In the transitory life we call expatriation we, the accompanying partner, sometimes need a jolt to remember that whilst we may have left a career or things we hold dear, we made the choice to follow a nomadic path, and that each relocation needs to be faced with curiosity and grace.
The shipment has arrived, the children have started their new school and while maybe not entirely relaxed in their foreign surroundings are at least beginning to mention other student’s names – always a good sign. We breathe a sigh of relief and turn to the next box to be unpacked. We know there will be a few bumpy patches over the coming months. Moments of why are we doing this? And sometimes, why am I doing this? But we are the seasoned expatriate spouse and throw ourselves into feeling a part of our new home, of meeting people whether through tennis, or volunteering or whatever our favoured route. Six months later we sip scalding coffee, or maybe the iced variety, and chat with a couple of the people we know will be allies and we realise, ‘Ahh, I’m home’; until the next relocation at least.
Each move deepens the roots of our family unit, and whilst there may be some slammed doors from teenagers struggling with their own challenges of once again fitting in, as a whole the family comes together, occasionally crying but also laughing at some strange and unexpected custom in our new country. There are moments of tension between partners, and sometimes resentment, but the love and laughter shared brings us through. We have chosen the expat life and as a couple, with or without children, we have each other to lean on.
And then the unthinkable happens. You are left. Not with the blinding rage and hurt of desertion to another woman, or man, in itself an awful event, but with a grief so deep, a despair so encompassing, and an anger so choking that breathing becomes an ordeal. After those first frantic weeks of busyness, you have to begin to reluctantly accept death really has taken the one person on whom you have been able to rely through all those transitions into alien territories – childbirth, teen years, empty nests, parental deaths, and yes, relocation.
And that last, relocation, is what will make the unexpected tragedy even harder. Expatriation has allowed you the chance to form communities around the world, sometimes meeting up with old friends in new locations, but there is no actual hub to run to now you are alone. The company, or organisation, that sent you to Malawi are anxious to send you home, or at least to your passport country. Your visa is dependent upon your spouse, and is revoked upon his death. You have thirty days to pack up your life and go. But go where?
Grown children once over the initial shock and grief have, by the nature of their youth, to get back to living their own lives. They have flown the coop once and cannot be expected to return, though their concern and love is ongoing with extra attempt made to incorporate you in their activities. They may have chosen to lead the expatriate life themselves and so you spend time flitting from country to country, from child to child, in an attempt to escape the loneliness threatening to swamp you.
Because the truth is you no longer fit in at home because that place you called home before your marriage, or even during it on trips back for the summers, does not cater to you without your soul mate. There is no soul there.
The dream house built for retirement holds little appeal as each carefully chosen facet brings home your aloneness. It does not comfort but merely sheds painful light on your shared but now unfulfilled dreams. Your friends are scattered around the world, global nomads like you, who once over their own dismay at your loss continue with their life in Timbuktu or Toronto.
Or maybe you never quite got around the finding the place you wanted to call home, permanently, in your latter years. Discussions once held with your partner on the pros and cons of certain places are irrelevant. A Greek island, a hideout in Chiang Mai, a flat in London, none now fit the list of needs because the list has changed. The world you once felt was getting smaller with the ease of travel and air miles racked up, suddenly seems extraordinarily large as you struggle to decide where to go. Where to offload your boxes of memories of a shared global life?
And so when we lucky ones are unpacking our boxes in our new location, resentful a spouse or partner has disappeared to the office or on a business trip and left us with the chore of once again settling the family into new surroundings, unpack them in the knowledge our labour will be appreciated.
It is vastly different to unpacking in a place you can’t call home, because you are alone.