Written by Suzanne Rico and Originally Published in LA Magazine on November 1, 2012
One minute you’re an anchorwoman in L.A. The next you’re unemployed. What to do? Why not rent out your house, pack up your bags (and your family), and travel Ruta 40 in Argentina? Or sell your cars to pay your way to Machu Picchu? Or ditch your Botox injections hippos in Africa? Whether you’re going camping in Montana, freezing your ass off in Iceland, or hanging on tight while leaping off a cliff in Croatia, you may well discover that the best part of you is present no matter how far you go.
I was fired from my job as the morning anchor at CBS2 on a “March Madness” Friday, immediately after a newscast featuring a story on how the number of vasectomies always increases before college basketball’s biggest weekend. After almost eight years of reporting on wildfires, traffic, and celebrity misbehavior, I was summoned by the news director to a conference room. He was, he said, “restructuring.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, though I suspected I wasn’t getting a promotion.
“It means today is your last day,” he answered, clutching a clipboard to his chest like a cartoon squirrel with a precious cache of nuts. My perfectly tweezed eyebrows tried to knit together in alarm, but the Botox that helped me stay competitive with the station’s younger talent kept my face unruffled.
Instead I flashed a bright morning anchor smile and stood up, towering over him in Prada heels, and wished him good luck, adding—in my mind only, I think, though I can’t be certain—“you little asshole.” Then a human resources manager named Alice, who happened to live down the street from me, escorted me out of the building. I’m not sure who was more mortified when she asked for my security card.
Being suddenly anchorless—cut adrift in a city that puts a high premium on success—I tried to get angry. I’d graduated from UCLA and worked hard for my master’s degree in broadcast journalism. I’d played by the rules, painting surfer-girl highlights into my dirty blond hair and making sure my butt never exceeded a size 2. I’d climbed the ladder of local news, turning tragedy into a storytelling art form as a field reporter. And when I finally earned a full-time seat at the anchor desk, I’d begun setting my alarm clock for 3 a.m. and popping Ambiens like Tic Tacs at night.
In the midst of this career frenzy, my husband, Ethan, and I had tried to start a family. Seven in vitro fertilizations and three miscarriages later—plus countless dashes from the news set to barf in the bathroom—my son Griffin was born premature and colicky. I often sat up holding him at night, afraid he would die if I didn’t.
With blow-dried hair and airbrushed makeup, I walked through life like a pretty, pampered zombie, missing Griffin’s first steps and first day of school. When Adrian, my second son, was born, carried by a surrogate mother because my body couldn’t handle this basic female function again, I was back at the anchor desk in less than three weeks. But instead of feeling indignant that CBS had not respected these sacrifices, I felt ashamed that I’d never had the courage to quit. Driving off the CBS lot for the last time, I put my head down and ignored the security guard’s friendly wave.
My family, however, was ecstatic when I joined the ranks of the unemployed. “Now maybe you won’t put your car keys in the fridge,” Ethan said. “Now maybe I get my wife back.” He didn’t mention that now neither of us had a job. My husband, a house flipper by trade, had been Mr. Mom ever since the real estate bubble burst in 2008.
“Does this mean you won’t leave in the darktime anymore?” Griffin asked. I’d been out the door before he woke up for all of his four-and-a-half years. “Yes, baby,” I replied, eyes stinging from the first treacherous tears as Adrian, who had just turned two, toddled over.
“Don’t cry, Mommy,” he said. “Want some ice cream?”
But ice cream wasn’t going to soothe the panic that was starting to bang around in my chest like a kid with a couple of pots and pans. I’d been gainfully employed since I began selling Burrito Supremes at Taco Bell at age 15, and the workaholic inside me wanted answers.
“What,” she demanded, “are you going to do?”
The Pelican Epiphany
As news of my firing spread via the L.A. Times and Variety, my agent called with a job offer from KNBC—a shot at redemption that tempted me to claw my way back up. Being the daughter of a Superwoman—a 1970s mother of three who wore groovy polyester pantsuits to her teaching job while earning her Ph.D.—that fight was in my blood. In 3rd grade I beat Robbie Baxter (a boy!) in the national Physical Fitness Test. In 8th grade I aced wood shop and shunned home ec. In 12th grade I set my goals (“Earn $100,000 before I’m 30!”) the way other girls listed the qualities they wanted in a husband (“Nice! Fun! Cute!”). But here I was, a 45-year-old mom suffering from mild career-related battle fatigue and moderate perimenopause. There was little fight left in me.
