Youth 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.
Now 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.