The long haul

And now we rest ... Sort of.

For the first time in six months, Kates, Phoebe and I are together for the foreseeable future. And it is good.

Of course, we couldn't close our chapter in K-Town easily. Very little throughout these last six months has been easy. Why would finally closing on our house and making a cross-country, 9-hour move with a  2-year-old be easy?

Starting with flying to Milwaukee on Wednesday night. It had been sunny and clear that day in The 'Ville, but I'd seen weather alerts that were far less favorable for the upper midwest. My friend Mallory took me to the airport, and I arrived at the terminal to a long line and a lot of disgruntled people ...

I overheard talk of a tornado in the Chicago area. And on the board, the flight times were loaded with ...

Next day

Next day

And then ...

Milwaukee     847     On Time


I checked in. Got through security. Flight left on time and landed in Milwaukee less than an hour later. Kates was waiting for me at the gate, and we made the trek down I-94 once more ...

Back at our house in K-town, a bit of sadness crept in ... The fireflies flickered throughout the back yard. The wet green grass. The crickets chirping. The fresh flowers. And the moon illuminating all of it; I always loved the way the moon lit up our back yard, especially when the light reflected off the snow in winter time.

Our good friends Laura and Kevin welcomed us inside; they stayed at the house to watch Phoebe while Kates and I did the airport thing ... The greeting was brief. We knew we'd have more time to talk over the next few days ...

And it was going to be a long weekend.
* * *

On Thursday morning, the house was buzzing ... And the goodbyes began in earnest as we took Phoebe to her daycare for the last time.

As I did that first day two years ago, which seems so long ago now, I got the honor of taking her for her last day, too. Only Thursday was so much more fun ... Phoebe gleefully gave Kates a goodbye hug and kiss. Then she proudly carried her lunch bag with one hand and held my hand with the other as we walked through our back door, chattering all the way. It felt more like a first day of school then the start of a bittersweet, busy weekend ... Phoebe also was excited because she knew the kids were going in the pool for part of the day.

"I see Noni's house!" Phoebe said from her car seat, pointing down the block. She knew we were getting close, but we were still at least three blocks away.

We are forever indebted to "Noni" for the love and environment she provided Phoebe these last two years, and the personality she helped bring out of her. From Phoebe's mastery of numbers, letters and shapes to her interactions with others, it's tough to count all of the benefits. She became a part of our extended family, and all three of us will miss her.

After I returned home, Kates and I took advantage of having most of the day to ourselves. While Kates spent the morning packing boxes inside, I worked outside -- mowing, pulling weeds and admiring the beauty of my flower gardens one last time ...

Around 4, Kates and I went to Phoebe's daycare for the emotional goodbye. Noni had already given Phoebe a new baby doll -- a little sister for the older, much dirtier baby doll. When Kates and I arrived, we helped Phoebe unwrap a special t-shirt with the handprints of each of her daycare friends, and a photo collage of Phoebe at the daycare during the last two years.

The centerpiece of the the collage was an ode Noni wrote to Phoebe ...

To my precious Phoebe
A little chatterbox
You're as neat as a pin
And smart as a fox

You love to learn
Flash cards are your game
Not having you around
Just won't be the same

Your baby doll
Is always with you
You can sing the alphabet
Through and through

I love you precious Phoebe
I'll miss you very much
Maybe we can Skype
Just to keep in touch

When we finished exchanging cards and gifts, there was barely a dry eye in the house. Phoebe gave her signature goodbye hugs and kisses to everyone, including two of the little boys who have attended the daycare with her from the start. It was pretty sweet.

Then, one of the most memorable and comical moments of the weekend happened as we drove away ...

"I go to Mommy's house now?" Phoebe said.

"No, Phoebe. We're going to our house," Kates said. "It's Daddy's and Mommy's house."

To which Phoebe replied, "Oh! It's OUR house! Oh my God!"

Kates and I burst out laughing for a few seconds before Kates could say, "She did not get that from me."

"I can tell," I said. "I know exactly where she got it from. It sounds just like Noni."

We returned to the house and Kates' parents arrived a short time later. You know about the rest of the night ...

Hello, Summerfest. I love you.
* * *
Friday was mostly a blur.

Kates and I continued our packing and cleaning while Phoebe bounced around the house and watched her Barney videos ... We met our realtor to pre-sign all of the paperwork for our closing, and faced the grim revelation that we needed more money to pay for the closing that we first thought ... I met some of my newspaper colleagues for a lunch in downtown K-Town ...

Then, around 5:30 we entered a new depth of depression in the moving process ...

