At the foot of his bed, I sat staring up at Superman’s tired face while I helped him put his feet through the legs of his trousers. Both of our eyes were welled with tears, and I’m sure at that moment we both had never thought this day would ever come. Seeing my father so ill was not what I had imagined I would be dealing with during our visit to the USA.
I’ve known my dad wasn’t the guy with the stamina of an ox for quite sometime. Each time I FaceTime my parents or return home to Michigan, I can see the effects of age creeping in more and more. I’m not an idiot, but I am a realist with optimism. No one wants to see this kind of thing happen to their parents. I was born when my dad was nearly 49 years old… when most men are getting ready to send their kids off to college, he was starting all over again with me. He never complained of being tired and always said having a child later in life is what kept him young. Having an older dad never had me worried until recently.
Watching a parent begin to fail is unlike no other experience I have ever known. Unfortunately both sets of my grandparents died before I was born. I never knew the joy of having them in my life… but I also never had to experience losing them either. I didn’t watch them grow old, weaken and leave this earth. The closest thing I can relate this to is my sweet Aunt Min… she died at a vine ripe age 109 years old and was active till the day she took her last breath. I only knew her to be old, so I can’t say she ever aged during the entire time she was in my life. She was 91 years old when I was born, and as a child I can recall thinking, “Why does Aunt Min have wrinkles on top of wrinkles?”.
Fast forward 20 plus years… Since Aunt Min’s death, I have lived away from my parents for over two decades, lived in 5 different countries and currently live 9000 miles away in South Africa. As I write this from my parent’s kitchen table outside of Detroit, Michigan; my emotions are garbled. I feel guilty for being a daughter who has chosen to live her life as a global nomad (though I know my parents are very proud of this); but I selfishly cannot imagine living my life any other way. I am lucky to have a brother who lives near my parents and is very involved in our their lives. He is able to check in on them and be the on the ground support system they need.
Sadly, the reality of how I am so distanced from my aging parents has served me an undesirable taste of what is to come, and it has scares me more than ever. I have uncovered the emotion I struggle with the most, “The Guilt of Distance”.
To be honest, I am not sure what has me more scared… the idea of being so far away from my parents at a critical time and not being there to see them through their last days or the idea of suddenly losing a parent. In the end, they both scare the hell out of me… death is inevitable (and will gut me), but what leads up to it is where I feel I will ultimately fail. It all sucks – the aging, the sickness, the death, the grieving and the distance… ALL of it. Realistically, this phase in life is just not pleasant and nothing you can do will prepare you for the rocky road ahead.
At this year’s FIGT conference, I attended a session on ‘The Art of a Good Goodbye’. One of the hardest types of goodbyes discussed was the ‘final goodbye’. I remember breaking down during this part of the discussion because no matter how hard I tried to suppress the idea of my parents (or anyone for that matter) living forever… I knew I was not living in the real world and that this aspect of life was not mine to control.
I often speak about my parents with a fellow expat friend who is dealing with the same issues, but on a greater scale. She’s far away, her mom lives alone and her mother-in-law is in a nursing home. She fields calls in the middle of the night and manages the medical bills, she schedules doctor appointments and transportation services, and she spends her time worrying just like me. She too feels the guilt of distance, but knows many things wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the life her and her family are pursuing outside of the US.
I am sure there are many people living a global lifestyle who are dealing with the same sort of scenarios and feelings. And, even though being an expat has many great things to offer, it can make life a bit more difficult to swallow at times. The guilt of distance that entangles our emotions is always there, but perhaps is something our families back home don’t always realize we are working through miles away.
I’m not sure I have a theory on all of this yet. I haven’t figured out how to harness my emotions, nor do I know if they need harnessing. The other day I was in the car listening to talk radio, and the radio announcers were talking about the blooming of the Amorphophallus Titanum, otherwise known as The Corpse Flower. This rare flower can take up to 18 years to bloom, blooms for only 24-36 hours and it emits a nauseating smell like no other. This seemed to be a fitting flower to be blooming as this new chapter of my life begins… A chapter full of anxiety and anticipation with an awful aroma of emotions. It is a journey I am not looking forward to embarking on, but one that is not going to wait any longer to bloom either.
Author: Claire Hauxwell
Claire Hauxwell is a trail-blazing expat spouse from the United States, currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Claire has been living abroad for the past 8 years, and has also enjoyed living in Switzerland, Belgium and Mexico. She is the author of the blog ‘My Theory On Blooming’ (www.mytheoryonblooming.com) where she ponders her off-beat lifestyle, and the trials and tribulations of life living abroad with her husband, her multi-lingual children, and two crazy dogs in tow…all while not taking her life too seriously! You can follow her on Instagram: @mytheoryonblooming and Facebook: @mytheoryonblooming.