It’s late in the evening as I write this, and you’re both asleep in our little home in Santa Monica. We returned home from Australia three days ago and you’re both settling back into your routines like nothing’s changed.
But something has changed, little ones. We went out into the world together, on a big, lustrous adventure, for the first time as a family of four. Getting on the plane to fly to a country so far away I felt sick to my stomach — what was I thinking taking two little girls out into the world like that? Coming home I felt invincible — if we could go out into the world like that, we’ll be able to do anything together.
It was a grand trip, lengthy and deep and multi-layered. We began in Melbourne, all of us — the two of you, your father, your grandmother, and me –cramming into a little hotel room off Federation Square after a fifteen hour flight during which neither of you could have been more angelic. Jet lag had us by the throats for those first few days. Vera you threw more tantrums on this trip than you ever have, and I’m going to blame it on the travel and the extreme time changes because you haven’t been half bad since we got home. Jules you were a trooper all along, well as long as you were attached to me. Any time spent on your own with your dad or Grandma you had a tendency to scream, but as long as me and my, ahem, girls were nearby you were happy as a clam.
Speaking of breastfeeding, I want to make a list of all the crazy places I nursed you, Juliette, on this trip. When Vera was first born each nursing session was a dramatic event. I had to sit on the couch in a calm environment with a glass of water, my phone, a book and a burp towel. I mean I really set up shop. But with you Jules, anything goes. It has to I suppose, when you’re the second born. Kid, I nursed you going through airport security, I nursed you in the green room at the Brisbane literary festival, I nursed you on a train, on several boats, while feeding kangaroos (seriously, there are photos to prove this), on a crocodile tour, in a sky train, in a rainforest, on the Great Barrier Reef, you name it, we nursed it. If anyone is wondering the trick to traveling very far from home with a ten week old, this is it. Just be willing to nurse wherever and whenever.
Anyway, when I wasn’t nursing you, Juliette, or trying to reason with you, Vera, I was doing what I went to Australia to do: promote my book and participate as an author at the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers festivals. It was a fantastic experience, girls. By the time you get around to reading this letter it may seem really normal to have a mom who speaks at events and sits on panels and reads from her book(s), but as of now, this stuff is still pretty new to me and I’ll admit to you that I’m a little bit proud of myself. All year I’ve been doing more and more events that require me to speak in front of large groups of people, and to speak not just about my book, but about big matters of life and death and love and literature. It can be quite scary but I’ve finally come to a place where I find almost nothing but enjoyment in the act. Even so, it’s not something that always comes naturally and in twenty years when you read this maybe you can be a little proud of your young mother too.
I was sitting on one panel full of publishers and authors in Brisbane on the last day of the festival, and I was looking out at all the people in the room and at the river and the buildings sparkling outside the windows beside me, and I let myself wonder for just a moment what it would be like if my parents could see me in that moment. I let myself recognize just how much I’ve grown up, how much I’ve healed and accomplished and all that I’ve worked to become. It was a quiet moment, but an important one. I hope it’s one that both of you get to experience for real one day. I hope that you find yourself on a stage or on a page or just somewhere where you’ve worked hard to arrive, and that you can look through a window or across a room and see me and your dad, both of us really there, both of us impossibly proud of you, both of us realizing that we never had any doubt that this moment would come.
Anyway, back to Australia. We began in Melbourne which was lovely and European and full of cafes and rich, steaming lattes and bustling sidewalks and stylish people. We walked the neighborhoods, swam in the hotel pool, tortured Grandma with crying and tantrums, all of us got up at 5AM every morning, and we pined for the Internet which did not exist freely anywhere. This turned out to be a good thing and made me wish that WiFi weren’t so easy to get back home so that I’d have half a chance of picking my head up from the various screens surrounding it on any given day, and be just a bit more present to our life together.
While you guys were traipsing around Melbourne with your Dad and Grandma, visiting the aquarium, St. Kilda, and the museums I was sitting on panels with authors like Eowyn Ivey and leading seminars with Richard Holloway. It was kind of mind-blowing. I kept seeing the whole thing from a distance, like an out-of-body experience. I suppose I was unable to really process that any of it was real. The thing that always grounds me though is when people come up to me and tell me that my book has been helpful to them, and that happened everywhere I went on this trip. Whatever comes of this book, girls, whatever happens from your mom putting her life on display in this fashion, all that matters is when it has served to help someone. I hope you’ll be able to remember that, as you’re sure to become annoyed with me and my tendency to over-display all of our lives.
