The original plan was to go to France.
A year ago or so, my Kennedy Center chorus announced that we’d been invited to participate in the Berlioz Festival at the composer’s birthplace, near Lyon, in late August 2012. A tour! A real European tour! With Leonard Slatkin and Norman Scribner and France! Oh hell yes, I was going. I had no vacation time to speak of, having only just gotten back from maternity leave, but I did have a year to work out logistics. I eagerly set about squirreling away annual leave and collecting anecdotes on traveling with (or without) children under two. This trip became the object of all my plans; any other major life events in the five-year plan could wait until after I got back from France.
But then logistics reminded me that they had never been my strong suit, and the trip started to look not so likely after all. Where would Natalie go for two weeks? She couldn’t exactly come along with me to rehearsal, and her daddy had not planned to provide two weeks of full-time childcare (stateside or in France) while I spent four or five hours a day singing. And even if he could’ve made it work, we’d still be spending two weeks in a Holiday Inn equivalent on the outskirts of Lyon, with scant opportunities to explore the rest of France between rehearsals and performances and recording sessions.
Then, in mid-March, while my car was in the shop, I had a fender bender in the loaner car, a shiny new Audi Q5 SUV. Better yet, the car I bumped into was a Hummer. And best of all, several days later after I’d boycotted the loaner car, I had another fender bender in &’s car, with which I neatly sheared off the passenger mirror of a Toyota Camry belonging to another parent at our daycare. Within the space of five days I suddenly found myself on the hook for repairs on five different cars (remember, mine was in the shop to begin with).
There went the France budget.
Around that time, in the course of our episodic Sunday open-house-going (a hobby that & and I had been cultivating for the past year), we hit pay dirt. A huge, beautiful house in North Cleveland Park instantly felt like home. Except that it was six bedrooms’ worth of ginormous. And well beyond our price range. And it didn’t have a garage. But primarily, it was just so freakin’ big that I couldn’t imagine how we’d live there without our family taking on a significantly different shape.
There were too many unknowns, too many questions. At the Starbucks above the Van Ness metro stop, I swallowed my espresso, took a deep breath, and decided it was time to answer some of them. “No,” I announced, “we won’t put an offer in on that house today. But we will start looking in earnest for the house that is ours. And we’ll start trying for another baby right away. And I won’t be going to France.”
The sun came out on my husband’s face: he approved of this plan.
Sundays became Househunting Day in earnest. We would spend all week picking through Trulia, drooling over the features we coveted, snarking mercilessly at the absurd excesses. Then we’d bundle Natalie into the car and head off across town, to Mount Pleasant, to Columbia Heights, to Tenleytown, to Capitol Hill. The District of Columbia is packed to the gills with charming rowhouses oozing history and hardwood and granite countertops; what they didn’t have so much were garages, metro stops, nearby grocery stores or attractive public schools. It was great sport, but as the weeks went by, my vision began to cloud. Maybe there wasn’t a place for us to live here after all. Maybe street parking was all you could get for seven figures. Maybe we should consider putting bunk beds in the condo.
And then &’s sister suggested that we look in her neighborhood, a part of town we’d never considered.
The Palisades are north and west and more north and more west of Georgetown. If you follow the Potomac River but stop about a mile or so before you hit Maryland, that’s where you’ll be. It is remote and breathtakingly expensive and not convenient to the metro, and my first reaction was to dismiss it out of hand. Until & showed me a Trulia listing for a mid-century modern house that had me laughing from the gas fireplace onward. “It’s a James Bond villain house!”
But he really, really liked it, and it stayed on our radar even as other exciting options fizzled.
[and now we get to the part where everything happens at once]
One Sunday afternoon in mid-April, we returned home from a fruitless afternoon of house-touring in Columbia Heights, cranky and low in the blood sugar. & jogged down the block to pick up some Chinese takeout. Natalie played grumpily on the living room floor. I stood at the breakfast bar checking email. This was, as it turned out, an unforgivable breach of my maternal duties: I was not paying attention when Natalie toddled over to Buford, our basset hound. I did not hear him growl when she leaned in too close to his face and attempted to kiss him on the muzzle. All I saw was the dog lunging forward, a moment later, onto a screaming supine toddler.