In an ironic coincidence, the day after I was fired we left for Mexico on a planned vacation. Sleeping late and relaxing should have been the first priorities, but every margarita made me feel more like a loser. Vacations, I discovered, were more fun when I had a job.
One morning misery nudged me out of bed at dawn, and I sneaked down to the beach, hoping the roll of the determined waves might spark some elegant insight. A flock of pelicans was dive-bombing the surf, as intent on nabbing a fish as I was on distilling the difference between what I thought I should do and what I really wanted, when I heard a voice, direct yet childlike.
“Do you know how brown pelicans die?” A young woman was clearly talking to me, so I shook my head. She was close enough that I could see a smattering of freckles across her nose, but her eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses.
“They hit the water so hard when they fish,” she said, “that eventually they go blind.” She turned back to the ocean. “And then they starve to death.”
Yikes! I thought. They’re killing themselves, and they don’t even know it!
A bird plunged into the water on cue, coming up empty beaked, and my melodramatic metaphor about the hard-charging, self-destructive pelicans hit home. In that moment I realized that diving back into the troubled waters of my career—one that hadn’t been fulfilling for years—would certainly cause vision problems. What I needed was a new way to fish.
That night I shared this pelican epiphany with Ethan. I pitched the idea of leaving Los Angeles, which I saw as partly to blame for the rat-racing, beauty-worshipping, stress-driven life I’d created. The KNBC job offered me a direct route back into that life, one that would allow us to maintain full-time help, the Bloomingdale’s credit card, and the kids’ expensive school. But taking the job now would be the psychological equivalent of a pelican’s slow suicide. A low-budget quest to find a new way of living, I insisted, would lead to happiness.
“Sounds like an expensive midlife crisis,” Ethan said, being as cautious as I was being impulsive.
“It’s a midlife adventure!” I argued. “We’ll rent out the house and sell our cars to pay for it.” Ethan’s green eyes still looked doubtful. My germaphobe husband loves to travel, but not when hot water and soap aren’t readily available. “And I’ll homeschool the kids!”
Now he looked horrified. “You can’t run away from your problems, Suzanne,” he said, but I could see he understood that this opportunity to change might never come again.
“I know,” I sighed, “but in this case running feels right.”
Ethan thought for a moment, considering whether to take this leap of faith, and then smiled. “Then let’s run, baby!” he said, and I hugged him, feeling his strong, unfrazzled heartbeat beneath his blue Triumph T-shirt. “Let’s run.”
The Minivan Diaries
We’d gotten as far as Wyoming when Adrian asked what a cowboy was. We were at a gas station to refuel the Honda Odyssey minivan we’d crammed with medicine, homeschooling materials, and clothes for every climate before pushing off from L.A. Inside the station’s minimart I pointed to a man standing by the beer cooler and wearing Wranglers, boots, and a battered Stetson.
“Howdy,” said the cowboy, his face a little round and a little red. He looked like a skinny Garth Brooks.
“Are you a real cowboy?” Adrian asked, suspicious.
“That’s right, little man,” he replied in a husky drawl. “And what do you wanna be when you grow up?”
“Um-um-um,” Adrian stammered, batting his long black eyelashes. I prayed for him to say cowboy, or race car driver, or garbageman. Anything remotely studly. “I wanna be…” he continued in his high, sweet baby voice, “a *MOMMY** *!” Then he clapped his hands as if he’d nailed his solo in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The cowboy laughed and walked off with his 12-pack of Coors. “That’s right, little dude!” I whispered to Adrian, aware of how his future surged with possibility. “You can be anything you want.”
Two days later at an isolated campground in Montana, Griff and Adrian were also introduced to God and the Devil by a group of Mormon kids who offered toasted marshmallows along with holy salvation. As storm clouds blackened the sky, Griffin came running back from their campsite.
“Is there really a guy who lives inside the earth and does evil things to people?” he asked. “His name is Statin.”
