Hands down, the hardest and most heartbreaking part of being an expat are the decisions around returning home to be with family as a consequence of family dealing with severe illness and/or funerals. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to get you published, or really the kind of thing that you want to talk about.
In the six years I’ve been an expat (over the course of almost 8 years) I’ve been faced with these circumstances three times. It never gets easier, and I don’t seem to be getting any better at developing an approach to making these decisions.
They really suck. There’s not a better or more eloquent way to describe their difficulty and their soul-shattering (and bank account depleting) nature. Well, there probably is, but i just don’t have that kind of energy.
I arrived home 3 weeks before my grandmother, Nan-Nan passed away in early 2012. I got to spend lots of time with her and stayed for the funeral before returning to Scotland. I was, however, a very poor graduate student and my sister lent me money for the airfare. It was an agonizing decision to leave Scotland, but also a decision I will never regret. That time with Nan-Nan was important, and I believe that the struggles I’ve had in grieving her loss would have been even greater without that time. Even still, I had to pull out of some professional obligations and conference presentations.
The second time, Ma was in intensive care with pancreatitis and a collapsed lung. I was still in Scotland (this was in September 2012) but I was already about to move back to Australia for the foreseeable future. There were no lovely goodbyes, or gentle transition. I left badly. I dropped everything. The whole family did. Thankfully, the show of love and support (and great medical care) enabled her to rally and recover. It was a close call and after the year I had already had saw me emotionally and physically exhausted. It was so worth the flight and the money, and all that I left behind in Scotland.
For the third time the decision is before me, and once again it is complicated. It doesn’t matter that the last time I hugged my grandfather goodbye I feared that it would be the last time I saw him….the last time I would hug him. But that, that is not something I wanted to think about…..nor is it something I really wanted to countenance. Even having an inkling of the possibilities doesn’t make it better. This time I have someone else to help me with this decision. I have someone else to talk this through who understands how wonderful my grandparents are, and why I would want to drop everything and fly to the other side of the world…
But, even still…we’re not sure what to do.
Grieving is hard.
It never gets easier. It’s not a learned habit, at least for me.
I am not good at it.
It seems to be an experience that knocks me sideways.
My grandfather, Pop, has lived a long life. A life that has a legacy. A life of creativity, of hard work, and of love. He has lived over 85 years. He has been married to my grandmother for over 60 years.
His heart is wearing out. But he still has his sense of humour and he still has fight within him.
It doesn’t change how we love him.
This is not a decision I want to be faced with.
The most heartbreaking part of being an expat.
These are not the kinds of decisions that you romanticize about as you pour over a map planning your travels. Being an expat presents so many opportunities and experiences that are different from a life in Australia — although this expat life is less of a specific choice since I met my husband, got married, and moved the the USA — but the difficult and heartrending parts are not the bits anyone ever tells you about.
The inevitability of it all kills me.
There is a cost to the road less traveled.
It doesn’t mean that the decisions you make along the way aren’t worth the cost, but it must be counted.
It demands to be counted.
It is counted by more than just coins, for believe me, it will take a pound of flesh.
For I swear on all that is holy, these decisions take all the salty tears you have, and more….
copyright 2015: Anna Blanch Rabe
Please ask for permission before using these photos or text in any medium.
Listening. Observing. Participating. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.
Anna Blanch Rabe is an Australian-born writer and photographer. You can follow her adventure on Not A Pedestrian Life, or Facebook. More of her photography can be viewed here. For more domestic things take a look at Quotidian Home or her previous website, Goannatree.