One of the biggest issues facing expatriates of the sandwich generation, those of us between grandparents and children, is what to do about mum, or dad, or both as they age: the sort of Pushmi-pullyu effect of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle’s unicorn-gazelle creation. The ‘shall I go, or shall I stay’ that we agonise over. All issues faced by expatriates are similar to those confronted by people whose life has been spent in the same neighbourhood. However an ocean or two between the expatriate and their familial obligations can add complications.
I was reminded of decisions made, mostly with the best intentions, the other day over a lunch of spring rolls, beef in oyster sauce, and a delicious medley of crisp colourful vegetables. I’m sure MSG was not present. As chopsticks arced gracefully into the shared dishes, the revolving lazy Susan necessitating a speedy decision, my neighbour and I struck up a conversation.
It followed the usual lines of new acquaintances used to relocating around the world.
“So Veronica, how long have you been in Houston?” I asked.
“Since September. But it feels longer.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“A bit of both.”
“Oh,” I said, realising the conversation was not going along the normal introductory lines. “Let’s start with the good,” I suggested.
“Well I’m near my daughter. Just around the corner from her.”
“I’m sure that can be good and bad in itself,” I replied, thinking of my daughter. Sometimes, no matter how adored that daughter or mother, an ocean is a good thing.
“Yes, that’s true,” Veronica replied, spearing a stray bamboo shoot.
“What’s the bad?” I asked.
“I left all my friends behind on the East Coast. The ones I had to make on my own when my husband died suddenly in his sleep six months after we moved there.”
“Oh,” I said again, hoping the clear Chinese tea might invoke clarity of thought in a conversation fast heading into unexpected depths. “I’m sorry. How long ago was that?”
“But why did you move if you were happy?” I asked, feeling at liberty to be so direct because of her openness.
And so I heard, with a jolt, the words I’d once said to my aging mother. Something along the lines of, ‘but Mum you’ll be so much more comfortable not having to worry about falling down, bills’ and so on. My mother had been living in a large house in a small village at the bottom of a steep valley in rural England. She was ninety, and to add to my angst I was living in a little known country in West Africa with erratic flight schedules to Europe. My final entreaty, my coup de grace if you like, had been pure emotional blackmail. “Mum, I’ll feel so much happier knowing you are safe and cared for.”
Looking at Veronica sitting beside me, sturdy and straight, tight curled hair carefully coloured and lively eyes, in a jacket reminding me of Highland heather, I felt indignant on her behalf.
“You don’t look as if you are about to keel over,” I said.
“I’m not. Well I am seventy, so I suppose my daughter has a point.”
“You don’t look it,” I said honestly, rather hoping I might fair as well in fifteen years. “I think, no matter how many times we move, it takes six months to a year to feel settled,” I said trying to comfort her. “What are you doing to keep busy and meet people?”
“My daughter is busy with her life, so I volunteer at a church resale shop, and love talking to people there. And Peg,” she motioned to our mutual friend on her left, “has been wonderful. We both quilt you know? But I miss my friends. And the sea.”
“The sea?” I questioned.
“Yes I’ve always lived on the ocean. And my husband was a naval officer. I could watch the naval ships, and pleasure boats, from my condo.”
The conversation has floated in and out of my thoughts ever since that lunch. Guilt maybe gnawing at the move my mother had to make to an assisted living home after she started falling badly. Fortunately for us both it was in the nearest town to her old home, so she had a steady stream of visitors. They were true friends who knew her schedule well, dropping in for tea or a gin and tonic, and when she died almost two years later those friends were still there.
In our quest to take care of loved parents, sometimes from afar, we need to remember that what fits our version of the practicalities in their lives, may not fit the actualities of theirs. Loneliness is a terrible thing at any age, and we can be lonely even when surrounded by people. For some, a move nearer to children is the right answer, for others it’s not.
So if I end my days falling off the liana-entangled wall at the end of the garden, or chasing a parrot fish in crystalline waters, just because I want to, well at least I will have died having fun doing what I probably shouldn’t. I hope my children ignore the Pushmi-pullyu effect and allow me the right to do wrong.