My absolutely worst nightmare was finally happening. As soon as I woke up early that morning, something made me go straight to my phone. My mum had been in hospital for over 10 days, and her situation was serious. I had been talking on the phone with my brothers to try and make a decision on whether I should fly to Spain. The situation was made worse by the fact that at that time, my husband had already relocated to Bangkok to start his new assignment, and I was left behind in the Borneo jungle by myself with my two little ones. If my husband had been at home with us, I wouldn’t have thought about it; I would have taken a flight and gone to be by my mother’s side.
A similar situation happened some years earlier, when my Dad had a stroke. We were then living in Australia, and my family had decided not to tell me that Dad was going through very serious times. I found out by chance, when a friend sent me a message to ask me if my Dad had been taken out of intensive care. I was a rollercoaster of emotions. Angry that my family decided to keep me in the dark. Frustrated that I was almost 2 days travel away from him and at the time, I couldn’t afford a ticket to go and see him, incredibly sad and ashamed that he was going through all that, and I wasn’t there with him, letting him know how much I loved him.
Conversations with my family only made things worse. “We all agreed when you moved to Australia not to tell you about the bad news and worry you for nothing. It’s not like you’d be able to make it on time if anything was to happen.” I had never been so mad at them before, and their thoughtless lack of consideration. “That’s not your choice to make. I deserve to know everything that’s going on, and you let me worry about what I decide to do”. A month after that call, I was able to travel back to Spain and spend time with my Dad. I am so very grateful that I did, as that would be the last time he would recognise me. That time with him allowed us to right our wrongs, to speak our truths, and to bond in a way that we never could before.
Fast forward to that morning in Borneo. I immediately saw that message from my brother and, without reading it, I felt instant panic. What the message conveyed was far worse than I could have ever imagined. “I am really sorry Isabel, Dad died. Please don’t bother looking for flights, you won’t make it anyway.” I can’t even being to express how I felt at that moment. Such painful memories as I relive them writing this. The only way to describe it is as if I was chained to a wall, and I had no vote or say on how things were going to take place. I thought the message would be about Mum. Instead, as fate would have it, it was my Dad who decided to end his time here first.
My Mum was so sick that her doctors refused to let her leave the hospital. So my brothers signed a waiver form so she could leave and bury her husband. Because of that, the funeral was arranged in less than 24 hours from his passing. Unfortunately, that left me with no time to find any kind of flight combination that would take me to my Dad in time to kiss him goodbye. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so ashamed in my entire life. My biggest fear as an expat was being far away from my loved ones at times when they really needed me.
I guess I had always imagined that even if things took a turn for the worse, I would always be there to say farewell. I can’t begin to explain the emotions that I went through. As I cried uncontrollably for over 24 hours straight, trying to process what had just happened, I couldn’t remove the guilt and shame that I wasn’t able to be there with Mum, consoling her and being there for her, and Dad, honouring him in his last moments with us. I still carry that pain. I didn’t dare to talk to anybody, I was so remorseful. My Mum went back straight to hospital and life just went on.
“My biggest lessons in going through this was to appreciate what you have, and share each moment with your loved ones as if it was your last. I hope that through my story, you are able to see the beauty of what you have too.”
It wasn’t long after the funeral that I started receiving many messages from friends and loved ones, offering me their condolences. I felt like the only thing I could do was to apologise to them all. For not being there, for having decided to move so far away from my nest. Their responses allowed me to release some of my shame. The first message said: “You better stop that nonsense. Nobody in the funeral thought any less of you. If anything, we all knew just how agonising these moments must have been for you. You don’t owe anybody any apologies. Yes, you did move away, and you have since made it a point to come home every year, to spend your entire summer with your loved ones, to care for your parents during that time, instead of choosing to do anything else. That was all he needed. He needed you then, not now.
We all know it wasn’t easy for you to leave your husband and take your two small children to travel incredible distances to care for them every year. Your Dad will remember that, just as we all do. You have shown more love and affection for him since you left Spain, than you could have ever done if you were close by. The funeral was just a few hours. What you had given him before that was much more precious to him.”
It felt so good to be able to take a step back and see the situation from a whole different perspective. It felt so good to finally be able to breathe. Had I not left my country, I would have probably moved to another city, visit sporadically, whenever I had a few days, perhaps on special occasions. Being an expat however, it allowed me to be able to go back every year, for at least 6 weeks, and I spent all that time trying to make out from all the time I wasn’t there during the year.
I would have given anything to be at my father’s funeral. Instead, I get to visit him for a whole 6 weeks every year when I get back home. In the years prior to his passing, I spent my summers caring for him, and creating lifelong memories. Every time I left, I made sure to give him a proper farewell, not having left anything unsaid, just in case that was to be the last time I saw him.
The last time I saw him alive, just before I left once more for Bangkok, we said our best goodbyes yet. For a brief moment, he called me by my name and told me that he loved me. Not easy words for my Dad. Considering that he had not recognised me in over 6 years, in that moment, I left feeling like our farewell gave us the most perfect memory to hold onto forever. Now, we go back home to visit Mum, acutely aware that we are on borrowed time with her also. This fact only makes our time together even more precious. We enjoy her every day we are there, as if it was our last. Let me assure you, that when I was living back home, that was never the case. You get so caught up with daily annoyances, it makes it difficult to appreciate what you have.
Growing up in a small village in Spain was very challenging for me. I was considered the black sheep in the family, as I always struggled fitting into the conventional way of living, mainstream ideas and societal conditioning. I found it hard to belong, and very often I’d be at odds with my loved ones. Since becoming an expat, I have made peace with it all. I needed the freedom to go out into the world and gain perspective, to have a chance to miss them, to know myself outside of the family unit so that I could get to know each one of my family members objectively, and to accept their imperfect beauty, just as I did with mine. The longer I spend out of my home, the more I feel I belong with my family.
Because being an expat has made me acutely aware of how precious family is, and has made me become extremely grateful and so lucky to have my family. Our love for each other only grows more every year, and I am convinced that being an expat allowed me to see the beauty of what I left behind. We all have fears, some bigger than others. We get so caught up on them, that we are unable to see the big picture, to accept what is, and to let go of what we cannot control. Going through this traumatic event showed me a place of beauty that, had I not gone through it, I wouldn’t have discovered.
With much love and admiration,