Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Guilt of a Long-Distance Daughter

There's a passage from Jhumpa Lahiri's book, Unaccustomed Earth, that resonated with me so deeply, I had to put down the book for a second because my breath caught in my throat. In one of the vignettes, a daughter describes her mother's homecoming to her grandparents' house in India, which she had left soon after getting married: "My grandparents had already lived in a state of mild mourning since 1962, when my parents were married. Occasionally my mother would return to them, first from Boston and then Bombay, like Persephone in the myth, temporarily filling up and brightening the rooms, scattering her creams and powders on the dressing table, sipping tea from cups she'd known since she was a girl, sleeping in the room where she'd been small."

And that, is precisely how I feel about the years I've spent abroad in England - or, even much earlier than that - when I moved to Massachusetts for college; years that have been sprinkled here and there with trips back to my childhood home where I wear the same pajamas I wore when I was seventeen, throw on my college sweatshirt, make my desk and downstairs bathroom a mess with all my new purchases and skincare products, and eat ice cream in front of the TV - like I never left.

My childhood room remains undisturbed; my parents did not undertake a renovation project and turn it into a study or sewing room or workspace, as other parents do. My high school artwork, a piece that won first place in the art fair, hangs above my bed - a now laughable manifesto of a clinically depressed teen who had a penchant for acrylics on canvas. The bead curtain still remains hanging from the doorway, tinkling every time I brush past it and a reminder for my mom or dad (who pass through to place mail on my desk over the year) of me constantly rushing in and out of that room - a teenager with too many after school activities and an active social life.

"Why don't you take that damn thing down?" asked John when he came over to visit for the second time. I didn't look up from the magazine I was reading. "Because it wards off bad dreams," I said, without thinking. "I took it down once and had nightmares for a week."

Last year, I turned 30. I looked across the chasm of my twenties and stood before it, open-mouthed at all that I had/had not achieved during the time I lived abroad. What did I spend my twenties doing? What was I doing here instead of there?

I go home once a year and my parents grow older each time. I notice more grey in my father's short, spiky cropped cut - the same cut he's had since college. Soon, it will be completely white, and I will cry. He works too hard. At the brink of retirement but still starting work at 7:00 a.m. every day. He limps a little when he walks and I ask him, alarmed, what's going on. "Bah," he says, waving his hand. "It's just my knee. Sometimes it gets really bad." I look away so that he doesn't see the tears pricking my eyes.

I glance up at the dinner table to watch my mom stirring a Chinese soup over the stove - a soup that she has gently talked me through making every time, assuring me in Cantonese that it is "very easy, you can even get the ingredients at Tesco for this one" - and one that I will probably never attempt. Her shoulders are slumped a bit further and she seems to have shrunk even more than her original 5'3" frame. I think of the mother who deftly parallel parked on a hill three times a week, every week, for ballet lessons. Keys in one hand, my toddler brother's hand in the other, and mine hanging on to her pocket or a belt loop as we crossed the busy Tacoma road. A sob rises in my chest but I suppress it.

"I can relate," says a friend from the south of England. "It depresses me to see my parents age. I wish I saw them more often. It worries me to see them getting old." She sighs and I am angry. "Yeah," I say, sympathetically, but my fingers have curled into fists without me knowing. 'You're a short train ride away,' I think to myself. 'You go home every month to visit them. You can see them more often if you'd like.'

It is guilt, coupled with sadness, that moves me to make up for the lack of my presence by showering my parents with gifts whenever I return home. "You know, Gar showed me this beautiful French knife he had at the office the other day," my dad said on FaceTime. "I don't know what it's called, but it has a bee engraved on the handle. Really beautiful." I Googled the knife and found Laguiole online, purchasing a cheese and butter knife set for him several days later. It arrived yesterday in a beautiful wooden box, which I added to the pile of gifts I had set aside for them when I travel back in a couple of weeks' time.

But we all know that gifts do not make up for lost time. Am I a deadbeat daughter? An absent sister? Reaping the benefits of my upbringing yet not bothering to show up when it matters the most? I think back carefully through the memories of my past - did my parents not prepare me for this? For getting the hell out of our small town and chasing new adventures? I worked so hard in high school - churning through calculus equations, titrating solutions in chemistry, attending after school AP Exam study sessions - because I wanted to leave.

Sometimes my parents appear in my dreams and they look sad, disappointed. "I wanted you to fly away, but not this far away," they say forlornly, as I turn away from airport security. Always there. That chasm between my 30th birthday and my 20s is the line of people at airport security inching forward, taking me a step further away each time.