“Well,” I began, buying time to answer, “some people think there is. And his name is Satan, not Statin.”
“Yeah, him,” Griff said, and then, “What is God, Mommy?”
I hesitated. I have struggled with this question before, mostly at the time of my father’s sudden, early death and my own sudden, early divorce.
“If you take all the love I feel for you and Adrian and Daddy,” I answered, “and roll it into one big rainbow-colored ball, that’s what I think God is.”
Griffin thought for a minute, trying to connect the spiritual dots.
“But Mommy,” he asked finally, “is the ball a boy or a girl?”
“That’s up to you, baby,” I laughed. It occurred to me that this journey—this impulsive, poorly planned, open-ended choice—could lead anywhere we wanted. A lifestyle with less fear, stress, judgment, and needless acquisition—weeds that grow all too easily in the garden of L.A.—sounded pretty good, and if I could ditch my designer worries about wrinkles and weight along the way, that would be a bonus.
We kept rolling through places we knew only from books: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Lake Michigan, where we stayed with a friend I’d met while working at WLS-TV in Chicago. “I have not seen you so relaxed in years,” said Barb at the end of our two days together. Barb does not mince words—and rarely softens them. “You didn’t pace or pick up the phone. You focused on conversations. It was wonderful.”
This compliment felt more like a slap. Had I really been so clueless and self-involved? Had I really paced? The more I consulted my inner Magic 8 Ball, the more the answer was “yes, definitely,” and I didn’t like the girlfriend I had been.
But on star-strewn nights, watching the campfire dance with the shadows, I felt the giddy joy of a kid who had just mustered enough courage to leap off the high dive. The freedom that came from controlling my own destiny outweighed the anxiety that my new skill might result in a belly flop. Our consistent forward momentum quieted any fear.
With the darkness whirring and breathing around us, Ethan and I used our iPhone’s Star Walk app to pick out constellations overhead. This nascent life had the robust feel of a post-Modern Family meets Little House on the Prairie, and our old one in L.A.—where we never bothered to search for stars—flickered only faintly, like the dying fire.
The Start of Civilization
Rising in the shape of a crescent moon out of a sapphire Aegean Sea, the Greek island of Chios is the reputed birthplace of the poet Homer. We flew to Chios from Boston to wander the medieval villages and monasteries that cling to scrubby mountainsides. The insulated beauty of pebbly beaches and lonely hills, where donkeys are still a mode of transportation, filled us with a sense of well-being.
In a high, shallow valley the 11th-century monastery Nea Moni lies nestled among gnarled olive trees. Only one monk was living there now, and only one winding road led in, its tired asphalt covered with dry pine needles that glinted bronze in the morning sun. We drove carefully, passing sky blue beekeeping boxes tucked next to tiny white shrines marking the spots where drivers had left the curvy road and this earth.
I was reading aloud from our guidebook about a display case at the monastery that holds the bleached bones of deceased monks when the car skidded to a stop. An older man wearing a white fishing hat was standing in the road waving frantically, and two bicycles were spilled against the rocky hillside. A woman lay motionless in the dirt, her short, spiky hair covered in blood.
In broken English the man said he was from the Czech Republic, repeating “doctor” and “please” over and over with a desperate smile, as if he were sorry to be bothering us. Grabbing one of our beach towels, the Costco price tag still dangling from a corner, I knelt next to the woman and slid the towel gently under her head.
Staring at her face, a hole the size of a penny drilled deep into her forehead and her teeth demolished, I found that the world’s vast expanse had contracted down to one small stretch of mountain road. Over the years I had reported hundreds of tragedies far worse than this to my morning audience, reading the grisly details off a teleprompter from the safety of a climate-controlled studio. But this was raw and real.
A breeze stirred the scent of salt and pine, and a black butterfly, its wings brushed with yellow stripes, perched on the woman’s left arm. One aquamarine eye fixed on me, unblinking, while the other quickly swelled shut, bruises forming around it. In a voice I use to calm my children, I spoke reassuring lies. “You’re going to be fine, honey,” I whispered, holding this stranger’s tanned, wiry hand in mine. “Help is coming.”
