The Third Little Traveler is learning units in Math. In the middle of explaining that units come in singles, then tens and hundreds, he stopped with a question. What's a family unit? Why do they call it that? How can all those people be just one unit?
I had no idea, so my answer had nothing to do with math and a lot to do with sentiment. Together, we stand as one, if one of us is missing, it doesn't feel right, everything loses its balance. If one of us is missing, there's an empty chair at the dinner table, a table setting gets accidently placed, there's an extra chicken leg on the bbq and at the end of the night, an empty bed and a kiss thats been missed. "I need more than just one chicken leg for dinner" he said.
The third little traveler began his life in a state of perpetual motion. Living in temporary accommodation for the first few months of his life, he'd managed to stamp his passport with Malta, Libya, The UAE, Australia and Canada by the time he was five months old. When he wasn't on a plane, he was on wheels, he spent the first few years of his life on the run from his older sister, she was 14 months old when he was born and had a penchant for tossing things towards his head at close range. Initially we kept him up high and on wheels, once he learnt to walk, he was running, usually from her.
It's hardly surprising that this is the child that I find hardest to track down. At age seven, he's a child who wakes and exits the bed at the speed of a guided missile, minutes later he's dressed, fed and on the street. There's no time to wait, places to go, people too see. Most of the time this is fine, but there's been a few occasions where as a parent, its been slightly disturbing, and to be honest, a little embarrassing if you're trying to fool everyone that you're at the top of your parenting game.
High on the list of how are we going to explain this to the child authorities, was the morning he left the house without us having any idea. He was five. As we sat at the breakfast table in Houston one Saturday morning, he shook his head after being offered eggs on toast "I've already eaten thanks". After we realized he was serious he explained that he'd had breakfast next door. As you can imagine the neighbours were positively delighted when he rang the door bell at around six a.m. It turns out he'd enjoyed a meal, a chat, a quick game on their Xbox and returned home before any of us had even got out of bed.
In Qatar, our compound life has provided all of the Little Travelers with a play date utopia. A perpetual door knock without the collection tin, house to house, there's always someone around to ride a bike, kick a ball or swing on a swing. Naturally there are rules, you don't leave the house until after 9 a.m. on a weekend, you don't go inside a house where we don't know the parents, you come home for meals and when the street lights come on, its time to come home for the day. The other steadfast rule in our house, no sleepovers until your six years old.
Not being a big fan of the sleepover, I've managed to hold off with the third little traveler until this weekend. Late on Friday afternoon he and his buddy entered the house like a whirlwind, both of them talking over the top of each other "Nate's Mum said we could, please please please" I looked at those big blue eyes, he was desperate, I tried to convince him otherwise. I tried luring him with the dinner he was going to miss, it didn't work. I reminded him it was American Idol night, still nothing. "Are you sure?" I said. "Please Mum" he begged. He was going to have his very first sleep over.
A few moments later he was half way out the door. In his backpack he'd packed, pyjamas, a drink bottle, toothbrush, change of clothes and a piece of cheese. As he hit his stride I heard "hang on Nate, I forgot something" he came running towards me with a big smile and planted a kiss on my cheek, "love you Mum" and then he was gone. I know its pathetic, but yes, there may have been a tear in the corner of my eye.
As we sat in our usual spots at dinner we all said the same thing "its not the same", we wondered how he was, what he was doing, what he was eating, did they watch American Idol? As we moved to the couch we all took our places. The dynamics were different, it was quieter, it was like we were still in the play but one of the main characters hadn't made it on to the stage. We were having to improvise. Then the phone rang, it was Nate's Mum "Is this his first sleep over?" he was coming home.
It wasn't just me, we were all excited. With grins from ear to ear we raced to the front door, from a distance I could see him making his way down the street on his little orange bike, legs peddling as fast as they could, we waved and clapped as he got closer. As I leant down to kiss his cheek I could taste the salt from his tears "I missed you" he said. The other little travelers gathered around him, someone put his bike away, someone else took his backpack (and quickly checked for hidden treats) and we all made our way back to the couch.
I know it can't stay like this. Each year it will alter slightly. Children grow up, they go on camps, have nights with other families, they develop independence. I also know though, that this feeling of mine will never go away.
When I sit with friends who have adult children, I listen to them talking of the "next visit". They plan with excitement when they will all be together again. Graduations, birthday dinners, anniversaries, maybe a holiday away if they're lucky. Their eyes light up as they run through the details, in the same way mine did when that little orange bike made its way back home.
There's a reason its called the family unit. Together you stand as one. It doesn't feel the same, if one of you is missing.