More than a month ago, I reserved a 24-foot truck from Budget -- the same mover I'd used for the move in January. Because I'd had a great experience with the company then, and the rates were fantastically economical.

But at 5:30 p.m., the dealer called me to report he had no 24-foot trucks available and he didn't think any would be arriving by the morning. He said Budget was overloaded with trucks in need of repairs, leaving a limited number of trucks available ... Disgusted, I told the dealer we needed that truck on Saturday morning. He said he'd do the best he could to get one for me.

So I drove to Milwaukee to pick up my parents (They were leaving their car at the airport so they could drive the moving truck and return from Kansas City by plane) under a dark cloud of wondering how the #$@% we were going to find a large moving truck on short notice, not to mention how we were going to afford it -- and come up with enough money to pay our closing costs so we could finally put our nightmare in home ownership to rest.

On our way back to K-Town from the airport, my father did the best thing anyone could have done. He changed the subject and asked, "How was Summerfest last night?" I began gushing and told him, "So worth it." I wanted to talk about anything but real estate and moving, and he knew it.

Back in our house, my parents retired to their air mattress in the basement rec room. Kates and I stayed up past midnight working out an emergency budget that would get us through our closing and the next week.

* * *

Dad and I were at the front door of the Budget dealership by 9 a.m., and then waited for another 10 minutes before the shop owner, an older Middle Eastern man in a half-buttoned shirt, appeared sauntering down the driveway to meet us and unlock the door.

With two 15-foot trucks sitting in the parking, Dad and I had hoped we could swing a deal to get the two 15-footers for the price of the missing 24-foot truck. But the dealer snuffed out that idea, saying it was reserved for another customer. Yeah, well, we reserved a 24-foot truck and apparently that didn't mean anything!

(I'm being really nice with my description. That and it was such a terrible experience that I'd rather not rehash every detail another time.)

We were desperate for any moving truck, and the dealer kept assuring us he would find a 24-foot truck for us. So we grudgingly signed for the 15-foot truck -- at the same rate as the 24-footer, which made no sense -- and moved on ... Oh, and Dad discovered once he was back at the house that the truck hadn't come with packing blankets, which we also reserved. I turned my car around and drove back to the dealer, only to have him tell me he didn't have the blankets either. Before he could give me another excuse or apologize, I turned around and pushed through the door without acknowledging him.

By the time I returned, we had a full house of friends and family standing by to begin loading the truck. Meanwhile, my father and Kates' father were standing over her at the kitchen table while she worked on calling every truck rental dealer she could find in a 60-mile radius ...

As Kates worked the phone, we started loading the 15-footer. The mattresses, a dresser and a couch went on the truck ...

During that time, another one of the most indelible images of the weekend was etched in my mind: My mother sitting with Phoebe on our rock wall in the front yard as they watched us carry furniture onto the truck. Phoebe was sitting so contently, with her hands in her lap, observing closely while Mom described what we were doing. ... When I built that wall years ago and planted the bulbs -- which were finally maturing this summer -- I envisioned some day sitting our children on the wall and taking pictures of them in their Sunday best, or dressed for the first day of school, with all the colors of the flower garden as a backdrop. It struck me as I noticed Phoebe sitting there, that was the closest I'd get to experiencing my vision. And that mental picture was the only one I could capture.

We were a few minutes into loading the truck when Kates came up with a 26-foot truck at a Uhaul dealer in a village 20 miles down the road. It would cost us about $400 more than the 24-footer we were supposed to get from Budget -- not to mention the 15-footer we did get. I told Kates, "Book it. And tell the dealer we need that truck. Don't let him give it anyone else. We need that truck."

So we turned to unloading the furniture we'd moved onto the 15-footer, and trying to get our money back on the sour deal with Budget. While the others continued packing, I retreated to our garage and called the dealer. I calmly told him we could not use the truck he'd rented to us, and we'd reserved a bigger truck at a different dealer. "We'd like to return the truck we have and get our money back," I said.

When he replied with, "I'm sorry I can't do that. You accepted the truck." -- I lit into him. We reserved a 24-foot truck more than a month in advance of our move. He called us less than 24 hours ahead of the pickup time to tell us he didn't have a truck; we had almost no time to make other arrangements.

"You didn't fulfill our agreement!" I told him, my voice quivering. "This is not right!"

"Let me call you back, OK," the man said, and he hung up the phone.