After an hour, the ambulance we had called finally arrived, and two tough-looking locals in jeans and T-shirts loaded the woman brusquely into the back as if she were already dead. I put my arms around Ethan, sobbing, and when I raised my face, his own was wet with tears.
“Mom!” Griffin pleaded when I climbed back into the car. “Wipe the blood off your hand.”
The seriousness of the decision to drag my family around the world pressed hard against my heart. Gone were the layers of protection we’d had in Los Angeles: the luxuries of Grandma and Grandpa living nearby, of speaking a common language, of knowing the nearest hospital was two miles from our house. Even though driving through the Sepulveda Pass can be just as dangerous as the road to Nea Moni, it was clear we were much more vulnerable away from home.
When we arrived at the monastery, I lit a candle at the altar of Mary Magdalene and asked this kindred mom to keep us safe.
The Muslim call to prayer woke us at 6 a.m., blaring from loudspeakers wired to the slender tower of a mosque in a small Turkish town. To my foreign ear the prayer sounded a bit like a wobbly Tarzan yell, only longer and more beautiful.
Dodging donkey carts stuffed with fig branches, we headed for the ruins of Hierapolis, an ancient spa town built on a terrace of white travertine pools. We arrived at the magic hour, the sun’s dying rays gilding the marble entrance to the Sacred Pool, where Cleopatra is believed to have bathed. Legend has it that the water here can cure almost anything—anxiety, PMS, even sun damage!—so I waded right in, badly needing the maximum bang for my 20-Turkish-lira entrance fee.
The long drive in a subcompact diesel Citroën, stuffed in the backseat with a kid on each side, had cranked up the stress level. A repetitive song called “Purple Pig” that promised to teach my kids phonics blared from crappy speakers, and Griffin, recalcitrant and unfocused, had tried to wriggle out of his homeschool lesson by teaching me one instead:
Griff: “Mom, stop picking your nose.”
Me: “I’m not picking my nose. Read this word.”
Griff: “Yes, you were.”
Me: “No, I wasn’t. I was itching it. Read the word!”
Griff: “No, you were picking it. I saw you.”
Me: “STOP TALKING about nose picking and READ THE WORD, or I’ll throw you out the window!”
Griff (calmly): “Pig. P-I-G. Why were you picking your nose?”
To my left, Adrian, nicknamed “Ado the Tornado” because of his ability to stir up disaster, had squirmed out of his seat belt. He kicked my laptop so hard that it died, taking my travel notes with it into the Great Beyond.
At that moment the early-morning grind at CBS flashed into my mind, and it seemed like an oasis. I had not anticipated that my new full-time mommy gig (not to mention working as a travel agent, teacher, navigator, and referee) would have such a steep learning curve, with 24/7 family togetherness pushing me straight toward the asylum door. Sensing my distress, Ethan had pulled over beside a roadside fruit stand for a break, where a smiling, crinkly-faced Turk gave the boys two eggs and a fluffy baby chicken. I sat down in the dusty weeds, defeated.
Standing now with my toes sunk in the sediment of a travertine pool, I looked out across a vast valley, where wisps of smoke curled up from small settlements. The setting sun was perfectly balanced by a full moon rising in the east when three microlight airplanes launched from a neighboring mountaintop, sweeping through the sky like bright birds of the future.
“What does ‘micro’ mean, Dad?” Griffin whispered, spellbound by the scene.
“It means ‘tiny,’ ” Ethan said. “You were a microbaby when you were born.” The runty result of our third in vitro attempt, Griff had come into the world looking like an extraterrestrial with a black mohawk. His birth had seemed downright miraculous, since some of the best fertility doctors in Los Angeles had put my odds of having biological children near zero.
Now, watching my strong five-year-old resume splashing in the chalky blue water, I felt a big zipper in my mind—one that usually closes off any possibility of transcending the everyday physical world—peel open. My lifelong need to be successful, beautiful, and respected seemed silly when weighed against the hard-won gift of my family. Everything I needed I already had. I closed my eyes and mentally reached out, trying to hold onto this powerful realization, but the more I tried, the faster it faded.
