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THE BENEFIT OF DISTANCE
By: Justin P. McCarthy | August 11, 2022
Eleven years ago, Katie and I sold our fog-shrouded and termite-gnawed but much-loved starter house in Mill Valley and stretched ourselves into a bigger place across the highway in Tiburon. Jack was toddling all over, Katie was pregnant with Ali and we already knew we wanted a third child, so waiting would not have made the process any easier.
Katie’s father and step-mother watched Jack the day the trucks came. The two of us, jittering from far too much caffeine consumed after a desperate last stand of late-night packing, directed our movers to distribute a small home’s worth of furnishings sparsely throughout a quite-a-bit-bigger home. We spent most of the day making sure boxes and furniture were in the right rooms and the rest looking for towels.
There are thousands of websites and blog posts offering advice to make moving days more bearable, but none of the four hundred and thirty-seven we read had said anything about packing towels in your go bag. Always pack towels in your go bag! Eventually, we got Jack’s Pack 'n Play set up, made our bed, ate Round Table pizza on the kitchen counter and passed out—until 2am when the coyotes woke everyone up. Welcome to Tiburon!
Settling in over the next few weeks, we unpacked, made plans to furnish several yawningly empty rooms, explored the town where our children would grow up and knocked on our new next-door neighbors’ doors. Talking on porches and, sometimes, invited around to back yards or into living rooms for drinks, we brushed briefly against the handful of different lives we now shared a cul-de-sac with. There were the empty nesters, whose daughter was in college on the East Coast, the single dad, the family with kids in high school and political beliefs in stark contrast to ours, the couple who had recently lost a child in a tragic accident, and the couple with the adorable seven-year-old twins.
As scientists and anyone who has ever been dumped, gotten into college, landed a job or had a baby will tell you, our memories tend to be strongest around events of profound emotional significance. I can recall more about exactly where I was and what I was doing in New York City on September 11, 2001 than I can about any Saturday last month. Our move in 2011—perhaps magnified by the searing trauma of the Great Towel Hunt—left vivid, lasting impressions of our new house and neighbors.
To me, distracted with running my life and the gritty, but wonderful, saga of rearing my own children, that single dad still just turned 50 and those twins are still seven. Imagine my shock when, during the most recent of a long string of quick, friendly driveway chats, their mother told me last month they’d both just graduated from Redwood High School and would be leaving for college in August. Wait; what?!
It wasn’t that we hadn’t seen and spent time with these two great kids over the 11 years we’d lived less than 50 yards from their front door—quite the opposite. Their family had been regulars at our Super Bowl gatherings for as long as we’d been throwing them; their mother, during her stint running a bakery, had often dropped off sweet treats for Jack, Ali and Claire; as the twins grew up, they would bring worn, favorite, outgrown toys and kids’ furniture over to hand down. We have keys to each other’s houses and the codes to each other’s alarms. Last year, Ali grew close with the entire family through walking their dog.
Despite all this, despite seeing from across the street the twins’ evolution from two sweet little kids to two kind, thoughtful, helpful, considerate, college-bound quasi-adults, my brain still has the hardest time accepting that these full-sized young people driving cars around our street are the same seven-year-olds that a part of me imagines still live in the house up the hill.
The night after that driveway conversation, with my mind jarred into a new intensity of emotion by the realization that so much time had passed, I looked around the dinner table at my twelve-, ten- and eight-year-old children. In so many ways, they were still the tiny, giggly, messy, chattery toddlers I couldn’t help thinking of them as. They had changed so slowly, so incrementally and so much in front of me that I hadn’t processed just how much they’d grown up.
I saw them each that night with new eyes— as they were now, not as they had been. I filed away (lovingly, tenderly) the outdated snapshots I’d been keeping for them in my head, updating them to match the people they were that night, committing to seeing them from that moment for who they were, not for who I remembered them to be. It was an excruciating joy.
Justin P. McCarthy lives in Tiburon with his wife, Katie, and their three children--Jack, Ali, and Claire. He’d be delighted to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.