Age is just a number, right?
That’s what I thought until three years ago when my younger brother opened his big mouth. He was on his way to Mexico to settle the legal details on some property his wife had inherited when he stopped by our home in southern California. His life seemed brimming with new adventures, while Tony and I were riding the overly-committed-to-the-schedule freight train we had been on since we got married.
Over dinner my brother joked about his receding hairline. “You know, Kathleen, you’re halfway there yourself.”
“No I’m not.” I pulled at the strands of my straight brown hair to prove that my dependable mane wasn’t falling out.
“I meant your age,” he said. “You turned forty-five last month, right? You could be halfway done.” He seemed to wait for me to do the math.
I always hated math.
I felt as if an equation had etched itself on the chalkboard of my mind: 45 + x = ?
I didn’t know the answer.
What had my forty-five years added up to so far? What was the value of x
that would fill the remaining years? What would the sum of my life be? And what risks was I willing to take to solve the equation?
Apparently God can use all things—including math—to prepare a hurried heart to respond to Him when He’s about to do a new thing. If I hadn’t been pondering the “value of x” for so many weeks after my brother’s visit, I don’t think I would have been ready for what followed.
In the middle of the night, Tony’s old boss, Mad Dog, called from Wellington, New Zealand, to offer Tony a three-month position film editing at Jackamond Studios. Ever since the success of The Lord of the Rings
, Wellington had become the location for up-and-coming filmmakers. Tony saw the job as the big break he had been waiting for. I saw it as an opportunity to step off the edge of my well-padded nest and take a free fall into the unknown.
After all, our daughter was in college, and we were no longer financially responsible for my mother-in-law’s convalescent care. Tony and I could do this. We could leave everything for three months and have the exotic travel experience we had only dreamed about during our college days.
I always do my best thinking while shaving my legs in a tubful of bubbles. The two weeks prior to our departure for Wellington, I had the smoothest legs and the most wrinkled fingers in all of Los Angeles.
I’d thought through every detail and confidently arrived at the airport with everything I needed. Everything, that is, except one item I hadn’t tucked in my suitcases or sent ahead in the boxes. I didn’t pack a single friend. After spending most of my life in the same city, same church, and same circles, I suddenly was minus my built-in community of friends.
Looking back, I now see how unnatural it was to change a well-established migratory route in the middle of life and expect my wings to start flapping in rhythm as soon as I took the free fall. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise that I fell so hard. After all, everything in my world had flip-flopped.
I think it was necessary, though, for me to tumble as far down under as I did. Otherwise, I never would have stumbled into the Chocolate Fish on a fine fall Friday in February with feathers in my hair. And that’s where I found Jill.
If Jill were the one telling this story, she would say that’s where she found me
. But I’m saying that’s where I found her. It had become clear that to solve the math problem written over this season of my life, I needed one more whole number. That little number was one. One new best friend. Jill.
Jill likes math. She sees math in art and nature and isn’t afraid of the unknown equations. Two years ago when she and I stood in front of a painting at an Australian art museum in Sydney, she opened my eyes to the beauty of balance and symmetry, and that’s when I began to make peace with math.
But before I flutter through our story, I will add one more important point. I believe the reason I found Jill wasn’t so much because I was looking for her, but because she was waiting for me, hanging by her painted toenails on the edge of her own empty nest.One
During the two weeks before we left for New Zealand, every day felt like a storm at sea. My husband turned into a ruthless commander, as the intensity of it all swept us through our final days in California. When the storm subsided, I found myself washed up at an unfamiliar airport on the underside of the globe.
The only comforting sight was the grinning face of Tony’s boss, Marcus, aka “Mad Dog,” who met us at the baggage claim in Wellington. He punched Tony in the arm. “What did you think of that flight? Was I right about its being a marathon film fest? How many did you watch?”
“Five. No seven. No, I think it was five.” Tony’s adrenalineinduced gaze seemed frozen on his face.
Mad Dog adjusted his frayed corduroy cap. “Do you want to eat something first or go right to your new place?”
“Home,” I said, as if it were a secret password that would lead me into this new world. All I needed was my new space around me so I could start fluffing up things the way I liked. Then I would be ready to remind myself why this had been a good decision.
“Home it is. Hope you guys like this place. I told you how hard it is to find housing near the studio, didn’t I?”
“You did,” Tony said. “And we really appreciate all you did to find us a place. I’m going to owe you big time.”
“You can pay me back with a few hours of overtime.” Mad Dog loaded our luggage into the back of a van he had borrowed from Walter Jackamond Studios.
“How many hours are a ‘few,’ Marcus?” I asked.
He let out a single gut sound that resembled a cross between a cough and a guffaw. In the twelve years we had known him, I still hadn’t gotten used to his laugh.
“You have to start calling me Mad Dog,” he said. “No one here knows me as Marcus. And when I say a few hours, I mean…”
He didn’t finish his sentence, but I realized I already knew the answer. For the next three months, Jackamond Studios would occupy my husband’s every waking hour. Not only because they were behind schedule on the project for which they had hired Tony, but also because my husband never did anything halfway.
“Hey, it’s Gollum!” Tony pointed to the roof of the terminal. An enormous model of the bald, grim-faced Middle-earth icon peered down on us, looking like a gigantic alien that had fallen to earth and gotten his foot stuck through the roof.
“I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” I said.
Tony gave me a gratuitous wink at my attempt to make a joke. I gripped the car door’s handle. Not because of Tony’s wink or Gollum’s glare, but because Mad Dog was driving on the left side of the road.
Tony laughed. “This is wild!”
“You’ll get used to it,” Mad Dog said. “Only took me a week when I moved here. Maybe less.”
I expected an oncoming car to ram into us any moment. Everyone was going the opposite from what my brain said was correct. Mad Dog drove past a row of low-rise buildings, and I tried to take it all in. Stop lights, a normal-looking city bus, lots of small cars, billboards—and all of a sudden an Esprit store. All the evidences of Western civilization were here; yet it felt so different.
“There’s the Embassy,” Mad Dog said with reverence. He pointed to a pale yellow vintage square building. Fixed on the roof was another creature born in Tolkien’s imagination. This one looked like a swooping black dragon with a long neck.
“How strange that the U.S. Embassy would have a dragon movie prop on top of it,” I said.
Mad Dog and Tony both looked at me as if I were an alien creature who had just stuck my foot through the roof and landed in the same car with them.
“Kathleen,” Tony said patiently, “that’s not the U.S. Embassy. That’s the Embassy Theatre. And on the roof that’s a fell beast ridden by a Ringwraith.”
Excerpted from Sisterchicks Down Under by Robin Jones Gunn. Copyright © 2005 by Robin Jones Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.