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:
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.
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.