I dove in, swooped her up, smacked Buford across the muzzle and turned my attention to Natalie. “Awwww,” I said, “did the doggie snap at you? Shhh, you’re all right. He just snapped. He doesn’t like it when –”
— and then I saw the blood.
Natalie was not all right. When Buford snapped at her, she had been too close to his mouth, and he had cut her face. She had a gash on her scalp, another right by her left eye — oh dear God, her eye — and suddenly there was blood everywhere, in her hair, on her face, in her mouth, on her clothes, on mine.
& came home with the Chinese food and found us in the bathroom, both bawling our eyes out, both covered in blood. “We need to go to the hospital,” I said to him, and then later, as we sat in the GW emergency room, “I cannot atone for this.”
“You don’t need to,” he replied, and then later still, after we had been transferred to Children’s Hospital and a hysterical Natalie was having her face sutured, “We need to find a new home for Buford.”
“Yes, we do.”
“Because he can’t stay with us any more.”
“No, he can’t.”
I will say only this. I’m not sure which is worse: listening to a sixteen-month-old in a surgical straitjacket scream her way through a half dozen stitches in her face, or watching your husband part with a dog he’s had for more than twice as long as he’s known you, the companion who stood at his side through the roughest times in his life. I know I would prefer to avoid witnessing either ever again.
Within a week, I relented on my judginess and we took a tour of the James Bond Villain House. We promptly fell in love with it. More particularly, we fell in love with the first floor, which included a brilliant enormous kitchen and the largest screen porch either of us had ever seen in the District of Columbia. It also had that rarest of features, a two-car garage with an actual driveway in front: indoor parking for our cars, plus off-street parking for three additional cars. No, it wasn’t near the metro, but it did have a bus stop at the end of the block (as did my condo). We slept on it, woke up the next morning, and decided to put in an offer.
Scene: It is April 22, 2012, and it is POURING rain. Phyllis, our wonderful realtor, drives down from Bethesda in the deluge and writes up an offer at our dining room table while I am pulling on my electric-blue concert gown and & is fastening his cuff links. Phyllis departs to file the offer, and we head off to the Kennedy Center for Norman Scribner’s farewell concert, the amazing, profound, impossible-not-to-burst-into-tears-this-time Brahms Requiem.
Everyone on stage, down to the very last Bass 2, indeed burst into tears at the ovation. Between the power of the Brahms and the departure of our legendary maestro, I was blubbering like a baby. And it sure didn’t hurt that I’d been witness to my daughter’s agony and my husband’s misery within the week. Or that, a few days earlier, this happened:
(In non-layman’s terms: I had a beta of 118 on Tuesday, which had more-than-doubled to 288 by Thursday. The last time we tried this experiment, Natalie took over three days to not-quite-double; the time before that, Loss #1 had disappeared altogether. This little germ of a person had some mighty, mighty mojo.)
But the week wasn’t done with us yet. A message from Phyllis the Amazing Realtor awaited us at home: the sellers had received, and countered, another offer, but our competitors apparently were annoying the sellers with nitpicky reasons why the counteroffer was unreasonable. “You should send an email or something, telling them all the things you liked about the house,” Phyllis suggested.
“We’re going to get the house based on an email??”
“Based on an award-winning email,” said Phyllis.
So we sat down at my computer, let all of the energy of the week play out through our fingers, and drafted that award-winning email. We told the sellers how much we admired the Frank Lloyd Wright vibe of the house, and and how we loved that they had a Turkish evil eye charm and a Green Man hanging up, since now we knew exactly where to put our own Turkish evil eye charm and Green Man.
An hour later, we had a ratified contract.
And then the week was done with us.
And now we have a house. And one fewer pet. And one more baby on the way.
And, finally, a moment to be grateful.