Most topics can be seen from an expat angle. Using the geometrical angle, one side will be the sheer physical distance and the other socio-cultural changes. The endpoint is personal change and a new take on things ranging from small to big and from fun to serious. Even death is within this angle.
It was a Tuesday in January, and I got the dreaded call: “You’d better hurry if you want to be sure you make it home in time”. In time to see my Mum again.She had seemed to be getting better less than a month earlier, at Christmas time. We shared some good times then. Still, she was ill, and it was harder than ever to leave. And then there was a hesitation in her eyes and in her voice as we said our usual goodbyes – perhaps what a daughter senses – that made it even harder. Yet I didn’t expect that call, not so soon, and I’m not sure to which degree we’re really able to expect such a call at all.
From then on, it was all about getting there in time. The slow motion of the airport bustle which my own quick steps cut through, as if the speed of my feet and of my thoughts could change the flight schedule. Instead there was waiting, and I kept surprisingly calm, maybe because I was still hoping.
I made it in time. Looking back, that means everything. I got to say the things I needed to say, I got to brush her hair. She managed to respond in her own way, in a language I learned in a few hours in a hospital room. Then and there, the outside world almost ceased to exist and even my own family became blurry.
Then there were decisions to be made and things to be sorted out – things that had been my mother’s life. Because I live far away and had a life to go back to, and because I wanted to help out as much as I could, this was done even more quickly. Some kind of surreal marathon. Once again it was difficult to leave her, yet I discovered I looked more intensely forward to coming back to my own life than I had ever done before in my time as an expat.
The distance that felt so dreadful while she was ill and after I got the call, the distance that’s always difficult for any expat when something happens to a loved one back home, that distance was a helper after the worst had happened. In a way I got on with my life more easily than if I’d been in her surroundings.
And in my expat surroundings, I found a support network I didn’t quite know that I had, even almost strangers offered to help. We’re all far away, we relate. Some have been there, some dread getting there. Still, there’s no escaping a certain loneliness, and it bothered me that I couldn’t be of more help to my family back home.
A bit of me was and is there as well, and there’s the ambiguity of expat life.
One day I baked a cake that my mother used to bake, and my daughter said, gently so she wouldn’t hurt my feelings:
“It’s very good Mummy, but I think grandma’s was better… because grandma is grandma.”
Bless her, and may she always keep that image of her grandmother. I will do my best that she does.
By Unni Holtedahl, May 2015
This story follows up our recent article on being an expat with ageing parents by Ana McGinley