International Grandparenting: Getting to Hold Our Grandson for the First Time…and Saying Goodbye for Now

For the first 19 months of our grandson Adam’s life, Brian presumed he thought of his Nana and Buhpa as two-dimensional glass-enclosed beings…like we lived in a kinder, gentler version of the Phantom Zone that held General Zod and his co-conspirators in the 1978 blockbuster movie “Superman.” Through a year-and-a-half of FaceTime conversations, we had built relationships with Adam. He recognized us, and he reacted and responded to us. We played peek-a-boo and other games through the video connection. We made him laugh. Charlotte even helped us “tickle” him, following up our “I’m going to tickle you!” pronouncements by tickling him with the phone while he cackled wildly and we made tickle noises on our end.

It was delightful and satisfying, and as good as we could imagine two-dimensional grandparenting could be.  Yet, we remained – and remained acutely aware that we were – virtual grandparents.

…Until Panamá approved travel visas for son-in-law Zak and grandson Adam.  Everything changed two months ago when, on February 9, Adam and His Parents arrived at Tocumen Airport after traveling for more than 24 hours.  Instantly we morphed from virtual grandparents to ACTUAL grandparents.

Actually, we were surprised – and, of course, thrilled – that Adam recognized us both the first time he saw the big 3-D versions of us.  

Given Adam’s fascination with balls and balloons (which he also calls balls), Charlotte had suggested that Brian bring a balloon with him to pick them up at the airport to help with Adam’s conceptual transition from Screen Buhpa to Big Buhpa.  As they processed through Passport Control, Char called Brian on FaceTime as he drove in circles around the passenger pickup outside Baggage Claim so he could say to Adam, “Look what I have for you!” and show him the blue balloon.  As soon as he did, Adam was not interested in Buhpa any more; he just said, “Ball!…Ball!”  But when Buhpa pulled up outside Baggage Claim and got out to welcome them, Adam recognized him and smiled…until he saw the big blue balloon Brian held and started again with “Ball!…Ball!”  Nonetheless, he had no resistance to Buhpa picking him up, hugging him, and relishing holding him.

Likewise, Audrey waited impatiently at home and met Brian and the “special delivery” downstairs at the building entrance.  When Brian pulled over to the curb, she went straight to the passenger door with Adam’s car seat, opened it, and descended on Adam with Nana kisses that Adam received with good humor and recognition of Nana.

In the days that followed, we got our own taste of Adam being a 3-D grandson moving into his prime as a toddler who gets into everything.  Notwithstanding all our efforts at baby-proofing our apartment, Adam helped us immensely at finding where we needed to tighten up our safety implementation.  As just one example among many, we learned that he is particularly good at throwing things into any toilet left with the bathroom door open and seat uncovered.  We lost count of how many full rolls of TP went swimming during his stay with us.  Ditto cars, trucks, dinosaurs, and more.

And our plans for encouraging a Montessori-like system of playing with one thing at a time and putting it back where it belongs before getting something else out went out the window.  (Not literally, of course, because one success of Brian’s baby-proofing was installing dowels in all window tracks so that Adam could not open any windows and risk throwing something out a window and down 45 stories below or, worse, falling out of a window himself.)  Adam’s Toy Box had puzzles and blocks and balls and things to whack with a hammer and dinosaurs and trucks and stacking toys and more.  And everything came out without going back into Adam’s Toy Box.  Our floor was a minefield of painful things on which to step.  That, of course, is not even to mention food that ended up on the floor.  We do not know if he has better prospects as a pitcher or outfielder in MLB or as a quarterback in the NFL, but the boy has an arm…at least when he is chucking grapes he gets from Buhpa or bowls/plates of food to show he has finished eating in his high chair.  We upped the time our house-helper, Berta, came to clean from once a week to twice a week.  And it seemed that she cleaned the apartment three times each day she came:  once when she arrived, once after Adam had restored its status to chaos, and once more before she left at the end of the day.

Similarly, confronted with the reality of our insufficient baby-proofing, our apartment became “The Land of No”:  plants, telescope, cabinets, toilets, fan, no-no rooms.  We began Adam’s six week stay saying to Charlotte and Zak, “There’s only so much baby proofing we can do.  He’ll have to learn.”  Hah!  Spoken like people who have not had toddlers in the house for two decades.  He even turned off the projector in the middle of everyone watching the 10’-wide super-sized Super Bowl on the pulled-down shades covering our wall of windows…Quite a feat that requires not one “no-no” push of the power button, but two…executed masterfully despite four adults sitting close by.

