On Guilt.

Overall, being an expat is pretty sweet. You get to post exotic and exciting-sounding status updates on Facebook such as, “Going to Italy for the weekend!,” that validate your existence and make the people you went to high school with jealous (I assume, anyway). You get to ride trains, eat weird food, and if you live in Prague, party like it’s 1989 – because that’s the year that the music is stuck in. 

But sometimes it’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard. So if you think you might want to be an expat, you have to accept the fact that it’s not all sunshine, daisies, and rainbows, and sometimes there is no substitute for being home. That’s what this post is about. So in the spirit of full disclosure and honesty, feel free to join me if you’re up for a trip down sad-face lane and click away…

As I write this, I’m staring out the window of my childhood bedroom in Wisconsin. Yes, I was just home for Christmas a month ago, but here I am again. No, I haven’t become an international airlines stewardess, and no, I didn’t forget my toothbrush; I’m here because I felt like I needed to be. Honestly, I needed to be here for a few weeks, but wasn’t. And it sucked. 

Before I left for Prague, there were a lot of mixed reactions from family and friends. Questions such as: 

“Why are you going to Russia?”
“Where is Czechoslovakia?”
“What the hell are you thinking?” 

were some of the more amusing ones. But quite a lot of people said things like,
“I wish I could do that.
“Now is the time. You’re young, and don’t have a family or responsibilities. This is the time in your life to do things for you. You can be selfish.” 

and I couldn’t agree with that statement more. Quite a lot of my co-workers in my previous job were retirees who fully supported my decision to throw caution to the wind and go for it. They would say that they wished they had done something like that when they were my age, or how hard it is just to travel now. Mortgages, car payments, kids, college tuition, the list of things that will slow you down is never-ending. So I took their endorsements and well-wishes and off I went. 
One year passes, two years pass. Things happen at home. Some things you wish you were there for (tornadoes, personal meltdowns), and others you can skip (new counter-tops in the kitchen). It was pretty easy to tell when some people were getting ready to leave Prague; they would mention upcoming weddings, family members or friends were pregnant, things like that. And they wouldn’t mention planning a trip home for these events… they just kind of hung in the air like slowly deflating balloons. It was something the person should be excited about, but instead they just felt bad for not being there. And eventually, they would leave.
Unfortunately, I was not immune to this. But the events going on at home were not enough to draw me there permanently. Instead I planned to visit home for certain events, like my best friend’s wedding, or this Christmas and the Packer game. But two trips over the course of two years leaves a lot of room for missing out on things. I had to accept that I was going to miss things. I had to make decisions about what things were “important” enough to merit getting on a very-expensive flight. And if some things were more “important,” then it follows that some things are “less important.” Those decisions aren’t necessarily always easy to make. That leads to the second thing I had to accept.
That was The Guilt. I had to accept the fact that I was going to feel guilty. There have been a few ‘crisis-mode’ moments in the last few years in the family, and the guilt that I felt at not being there was almost paralyzing. But I couldn’t indulge it. I had to go to work, I had to get up in front of my students and blather on about giving directions in English when my brain was almost 5,000 miles away. It was miserable. 

But these last few weeks were different. Up to this point, all the crises were things the affected person would more than likely come back from. The hospitalizations, surgeries, and so on were all what the medical community would define as “routine.” So while I felt guilty, I knew the person involved would still be there when I could get home. This was different. 

My grandma has been varying degrees of sick for the last year-and-a-half or so. There were two surgeries after cancerous cells were found, but the real trouble came when she was hit with a little disease called shingles. The doctors said it was the worst case they had ever seen and it lasted… forever. Or a year. But when all a disease does is cause extreme pain, it seems like longer. I highly recommend anyone reading this to run, not walk, to your local Walgreen’s and get a vaccination. It’s a beastly disease. And there is nothing they can do for it but pump the patient full of insanely high doses of painkillers and hope for the best. 

