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Long distance care

Posted in Life & Love

young old in the mirrorYouth is selfish and it should be. Were we focused solely on the outcome of our decisions in our 20s, we wouldn’t make half of the mistakes we need to make nor would we dare to take giant leaps of faith.


The chickens spawned from many of those decisions come to roost decades later. Or so I think, as I sit on the patio of a beach house, angry waves spraying my pajamas, staring at the phone and at the terse message my sister sent me overnight.

“Dad is in the hospital.”

In less than a month’s time I will be home. The trip, which includes an interlude of fun in London and Rome, is mainly for the benefit of seeing my father who, for health reasons, has never been able to travel to the States.

My father has been ill, on and off, for the last 16 years. The very first time something happened, I was in Europe, on business, and I swiftly changed my plans to parachute myself at the hospital. Once stabilized, once the worry receded, the various episodes that dotted the intervening years seemed manageable, minor even, nothing that required more than a flurry of phone calls to check on his well-being.

But, this morning, although nothing seems to be different from previous setbacks, I am acutely aware of my distance. I have no cell reception and cannot call. I am left at the mercy of a Whatsapp exchange which is not very illuminating and can’t tell me whether I should worry for real.

Thirty years ago I left home. Because it seemed the right thing to do. For me. My parents didn’t object. They were still young and vibrant then. Nor did they flinch – well, just a bit – when work opened the door to a transatlantic transfer. They were happy and proud. Happy and proud when I chose to marry and stay. Happy every time I visited.

older people looking backNow I feel the burden of distance, the dread of a message, of a phone call that would upend all my plans. It will not be today, it will not be tomorrow but it is likely to happen. I know it. They know it. I also feel the burden my sister is left to bear, and the guilt of not being able to help every time a practical matter needs to be settled, and not only health-related. I become the voice at the end of the phone brimming with questions she doesn’t necessarily have an answer to.

Because my situation is not likely to change, I have to make peace with this state of affairs. I am hardly alone. All of my expat friends are in the same boat, shuttling back and forth from their birth countries, putting out fires the best they can, relying on siblings, feeling guilty and useless while trying to assert their presence, even from afar.

Knowing what I know, would I take the same decisions? Yes, I would. I am comfortable with the path my life has taken; forced multiculturalism has enriched me. Is there a hefty price to pay for my choices? It appears there is and the final bill is coming due.

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16 Comments

  1. Whenever my mum gets a chance to take a holiday, she always flies down to Melbourne (only about 2.5 hours from here) to visit her family, particularly her mother. She says there’s nowhere else she’d rather go (especially in the last few years, when there have been health concerns). I think I’ve taken on her mindset to some extent, but I reckon we’re lucky that we’re not so far away. Distance can be a real torturer

    October 19, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Relying on second hand information and a lack of visual cues is hard. And both my parents have not taken to Skype.

      October 19, 2016
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  2. You very finely describe the sensation of always being the one on the phone while everyone else is gathered at the bedside. I hope your father is okay and bounces back for another day. Every visit is made with that lingering thought that this might be the last time… I know it well. We wouldn’t feel their decline in such scary terms, I think, if we lived with them every day. It would seem more natural.

    October 18, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I go home once every couple of years and I am always taken aback at the physical changes that have occurred in my father. With my mom, whom I see more frequently, it is much less noticeable. You are right, witnessing it day in and day out would make it less scary.