It did not take Adam long to create a new favorite game:  throwing things under our bed and then using the “broom” (really a long-handled window washer brush/squeegee) we bought him to push them back out again.  He toddled around our room tossing things under our bed, then laid himself on the floor next to it to go to work with his broom.  He found the bedroom of Nana and Buhpa special for other reasons as well.  He liked to get Buhpa’s cowboy boots out of the closet, stand in them up to his thighs, and try walking…looking like a cowboy who had thrown back a few too many whiskeys in the saloon as he wobbled for a few steps then fell down laughing.  He liked to bounce on the Moroccan poof that we had in the room as a footstool by a rocking chair.  He liked to climb everything from the rocking chair to the divan to the bed itself.  And he really loved exploring in our bathroom, especially climbing into our bathtub.

One thing that impressed us greatly was his multilingual capability.  With language still developing in age-appropriate ways, he seems to speak four languages:  Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic), English, French, and Adam.  He had the job to speak; we had the job to understand (and distinguish between) things like, “doh doh” (sleep), “doo doo” (self-explanatory), “di di” (boo-boo), “caca” (self-explanatory), “tehtah” (binky/pacifier), “tee tee” (sit down), “pee pee” (self-explanatory, as well as his favorite body part when he has a diaper put on and it gets covered…as in, “Bye-by, Pee Pee”), “hadi” (this, that), “wa wa” (water), “num num” (food), and more.  Likewise his references to people:  “Baba” (Zak), “Ba” (Zak’s father), “Bubba” (Adam), “Buhpa” (Brian), “Nana” (Audrey), “Mama” (Charlotte), and “Mmi” (Zak’s mother).  Over his six weeks with us, his vocabulary grew significantly – though that makes sense given he spent about 1/12th of his entire life with us – to include things like “dump truck” and “dinosaur” (usually accompanied by “Rrroooooaaaarrrrrr!!!) and “ciao.”  Perhaps most adorable was his moniker “Buhpa bubble wa wa” for the seltzer he saw Brian drink daily.  By the time he went home, after asking Buhpa to share his seltzer, Adam had developed a taste for the fuzzy flavored water and liked to walk around with his own liter-sized bottle holding a couple ounces so that he and Buhpa could drink bubble wa wa together.

Adam went to lots of places during his visit.  Buhpa took him to our building’s playroom to climb and slide and swing, as well as to the building’s outside playground to climb and slide and swing.  Buhpa also took him out in the stroller on some of his morning walks along the promenade of Avenida Paseo del Mar.  Along the way, Adam commented on scenery he passed, exclaiming loudly “PUPPY!” and “BABY!” and “BIRD!” (and, whenever he saw a vulture perched somewhere, “CHICKEN!”).

As a family we all went to Casco Viejo, and to Parque Omar Torijos (the large urban park of more than 140 acres on the north side of Panama’s San Francisco neighborhood).  We also enjoyed family trips to Taboga Island for a beach day, ferrying across the Bay of Panama through shipping traffic like a real life game of Frogger; and then heading across the Canal for a beach week in Santa Clara off the Pan-American Highway a couple hours into Panama’s Interior.  While in Santa Clara we took a day-trip to El Valle de Anton, the small Panamanian town (with a population of fewer than 8000) famous for being nestled in the six kilometer-wide caldera of a volcano formed 50,000-200,000 years ago.  People always ask, “Is it extinct?” and then often do not like the precision of the typical response:  “It is dormant and has not erupted for many thousands of years.”  Feeling edgy, son-in-law Zak laughed nervously about the possibility of a new eruption until we left El Valle and headed back down the mountainside.  Adam and all of us nonetheless had a great time visiting El Valle’s public market, the zoo (where he called the toucans and hawks and macaws and parrots and geese and all the dozens of birds there “Chickens!”), and more.

Adam’s most regular destination was Aqua-Tots swimming school just two blocks from our apartment.  Throughout his six weeks with us, Charlotte (and occasionally Zak) suited up to take him to swim lessons three or four times a week.  By the time he flew home to Morocco, he had become a water-loving fish, able – with parental propulsion –  to fetch colorful rings on the pool’s bottom and, by himself, swim back up to the surface unaided.  And he rocked his cute toucan-print swim trunks.

Adam was not the only person learning things during their stay.  He introduced us to a whole new digital generation of earworms for households with small children.  In particular, we encountered Blippi as a force that we can neither unsee nor unhear.  If you know, you know; if you do not, let your life remain whole and undisturbed by garbage trucks, excavators, loving dinosaurs, and going to the zoo.  The catchy YouTube monotony of Blippi has now joined our own children’s catchy music monotony of Raffi from more than two decades ago as what may prove to be the only thing we will remember in the senility of our most senior years.