So I called Budget's corporate number. After waiting on hold and pacing our garage for about 20 minutes, a customer service representative picked up. I explained our situation, and made my argument for getting a refund. The woman echoed the dealer's point that we accepted the 15-foot truck, but agreed to contact the dealer to see if something could be worked out. She put me on hold again, and returned about 10 minutes later, saying the dealer agreed to reduce our charges to a one-day fee. That meant we'd at least get a few hundred dollars back, and that was better than nothing.

Several minutes later, we were returning the truck to the dealership, and the dealer softened. Without even broaching our earlier phone conversation, or the fact that a rep supposedly had spoken to him, he said he would give us all of our money back ... I did all I could to hold back a smile and thanked the man. And Dad told the dealer he'd better get with his manager and get Budget's business practices figured out  -- or words to that effect.

Redeemed, we boarded the car and headed to the Uhaul dealer ... It felt as though we'd entered a different part of the country. The Budget dealership was being run out of a small shack in a parking lot; the Uhaul dealership was being run in the corner of a secondhand country store located in the walkout basement of a gas station convenience store. The Budget dealership was being run by an edgy, grumbling Middle Eastern man; the Uhaul dealership was being run by a jubilant, down-home white guy who made no secret of his Christianity.

In no time, we had the truck checked out and were heading back to the house -- but not without one more hiccup. Dad was driving the Uhaul, while I was trailing him in the Forester. He pulled out of the parking lot and then picked up speed as he headed toward a busy stoplit intersection. Clearly, Dad had a green light and entered the intersection -- just as some kid in a sports sedan tried turning in front of him. I gasped and braced for an impact. Dad slammed on his brakes and barely missed broadsiding the kid's back corner. The car ended up on the median, its front end just missing a light pole. In the meantime, Dad drove through the rest of the intersection and pulled over while the rest of us parked at the intersection looked around with holy-crap expressions on our faces. Before Dad could get out of the truck to make sure the kid was ok, the kid sped off.

Back at the house, the others were finishing lunch. Dad and I wasted little time filling our plates and took a couple seats on the deck. Put through the ringer in the morning, the clock was now moving past 1 in the afternoon, and we still had a long way to go.

Soon enough, the furniture was moving onto the truck. We fed the boxes to Dad, and he worked his magic on the truck, filling every nook and cranny with belongings ... Phoebe was running all over the house and through the yard, occasionally convincing us to let her inside the truck where she proceeded to dance and jump around ... Inside Kates was trying to direct the packing process for our remaining belongings, but the boxes were being packed and loaded onto the truck so fast that we could hardly track what was being put where.

As the sun was setting around 7 o'clock -- and with no more than a couple feet of space left on the back end of the truck -- we were looking at the stuff left in the garage and trying to make decisions about what had to get on the truck ...

Somehow, some way, we did get all of our belongings on the truck. And we did it all before the sun went down.

After a quick snack in our newly-dim and empty kitchen, Kates and I spent the rest of the night cleaning the house, patching holes in the walls and painting over the remnants of our six wonderful years in the home.

For the third consecutive night, it was past midnight before we headed for bed.

* * *
We awoke around 6:30 a.m. Sunday, and promptly returned to the cleaning we hadn't finished the night before. Kates went back to cleaning the kitchen, and I went back to patching and painting walls ... Mom and Dad, meanwhile, boarded the moving truck and started their trek to Missouri shortly after 7. The plan was for us to pass them somewhere along the way, and have all of us in The 'Ville by late afternoon.

That was the plan.

When the clock passed 8, a multitude of things remained on our to-do list. I told Kates, "We have to be out of here by 9." Knowing we had at least an eight-hour drive, plus a couple gas-restroom-meal breaks ahead of us, we were risking an evening arrival in The 'Ville if we didn't get on the move.

Kates continued cleaning our kitchen appliances, while I struggled to fit what was left into our car. Between our bulky television and Phoebe's stroller, there was a time I was afraid we were going to have to leave some things behind. Luckily, Kates agreed to sit in the back seat with Phoebe, which gave me more room to play with in the front seat -- and the perfect amount of space for our vacuum.

Meanwhile, Phoebe played with her matching game in the empty living room, oblivious to all of it.

By 9 o'clock the cleaning wasn't finished. Fortunately, Kates' cousin, Jessi, had offered to step in and clean whatever we could not. So Kates made the call, and Jessi started making her way to our house while we started making our way out of K-Town.

Like just about everything that played out during the weekend, our final moments in the house were hardly the way I envisioned them. There was no sweet laughter as we walked through the house and shared some final reminiscing about the scenes that played out in certain corners. There wasn't a final stroll around the yard under a summer sun. There were no final family photos. There were no tears and consoling hugs.

