My husband called from a business trip, and I asked, “Where are you again?” He laughed, a little unsure of the location. After all, he could be anywhere. Such is the life of a spouse whose partner has achieved airline Elite Status. Jeff even has an Elite Status carpet in his office, a gag gift from a sympathetic colleague.
Jeff recently took a more senior position that requires travel. He is somewhere in the United States one or two days of every week or one week a month. Before this position he seldom traveled, and his rare business trips were a source of panic for me as I pondered the prospect of a week alone with an infant and a preschooler. My parents would visit, fearful that I would burn down the house or leave the porch light on (we don’t work for the electric company).
When this job began, we all had a period of adjustment. Our now 7-year-old asked, “Why is Daddy always leaving?” Jeff explained that travel equals money for things like our new computer. Emily replied, “Then I don’t want the computer. I want my daddy.” He would have been less hurt if she stabbed him in the back with her safety scissors.
Then there was the night 4-year-old Sarah did a spectacular fall into the office furniture when Jeff was away. She looked up with her head covered in blood. I took her and her sister to the emergency room, remaining surreally calm through her six stitches and heart-rending cries. A lovely nurse cared for my older daughter during the stitching so I could concentrate on Sarah. She came home with her little head wrapped in white gauze like a war veteran. I just felt like one.
I know many women, and a few men, who manage the home front alone on a regular basis. It is an odd position, neither single parent nor member of the Cleaver family. We occupy some middle ground where spouses fly home exhausted, suitcases filled with smelly clothes, car rental receipts and granola bar wrappers. We buy travel-size mouthwash and forever rush to the dry cleaner for the shirt that must be picked up for a trip. Since my part-time job requires no travel, there are few paybacks.
I have found some benefits. When Jeff travels we eat foods he hates: pasta, pork chops, cotton candy in a bag. Jeff has much more flexibility to work from home before or after a trip, and he is just generally happier in a position with greater autonomy. He also feels no hesitation about taking off for important dates, such as a nursery school pageant.
We now spend most of his free time as a family and hire people to do the jobs he used to do. The girls can’t wait to see him, and their time together is silly and joyous. They plant flowers, paint pictures and generally make a mess. We don’t waste the days together because they will end too soon.
I have learned how to unstick a jammed garage door (call in the tall, next-door neighbor), handle a cat who is having a stroke in the kitchen (get to the animal E.R. and take out your checkbook), find a little free time for myself (the little one can’t tell time yet and does not notice an early bedtime), fight loneliness (have dinner with a mom whose husband is traveling to India) and just Take Care Of Business.
A priest friend of ours commented that many of the couples he knows who have the strongest marriages spend some time apart. He thought that some separation might result in a greater appreciation of the partner and the relationship. I am reminded of Paul Eluard’s lovely poem “The Absence,” which begins, “I speak to you across cities; I speak to you across plains. My mouth is upon your pillow.”
I can certainly see some validity to our priest’s theory. Of course, the theory falls apart if you are heading to the emergency department at night with a child bleeding from the head. In that case the absent partner, through no fault of his or her own, is temporarily referred to as “the louse.”
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness,” wrote Khalil Gibran, “And let the winds of heaven dance between you.” Maybe Gibran achieved Elite Status or maybe he was just finding a new way to say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Winds of heaven dancing between us sounds good to me, as long as the next space in our togetherness involves a colorful ladies weekend for me in Vegas.
Beth Apone Salamon is a writer and a public relations specialist in the health care industry whose freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines. She has just completed a nonfiction book, co-written with another Notre Dame graduate.