We spent the night at a small family-run inn called Melrose House Hotel, half a hemisphere away from the famous avenue in L.A. With Griff and Ado asleep, Ethan and I sat on the cracked concrete patio of a milky swimming pool and watched an episode of Mad Men on our iPad. Don Draper, a quintessential American man of the 1960s, was caught in a midlife crisis, screwing up his life with liquor and lies and slowly seeing that his high-profile job might not be the ticket to spiritual fulfillment.
“Things haven’t changed much in the last 50 years,” I joked, the moon turning the sheets drying on a line across the courtyard into gently flapping ghosts.
Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina
Without intending to, we had begun following an endless summer, landing in Buenos Aires six months after leaving Los Angeles. Speaking fluent Spanish had always been a dream (along with playing the guitar, doing a standing back flip, and winning American Idol). The funky neighborhood of Las Cañitas, where we rented an apartment for three months, became my classroom. When Griffin tried to grab an ice cream out of a beat-up freezer in a small mercado, the door snapped shut, pinching his finger. I turned to the group of Argentine men watching him sob.
“Pinche dedo!” I explained, holding up his hurt hand. An embarrassed Ethan whispered that I had just used the slang for “fucking finger,” and after that, he did most of the talking.
In late January we celebrated my 46th birthday with a dinner of strange cuts of steak boiled in a dented fondue pot we’d found in our apartment, preferring home-cooked meals to Argentine restaurant entrées like stir-fried bull testicles and brains stewed in tomato sauce. The year before, my dream birthday gift had been a Louis Vuitton bag, but this time around I received the tools of a traveler—a waterproof notebook, binoculars, a pocketknife, and one of those Buff do-rags made famous by the TV show Survivor. I was settling into my new identity.
I was also settling into a new face. The Botox I used to have injected twice a year had worn off, leaving nothing but my own diminishing collagen to fight gravity. My forehead had looked lumpy at first, the muscles sluggish after a five-year nap, but lately I’d noticed neat horizontal lines starting to form.
I tried to see this as a wrinkly badge of courage, which was easier in Buenos Aires than in Los Angeles, as the porteñas seemed less concerned about physical perfection than my fellow Angelenas. A belly hanging out here or shorter-than-supermodel legs there—the Argentine’s body language and dress said, Who cares? By not hiding their flaws they helped me stop worrying about mine.
That night, to a soundtrack of Spanish, sirens, and barking dogs floating up from the street, I walked to the bathroom to try on my Survivor do-rag. It may have been the lighting, but the middle-aged mom staring back was sassy and smart, her brown eyes more challenged by the future than scared of it. The hard edges of the L.A. anchorwoman, who had struggled to maintain a facade of perfection, had softened until she was just a blur.
Head in the Sand
Every light at Namibia’s Hosea Kutako International Airport clicked off simultaneously at 9 p.m., leaving us waiting for our rental car in a blinding rainstorm. We carried no luggage because the airlines had lost our bags somewhere in Johannesburg. Skirting huge sinkholes and hopping frogs, we drove to our motel in the capital city of Windhoek and slept in our clothes.
The next morning, after buying T-shirts, shorts, and toothbrushes, we drove almost 300 kilometers on gravel roads through platinum-tipped grassland as wild dogs with vampire teeth and elegant springbok scattered at the sound of our engine. Finally we reached the Namib Desert, where saffron-colored sand dunes roll for more than a hundred kilometers in constantly changing formations until they reach the sea. Hiking up one ridgeline, we looked down into a dried-up riverbed called Dead Vlei, the only sign of life being two ravens sitting in a blackened tree. We joined hands and jumped off the edge, tumbling and rolling in the forgiving sand down to a place that seemed like the most desolate side of heaven.
The wild, unfamiliar beauty of Namibia provoked an intense feeling of melancholy. For ten months I’d been without my girlfriends in L.A., Ethan and the kids my only support. This isolation made me feel more secure at first, as there were no expectations to measure up to. But now, without this council of women—the human barometers I’d always used to determine what was “normal”—worry blossomed.
Late that evening in a safari tent surrounded by crickets the size of mice, I lit a candle my mother-in-law had given me at the start of this journey. The wick was worn and the wax had teeth marks from a baboon that had grabbed it off an outdoor table and tried to eat it, but the familiar little flame soothed. The spicy-sweet scent of Africa wafted through the mesh windows while I slowly read through a backlog of e-mails, savoring the badly needed virtual connection.
