I fly to Los Angeles tomorrow and from there, my partner Elizabeth and I will fly to Melbourne to officially kick off her 8 week sabbatical from Playworks. Elizabeth has worked at Playworks for going on 18 years and she is among the first to benefit from Playworks’ new policy, giving employees who have been there for over 15 years an 8 week respite, and those who have been there over 10 years a 6 week break.
It is thus that I find myself becoming what I have come to think of as a Sabbatical Spouse. I am along for the ride, and while it will likely be a defining experience of my year (that has been my experience of international travel), I am not the master architect. I am a little surprised by how delightful I am finding it to be metaphorically riding shotgun. In so many ways, the pressure is off. This is not my bucket list. I am also aware that even so, this experience, this trip, will affect me profoundly. That, even from the passenger seat, there is a lot to see and that being in charge of the maps and the snacks, while not as important as actually driving, is still essential to the quality of the trip.
Elizabeth wrote an excellent piece about her thoughts on the importance of this sabbatical. She talked about why it was important for the organization, and she talked about her curiosity to see how things would be different upon her return. She also talked about how much she needs this break – that the stresses of these past three years have been cumulative and that only in forcibly removing herself from the context – including the definitive, albeit temporary, shutdown of her Playworks email – does she stand any chance of restoring some sense of balance.
I realize that I need this time as well. My father is dying. He has been dying for three years, and I have been dutifully daughtering throughout this time, visiting for 5 or so days monthly from California. I have also been here with my mother for these past two weeks, setting up hospice and arranging for night nurses. I had thought that perhaps my father would die while I was here and that I could be present to support my mom emotionally, but also to deal with all the logistical demands that death triggers. Fate would not have it. I have tried to do as much in advance as possible, dancing on the line between the practical and the macabre. I have arranged for direct cremation and picked out the plain maple box for his ashes. I have written a first draft of his obituary. I have filled out all but his age and the date of death on the death certificate. My father’s 85th birthday is a month away.
History is usually written by the drivers, or at least, it is written about the drivers. But it occurs to me as I head off on this odyssey from the vantage of the sidecar, that this supporting perspective is too rarely documented. There’s Alice B. Toklas, I suppose, but I am hard-pressed to think of others. My plan is to write about this journey as a Sabbatical Spouse to both document and make sense of the experience. I suppose I want to write about the trip so as to ensure that I pay attention along the way. The goal is to write weekly, and I have yet to determine how, or if, I will share these reflections. I need to see where they go, and I need to figure out how to do this while still respecting the primacy of Elizabeth’s experience.
One final thought. I have been worried that the backdrop of my father’s dying might cast a pall on Elizabeth’s experience, somehow diminishing this well-deserved retreat. Her attitude about the sabbatical, though – her resolve that this be an experience with no goals or expectations – has created the space for me to ride along with confidence that all she requires of me is my presence, in whatever form that takes. I am grateful, and hell-bent on not squandering this precious gift of time, companionship and adventure.
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