After months of little progress, my family was trying all sorts of things. Acupuncture was about the best solution they found, and I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard as when my mom told me about the first visit to the acupuncturist. To picture my mother and my “Epitome of a Grandma” grandma walking into an office that my mom described as “basically a head shop,” was about the funniest thing in the world. But whatever reservations they might have had were quickly erased when the acupuncturist was able to bring my grandma more relief than the Vicodin ever did. 

When I was home in June was probably the high point of Grandma’s health the last year. She was up, walking around, and due to the medications, pretty darn funny. She was sharp as ever, inquiring about my friends and their jobs, what I was planning in Germany, and she couldn’t wait for me to stop back at her house after my friend’s wedding to tell her all about it. But as I said, that was about the high point of the year. After that she had another set-back in her recovery, wound up back in bed and pretty much stayed there for the next few months. She managed to get up and out to our house on Christmas Day, but it was a rough day for her. 

A few weeks after I left in early January, she was in bad enough shape for them to take her back to the hospital yet again. On this trip, they finally figured out what the big problem was. Another cancer, about the size of a softball, and wrapped around her spinal cord. They decided to operate almost immediately, and the family started to plan for her recovery with chemo, radiation, and whatever else you can throw at those evil cells. But then the plan changed.

Shortly after the surgery, my grandma asked my  mom who was “in charge of her care”. My mom told her that she was in charge of her own treatment. My grandma then told her that she was done. She was tired. Many conversations with the family, the doctors, and the hospital staff followed. Needless to say, no-one was happy about this turn of events, but everyone knew that her wishes needed to be respected. She’d been sick and in pain for a long time at this point, so if what she wanted was to be kept comfortable until the end, that’s what everyone would try to do. 

Arrangements were made to move her to a hospice facility that specialized in pain treatment, and then everyone settled in to play the waiting game for however much or however little time there might be left. 

So while my family drove one hundred miles round trip every day to be with her, I sat in Germany and tried to act like everything was normal. Classes still needed to be taught, meetings and other obligations had to be met. But all the time in the back of my head was this guilt. I couldn’t stand the thought of going on about normal business while all this was going on. I asked repeatedly if now was the time to come home, and every time the answer was the same. 

“If your being here would change things, we would say yes. But it won’t. And we don’t want Grandma to get stressed about you losing your job because you were coming to see her. You can’t do anything, so just keep her in your thoughts.”
“We don’t know how long it might be. You can’t come home and wait. It could be days, it could be weeks, it could be years. It’s out of our hands.”

On one hand, this was miserable to hear. And then there was the other hand. The “I might be a horrible person” hand, as I like to call it. This side of me still felt guilty, but this side felt guilty with a healthy side portion of relief. Relief that I didn’t have to be there to see her in pain. Relief that my last memories of her wouldn’t be of her in pain and drugged to high heavens in a hospital bed. Relief that I didn’t know what that hospice center sounded like, looked like, smelled like. Relief that I could keep her in my memory in a certain way. 

I have rationalization for this. My sister doesn’t remember it so well, but I clearly the remember my other grandma at the end. She got quite ill while I was in high school, and despite all the other memories I have of her, the one that pervades is of her looking as thin and fragile as a baby bird, barely able to open her eyes in the bed at her nursing home. I didn’t want that again.

So while I felt guilty for not being able to be there, not being able to be with my family at a horrible time; I also felt guilty for the relief I felt at that. It was a double-edged sword; I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t. I felt guilty, I felt relieved, and I felt like a horrid person for all of it. 

Not being able to help, not being able to fluff a pillow or run out and get sandwiches. Not being able to give moral support without a Skype account and an internet connection. Not being able to be there for someone who was always there for you. Someone who always answered the phone. Someone who never forgot to send a birthday card, an Easter card, a Valentine’s Day card. I hated feeling like I had abandoned her. But this is a life I chose, and we all have to live with our choices. I had accepted that I would miss things. This was one of them. 

I got the call just before 8a.m. on Friday the 10th. I was five minutes from walking out the door to an early meeting with my boss; needless to say I pushed the meeting to the afternoon. After talking to my family a few hours later, I finally booked a ticket home. And here I sit. 