“With all the moves, the financial uncertainty, and two teenagers to worry about, I’m going down the path of too much wine every night to find solace,” wrote Deanna, a friend who had just sold her Hancock Park home to get out of debt. “We all agree that we would never want to do our teenage years over again, and yet I realize that as parents, we do.”
That’s it! I thought. I did feel 16 again: the hormonal fluctuations that made me either short-tempered or giddy, the odd changes in my face and body, the anxiety about the future. The only difference was that now my adult responsibilities kept me from locking myself in a room to play “I’m Sailing Away” over and over again in moody yearning for something I couldn’t identify.
Ethan began to laugh less, too, the gray in his dark brown hair turning white as nearly a year of schlepping suitcases started to wear him down. But when he mentioned he was getting tired of being unsettled, I ignored the subtext that said he wanted to go home.
“It’s unsettling not to know where we’re going to settle,” I babbled like a child, “but settling to know we’ll eventually settle somewhere!” He sighed and said he missed L.A., but I simply babbled further about how going back now would be like running into my fool of an ex-husband in a bar. Even though I’d divorced him, it would be uncomfortable. And what if I ran into my ex-TV husband, anchorman Kent Shocknek, with whom I’d only spoken once since I’d been fired? No way! Sticking my head in the sand like a Namibian ostrich with its tutu of feathers might be immature but, like, whatever. It was safe. Ethan didn’t mention home again, but his melancholy magnified mine—especially after we met a woman named Yolandi Claudine.
We spotted Yolandi in safari country, where blue sky pressed against savanna that spread to the horizon. We’d seen cheetahs hunting, giraffes nibbling treetops, and amber-eyed baboons perched on top of termite mounds, shoving grubs into their mouths in a lazy autopilot of motion. But on a road so rutted with gullies that one knocked off our front license plate, the most unusual sight was a woman holding a cloth bag and a plastic Coke bottle filled with water.
“Do you need a ride?” Ethan asked as he stopped the car.
“Yes, sir,” Yolandi answered, climbing in. “I’ve been out here for two days.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Trying to get work at a farm.”
“Did you get it?” asked Ethan.
“No,” she replied.
Yolandi lived 70 kilometers away with her aunt and 16-month-old son. The boy’s father had been killed one night while hitchhiking to his job in a uranium mine, she said, left to die by a hit-and-run driver. When I offered Cheddar Bites and yogurt, I thought she might cry.
Her house was a small, neat green box with a cardboard sign stuck to its chain-link fence that listed prices for homemade fudge, spices, and pork. Ethan gave Yolandi all the Namibian money we had left—sort of like spitting into a hurricane—and she looked dazed by the unfamiliar kindness. Then she ran inside and came back with her child and a smile that dimmed the sun. As we bumped away down the dirt road, I watched Yolandi Claudine disappear in the rearview mirror. She was helping her son wave good-bye with his perfect little brown hand.
The Mourning After
The unraveling began at Iceland’s Seljalandsfoss, an icy waterfall that tumbles 300 feet into a deep, rocky pool. At its base four people in wheelchairs sat staring upward, their matching blue coats standing out against white mist. Their refusal to let a lack of working legs keep them from living life made my skin feel as if it had turned inside out. The iron grip I’d kept on my emotions was weakening, and when both of my boys slipped and fell in the cold, sucking mud, which covered them like pigs in a sty, I snapped.
Iceland is a sorrowful rock of purples, browns, yellows, whites, and greens rising in defiance from a concrete-colored Atlantic Ocean. We hadn’t planned to visit this volcanic island, but Iceland Air had the cheapest tickets to northern Europe, where we were headed next, and layovers were free, so we figured, *Why not? *When we drove east on the 830-mile Ring Road, my cheek was pressed against the car’s rain-streaked window, and I was sobbing.
For six weeks I had been ignoring a raw, painful place inside, caused by a double tragedy that had happened in Los Angeles in late spring. Within 72 hours two of my friends had died, both of them just 42 years old. Tracey, a mother of three whom I had known for more than 20 years, had an unstoppable breast cancer, and James, a kind, thoughtful colleague at CBS2, died unexpectedly.
