Life, Changing

About six months ago, I returned to my apartment in The Hague with a new sense of uncertainty. This small, one-bedroom apartment, in a city where I never before imagined myself living, has easily ranked as one of my very favorite places to live. The beautiful window, the sweet garden, the charming neighborhood. Normally, after spending some days or weeks away, I would return to this apartment’s warm embrace, so happy to be home.

“Hey friend,” the apartment would say. “How was your trip? Why don’t you have some tea while we listen to Luther Vandross? Oh, you’d rather hear Tracy Chapman? She’s also great. Wanna stick around for the next few days and not bother with the outside world? Yeah, me too.”

But this time, the apartment’s greeting was different. I probably spent too much time away, because our pleasant dynamic was now cold familiarity. For the first time since I moved in nearly four years earlier, I wondered what I was doing there. This comfort zone was starting to feel like a mistake.

Six months earlier, I was optimistic about my future in The Hague, or at least in the Netherlands. Challenges foreseen, I was committed to making it work. Although I couldn’t see too far in the future, staying in the same place felt like my best, safest option. And in my stubborn fashion, I wasn’t looking for an alternative.

“This is the dream!” I sometimes reminded myself. I was living in Europe on my own terms, making my own choices – big and small. Circumstances weren’t perfect, but they were getting there. I just wanted to stay in the Netherlands for as long as possible, and most definitely did not want to live in the United States again. I just had to stick with the plan.

I’m sure you know the saying about God or the universe having a giggle when you start to make plans. It’s only annoying because it’s true.

On a morning when the sun was probably shining, I lived an ideal day. I sat in my garden with my laptop and a pot of tea. Several podcasts and a playlist later, I took a break from work and procrastination to check my phone and maybe eat some lunch.

It was a day like this when I received a message from mom, calmly confirming our worst fears. Breast cancer, chemo, radiation, surgery, life, changing.

So, when it comes to family and people you love, plans don’t hold much weight. Whatever I planned to accomplish for the remainder of 2017 took a backseat to my mother’s recovery. At least, that’s what I want you to believe. That, without hesitation, I scrapped my plan.

At first, I did. What can I do? Where do I need to be? How quickly can I get there?

Shortly after my mom started her treatment, I was in Chicago. For several weeks I joined her for treatments, met with her doctors, helped out around the house, and made sure she had everything she needed. When the doctor explained the treatments were expected to get more intense, I extended my stay for a few more weeks.

My mom needed me, and I was happy to be there for her. But the plan started calling with a surprisingly selfish tone. I didn’t live in Chicago, so I couldn’t stay much longer. I needed to get back to my life in the Netherlands. When I knew mom would be okay, I would get back to pursuing my dream of… just sticking to the plan.

I returned to the Netherlands when I thought she was in good shape. The chemo treatments were brutal, but we knew what to expect, and she was handling them relatively well. I left her with food and whatever else I thought she needed. And I would return to Chicago in about four weeks to check on her.

I didn’t doubt my decision until I returned to my apartment, expecting a warm embrace. Instead, I was filled with doubt. Initially, I blamed the subletter who stayed in the place while I was away. Furniture was moved, the smell of tobacco lingered, and most of my stuff was still packed away. I would have to make it feel like home again, even if it meant forcing it.

I sought sympathy from a friend, telling her, “It’s hard not being able to stay with my mom through the entire treatment, but I still have to move my life along over here. I wish I could be in two places at once.”

“I guess,” she responded. “But if I had another chance to see my mom through her cancer treatment, I would drop everything to be with her.”

Once I saw beyond the shock of tough love, I seriously considered my friend’s advice. Dropping everything. The plan to stay in the Netherlands, the hesitation about returning to the United States. How much of it mattered? And what was the cost of a changed plan?

Within a week, I was back in Chicago – just in time, since my mom’s health had quickly declined. Then, after a month or two in the US, I returned to the Netherlands for another three weeks. This was enough time to purge most of my belongings, and pack up what was left into storage.

When I moved out of my apartment in The Hague, I expected a familiar sense of discomfort and uncertainty about the future. Without this plan in motion – this dream – of living in my own place in the Netherlands, where would I be headed? Would I be stuck living in the US again? Would I get back on track, maybe return to Amsterdam in a few months? Would I find somewhere entirely new to live? Suddenly, again, everything was up in the air.

But this time, I didn’t feel afraid. The only thing that mattered was my mom’s health. Everything else about some stupid plan would have to wait. Best decision I’ve made in a really long time.

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