their relationship from a distance. I'd often wander into the living room and hear the two of them working on math problems, Dan's voice coming through the phone propped on the coffee table where Ethan sat with his books spread open before him. We are, indeed, Doing It Differently, I'd think, feeling amused, proud, but also a bit lonely.
Home. That small, one-syllable word carries a huge amount of weight. How much of what we call home has to do with location, and how much is about the people we find there? Dan, Ethan, and I managed to become a family despite the distance between us, but surely we missed out on something significant by not having each other every day, in person, under a shared roof.
Fast forward to this past September. My column the age Ethan was when it first came into being. Ethan, a freshman away at college. Me, packing my belongings. Dan making us our own sets of keys. Chandler edging toward retirement age, so that in another year, he'll live a leisurely life as our pet. Suddenly, I'm the luckiest empty nester I know. Really, I'm not an empty nester at all. I'm nesting with Dan at last, continuing that rich conversation while curled together in a room that really is ours now.
Meanwhile, Ethan is at school 200 miles away, which places me in another long-distance relationship. Early in his life, he was also a phone person, pointing to every pay phone we passed in his stroller and calling out, "Pho! Pho!" or holding the cordless to his ear to relay an intricate string of babble to the dial tone. But these days, even when he answers with "Hello" instead of "What?" he manages to sound somewhat put out by the interruption of a call. It was a mutual love of conversation that kept Dan and me connected all the years we'd lived apart. What, I wondered, would do it for my son and me? Moreover, I worried that I'd left him unrooted and potentially feeling like a mere visitor in my new life.
As I write this, six months has passed since moving day and Ethan is well into his second semester. Though he still isn't a phone person, he calls from school more than I ever dared hope. And as it happened, a phone was in my hand the first time he referred to this house as home. He was here over Thanksgiving break, and had spent the night with some high school friends who were good enough to choose a college five miles up the road.
"Heading home now to get homework done," he texted.
So simple. So nonchalant. I stared at that lovely little word in its cartoon bubble on my cell and finally understood. Ethan and I weren't starting from scratch the way Dan and I had been when we first set out to shape a life together across the miles. What Ethan and I have has been over 18 years in the making. When he thinks of home, of course he thinks of me.
"Sounds good, Honey," I wrote back. "See you soon."
With so many changes—with most of my parenting occurring through phone wires or in the magic air between cell towers, with home in a new location, and family in a new configuration—it seems my nearly decade-old column is ready for a reshaping as well. Though we're still Doing It Differently—as is everyone, I suppose, in one way or another—the biggest difference for the three of us these days is in the place we're Calling Home.