Adam’s father also learned things on this trip.  As our son-in-law’s first trip outside Morocco, Zak first marveled at Panama’s skyscrapers that dwarf Casablanca’s tallest buildings.  By the time he left, though, he had grown used to them and thought he would find Casablanca’s skyline very small.  Living for six weeks in a non-Muslim culture brought another big adjustment.  In Morocco, one can presume food is halal (permissible) unless something says it is not; in Panamá one encounters the reverse, so one should presume food is haram (not permissible) unless something says it is halal.  So we shopped for meat at Super Halal, and options for eating out required clarity on the question of halal.  (Zak celebrated going home with his first McDonald’s cheeseburger in over six weeks!)  And his mind exploded each time he entered the warehouse shopping environment of PriceSmart (like Costco here in Panamá).  He walked down the wide aisles of clothes and food and other supplies taking pictures on his phone to send to family and friends.  Then he just started making video calls to family and friends and showed them the store as he walked around.  Brian remarked to Audrey that people here probably saw him in the same way that Moroccans saw us when we first arrived in Morocco in 2016 and took hundreds of pictures of every little thing at the souks, hanouts, patisseries, and any other place we went that was part of everyday Moroccan life.

Then, sooner that we realized, we had to say goodbye.  Adam went to his last swim lesson, then took a last nap laying on top of Buhpa.  Charlotte and Zak bought a huge cheese pizza at PriceSmart to put in a Ziplock bag and take with them for halal food they could eat on their long journey back to Morocco.  We blew up another balloon for Adam to play “Ball Ball Ball!” in the hours before leaving.  Then we took them to the airport, hugged them all, and bid them a safe journey back home.

Since leaving, they have transitioned back to life in Casablanca.  Adam is so glad to sleep in his queen size big boy bed instead of in a pop-up tent.  His first night back home he slept like a happy lump until 7:30am without moving.  He also is so glad to be able to ride his tricycle across the tile floor of the salon on their floor of Zak’s family’s house (as opposed to Buhpa and Nana not wanting wheels on their wood floor in Panamá).  Char and Zak unpacked, sorted, and gave to family and friends gifts from Panamá that comprised the bulk of their four bags stuffed to within micrograms of the 23 kg per bag limit.  Zak told us that he had to readjust to the sounds of traffic, noting that in Panamá we had “cute” traffic on the Costa del Este roads 45 floors below us, whereas in their Oulfa neighborhood of Casablanca they have “savage” traffic.  And the buildings of Casa, indeed, now seem “teeny tiny” to him.

And in the wake of their departure, we have transitioned back to empty nesting.  We celebrated, after dropping them at the airport, with an empty nesters dinner out at a restaurant wholly of our choosing.  We cleaned up in the kitchen and around the apartment, and Berta deep cleaned the high chair, stroller, and car seat for storage.  We have relished having a quiet, clean kitchen, furniture where it belongs and without handprints/faceprints/drool/liquids/food (chewed and not chewed)/quiet/quiet, and life back to our empty nesters routine.  “Wait,” we will say to each other, “Do you hear that?” followed by contented smiles from the shared quiet we hear.

Still, at other times, we say to each other, “I miss hearing Adam” and then pull up video clips that Charlotte and Zak send us, like the one of Adam saying, “Hi, Buhpa!”  Then we sigh.

Now, nearly three weeks after they left, we have returned to interacting with Adam virtually.  But we no longer are merely virtual grandparents who live two-dimensionally inside device screens.  Adam has been to our world, and the digital connection does not merely present flat screen Nana and Buhpa to him.  It brings that world of Nana and Buhpa back to him to perpetuate our relationship as “real” grandparents who live internationally.  Each time he sees Brian on a FaceTime call he still smiles broadly and says, “BUHPA!” and then asks Buhpa to show him his ball that he kicked and rolled around the house with Buhpa and Nana.  Brian gets the ball and holds it up to the phone camera for Adam’s view, leading to excited chants of “Ball Ball Ball!”  Or, Nana comments to Adam – who once again is hours ahead of us on Casablanca time – that he is wearing the dinosaur pajamas that we bought him and Adam responds with a hearty “ROOOOOAAAAAARRRR!”…which, besides cueing visual and auditory playback of Blippi clad in blue and orange singing the “Dinosaur” song in our heads, prompts Brian to fetch one of Adams dinosaurs to hold up for Adam to see, eliciting from our grandson a delighted smile and another big “ROOOOOAAAAAARRRR!”  And Adam likes to show us the dump truck he brought with him from Panamá, remembering how he played with it here.

As before his visit, we still reside many hours away on opposite sides of The Pond, but we are complete and full-sized in his world now, as he is in hours.

We cherish the order and quiet of our empty nest home.

And we cannot wait for Adam and His Parents to return.

Meanwhile, our Visitors Calendar continues to register both prospective interest and actual plans for family and friends to visit us in Panamá.  One week after bidding adieu to Adam and His Parents, we welcomed Bellingham friends Chris and Dave Carlson, who shared the first three of our four years in Morocco with us at GWA.  And apparently Uncle Tom shared with family a positive report on his Panamá trip in January, because Brian’s cousin and her two sons have bought tickets to visit us in June.  We look forward to more friends and family letting us know of their interest in basing with us during a tropical escape!

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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