About this summer

We got Rosie on a whim one day, two years ago. We were just settling into living in Austin and Lily kept asking for a puppy or a bunny or a turtle. In the chaos of all the moving parts, I decided that the only pet we could really handle was a fish. Even then I worried about finding the ten minutes to wash her bowl every few weeks, but I knew my girl just wanted something to love and call her own in this new and strange place, and so off we went to the pet shop.

I think it’s safe to say we all loved Rosie too much. We loved this beta fish more than I think people are expected to love such a thing. We looked up training tips online and after only a few weeks she was jumping out of the water for her food, and following our finger, dragged along the side. When we turned on the light in the kitchen where she lived, her tiny fins would start going and she’d swim all around, and we decided it was because she loved us back.

Rosie was our girl and in some small, but very real, way, she made our tiny two bedroom third floor apartment in Austin feel a little bit more like Home.

When we set off on our Airstream adventure years before, we vowed we’d find our place. We dedicated a blank page in my journal to writing down the things we learned along the way that were going to be our must haves. Each town we visited on our travels brought us new insight, new dreams, new deal breakers, and by the time we made it from Maine to Miami, our vision was crystal clear and made-up of the typical things you’d expect: small town, warm(ish) winters, and mild summers, strong community feeling, excellent schools, and reasonably priced homes. But there were also a few things on there that were just for us, things like a little knitting shop, a little yoga studio, a post office where the workers remember your name, a great library that was built over 100 years ago, a feeling like you’re tucked in and quiet but with space to think, sidewalks.

Our list was kind of weird, but it was ours and we were determined to figure it out. But by the time we made it west from Florida to Austin, we couldn’t go another inch on our quest. Thomas had a broken collar bone with severe complications that needed medical attention and my food-related-OCD was completely out of control. I was down to 90 pounds and convinced that everything I touched was contaminated in some way. It was time to stop, and looking back, surrender.

Last week I was watching the Olympic hurdling event and this woman was running her heart out when she suddenly crashed down on the ground. Her arms sprawled out in front of her, her legs spread behind. There was nothing graceful about this fall. Thomas and I began chatting how terrible it must feel to work so hard and devote your entire life to something only to end up flat on your face, skinned knees and broken heart. Damn it if I don’t know exactly what that feels like. But then we lamented about how this has happened to several athletes during the week, and how when interviewed none of them mentioned giving up. “What do you think went wrong? How do you feel?” the news commentators would ask, and time and time again the athletes would say something like, “These things just happen. Today wasn’t my day.” Simone Biles grabbed onto the balance beam for dear life with the entire world watching, and her coach’s official statement echoed this same c’est la vie approach to failure. You win some, you lose some and that’s just how it goes.

When we (crash) landed here, I decided that Austin checked off only one of the things on our beautiful list: excellent schools. One. So, from that perspective, I felt like the ultimate failure, like an Olympic diver landing flat on my back, the sound of the giant splash echoing endlessly. But instead of immediately getting back up and dusting myself off, Olympic style, I’ve instead been, in so many ways, floating around in a big ol’pool of defeat. And I know these sentiments might seem selfish and petty in the giant scale of world suffering and human struggle, but for me, it was what I had trained for my entire life and then lost. Home. But it seems this is just part of living. It seems that sometimes, shit just doesn’t go as planned no matter how perfect and hard you train and prepare and wish and hope and do every single thing right.

Still, the dream doesn’t ever really go away. Eventually, after the bruises heal, the goal returns and again replaces the fear.  It’s why Olympians come back year after year after year, even after devastating loss.

We spent this last summer camping in Connecticut for 12 weeks. Sure it was difficult at times because, I mean, dumping your full black tank in the pouring rain is never an ideal summer vacation check-box item. But I can say without hesitation it was the best summer of my entire life. Sure the lakes, hikes and farmer’s markets were incredible, but it was so much deeper than any of that.

Over the past three months in the New England woods, I defeated my food-related-OCD completely. After a weekend trip to Castle Hill Inn, and an incredible spread of room service, the beast just seemed to go away. Up until that point, as I’ve shared about a ton, I wasn’t able to eat out at restaurants, or really anywhere other than my own home. But this summer I ate all of the things, for better or for worse. French fries with cheese sauce, ice cream sundaes, my Gram’s pasta sauce. Heck, I even gained 15 pounds! I called it my happy weight and when I feel my little booty shake when I run and dance now, it makes my heart smile so big. I worked so hard for that itty bitty wiggle!

