As an expat you travel not only the geography of new lands and environments, but also tough emotional roads.
It’s hard to say goodbye to people at the airport, and it’s even harder to be far away when there is illness, or… worse… death.
Last week a former student of mine was killed in a car accident.
I hadn’t seen him since he had graduated high school – but I kept tabs on the family at a distance thanks to Facebook… all three sibling had at one point been in my classroom.
And I’d known this family for what feels like forever. When I was in 10th grade myself, they bought our home. I have this vivid image of the three kids coming into the house – and I remember feeling so bummed that they were ‘taking’ my space.
The shock of the news was a bit like a punch… that this young, promising, lively, sweet, charismatic and smart young man is no longer in this place with us.
But even harder is not being able to share that emotion with others who knew him. To not be part of a grieving community – to just watch all of it from a distance.
Dealing with the specter of loss and death from a distance, is unfortunately not new to me. As an expat in the US it was tough when my grandfather died. I was a first year teacher and between the distance and timing and timezones, there was no way to make it back to South Africa in time.
In a way the distance insulates you from the experience and the reality. In a way you are lucky – you don’t have to be standing in the funeral home spaces and make small talk , or cry at the gravesite. But you also have an odd sense that you can still pick up the phone and call.
Two months ago my grandmother passed away. I was at least in San Diego and so could go with my mom to light a candle. We could at least be there for each other, even when we couldn’t be there for – and with – the rest of the family.
Maybe it is due to the Big C being such a hungry and livid demon in my family at the moment – but the goodbyes as I headed back to Amsterdam this time around was especially rough. That expat burden of knowing that this may be the last time you see the person you are hugging – because even when you try to keep it a casual ‘see you again soon,’ you can already see the ravages of the disease and the toxic treatments.
You cannot help but wonder if you will make it back in time.
And then you find yourself frozen as you stare at the calendar and contemplate plans… how do you make plans when at any moment there can be a phone call? How do you make plans when you find yourself wondering if you should buy a return ticket for two months from now? Three months? And for how long will that visit be? A week? A month?
You find yourself feeling guilty that others are arranging food deliveries and driving a loved one to the chemo center. And you feel the distance tangibly grow in this world of ours that is supposedly so interconnected.
So how do you deal?
I can only tell you what I am doing… I am practicing being thankful.
Thankful for my lifestyle that allows me a few days of a much needed reboot ‘retreat’ on the farm in the Ardennes with my dad and the dogs; for Mr. T barking at cows on the farm and running like a mad thing through the park; for long conversations with my dad; for others who share about their losses; for flexibility to be able to spend hours in the kitchen cooking something distracting and delicious; for Amsterdam mornings filled with sunshine gleaming on the canal surfaces; for both my dadz and their care and effort and worry; for my sister who is strong and amazing and funny as hell; for friends who are willing to go for a walk or coffee and give tight hugs; for check-in text messages from friends far away; for beauty; for flowers on a windowsill; for a job that currently gives me the luxury of being without focus; for long aimless walks along the green canals with Mr. T grinning up at me like a fool; for the ability to go for a run; for words of comfort in the Psalms; for the bittersweet knowledge that I am not alone in surviving the loss of love and loved-ones…
Thankful for every moment. Even the sad ones