Instead, I did a brisk final walk through the house while a storm brewed outside. Then I anxiously waited for Kates with an armload of things at the back door while she whisked up Phoebe to carry her to the car. It began pouring and thundering ...

As we stepped through our back door and onto our deck for the final time, Kates held Phoebe close and said, "See Phoebe, Kenosha is crying for us because we're leaving." It wasn't at all how I envisioned it, but that is a goodbye moment I will always cherish -- a fitting, bittersweet cap.

We pulled through the drive-thru at our beloved library to drop off one last batch of borrowed books, videos and CDs. And then we made our way toward the interstate in a relentless, heavy thunderstorm.

We were on our way.

* * *

Despite our late start, we made good time driving through Illinois. We stopped at the infamous Iowa 80 truckstop and found an Arby's for lunch. Another half hour, I figured, and we'd be catching up to Mom and Dad in the moving truck.

Then there was more trouble.

Phoebe hadn’t been a shade of herself since we left K-Town. It was easy to think perhaps she was simply sad and confused about what was happening ... But there was more to it than that. She wasn't smiling, she wasn't talking, she had no interest in eating her Goldfish crackers --which is Phoebe's ultimate comfort food.

After we sat down to start eating, Phoebe let out this scary burp that made Kates and I brace for flying food. In another moment Kates was rushing Phoebe to the bathroom in anticipation of whatever else was about to come out of Phoebe’s little mouth. But they returned several minutes later and Kates reported the bathroom trip was uneventful … We finished our Arby’s beef n' cheddar sandwiches, but Phoebe just picked at what was left of her chicken nuggets.

About a half hour later, we were belted back in the car, and I had my mind set on picking up more time, passing the moving truck and pulling into Maryville by 5 … But we had been driving for barely 10 minutes when Phoebe couldn't hold back any longer. She threw up in her lap.

Phoebe burst into a crying fit, and I hurriedly pulled off at the next exit ramp I saw. We ended up in the parking lot of Iowa State Patrol headquarters, and Kates took Phoebe to the grass under a shade tree for a cleaning and changing. In the meantime, I got the task of cleaning off Phoebe's car seat and airing out the car as best I could.

We parked for about a half hour and let Phoebe run around a bit before we started driving again ... But no sooner had we resumed the journey and Kates announced she was feeling nauseous. I pulled off the interstate once more and we landed at a general store inside a small town so Kates could use the restroom.

By the time she returned to the car, I calculated that it had taken us about two hours to travel like 30 miles. I figured we had fallen at least two hours behind Mom and Dad. We had yet to reach Des Moines, and at our pace, we'd be pushing 9 o'clock before we arrived in The 'Ville.

On the other hand, if my cross country travels have taught me anything it's that Iowa roads are excellent for picking up driving time.

So we set our minds on the homestretch. I stepped up my speed a little and Kates kept Phoebe occupied with some games in the back seat ... Around 6, our friend Gina called to ask about our ETA, and I told her I was hoping to have us in The 'Ville around 8; word on the street was she could assemble quite a moving crew ... Around 7, my mother called to say they were close to arriving -- turned out they made a wrong turn and lost some travel time, too -- and I instructed them on where to park the moving truck.

Sure enough, I cut an hour off our travel time, and we were driving into The 'Ville around 7:50. The sun was shining. All of us were smiling. The sense of relief, and anticipation for our fresh start, was enormous.

We pulled up to our new place, as Dad was parking the moving truck in our driveway. On cue, Gina and Jeff pulled up -- with a birthday cake in hand. Within minutes a dozen more friends and colleagues arrived, and the unloading party officially began.

Dad took his position in the truck again and began feeding me the boxes. I handed off each box and told our movers where to take them ... We worked at a furious pace and had the truck unloaded within a half hour, before sundown. Dad didn't think it would be possible, but I assured him we'd get it done.

Once the truck was empty, Gina was cutting the cake and I got an impromptu birthday celebration with our new friends. A birthday I will never forget.

* * *
We made a point on Sunday night of setting up our bed so we could at least spend our first night in the new place sleeping in it.

The rest of the house, however, was a disaster area. There was hardly a path to walk -- anywhere.

Eventually, I got to a point where I needed to escape, and went into my office ... The first words from the mouths of almost everyone I saw around campus were, "What are you doing here?" There was no easy to way answer that.

Around 5:30, I returned home with a pizza for supper. When I pulled onto the driveway, I caught Phoebe watching for me at the living room window and announcing “Daddy’s home!”

After six long, draining and twisting months of separation, I couldn't have envisioned a sweeter homecoming than that.

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