Riding the Roller Coaster

Throughout 25 years of marriage – and especially through our child-raising years – one of our favorite movies has been the 1989 Steve Martin film Parenthood, and particularly its famous “roller coaster” scene when Grandma shares a life lesson story with main characters Gil and his wife, Karen.

Grandma says…

You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.

Up…down…up…down…Oh, what a ride….

I always wanted to go again.

You know, it was just interesting to me that a ride could make me feel so…so frightened, so scared, so sick, so…so excited, and…and so thrilled all together.

Some didn’t like it.  They went on the merry-go-round.  That just goes around.  Nothing.

I like the roller coaster.  You get more out of it.

Sometimes our roller coaster ride through life seems rather tame.  Other times it pops and rocks and climbs and free-falls before loop-de-looping and rolling through a sudden pitch left and pitch right.  Since last posting in early August, we have appreciated being strapped in while the rumbling track we follow carried us through one thing after another and, ultimately, shot us through to an exciting decision.

We love living in Panamá.  We would be thrilled if Audrey’s role leading the International School of Panamá ends up as her “caboose” job that lasts well into the 2030s.  [Perhaps, at this point, people we have collected through decades of moves around the U.S. and internationally will say, “Ummm, yeah.  We’ve heard that before, so we always book your new addresses in pencil instead of in pen.”]  But even if at some point we end up going somewhere else during the many years before retirement, this is where we plan to spend our jubilado (retired) life.

Since posting last on August 5, much has transpired in our lives.  We had full plans for August and September.  As things turned out, they proved to be quite full months, but very little went according to plan.

On August 11, we celebrated (one day late) 25 years of marriage by staying home and enjoying an anniversary dinner Brian grilled, and Audrey devoured, of a mammoth steak, asparagus, and baked potato.  Then early the next morning Audrey said goodbye to Brian at Tocumen International Airport as he took off for a seven-week stint in the Pacific Northwest helping his mother with a long list of projects accruing since his stepfather passed away a year ago.  Brian’s preparations for the trip included making a detailed Gantt Chart of at least a dozen projects to try squeezing into the nearly two months with his mom.

Then, a few days after arriving back in the U.S. he tested positive with a breakthrough case of COVID-19.  Fortunately, being vaccinated, the worst of it lasted less than a week (though the lost taste and smell and the achy lungs lasted much longer).  Then, given the close quarters in which he stayed with his mother in her mountain cabin in the Cascades of Washington State, despite his efforts to quarantine she tested positive a week later.  Likewise vaccinated, and able to get a Regeneron treatment, she bottomed out below Brian’s condition but still pretty lucky that her case was not worse.

As Brian recuperated from his own COVID case and cared for his mother with hers, Audrey called one afternoon to tell him that she came home from work to find our house had been robbed.  The place had been made to look like it was ransacked, but the police said it was likely a staged inside job.  Could have been worse, but most of Audrey’s jewelry and all the cash in our house was taken.  So between COVID coughing fits, for several days Brian talked by phone with Audrey, police, and prosecutors in Panamá as they worked through their investigation.  In the end, the authorities felt quite certain about who did it, among other reasons because there was nothing stolen in the robbery’s narrow window of time that could not fit into a woman’s shoulder bag; but as of yet they do not have evidence to file charges.  It seems everyone has stories about how their homes, their parents’ homes, or other relatives’ homes were robbed at one point, often perpetrated by people known to them and typically without recovering stolen items.  Audrey heard a story about a family that secured their valuables in a safe bolted to the wall of a room in their house, then came home one day to find a huge hole in the wall where thieves literally had cut the safe clean out of the wall and carried it off.  In one sense, expat life means having to make peace with the notion that “it’s only stuff” that can be lost or stolen or destroyed in so many ways, so excessive material attachment becomes inadvisable.  But we also remind ourselves that such things happen everywhere, including in the U.S., so we find value in cultivating the “it’s only stuff” mindset regardless of wherever we happen to be.

With COVID and cops consuming Brian’s first two weeks away, his manicured Gantt Chart planning slipped further behind each day.  Each evening he would return to it and shift tasks back another day, and another, and another.  Not that no progress occurred, but strategy changed from plotting how to knock projects off the Gantt Chart to prioritizing what tasks on which projects he and his mother would pursue.  Meanwhile, Audrey followed through on her plans to eat as much seafood (to which Brian is allergic) as she could during his absence; but other plans to enjoy peace were robbed with our cash and her jewelry as the authorities continued calling her with developments for weeks.  At one point, after Brian had scanned a couple dozen pages of jewelry receipts and records from files in our storage unit back in Washington and emailed them to Audrey to pass to the investigators, the police called her at school one day to tell her that they had found in a raid of a jewelry party some of the stolen jewelry, including (drum roll, please!) Brian’s Rolex watch.  The problematic fact that Brian has never owned a Rolex watch made her skeptical that she would find anything of hers among the loot they had recovered.  Nonetheless, she detoured from her day to spend a few more hours traveling to, finding a way to enter, and then sitting in an official location where she was shown a bunch of jewelry, none of which had ever been in our possession.  Finally, she decided she needed to escape and spent a weekend in a hotel in Casco Viejo, the old city of Panamá.  For two days she spoiled herself with the delights of good food, good wine, and the history of Panamá that surrounded her.

