On February 24th, 1994, I sat 35,000 miles above ground on my first transatlantic flight. I was on my way to New York City, a place I had seen only on television and in films. This wasn’t a tourist embarking on a visit to New York City. I was on my way to work in New York for what was supposed to be a six-month secondment from my London law firm to their New York office.
So, although there were sad farewells, no-one would have imagined the enormity of the impact of that one decision on my life. This was a true flight of fancy. I couldn’t explain to myself where the desire; the deep burning desire – came from so I certainly couldn’t explain it to my family and friends.
Sixteen years later and now married and the mother of three native New Yorkers, I look back upon that decision and the lessons it has taught me.
First, the desire and the decision to apply for the position in New York came from nowhere. Really. I had never been a particularly adventurous person. I had taken part in two foreign exchanges during school; one was to Madrid and the other to France. In France, I thought the parents of my exchange partner were displaying stereotypically Gallic temperament, not realizing that they were in fact on the brink of a divorce.
I had never been to the US at all. Our family had never done Disney. Family vacations were always to Scotland to visit a beloved grandmother and the rest of the Robertson clan.
The beloved grandmother – wee Lizzie – may be a significant clue to what proved to be a more adventurous spirit than I had been thought to possess. She got her first ten-year passport at age 70, never imagining that she would renew it. But renew it she did. In her late seventies, she traveled to Orlando on her own for three weeks and did her first and only exercise class. Lizzie in Lycra must have been a vision. Wee Lizzie (wee in stature but not in personality) traveled to Lourdes, Florida and Turkey and many other destinations in those ten-plus years of being a passport-holder. She continued to regale us with wonderful tales long after her trips ended. So, maybe I was destined to become a world explorer myself.
I cannot explain what made me want to come to New York. I had great friends in London, I had a good job, my sister lived in the apartment (or, should I say, flat) below mine and my parents lived just a three-hour drive away. In anyone’s eyes, I had it made.
I applied for the New York position six months before I was chosen. On that occasion, I was told that someone else had been selected but that I should apply again for the next six-month period. I vividly remember going to the ladies’ bathroom where I sobbed uncontrollably at what felt like the end of the world. At the time, I remember being confused by the intensity of my reaction.
The lesson I have learned in hindsight is that you should always trust that things happen for a reason. If I had been chosen on that first occasion, I would have had to return to London at the end of the six months to finish my training period. It was only because I went six months later that I had the opportunity to extend my stay at the end of the six-month period.
So, firstly, a decision that came from deep within me and, secondly, the universe (for want of a less New Age word) responded by ensuring that the path I had chosen would be open for me to pursue to its ultimate end.
Two days after I arrived in New York, I went to Central Park. It was covered in snow and the sky was the most vivid blue I had ever seen. In that moment, I experienced a deep, exquisitely sweet sense of contentment and an inexplicable sense of coming home. For the first few months, I lived life with a sense of urgency. As I only expected to be in New York for six months I tasted, smelled and savored every thing it had to offer. I did things I had always wanted to do but had never found (or, rather, made) time to do. I took dance lessons, horseback riding lessons, music lessons, made new friends, watched two movies back-to-back on Sunday afternoons, went to comedy clubs, drank too much (!), talked and laughed and appreciated every single moment.
This proved to be another great lesson in life. We only ever know that we have today so we should always live with that sense of urgency to appreciate and enjoy each day.
It would be too romantic to expect such a huge decision to lead to happily-ever-after without some share of sadness, compromise and regret. Although I know in my soul that this is where I’m supposed to be, there is a price to pay. It is a sacrifice made by me and, even more so, by those I love dearly. My decision means that my two children are 3,000 miles away from their grandparents and aunt. ;I have deprived my parents and sister of the simple day-to-day pleasures of being with their only grandchildren and nieces. However, the other side of that is that my mother took her first transatlantic flight at the age of 66 and arrived in New York the same night that her first grandchild was born. What we had thought was a fear of flying was actually that there had never been anything she wanted to see badly enough to get on a plane. Her first flight was one of the most turbulent flights my father had ever experienced. Her response was to tell him to pull himself together.
My decision has meant that I was not there to comfort my sister after she was mugged or when she has had asthma attacks or simply wanted the reassurance that only a sister can provide. The more positive consequence is that my sister has wonderful friendships that are possibly all the stronger for me being so far from her side. And our bond remains steadfastly intact. I have compromised long-held friendships and I miss those people dearly. I know that in reality the friendships are only a phone call or e-mail away from being rekindled and that is something I want to do.
I have been blessed to meet wonderful new friends on this side of the Atlantic and maybe that is the natural cycle of life: that different people play leading roles at certain points in our lives.
My biggest regret? Not rushing back to see my beloved wee Lizzie when she fell ill and then not being able to get back in time for her funeral. The intensity of this regret burned a hole in my heart until I spent some time with it and allowed it to be. Given my time again, I would have been on the next flight out of New York so that I could have physically said my “goodbyes” to the woman who shaped the person I desperately hope to become.
In reality, wee Lizzie is ever-present in the way my youngest daughter folds her arms and the way she carries herself. Her spirit shines as brightly in death as her personality did in life.
It is ironic that I have found myself, my true self, three thousand miles from home. I don’t think I would have become a stand-up comic, life coach or writer had I stayed in England.
My guess is that I would have remained a lawyer which was something I hated with a passion; possibly the only passion I had experienced for a very long time.
Although, who knows what would have happened. I’m sure that the journey from 25 to 41 years of age is momentous wherever it occurs so maybe it is wrong to attribute the significance of my personal voyage to New York City. Maybe I would have taken a different and yet equally satisfying and revelatory journey with family and friends close by to share it more intimately with me. The decision to be in one place precludes the chance of experiencing that same stretch of time in some other place.
When I wonder “what if?”; it is similar to considering ending a relationship and comparing that partner with some unknown character. You simply cannot know what would have been or what might yet be.
I know in my heart that I was meant to be Eva, Francesca and Leo’s mother and they are, without doubt, three little New Yorkers. From the age of 18 months or so, they hailed a yellow cab and recognized a Starbucks. Their night light is the Empire State Building.
I often wonder where they will travel in life to find themselves. Maybe in fifteen or twenty years, they will be sitting in London wondering how on earth their mother could ever leave such a wonderful city.