  1. I completely understand you. After years of living abroad I have come home to a family who is very very different to the one I left.
    I've not said this anywhere else on the net, but I came home from Germany 3 weeks ago to the news that my parents are getting a divorce. That my mum had been depressed and had been nasty to my sisters. I was oblivious, having fun in Frankfurt. The guilt in my heart, knowing that I could have been there for my sisters, is more than I can bear.
    I've not found a job yet (not through lack of trying, mind) but in a way I'm glad because it forces me to stick to the house and be around for my family while they go through this.

    1. Charlotte, I am so sorry to hear that. It must have felt like the rug got pulled from under your feet, but 100 times worse. I'm sending positive thoughts your way.

    2. And thank you for sharing something so profoundly personal like that on here - I really appreciate you sharing your own experiences with me.

    3. That's terrible news, Charlotte, and I'm deeply sorry to hear it.

      Good post, Angloyankophile- it hits very close to home for me as well.

      I'm moving back to the US in a little over two months, and I'm worried about what I'll find when I get there. My father had a second bleed in his brain a few weeks ago- his life isn't in danger, but his short term memory comes and goes, and he's not the same person he was when I left. My mom has experienced broken bones and has had a shoulder replacement. I have a niece who was 1 when I left, who barely knows me. I've written my own post before about the real cost of living abroad, and this is it- missed birthdays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and smaller (but just as important) events throughout the lives of those we love.

      This is a big part of why I'm moving back, to be honest.

    4. Thanks, Steven - and thanks for sharing your story. It's all very tough. It's interesting though - I've had lots of comments and feedback on this post in particular and it seems that the feelings I've been experiencing are also felt by those who live in different states than their parents and isn't just limited to experiences abroad. I've never given too much thought about this as I assumed that visiting families within the US is easier, but thinking about the limited vacation time and pricey flights, this is probably not always the case. Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to this! Thank you.

  2. My guilt worked in reverse: I went from feeling it strongly as a child after my parents split, to a sense of guilt that's almost completely faded now. I'm very close to my mother and have spent years BEING close to her (talking everyday, living in the same house/state, going out places together, etc.). We've both moved all over the place, and I'm not close to my father anymore, so my burden as a daughter is different from yours. I've actually wished for the things that spark your guilt: a childhood home/room to return to, memories shared by your whole family, parents who pushed you to find the person you eventually became (and the tug of war resulting from that, which I totally get). My mother's been the supportive one, and even though I know she'll hate that I'm not nearby, I'd feel MORE guilt if I didn't extricate myself from her life and move elsewhere (for good this time).

    It makes me a bit sad to realize that my parents are aging, but it's also a comfort to me. I feel like we're on more even footing now, and they trust me to understand them in ways that I couldn't as a child (not that I didn't try). Because my mother not only divorced herself (and me) from my father but also from the religious beliefs governing our household, I had to grow up quickly and she had to retrace her steps and experience the life she didn't get to before. So the milestones like going to/graduating from university, dating around, and living alone didn't happen for her until later. In fact, we experienced some of them at the same time, and others I experienced before her. So my guilt has gone away and been replaced by other things.

    Your parents probably do wish they could see you more often, but I'd bet they're also happy for, and proud of you for finding your own way. I also think it's better to feel the type of guilt that moves you to do something kind for someone you love than to feel nothing. Don't beat yourself up too much; you're doing better than you think :)

    1. Maslo thank you - as always - for sharing your story and for your very thoughtful, thought-provoking comment. I found it deeply profound and your words are something I will definitely ruminate upon for days to come. I love hearing about (and am fascinated by) other peoples' experiences on this blog and really appreciate you sharing something so personal with me.

  3. This story made me cry. I haven't read something that has resonated so personally with me in a long time. After 8 years in London, I have only been back home to Vancouver three times. The last time was March 2013, after a four year absence. I had a very strong relationship with my mother, which got fractured a little when I was a teenager and discovered boys. She didn't know whether to hug me or not when she saw me. She didn't. Please keep going back home each and every year, no matter how painful it is. Four years away and it was like a different lifetime. I'm 28 and writing about this makes feel triple that age. We're still young, but I think the pain of seeing loved ones get older ages us, too. We fool ourselves that we have lots of time, but where did it all go? - Stefanie

    1. Hi Stefanie, thanks so much for reading, commenting and sharing your personal experience, which really moved me. I'm from a town that's only a 3 hour drive away from Vancouver, so I can definitely relate to the distance aspect and also how tough it is to go back. Offering you a virtual hug from this end!

  4. This is heartbreaking and all the more so because it's so very true - expat life certainly has many downsides!

    1. Yes, it does, Emma - I remember when Rebecca and I got back from our respective trips "home" this January and ended up crying over breakfast together! It does get better, but I am not sure it ever gets "easier". For me, it's comforting to know that there are so many people (like you!) in a similar position who just "get" how I feel. :)


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