Sunday, October 26, 2014

Family Matters

Feeling far from home when there are family crises is a theme that affects every expat.

Our time in China has been overshadowed as well by an event that happened before we moved to China, one that came close to ending the adventure before it even began. In October 2010, my father died very suddenly. It's a story I've told so many times that I sometimes feel a little like the Ancient Mariner. I meet a new friend, I tell that person how I lost my dad, I cry a little, and the new friend now understands something that has become something organic to understanding who I am at this time and place.

Daniel was teaching in Xinjiang when Dad died, easily a two-day trip to get back to upstate NY and we all agreed that it didn't make sense for him to come home. He wrote a simple but beautiful blog post the next day, quietly musing on how he had thought to call his grandfather to discuss the Yankees, but hadn't. The loneliness and sadness of his words traveled from his remote post and my heart broke even more for him. Daniel said that even though you think you can just pick up the phone and call, sometimes an event happens that makes being on the other side of the world far too real and far too wrong.

For Bob and me, the opportunity to move to China came up about a month after Dad died. Maybe it was even sooner than that. My words to Bob were, "I can't do anything for six months," partly over worry that my mom wouldn't be okay and partly because I was still in a state of shock and grief. So Bob headed off on his own to China for a bit, I stayed back in DC, and eventually, with the blessing (not always enthusiastic but always loving) of my family, we made the big move to China.

Not a day goes by, though, that I don't think of the possibility of more loss. I call my mother every single day, sometimes as I sit by Smudge in our apartment, and sometimes from the tops of sacred Daoist mountains or in the shadow of the temples of Angkor Wat.

Since I've lived in China, I've lost two of my uncles, my father's younger and older brothers. I did stay in touch with both in the months before they died. Uncle Pat and I would email over food and life. I remember telling him once I was eating my way across Hong Kong and he said he was jealous. And I would see my Uncle Peter in the nursing home. On one of the last times I saw him, he played the organ for me, the look of concentration on his face so much like my father's that I felt stabbed in the heart. But I couldn't go to either funeral when they died, and that made me feel the distance.

It's one of the reasons we're moving back now rather than later. It's not that I have any kind of morbid sense of impending doom. It's more that I have a sense that we were given a window, and that window doesn't stay open indefinitely. I'm sure that feeling has been intensified by our dear friends whose time in Beijing has overlapped with ours almost exactly. Our friend's younger sister, just 33, has been diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and they're cutting two months off their time in China, to be home and to be with her.

None of this has anything to do with China except for its distance from home. We've known plenty of others who have faced similar kinds of crises at home, racing back to see people before they died, sometimes making it in time and sometimes not, and it's tough. I never judge others on this, since family is a minefield and I have no idea where the mines are buried in anyone else's minefields. But I do know that for me, it's time.


  1. My favorite of all your entries. Welcome home!

  2. I feel your words...I miss my parents not living close to me. So many times I wish I could just twitch my nose (like I Dream of Jeannie) and pop in for coffee or my Mom's homemade meatballs or to walk up to Stewart's and sit with Dad and have coffee and a hard roll. Your blog made me weepy. So to cheer you up I will say "just think of all of the foods you will have at your finger tips again" .Safe travels my friend and Welcome home.

    1. I just found your comment! Thank you so much Wendi!