While we were up in New England, I also reconnected with friends. And I guess I could write an entire dissertation on this, but I think up until this point in my life I’ve protected myself by keeping a safe distance. But this summer, I spent just about every damn day hugging their necks and loving them with all of my heart, and allowing myself to be loved back. And I think that last part was the biggest shift: the realization that sure I’m a hot mess and completely inappropriate and totally unconventional (and brutally direct), but I am also loveable. I, even with all of my ungraceful failures and horrible character defects, deserve love. And so I let it in. I forgave and was forgiven, and I don’t have words for just how healing it was.

I spent my summer soaking up sunshine and sparrow songs and Salmon River magic. I memorized my Gram’s wrinkles and smelled her soft hair. Every single day.

So it only makes sense that we tried to stay. That we found our dream home at the beach, complete with a pottery studio space in the basement, and tiny incredible schools for the kids, and offered them asking price. I made a Pinterest board of decorating ideas. I ordered a shirt that said, “Lake hair, don’t care,” and Thomas and I joked that they’d name a bench at the end of the road, at the water’s edge, after us when we die. When we left Connecticut all those years ago, everything felt fractured there, but standing in that home, we were in another world entirely. It was as if we needed to leave so we could grow and fall and then return. It was meant to be, we kept saying. It was just all so perfect.

Until it wasn’t. Until the people we were buying the home from decided not to buy the house they wanted. How and why that happened is still so confusing to me, but in the end we were told to pack up our things and head back to Texas because minds were changed and we no longer had our dream home. It was nothing we did, we were assured, it’s just that sometimes these things happen and deals fall through.

I instantly grieved. I’m not even going to try and pretend there was anything beautiful about this, because the truth is I ugly cried nonstop and threw tantrums and lost my appetite. I sobbed each time I thought of leaving my Gram, and my friends, and my beloved little library up the road. The vegetable stand, the ocean, the river. All of it felt impossible to leave.

Still we have children who needed to start school, so we hitched up our camper and climbed into our truck and, with eyes swollen from saying goodbye, we began our 5 day drive back to Texas. We decided that if Texas was meant to be then we’d just buy a home there and make it awesome. We’d paint the front door sea foam green and hang black and white photos of the beach in the living room. We’d facetime our CT people weekly and buy plane tickets for them to come visit as much as possible. We’d dig our heels in deep, and make it happen. And if there was no magic to be found, we’d make our own.

So we put an offer on a Texas house, sight unseen. And it was accepted. And we daydreamed and planned, and it made the sting of leaving a little bit less excruciating. Nothing cures a breakup like a rebound, right? But when we got the inspection report it warned of foundation cracks and siding rot and roof leaks. Nightmare stuff that we wanted nothing to do with.

So, somewhere in Virginia, without a house to distract me, I began to unravel. I begged the Universe to please give me clarity, to map out a route, to grant me permission to U-turn and drive back to CT. Anything. Something.

But no answers arrived. We decided we’d give it 24 hours there before deciding which way to go: North or South. We put on our bathing suits and walked outside to the hotel pool. Lily made everything better with her Olympic diving attempts and even though I felt totally without gravity, I knew, at least, I was tethered to unimaginable beauty. They are my home, I repeated in my head. There is nothing here that needs fixing.

And then we went to the truck in the parking lot to get my wallet out of the glove box so we could get snacks from the pool vending machine and found Rosie, dead and sunk to the bottom of her mason jar. In the chaos of our heart-storms, we had forgotten to bring her up to the hotel room and so she literally cooked in the Southern heat. I killed our family pet.

Immediately I ran into the camper and turned on the cold water and began to pour it over her. One of her eyes fell out and rushed down the drain, but I still believed I could bring her back. There I stood, barefoot in my chlorine soaked bikini, tears streaming down my cheeks, trying to resurrect our beloved little beta. Thomas stood by silently, Lily too, and when nothing I did worked (because of course it didn’t) I collapsed.

“I can’t say goodbye to one more thing,” I sobbed into myself. “I can’t bear anymore goodbyes.”

