December 30, 2010
Note: This posting is the chronology of our departure preparation over 30 days and is long. I hope you find it worth the read.
If you could earn points for task completion and redeem them for services, we would have earned enough for a month of spa treatments! We returned from our look see trip on November 30th and as experienced project managers we came up with the brilliant idea to create a project plan to insure our readiness for the December 30th departure. We created a spreadsheet, identified everything that needed to be done and assigned owners and time to complete. Talk about being proud of ourselves… we were so well organized and spreadsheet ready that nothing could possibly derail us.
We had 30 days and were working 20 of them. It quickly became clear that we had major prioritization conflicts. While I could understand the importance of having the septic system cleaned, the heating system winterized, the roof checked, the security system upgraded and the exterminator in, wasn’t it just as important for us to decorate for Christmas? Why couldn’t we multitask and put up the white lights for Christmas while taking down the orange ones from Halloween? Besides, if we didn’t decorate, what would the neighbors think?
The plan took on a life of its own. Each day a barrage of new items surfaced demanding to be accommodated in the already tight schedule. While I understand it may be difficult to believe, we had over 200 tasks to manage. There were items for Christmas preparation, to transition to a new school and church, household items like cleaning out the pantry and storing all the linens, household maintenance, banking, taxes, medical, home property management, and most importantly completing all the paperwork requested by the US sending and China hosting countries which when done was over 5” thick!
Appointing myself owner of Christmas and Assignment related tasks, left my husband in charge of…well…everything else. Focusing first on my son, we had planned the move to coincide with the US winter break and start of second semester in China for minimal impact. The terrific cooperation of our principal and the new school administration made this rather easy. The move would also disrupt my son’s preparation for First Communion and working with our priest he accelerated his Reconciliation and provided the necessary documentation for us to continue in Shanghai. The last item was a final visit to his orthodontist who prepared a recommendation for a continued treatment plan that we will share with the new orthodontist.
Addressing some tasks ended up creating even more. Like the visit from the exterminator. He was working in the house while my husband was leading a conference call. Trying to get my husband’s attention, the young man sheepishly inched his way into the office. My husband looked up but continued talking. He said he couldn’t help but notice that the young man looked nervous and was very fidgety. “Sir, excuse me Sir, Sir! ” My husband looked up but continued talking. “Sir, I need you to come…right now!” My husband jumped up and followed him to our open 2 story foyer where the sense of urgency was quite clear. Above the catwalk, in the once pristine ceiling, was a large gaping hole that was created by a mistep the young man took in the attic. Another 12 tasks had to be added to the plan.
On the 21st we packed up our offices and started vacation. Our friends and coworkers honored us with a bon voyage party and a close colleague hosted an intimate dinner party at his home. Our timeline was growing red! We had four days til Christmas and only nine days to departure. As if the stress wasn’t enough, Santa had delegated a ton of tasks to me with absolutely no assistance on how to explain to a 9 year old that his most wanted gift would not be under the tree because it couldn’t be shipped to China. I had the great idea of suggesting that Santa would probably leave a gift certificate to get the item in Shanghai, in which my son replied “Mom, that is just silly. Santa would never do that.” Oh well, points for trying?
I planned an early start for my first day off. Armed with a fresh copy of the spreadsheet sorted by tasks = Christmas and owner = Carol, I declared that I wouldn’t return until every item was done. Popping on my Santa hat and grabbing a mug of coffee, I went into the garage and got in the car. Pushing the garage door opener I waited for that familiar sound so I could back out. Nothing, I heard nothing. The door didn’t budge. Jumping out I checked the alignment of the motion sensors, they were fine. I pulled the manual arm but this didn’t work either. And then I saw it. The garage door spring had sprung. The garage had taken my van hostage and there was no way out. Realizing the injustice of it all, I tore off the Santa hat and stormed back into the house. This was now a household maintenance issue and I needed to find the man in charge! I tried to negotiate a reprioritzation of his morning tasks to no avail, so huffing and puffing I snatched his car keys, put the Santa hat back on and was on my way. Tis the season to be jolly!
The next day my husband went to the state department with my son to renew his passport since it was expiring in six months. He was concerned about the valid visa on my son’s passport and whether it would be transferred to the new one. He was told to travel with both passports and it would be fine as “everybody does it”. When he got home this exchange was not sitting right with him. He called a premiere visa service who told him that a new visa would indeed need to be issued, and with the Christmas holiday there was no guarantee it would arrive back in time. Applying for and processing the paperwork consumed another ½ day. This was a major gap that would probably derail us.
The family arrived on Thursday. Our aunt came that evening and prepared a traditional Croatian dish for me to serve as an easy Christmas meal. She also made a savory shrimp risotto for everyone’s dinner that evening. I greatly appreciated her generosity as it prevented adding more inventory to my pantry and greatly relieved the stress of meal preparation for the weekend.