While I’m happy I’m able to be here, and I’m happy that my job understood the circumstances, the guilt remains. I hope at some point that I’ll be able to shake it. I keep trying to tell myself that all the time I spent with her before was what ‘counts.’ But I haven’t convinced myself yet.

13 thoughts on “On Guilt.

  1. wow, this is one of the most beautifully articulated posts I've ever read about this all-too-familiar feeling. Sorry to hear you're going through this but it sounds like you made the right decision to be there.

  2. So sorry about your grandmother, but don't let the guilt eat away at you.
    Yeah, that's easier said than done, I know.
    Enjoy your time with family, in spite of the circumstances.

  3. Wow, you've beautifully put into words what I think a lot of expats feel and go through at one point or another. I don't know if the decision to live abroad will ever get easier, but it is certainly important to acknowledge the doubts and the guilt that go along with it sometimes. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  4. Thank you ladies for your kind words. To quote from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the movie, sadly this great line was missing from the book), “There can be no light without the dark.” So it is in magic and expat life.

  5. Oh Heather, sorry to hear your sad news. It's a lovely written post that expresses the difficulty of living abroad very well. It's so hard to be an expat when family members are getting old or are ill. Take care. Thinking of you x

  6. Hi Heather… I've been following your blog for some time now… This was a beautifully written entry. I'm so sorry for your loss. I can completely understand what you're going through right now. I recently (this past July) moved back to the U.S. after having lived in southern Germany for three years… While living in Germany, my husband and I had alot of family emergencies to deal with back home, and we felt guilty every time when we were unable to be home with everyone. The situation that really hit home and made me feel so far away was when my grandpa passed away, and I was unable to even make it home for the funeral. He found out he had cancer in October and passed away in November. And, I can't tell you how much guilt I felt (and still do) at not being there for him and for the rest of my family during his last days. I know that my family understood and they were extremely supportive during that time. I also know that my grandpa understood why I wasn't there… The one thing that helps me to get past the guilt is knowing how much he appreciated the fact that I called him almost daily while he was sick in the hospital. My parents told me that he would brag to the doctors that he was getting a call from his granddaughter all the way in Germany. 🙂 So, knowing that has helped tremendously. And, similar to you, I also felt a sense of relief at the fact that I was able to remember him as he was the last time I saw him and not as he was towards the end. Just know that time does heal and the feelings of guilt do subside. Just enjoy the time spent with your family right now and make the most of each moment you spend with them. As much as my husband and I would love to return to Germany to live, we know that it'll have to wait for sometime in the future, as right now we know how important it is to be back home with our families. Take care of yourself and enjoy your time in the U.S. And, please keep the stories of Germany coming… I'm now living vicariously through you! 🙂

  7. Thanks so much for your message Kristin! And thanks for reading/writing. 🙂 I'm really happy that so many people could relate to the situation. It makes me feel a lot better in that I'm not the only one that has dealt with this; it makes me feel a little less alone, because that was definitely how I felt the last few weeks. It was rough. And it has been good to be here…. not necessarily easy, but good. As for the stories about Germany, I'm heading back tomorrow so I'll see what I can do!

  8. I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother, Heather.

    This post hits close to home for me; when I was deciding whether or not to take the Germany assignment, the only real reason I had *not* to go was that my father's health is in decline- he has an incurable cancer (currently in remission), and although he's doing fine right now, that could change very rapidly at any time.

    When I talked to him about the possibility of my working in Germany for a few years, he did the good-dad thing, and told me not to let worries about his health take away from something that would be good for me. So here I am.

    Still, your post nails it- I worry that things will happen back in the States at a time that I won't be able to get back quickly enough.

    Thank goodness for Skype, you know?

  9. Thanks, Steven. That's great that your father is in remission, hopefully he stays that way for a good and long time!

    Like I said, it's just one of those things we have to deal with when living this life. You hope for the best, and that's all you can do. And indeed, Skype is a lifesaver.

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