It’s a maddening thing to be stuck in the middle of the country with no idea which way to go next. We made pros and cons lists so much that we ran out of paper and even then we used the backs of paper plates. We asked advice from friends and complete strangers and when we tried to flip a coin it rolled into a freaking storm drain. We didn’t laugh.

I honestly don’t know what made us decide, but the next morning we headed South. I think it was the fact that Thomas had to work and we had no place to live up North, and at least we had an apartment and schools waiting for us in Texas. One-eyed-Rosie came along for the trip, too, because there was no way I was going to bury her in the middle. We were all in this together and so we’d all cross the finish line together. Lily made jokes about arriving dead-or-alive, and we laughed, but looking back it kind of wasn’t funny. It was basically insane, actually, but you can’t change a story. It is what it is.  

We rolled into Texas on a Monday and by Wednesday I had another house picked out. It was brick and new and had a big space for a garden in the backyard. When I walked around the neighborhood every single person I passed waved and said hello. On the drive to show my parents, a giant rainbow appeared in the sky. This, I decided, would be the happy ending to it all. This, was our pot of gold.

Again we put an offer (that’s three houses in two weeks if you’re keeping track) and again our offer was accepted. I printed out the paperwork to register Lily at her new school, folded it up in thirds, slipped it in my backpack and headed out the door. But on my way between our apartment and the school, I got a text from our agent that explained at the last second the elderly seller changed his mind. His son had entered the picture and wanted the house and so the owner was going to gift the house to him and let him rent it out as an income property. We could be first in line if we wanted to lease it.

Now here’s the thing. I know at this point you must be thinking - Michelle is making some of this shit up. There is no way that three different homes could all fall through without it being at least partly the Gardella’s fault. But I am telling you, our offers were for full price, our down payment money was ready to roll, and our mortgage lender (who also happens to be a saint by the way) was just waiting for the word to hand over the funds. All three houses fell apart right before our eyes and there was not a single thing we could have done differently.

And I felt defeated. I felt frustrated, and sad and cheated. I cooked meat sauce and roasted chickens and made celery soup. I chopped beets and squash and watermelon and cleaned every single corner of everything - because I couldn't sit still. I knew that the second I stopped it would all hit me like a brick to the neck. My gram's hands knitting as she sat beside me on her couch, the smell of her pie...

And then yesterday happened, and I really need to tell you about yesterday. About my two children, one 14 entering high school and one 6 entering first grade, and how they went to their first days of school and came home GLOWING. About how I cooked a giant meal and over dinner they could not stop talking about every incredible second of their days. About how looking at them so happy and confident, I knew with every single ounce of my being that everything had led us to this point. To all of us sitting in our little apartment, eating, laughing and celebrating.

In the middle of dinner I got a text message from the original house in CT. He was writing to tell me that there was a change of plans and that if we wanted the house it was ours. I didn’t say anything and just kept soaking up the enthusiasm of the room. Eventually I wrote him back and explained that if he had written any other day before, I would have dropped everything and ran back. But mine is the heart of a mother’s and my children come first. They belong here. I know that, now. 

Last night I wrote in my journal, after everyone was asleep, trying to wrap my mind around it all, and I realized some things.

“What if,” I scribbled, “this is where we were meant to be all along? Because maybe it’s not about happily ever. Maybe it’s more about grateful ever after. And maybe it’s time I stopped feeling like Austin was a huge belly flop in the Olympic diving pool of life, and instead see it as a gift. Sure it didn't check off the list we had made but maybe it fulfills lists more magnificent that we never even thought to make with things like 'no income tax' or 'nerdiest high school in the world' on it. Maybe the glass really is half full, and maybe it’s time to stop walking around with a one-eye'd dead fish in your cup once and for all.”

So here I am in Austin, still in my apartment, still with an aching heart for everyone I miss so much back in Connecticut. And I thought of waiting to publish this until we were finally in a house, sort of like when I had a miscarriage but didn’t really open up about it until I was happily pregnant with my next child. But the truth is, sometimes I think the best parts are right before the punctuation mark, and sometimes, I think standing, hand in hand, on the edge of a cliff (hanger) is kind of beautiful, too.

We thought about getting a plant and burying Rosie in the dirt, but instead we threw her in the apartment dumpster. I think it’s better this way.

I think this is a time for new beginnings, and I'm starting to accept that fresh starts are not always easy, in fact they can be down right awful, but that doesn't make them any less beautiful or brave or worth it.