      October 18, 2016
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  3. I truly hope your father recovers swiftly and it’s nothing too worrisome. I’m not that far away from my family but I know I’d be worried sick if I found out someone was ill.
    Since Brexit we’ve been seriously wondered if we need to move out of the UK, and North America has been on our minds a lot – as an only child, my first thought was indeed, “What could I do to help if one of my parents needed me *right now*?” I’m struggling with a decision that hasn’t even been made, over a scenario that hasn’t happened. I hope that if I do end up in your continent, I’ll be as certain of the clarity of my decisions as you are. Being at peace with one’s life choices is the best sign one has done well “adulting…”

    October 18, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      You are much younger than me but, when someone around my age mentions moving across the world, I always ask them to consider how they would feel if something happened to their parents while they were gone. These decisions become harder as we age. Having said that, if Trump wins, you can have my house and I will move into your place in London…

      October 18, 2016
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      • I hope things don’t go that bad! I’m still hoping people get a brain 😀

        October 21, 2016
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  4. Ellie
    Ellie

    I agree with you Claudia that the spontaneity of youth makes change easier and that you ponder more on the outcome as you get older – and in this case I understand the pain distance causes when you can’t be with someone you love. I do hope your father’s stay in hospital is brief and that he gets ‘better’ soon. I also agree with Susan about the fact that distance is no longer the obstacle it was, thank goodness. How wonderful to get on and off planes at the drop of a hat and reach our loved ones in a number of hours, rather than a number of weeks.
    Obstacles nowadays are work and other commitments that bind us to non-filial/familial duties we cannot easily forego even if our parents or other members of the family live right under our noses. Effectively we can lose our jobs due to extended leave of absence. When we lived in village communities we could meet our filial, or familial, duties and offer care and assistance in no time, because our livelihood was right there with us in the land we farmed and the animals we reared. Furthermore people and workers who could cover for us were other members of our family and relatives – so our children were looked after whilst we were otherwise engaged. But there was nothing idyllic about that kind of existence either, from what I’ve been told. Nowadays if we have the time and the money to travel and reach our loved ones whenever we like, we are truly very lucky – and if we have family members to look after us in our time of need that is a luxury. The next step in this global day and age is for teleportation to become reality – I read somewhere that it’s a real possibility….dare we hope??

    October 18, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I am certainly not one to lament the good old days but there are prices to be paid for progress. As you mention, taking care of family, from children to old parents was a given in the days when entire families lived under the same roof or within walking distances of each other. We live at a time when we are still trying to figure out a new model that works.

      October 18, 2016
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  5. Believe me I know the feeling. I left South Africa at 25 and left my mother behind, no other family left. It was hard and I felt guilty every day. She could not travel due to ill health and in the last few years, I frequently had to jump on a plane , 3 usually, and go see her in hospital. She died a year ago and I was not there. It is a very tough decision that we made but I do not regret it.

    October 18, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      If you are happy where you are, I believe the details take care of themselves, even the harder ones.

      October 18, 2016
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  6. While I’m not on the other side of the world from my parents, I feel your pain when you get those kinds of calls. I was 900 miles away the last time I got one of those and it’s nerve-racking trying to decide if you should go or take a wait and see attitude. My thoughts and prayers will be with you till you can see your dad again.

    October 18, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you Monika. I spoke to him this morning and he sounded perkier so, for now, I am staying put and wait for my scheduled trip three weeks from now.

      October 18, 2016
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      • That’s great news. We’ll still be sending healing puppy kisses and thoughts his way.

        October 18, 2016
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  7. The world has changed so much in the past hundred and fifty years. When my ancestors left England in 1880 to move to Africa, they had no idea what sort of life they were really going to, but once there, could never afford to go back, even for a visit. The idea of moving so far away was out of the ordinary. The world wars and the development of air travel changed all that, and made it easier for people to keep in touch, to go back and connect with their roots a few generations later. Technology has changed it all again, meaning that we can keep in constant real-time connection with loved ones who are far away. When my sister moved to Australia I clung to our weekly Skype sessions like beacons in a swirling dark ocean, ever grateful that I could still talk directly to her and see her face – something my ancestors would have loved to do. I’m so glad we live in this time and not back then.

    October 17, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I can’t even fathom how it must have felt in those days. Most had to leave out of necessity, some lured by adventure but, at best, they must have known it would have been years before they saw their loved ones again. Did you read or see Brooklyn? I thought it did a wonderful job of depicting the hearth-wrenching pain of leaving everything behind.

      October 18, 2016
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