The last time I’d seen Tracey was during a layover in Los Angeles on our way back from Africa. She was on her living room couch, licking a morphine lollipop, the dark circles under her eyes the only thing marring the angular beauty of her face. Her postchemo hair was cropped short, like Halle Berry’s. “Not bad, right?” she said when I complimented her on it. “A woman stopped me the other day to ask where I get it done, and I told her Cedars-Sinai!” Tracey’s deep, raucous laugh sounded just like it had back when finding a cute boy and a cold beer had been our biggest concerns. There was everything to say and nothing at all, and so I told her stories of being chased by a hippopotamus in South Africa and floating down the wide Rio Negro in Uruguay.
“Do it all, Rico,” Tracey urged—she had never called me by anything but my last name. I put a hand on her arm, careful of the bruises and needle marks that made the cancer’s progress sickeningly obvious. “I’ll be dead in a month—maybe two—and there is so much left to do.” And then Tracey Firestone Greenberg, who lived only 12 more days, laughed again. “I just don’t have time to die!”
Now, here in Iceland, the tears kept coming as we crossed a steel bridge spanning a dry mile-wide wash. I was so sad and confused that I barely noticed the brilliant slashes of glacier bisecting fields of purple lupines and lava rock. Despite the progress I’d made in reordering my priorities, which had dropped into place in Argentina and Africa like the lost pieces of a puzzle, here I was trying to apply the same white-knuckled, must-succeed philosophy to this journey that I’d used in my career. Why was it so hard to quit something that had outgrown its usefulness? I needed my community of family and friends, but they were thousands of miles away. Intuitively I knew it was time to quit running, but I had been stubbornly ignoring my gut.
“Please stop crying, Mommy,” Griffin begged from the backseat. “I promise I’ll take care of you!” Turning to look at my boys, their faces scared and bewildered, it was clear I’d hit some sort of bottom—but when I reached back to hold their hands, it felt more like a turning point.
“You guys want to go back to Los Angeles to see Grandma and Grandpa?” I asked. They nodded, and Ethan looked over with a hopeful smile. “OK then,” I said, thinking of Tracey and what she would have given to have one more day, one hour—even one minute—with her family. “Let’s wrap up this last trip and go home.”
Days had melted into weeks, weeks into months, and months into more than a year when Los Angeles, the city with which I’d had such a painful falling-out, began to shimmer in my memory as an over-the-rainbow place where all problems might be solved. As the minutes remaining on this long, strange family trip ticked down, it was clear the running from had become a running to.
We had come to Germany and eastern Europe to experience my family ties to World War II and the remnants of Communism. But somewhere between visiting the grave of my grandmother, who was killed when an Allied bomb hit her Bavarian farmhouse, and eating emerald green pumpkin oil pressed by a Slovenian farmer, a virulent mystery illness hijacked our last hurrah.
In the Croatian capital of Zagreb, which sits like a dirty thumbprint far inland from the tourist meccas on the Adriatic, I knelt over my three-year-old son, his green eyes bright with fever. A church bell tolled 2 a.m. somewhere in the hot, humid night.
“You’re the goodest mommy in the whole world!” Adrian whispered, the wet towels I placed over his burning body warming up too fast.
No, I thought, I’m not! The goodest mommy would be at home in Los Angeles speed-dialing her pediatrician, not thousands of miles away in a cheap rented room with metal-shaded windows, a disintegrating rug, and a shower the size of a coffin.
From that cell-like room in Zagreb, where Adrian’s fever spiked close to 106 degrees, we rushed to Hungary, checking into a fancy Budapest hotel with an English-speaking concierge, a house doctor, and a room with a bathtub. I did not have the time or energy to feel guilty about the splurge, as now it was Griffin’s turn to burn. We did not see the world’s second-largest synagogue, the famed thermal baths, or Heroes’ Square, where Soviet tanks quashed a Hungarian rebellion in 1956. Ethan and I were too worried to care.
Hanging just outside our window, which was framed by Budapest’s Széchenyi Chain Bridge arcing gracefully over the Danube, I did see a large yellow spider. Body still as death, it waited for the insect equivalent of a jackpot. Stronger and more flexible than steel, the spider’s web anchored it to the hotel’s sheer wall, and I felt a sudden desire to be anchored again myself—not to a job but to a place. Only a spider, I thought, is able to weave a new home each night with such effortless skill.
