This is a guest post from my son Shane. He wrote it a few weeks ago on the day he, Shan, Dermot and MaMa moved apartment. I hope you enjoy it.
Yesterday we moved apartment.
It is a normal, everyday event that has had a surprising affect on me. Certainly, as our son Dermot continues to grow and explore at a phenomenal rate, the members of our new family of three generations are all ecstatic to be moving into a bigger place, where everyone will finally have some personal space and room to breathe. For me though it has been a transition of mixed emotions.
Luckily the move itself has been relatively painless. We’ve taken over the apartment right next door, which is owned by a very good friend of ours, Saul. By complete coincidence or kismet, he bought his 21st floor apartment just two months after I started renting a few metres away.
Aside from the parks, alfresco dining and general family atmosphere, having a good friend as a neighbour and a growing little community of friends who live nearby has been a large part of the reason I’ve stayed firmly grounded in the upper eastside of Beijing for so long. It isn’t the suburbs, but it feels like a town. This is even truer since Dermot was born. Now we are part of the Chinese community of families and my son is a minor celebrity as the only mixed race child in their group. By day a congregation of grannies gather with their grandchildren in the shade of our building or on the benches next to the fishpond. When I arrive home in the evening, I’m greeted warmly by all of them as Mama passes Dermot to me and he gives me some much needed, very public affection.
For my wife Shan and me, leaving this area when our lease was up simply wasn’t an option. Now that Saul has migrated back home to Miami, he has agreed to rent us his wonderfully furnished apartment at a good price, knowing we would take good care of it and it of us.
The apartment I have left behind has been my home for 4 ½ years. That’s longer than any one place I have lived in with the exception of the house where I grew up. It is also the first place I ever lived alone, which I enjoyed immensely. After a couple of years, it became the first home I shared with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, her mother and her cat. It was on one knee on the dusty floor of this apartment that I asked Shan to marry me.
This home, a 98sqm, two-bedroom flat with a large couch, big TV, and panoramic views of the northeasterly outskirts of an ever-sprawling Beijing city, was a real find for me back in ‘09. It isn’t a glamorous apartment by any stretch. It has its quirks; the showerhead that only goes up to my chin, the comically small kitchen, the boiler that needs operating on every six months, windows that let in leaks during heavy rain. But I preferred to think that it simply had character and it was mine.
The transition from bachelor pad to family home was as swift as an oncoming train. What started out as a toothbrush next to the sink quickly turned into a vast array of perfumes and eyeliners and creams, spreading out to the rest of the home in the form of trinkets and potted plants, wardrobes and cupboards full to the brim with dresses and shoes… you know how this goes and I’m not bitter. I have one cupboard and I’m grateful for it.
Shan’s Mum, my Beijing Mama, came to live with us during the last months of Shan’s pregnancy and has been with us ever since. This is a normal Chinese custom and not as difficult to adjust to as you or even I might have imagined. She’s an amazing source of support to us and of love to Dermot. She didn’t bring with her quite so many worldly possessions as my darling wife but instead a sense of humour and infectious positive energy, a love of cooking and watching us enjoy her food, and a driving frugal streak to help us save money wherever possible.
Nothing gets wasted in our house.
Old t-shirts are cut up and find new life as cloths and bibs for our son. Ripped jean pockets are mended using odd socks. Leftovers from dinner are saved religiously for the following breakfast. Empty buckets are kept in the shower, filled as we wait for the water to come to heat, then used to mop floors and flush the toilet. It’s pretty impressive diligence and I’m happy to tow the line, although between Mama’s disdain for waste of any kind and Shan’s background in the sustainable energy sector, I may be the only man alive who is regularly given out to for remembering to flush the toilet (you know, when it isn’t absolutely necessary).
Despite the many cultural and fundamental differences rooted in gaps of geography and generation, we have grown into each other’s lives nicely over time and life has been good.
A little more recently we added to the mix of household clutter; a baby’s crib, endless amounts of toys, bottles and tiny socks, and – my personal favourite – the walker little Dermot uses to crash around the living room trying to grab and chew anything we’re silly enough to leave within tiny-arm’s reach.
I feel like I’ve lived here for a lifetime.
Putting these memories away in boxes, painstakingly trying to distinguish between junk and nostalgia and shoving it all out the door has been a sobering experience. I sit here now in a living room whose life for me has ended, enjoying the quiet minutes that remain before I hand back the keys and walk away. Around me all is stripped and bare and clean as the day I first walked through the door. It’s strange, like looking out at your back garden covered in a fresh blanket of snow.
This apartment is where we took our son Dermot home from the hospital through the snow and ice of Beijing’s bitter-sweet spring. This is where my son has lived for his entire short life.
Looking at it through his eyes, as I always try to these days, he chased us around in his walker, watching with excitement and awe, as we methodically deconstructed his whole world. Giants carrying wardrobes away like mountains, paintings plucked from the wall like the moon from the sky. Unsurprisingly it left him a little addled but now, at last, we have a real home, and our little man has his own bedroom, his own bed.
Getting him to use the bed is another matter altogether. At 6 ½ months – ever more eager to crawl around, roll around, kick and shout – it is time for us to wean him away from the comfort of sleeping with Mummy and Daddy. Unfortunately, as any parent will likely tell you, there is only one way to do this and it isn’t pretty. You have to put him into his own bed, alone, and simply let him cry it out until he sleeps. Rinse, repeat, until he gets used to it. This can take days or weeks.
For the whole week leading up to the move, I led the charge with regular unprompted bouts of “From Sunday, he’s in his own bed! It’ll be hard, but no matter what we have to stick it out!”
It turns out that when it comes to the angst of my son I work much better in theory than practice. After about four minutes of the most heartbreaking wailing I have ever heard, I buckled and tried to pick him up. My hands were slapped away – and I was sent away – by my dear wife. From then on she waited it out alone, whispering soothing words to our son, patting him gently on the belly, until eventually he calmed down and drifted to sleep. Some things just need a mother’s touch.
As Shan and Dermot faced a brave new world together, I sat next door in the old apartment, having a last supper with Mama. It became clear she too was in exile, although hers was self-imposed. She admitted she would stay in the old apartment for the night, knowing in her heart she wouldn’t be able to handle hearing Dermot’s howling without rushing in to rescue him.
We really need to toughen up.
My own mother was texting me from Ireland throughout this ordeal, with words of humour and wisdom built from raising me and my sister. She offered this fantastically fitting quote from “The Happiness Project”, a book which I have yet to read:
“The days are long, but the years are short.”
Ain’t that the truth.
In the end, our bundle of joy slept well through most of the night. He awoke bright and oh so early the next day, seemingly undaunted by his new bed and his new home.
And so now we start anew together, sorting through the boxes of trimmed down clutter, decorating our walls the same but different, finding new homes for our belongings within our new home, and building fresh memories that will feed our souls for another lifetime.
By Shane O’Neill