By Christmas Eve we were so tired we took a family vote on attending midnite mass. The majority wanted to take the annual drive through the luminary lit neighborhoods, but opted to attend mass the following morning. This was not a very popular decision for our son who then tried every negotiation tactic possible to right the injustice of not being able to open presents until after mass on Christmas morning. Parents rule.
Christmas day was wonderfully calm and relaxing. Santa had delivered on all expectations. We had gotten through the holidays with most traditions in tact. They planned to get ahead of the snowstorm and leave early on Sunday morning.
It was a great help having extra hands through the weekend. My sister got the house back in order while my brother in law completed the electrical tasks. Somehow he also ended up being responsible for all the items that required being outside in the bitter cold! Grandpa kept the boys busy and my niece sorted the pantry and packaged up the remaining food.
We weren’t prepared to say goodbye. Dad was oddly following me around all morning and my sister was avoiding me. When I found her she was trying to hide the difficulty of leaving, especially to our son. Seeing her so distraught broke my heart. Had we made a selfish decision? It didn’t seem to me that two years was very long, but now I realized that to our son’s aunts, uncles and grandparents it could feel like a lifetime. It was a difficult farewell and even as they got into their car we were still making plans and shouting across the driveway through the horizontal snow of how they would come and visit us in Shanghai. I was a bit unsettled the rest of the day as all my thoughts were on the reality of being separated from the people we love so much.
Monday’s gift to us was a sparkling winter wonderland. The ATV in the snow kept the boys entertained and outside all day. My husband postponed his appointment in NYC and used the time to take stock of the remaining critical path items. I used the weather induced lockdown to organize and set aside the personal and household items we would be taking while my niece did the horrendous task of dissembling the tree and decorations.
By Tuesday the roads were clear again and the movers were to arrive at 2pm. Waiting, we adjusted our piles, taking some things away, adding others. Determining the most essential things to take wasn’t easy especially with an allocation of only one 4x4x5ft box each. By 3pm the movers called and told us that they’d be late due to the snow storm. And so the day passed with frequent time adjustments until finally at 8:30pm they arrived. It was obviously clear how tired they were, but they were still friendly and professional and couldn’t do enough to please us. By 11:30 the shipment was loaded on the truck, the inventory sheet was signed and we bade farewell to the most essential of our possessions.
Wednesday, this was it. We needed delivery of my son’s visa and we would be ready for liftoff. My husband left early for appt in NYC and my son was sleeping in. The house was uncharacteristically still. A good friend had offered to take my son for the day and came to pick him up. I left the house at 10 completed all the running around and was even able to get a last minute hair appointment. When I drove up the driveway around 5 I immediately spotted the familiar UPS envelope at the front door and knew that we did it! We were on our way! The remainder of the day was dedicated to shutting down the house. There was a final purge and clean of the refridgerator, all the furniture was covered, the house vacuumed and a final load of laundry. Our Aunt came by with her new laptop to learn how to use video conferencing and to take home the remaining poinsettias and houseplants. Over the past 10 years, on weekly basis, we have shared cooking, gardening and simply enjoying each others company and I knew how difficult this last goodbye was going to be.
We never went to bed that night. The car came at 4am and we were ready. While the luggage was loaded my husband drained the pipes, shut off the valves and set the alarm. Unfortunately our project plan didn’t address the 30 minutes that this consumed. It also didn’t take into consideration the increased toll on the Whitestone Bridge that took affect that morning. Stuck in traffic, with less than 50 minutes to make the flight we were already discussing Plan B. Thanks to the skills of our driver and his aggressive pursuit of a porter, we did make it. Stress to the very last minute.
Lessons learned? Don’t start an assignment on Jan 1 especially if Christmas is important to you! Stay true to your family traditions as it helps buffer the impact to your loved ones. Investing the time with our family and friends was the right thing to do. Mechanical aspects of our project plan with its 200+ items was superb, but nowhere had we accounted for the emotional and human aspects. Being in task management mode made us fail to recognize the significant human and emotional component to our departure. Simple things like the arguments with your spouse over a task not completed when all you really want is recognition for all the things you have gotten done. Your Dad following you around and you don’t realize it’s because he doesn’t know how to say goodbye, the time that you didnt’ make to talk to dear friends that had called to see how it was going, or the look in our Aunt’s eyes that reveals how much she was hurting and the gentle touch to her forehead was to draw attention away from her tears. We were so focused and excited about what we were moving to, that we lost sight of who we would leave behind.
For our little family, change is good. We are comfortable with it and thrive in it. What we understand now and should have been more sensitive to is that in our decision to move, our desire for change, we in effect created change in the lives of our loved ones who would have just preferred that we stay where we were.