A hidden cost of living abroad

20 Feb

One of the most difficult things of living so far away from family is that you’re never around when bad things happen. Most of my family still lives in my home state and I haven’t lived there since 2005. Whenever something bad happens with the family, I feel like a bad person for not being able to be there.

When my paternal grandmother died in 2007, I moved heaven and earth and spent every penny I had left to buy a plane ticket and get a rental car to go to her funeral and I was so glad I did. However, two weeks before she died, I’d been given the news that she was in the hospital and that she might only have a few months left and I contemplated taking a weekend and driving the ten or so hours up to see her in case it was the last time I ever got a chance to do so. And for the two weeks that I debated whether or not I could manage to do that, she got steadily worse and then died without warning. To this day, I still feel awful that I did not go up to see her right away. In retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t. I was living in Indiana at that time and it was only nine hours away by car. If I couldn’t have afforded a plane ticket, I could have at least driven up there. I was in university at the time and while I do not remember now what schoolwork I had going on that seemed so important at that time that I just could not tear myself away from it, I do remember that I missed out on seeing my grandma before she died.

Only a few months later, my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly. I was in South Carolina on a job when it happened and couldn’t get back for the funeral. I never saw much of him growing up and didn’t know him well. He was busy with his own life and didn’t have much time for family and there were times when I was bitter about that. However, when he died, I certainly did feel that I had missed out on getting to know someone who was such an essential element of who I am- there are traits I have that I’m told come from him and he is, after all, 1/4 of my genes. But what hurt the most was that I knew how upset my mom was by his death and that I wasn’t able to be there for her.

When I was about 10, my family got a miniature poodle puppy. I’m not a dog person, but he was a pretty good family dog and he was a source of comfort for me during my tumultuous teenage years. He wasn’t allowed upstairs, but I often sneaked him into my bedroom and he would sit with me and keep me company. Unlike all the people in my life, he never judged me. The younger kids didn’t like him as much as I had, and I felt bad that as he got older, he did not get the love and affection that he had from us older kids. When I visited at Christmas, I always wished I could take him home with me. But I had one brother who was very attached to him and took good care of him until the end. The end came in the spring of 2010. I was studying abroad in England at the time and my mother has this problem where she never remembers when I inform her of a new address or phone number. Unfortunately, the dog had taken a turn for the worse and it became apparent that he was in a lot of pain and was very confused. They had to put him down. I wasn’t informed until a week after the fact, as apparently nobody knew how to get in touch with me. I remembered that the Christmas before, as I was leaving and saying good-byes and carrying stuff out to the car, that I had neglected to run back downstairs to give the dog a hug and feed him a treat like I usually did. I still feel bad about that and about not being there to give him comfort when he was put to sleep.

This past Christmas, while visiting my family, I wondered if it would be the last time I would get to see some people. My paternal grandmother is in his mid-90s and has a lot of health problems. My best friend has a terminal illnesses. And my maternal grandmother, while in reasonably good health, is insistent that should she ever collapse she is not to be resuscitated.

My family doesn’t make regular contact with each other, unfortunately, so when I hear from one of my parents, it is usually to convey bad news. This morning I had an email from my mother headed “Grandma” and I knew for sure she wasn’t writing to tell me what a wonderful birthday party they had given her (it was on Wednesday). No, she was writing to say that my grandma is in the hospital with a fractured spine and some sort of abdominal problem and that she is in a lot of pain and they’re not entirely sure what’s wrong with her or what her prognosis is.

This grandmother and I are reasonably close, as my family goes. I lived with her for a time and she is the only relative that still writes me regularly. Actually, I quite adore her and think she is a spectacularly amazing woman. One thing that upset me about moving to Australia was that I knew I would rarely see her again, as going back home every year for Christmas is just too expensive. It bothers me a lot that I can’t go visit her in the hospital or help look after her in any way. I hate feeling helpless and I hate feeling useless. The best I can do is send a get well card. Big whoop. I also find it very upsetting to think that she might not be around to meet her great-grandchildren, as I really would like my future children to get to know her. And I know that if she dies, I will probably not be able to go to her funeral and say my good-byes.

When my other grandmother died, I remember discussing with a cousin about how grandparents are not supposed to die. When you are little, they seem so old and so wise and you figure that anybody who is as old as that is probably just immortal. Nevermind that grandparents are often the glue that hold extended families together. After she died, a lot of relatives stopped showing up for Christmas. I guess because grandma wasn’t around to give them an earful anymore if they didn’t. And when grandpa dies, I don’t think there will be any Christmas get together with all the relatives anymore. I really think grandparents ought to realise how important they are and try to stick around for as long as possible. I can’t say until they are not needed because the day when they are not needed will never come, but they really ought to think about the damage they will do to the family with their passing before they decide to die.

My mother didn’t have much news about my grandma, but said she’d keep me informed. I’m hoping that they can find out soon what is causing her problems and help her heal quickly, but I guess I’m old enough to know how these things often end up. Simple problems can often turn deadly for the elderly.

A lot of people think traveling and living abroad is exciting and glamourous, like a big extended vacation. Yes, it can be exciting, though it’s rarely glamourous. However, what most people never think about until they’ve experienced is the true cost of it. You gain unique experiences, sure, but you definitely pay a price in being so far from your family and friends. The reality of being unable to visit or to be there for each other is not the first thing people think of when they think of living abroad, but it really can be heartbreaking at times. And not just for the person living abroad, but also for the people they leave back home who worry about them. My mother has expressed concern over the years about not being able to be there for me when I have been injured or ill and she most recently said that it bothered her a lot that she wouldn’t be able to be there for me when I have children.

You can always meet new people and make new friends wherever you go, but there really is no substitute for family.

3 Responses to “A hidden cost of living abroad”

  1. middleagedhousewife February 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    HDU, I understand how you feel. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while we lived in England. My heart ached because I wanted to be there for her but could not. By the grace of God she is fine now, no trace of cancer. We still lived in my hometown when my daughter was born, my whole family came to the hospital and to see her at home. It was really fun. When my son was born at an Air Force Base in England, it was just me, my husband and daughter. While we had the support of the base community and our English neighbors it still wasn’t the same as having family there. Even now, though we are back in the States, I still live four states away from my family and I miss out on holidays, birthdays, and other important days that the rest of my family all turns out for. It’s just too expensive to hop on a plane or drive home. You are right about living in a foreign country. It’s not like you have the time or money to do or see all the things you want to. You still have the day to day responsibilities of managing a household.

    • housewifedownunder February 25, 2012 at 5:31 am #

      The baby thing is another thing I have thought about. It makes me sad to think my children might grow up without ever really knowing their grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I’m sure they’ll get to visit once in a while, but visits don’t really make up for having a long-term, sustained relationship. I remember how important my extended family was to me growing up and I hate the thought that my children might not ever know what it’s like to have doting relatives. Even if we were to move to America, there’s no guarantee that G would be able to get a job anywhere near my family. 😦

  2. Notallowedtomentionihateithere October 29, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    I’m so with you. Granddad died at the grand age of 100 and even though i’d managed to be there for his 100th (with his then 4y.o great grandson!) i have missed too many christmasses, birthdays, etc already. Now its my parents i worry about.

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