Recovering from COVID and getting past the robbery investigation, Brian was finally getting into a workflow when he and his mother learned that one of her sisters, Brian’s aunt and godmother, had taken a very bad turn in her long cancer battle.  So just as the unresolved grief from losing Brian’s stepfather a year ago climbed higher and higher, they again detoured from prioritized projects and onto the path of added family grief from preparing to lose another loved one.  Yet the tradeoff for lost productivity was Brian’s presence with his mother through this very difficult time.  Despite living in Panamá, his presence in the PNW let him spend long enough with his aunt a few days before she died so they could exchange “I love you” words and recollections.  And he was able to be with his mother both on the September 20 one-year mark of losing her husband, and on the next day when her sister died on September 21.  And a few days later, he and his sister joined their mother in an intimate and much-overdue remembrance of beloved stepfather Bob by the riverside of the mountain cabin home he loved.  However unscripted in advance, being present with his mother in this way during his last weeks before returning to Panamá proved far more important and more valuable than ticking off tasks on the Gantt Chart projects.

Throughout the roller coaster ride of all those weeks, one more rail followed the track on which it ran.  Several months ago we decided, quietly but confidently, that Panamá had overtaken Italy and Portugal as our likeliest retirement location.  We started looking at real estate options to buy a place that we can call “home,” and not just “the place that we rent.”  After many weeks of hunting across the Panamá City metro area, we thought we had found a house right for us.  It was under construction in a new development close to ISP, with completion planned for December.  We put down a small deposit to hold it while we explored other options.  Ultimately we decided that while it was not the “forever” house we sought with just one floor to allow us to stay even after getting very old and feeble, it could serve our needs sufficiently for some time and would be a prudent investment with the likelihood of being able to rent it to a teacher’s family (with three schools to employ them just minutes away).  But we hit a wall as hard as the house’s concrete framing when we tried to negotiate anything from the purchase price to details that we wanted to substitute during its construction.  So we let go of that option as Brian prepared to leave for the PNW, and figured we would leave real estate alone until Brian returned in October.

Then Audrey, who kept trolling Panama’s online listings just to see what might pop up, found something new that excited her.  She sent Brian a link to an apartment (though we had looked mainly at houses) in the trendy Costa del Este neighborhood (which we considered unlikely to find something in our target price range) with features that unexpectedly fit our preference for classic style instead of Panama’s popular modern feel.  Typical of her, Audrey visited it, loved it, and checked with experts we know to confirm both the soundness of the building and the listing’s claim that the price was, indeed, a below market deal.  She did not want to miss the opportunity; but, typical of him, Brian put on the brakes and said he had no interest in buying a place where he would spend the rest of his life without even setting foot inside it first.

So began our two month ride through climbs and drops and loops and turns that started out trying to negotiate an agreement that, for a reasonable deposit from us, would have the owners take it off the market until Brian could visit it and we could get it appraised and inspected.  Quickly our ride accelerated into something much more complicated and topsy-turvy.  Through multiple incarnations, additions, negotiations, and even a number of head scratchings requiring a fair bit of patience, we did not actually sign an agreement until after Brian returned on October 1, saw the apartment on October 2 and loved it as well; we got very favorable inspection and appraisal reports; and the timeline changed from us closing in February before moving in to us actually taking possession of it in November and renting it from the sellers until we close in February.

But it all worked out.  Two days ago we met with the sellers and our respective attorneys in a notary office to sign the final version in true Panamanian legal style:  with our firmas (signatures) and with our right index fingerprints rolled out next to them.

And so it seems we have sunsets returning to our daily lives very soon.  One of the things we most loved during our four years in Morocco was our apartment balcony’s 180 degree view of the Atlantic’s African coast, and each night we enjoyed watching the sun drop down into the ocean and, as Audrey liked to say, “dissolve like a lozenge into the water.”  Often it became a community event as neighbors across the apartments on GWA’s campus simultaneously went to their balconies or to the buildings’ rooftops to appreciate the gift of nature’s beauty, then hear the gift of human beauty when the Calls to Prayer from all the area mosques would follow immediately to echo across the many-hued sky.  The photo above, taken from the balcony of our soon-to-be-home, shows how before too long Brian will again be able to post nightly sunset photos to remind folks that – no matter what else we encounter in our days – at least there remains beauty in the world.  What an unexpected surprise to have traded our Atlantic sunsets in Morocco for Pacific ones in Panamá.

We don’t know what twists and turns and ups and downs lay in wait on the track ahead of us.  But in a couple weeks we will move into our new home with a sunset view of the Panama City skyline and the Pacific Ocean.  (Americans in Panama often have difficulty remembering that we have the Caribbean Atlantic to the north and the Pacific to the south, rather than to the east and west like in the U.S.)  Even more significant is that no matter what twists and turns toss us around in the coming years, we will have a place to which we can always come home, and a most pleasant station at which the roller coaster ride ultimately will come to rest.

Visitors are always welcome.

On your mark, get set, here we go!