In the 18 months since I had walked off CBS’s Radford lot for the last time, we had visited 22 countries, taken more than 40 flights, and driven almost 20,000 miles. But sickness crushed any adventurous spirit we had left.
“What do you miss most about home?” I asked Ethan.
“The Apple Pan,” he replied quickly, naming his favorite hamburger joint, in West L.A.
“What about you, Griff?” He had just turned six.
“Mammoth!” he answered. That was where he’d learned to ski.
What I missed most was not as easy to define. Was it the way the rising sun hit my bedroom window so that I knew the time before I opened my eyes? Finding the light switch at night without banging a shin? What about the owls hooting in the eucalyptus and the distant screams coming from nearby Universal Studios that made up the melody of my neighborhood? Adrian, who’d now been traveling for nearly half his life, couldn’t miss much about a place he barely remembered.
“Nana,” he said when I asked him, speaking of my mother, whose soft voice and healing hands we all could have used. “I miss my nana.”
As I drove down Ventura Boulevard in Ethan’s 1973 turquoise blue International Scout, Los Angeles appeared fresher, like the face of an old friend who’d sneaked in some skillful cosmetic surgery. The truck had been pressed into service, since I no longer had a car, and its hand-cranked windows and AM radio felt ageless, not old. L.A., with its surplus of sun, sand, and celebrities, was certainly no gulag, and I’d long since concluded that blaming the breakdown of my former life on a place was kind of like blaming a weight problem on a comfortable couch.
In front of me a new Range Rover, its vanity plate declaring “ACUMUL8,” idled at a stoplight. I laughed because my family was going in the opposite direction—sometimes to the extreme. After I sewed up a rip in Adrian’s shorts that immediately ripped again, it was obvious that ten bucks spent at Old Navy would be a good investment. And when Ethan came home one day looking like an AWOL Marine from Camp Pendleton, I wondered if he’d lost his mind.
“What happened?” I asked my normally handsome husband, whose salt-and-pepper hair was abnormally high and tight.
“There was an Airstream trailer parked on Riverside Drive with a sign saying ‘Barber,’ ” he said, rubbing a hand across his head, as if that might fix it. “Only 17 bucks!”
Back in the steady pulse of energy that is L.A., a city fueled by the excitement and possibility of dreams coming true, I began to think about a job. Raising two kids isn’t cheap, and besides, the work gene is in my DNA. But the big CBS2 billboards around town featuring the evening anchor team, seemingly thrilled to be guardians of the public airwaves, made me queasy, the potential paycheck dangling like poisoned bait. That’s when I remembered the doomed brown pelicans and the monotonous, mindless dives that steal their sight.
In what was either a foolish or courageous decision, I declined an offer to go back in front of the camera five days a week and accepted one from an Internet company that provides resources to people struggling with infertility. In this field nobody knows who I am, the pay is what I was making 15 years ago, and the learning curve often makes me feel like I’m back in school. But my heart is in the job, and mostly I am happy as I head down to my home office in pajamas after getting the kids off to school.
There are times when I miss the glossy anchorwoman I used to be. When I recently played myself on HBO’s True Blood, reporting a war between vampires and humans in a low, carefully cultivated news voice, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. Feeling like a ragtag remnant of that informed, ambitious player, my face clear of makeup and Botox, it’s hard not to compare myself to the lovely would-be actresses working at the coffee shop or the latte-drinking moms who, with their Tory Burch boots and sleek ponytails, look so effortlessly chic and uniquely L.A. I glance at the running shoes and shorts that have replaced my sexy heels and designer suits and wonder, What the hell happened to me? But Ethan insists he prefers this stripped-down version (or perhaps he just loves that I’m less bitchy, stressed, and sleep deprived), and my children are precious, perfect mirrors that reflect how beautiful I am to them, no matter what I do, how I look, or where in the world we go.
“Mommy,” says Adrian, looking up as we share a last bedtime hug. “I love you more than the sun.” Something like rapture shines in his eyes. “I love you more than the stars,” he continues, “and the planets…and my penis!”
“Baby,” I tell my son, laughing, “that’s an awful lot.”