Robert arrived on Christmas eve into an airport bubbling with the joy of families and lovers reuniting. The emotion was too much for Delphine who, at the sight of her much-awaited dada, collapsed prostrate on the floor. With the writhing weight of a three-year old between us and a seven-year old skipping excitedly at his side, there wasn’t much room for husband and wife to tenderly reunite. I envied the lovers; eyes just for each other as they moved together for a welcoming embrace.
But who could feel melancholy for long in the company of two such jubilant children, and a father thrilled to be in their midst. I herded the joyous trio to the car, installed Robert in the front passenger seat with a welcome bretzel to nibble and navigated our way out through the milling holiday traffic of the airport carpark and onto the highway.
Finally cruising freely, I could begin to notice the changes around me. Our Peugeot, always compact, had never seemed small before. But now it felt filled to its four corners with human life. Then, as we entered our little Alsacian chalet home, I felts its dimensions shifting around me to accommodate this much-awaited visitor. The ceiling in the living-dining seemed a little lower, the seldom-used coffee table and couches was now a playspace for dad and kids, my bedroom – formerly a solitary and minimally furnished space – became a room for two: a spread of other clothes on the bed, and a book and glass of water on the far bedside table.
Later that evening, sitting in church for the Christmas eve carol service, we were specially welcomed by the Pasteur as “la famille Waites” – her warm words then repeated to the congregation in English by an American parishioner who welcomed “the Waites’ from Australia.” I felt like the Royal Family. Another difference. In all the previous Sundays, I had been the Australian woman sitting at the back keeping her eye on her two young children playing in the corner. Now we were a family of four filling a pew.
At dinner on Christmas night, we lit the four candles in our Advent couronne for the last time. This year the fourth candle had had a double significance: the usual one of marking the last Sunday in Advent meaning that Christmas is imminent, and also, this year, the fourth Sunday candle-lighting moment had meant “dada arrives tomorrow!” So on this Christmas night, here was another difference: as I looked up from my plate of bûche de Noël Christmas cake, I no longer saw a vacant fourth chair opposite, but my husband’s face.
Just one person more, but we’ve gone from the lightness of three to the fullness of four. We no longer feel like a parent and two young children cast adrift from accustomed shores and on a sometimes precarious adventure. Instead, I feel the familiar moorings that hold our family in safe harbours.
So this is a time of restoration, a chance to replenish energy, before we say farewell to our fellow traveller in just a few days time. I will make the most of this chance to share the load of parenting. I will savour the moments where I can step back and watch my children from the middle distance, knowing that their dad has got them covered at close proximity. I will perhaps even appear in a photo. But more than all this, I will relish the rare opportunity to ponder, with an immediacy previously denied, the wonder of our experiences here with my fellow traveller for life.