After Melbourne we flew to Sydney and spent three glorious days ferry-hopping about the various harbors and beaches. It was sublime. I could move to Sydney tomorrow, and we just might one day. In all my life the only places that have stolen my heart have been New York and San Francisco, except now we can add Sydney to the list. (And Los Angeles too, but LA was never love-at-first-sight.) The very moment we arrived I knew it was a place where I could really dwell. Did I ever tell you that for many years I’ve dreamed about Sydney? It has just showed up now and then in the recesses of my mind, first in the months after my father died, and then recurrently ever since. To actually go there was just a little bit profound.
One morning your dad and I went for a run, out to the harbor, around the grand, glorious Opera House and through the Botanic Gardens. There’s something about running through a city that makes you feel as if you own it, if even for just a moment. Weaving between pedestrians on their way to work, past the guys cleaning the sidewalks, through the park with its grass still glinting with dew. It was as though Sydney had always been mine, or was always going to be. I know I’ll be back there one day.
From Sydney we went to Brisbane. This was where the bulk of my obligations were and the very first night we were there I was the guest speaker at a cocktail reception in a funeral home. God, just writing that sentence makes me realize that you girls are going to have a weird upbringing, aren’t you? But you know, it just wasn’t weird. It was this really lovely event attended by a lot of people who work in hospice, palliative care and funeral homes and I was in conversation with a lovely woman all about really big ideas about life and death and grief and moving forward after loss. At one point someone in the audience asked me what advice I would give to people in this field in general, and my answer was to keep the conversation about death going, and not just in our respective circles, but in general. People in the Western world are unprepared for loss and it’s for this very reason. We don’t talk about death enough. It’s a huge part of life, and it’s why I’m writing this second book, girls.
Life just wouldn’t be worth living the way it is if there were no end to it. My father reminded me of that sentiment often, and now I want to remind each of you of it.
But enough about death, and more about…koala bears! For your Grandmother’s last day in Australia we took a boat up the Brisbane river to a koala sanctuary where everyone but you, Juliette, held a koala (sorry Jules, but they were bigger than you!). It was quite an experience and we got some pretty fantastic photos out the whole deal. This one in particular is going to be surfacing for a long time.
The very morning that Grandma left to go home, your uncle Bradley arrived from San Francisco. Vera, you were thrilled to see him and while I headed out to the Writers Festival, you girls set out with Dad and Uncle Brad to swim in the pools by the river, tour the museum and keep up an Australian eating marathon that involved a steady stream of sausage rolls. I sat on some fantastic panels with really fascinating writers and I also taught a three-hour workshop on memoir writing to 16 people. Jules, Dad tried to come to one of my panels with you but you started screaming 15 minutes into it and he had to bail. Why do you give him such a hard time, huh?
I was sad to see the festivals come to an end, but I was also happy to be able to turn my attention back to you girls. It’s hard to be a working mama. I struggle with this every day — how to be present to the two of you in the most meaningful way possible, how to be a good mother, and also how to attend to my career and to passion for writing. Of course these things — career and children — seem to erupt at the same time for most women. I don’t know if there’s an answer. The moms I know who stay home all day with their children seem just as frustrated and identity-stricken as those of us who try to work.
I wonder if the two of you will become mothers one day and what the experience will be like for you. I want to be there and witness it and be part of it so very, very much. I worry of course that I won’t be, simply because my mother wasn’t. It makes me think that I should write much, much more to you about motherhood. I want to tell you all the things I wished my own mother could have told me these last few years. I did have to laugh to myself while we were in Australia though, imagining one of you complaining to me one day about motherhood being hard and me saying, “Please, I took you girls to Australia when you were 3 and 3 months.” I’ll try not to hold it over your heads.
Anyway, we concluded our trip with a visit to a little peninsula called Port Douglas where I dragged you on more boats, crocodile tours and sky rails. At one point we all went out to a little island on the Great Barrier Reef. Jules you lay on a towel, kicked some sand into your face, nursed a bit, of course, and mostly watched your sister Vera who ran around in a life vest collecting coral.
Just before we disembarked the boat for the isle you started crying, Jules. A few older women turned their heads to look at us and I had a moment of panic. Oh god, they’re going to reprimand me for bringing a baby out here, I thought, standing quickly and bouncing you in an effort to soothe your cries. It was one of the few times I felt self-conscious about bringing you on this trip, about my decision to travel with such young children. Ultimately, I came home proud of my decision.
Although there are many, many pictures, I doubt either of you will remember this trip, but even so I do hope that something about taking you out in the world like this instills some sense of bravery and adventure in you. I’m not sure when we’ll take another trip this big, but now that we’ve done it once, I honestly can’t wait to do it again. I want see the whole world with you, my sweet girls.