Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Expat Talk: The Greatest Fear


Last night, after a tiring day at work and a frustrating evening trying to squeeze in some furniture shopping at Heal's and Habitat on Tottenham Court Road before closing time (they close at 7 p.m. on week nights. 7. Who does that?), I went home, cooked dinner, and collapsed in a heap on my bed, vowing not to move until my alarm went off the next morning.

At some point, in the early hours of the morning, I had a terrible, awful dream.

I dreamed that my mother died.

Of course, I'm sure you've all had dreams about a family member or loved one dying - you wake up, realize it isn't true, call the person in your dreams, feel relief rushing through your body as you hear their voice, and get on with your day, counting your blessings.

But this wasn't like that. This was awful. I dreamed that I got this news when I was in London - half-way around the world. I rushed home on the plane and ran up those familiar stone steps, pushed open the screen door, ran upstairs to my parents' bedroom - in the house I've always known - and rushed to my parents' bed. She wasn't there, but the familiar dent in the pillow where she'd slept on was still there. Suddenly, I had this terrible realization in my dream that she was never coming back.

And I was crying these horrible, gasping sobs - the kind where you're half asleep, so you don't sound like you're crying, but more like you're making these strange, guttural noises. That kind of crying.

My biggest fear, my greatest fear of all as an expat, is that something happens to my family on the other side of the world, and I can't be there in time to see them. To save them. To help them. To be there for them.

In those instances of fear, it isn't guilt that grips me - it's a feeling that's worse than that. Like rot that rises up from within you; rot that's always been there, waiting, teeth-bared, ready to consume you.

This is the darkness that I fear, that I can't escape from.

And you know, I know I chose this: "this", meaning living 5,000 miles away from my parents and brother. And I also think that purchasing our first home here has pushed that choice to the forefront of my mind.

I have to remind myself: nothing is permanent. Everything is temporary. We can always rent out the house if we'd like, and move to Seattle. Or San Francisco. Or New York.

But then, I remind myself: nothing is permanent. Everything is temporary. Even life.

So I scroll through my Instagram photos filled with images of flowers and cocktails and blue skies and food. I touch the new lamp we just bought for the house. I wait for that rot to recede; that rot that smothered me while I was sleeping. I put on a pair of heels so it can't grab at my ankles and I try to get on with my day, try to count my blessings, and anxiously wait to FaceTime with my mom tonight.
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45 comments

  1. This is my greatest fear as an expat, too. Nevermind the gut-wrenching guilt of being photoshopped on Christmas cards and missing out on special events... but not being there when something as magnanimous as this happens.

    Hope you're feeling better and hope you had/have a great convo with your mom!

    Honey x The Girl Next Shore

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    1. :( I totally feel your pain, Honey. Thanks so much for your lovely support! xx

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  2. Oh Jaime :( I hate those dreams, I had one a few days ago that felt SO real and it put me in an awful miserable mood for the rest of the day!

    Sadly this post came very true for me when I was living in Australia. It was April, I was 17 and had returned home from school one day, when my mum sat my brother and I down on the sofa and told us my aunty back home in England had collapsed and been rushed to hospital, and her skin cancer had come back. Just a couple of weeks later she sat me down again, this time on my own, in my bedroom, and told me it was terminal, and she only had a couple of months left. For weeks I hoped and prayed she would stay strong and keep fighting until we got back to England in July. Every time the phone rang my heart would jump and I'd go into a panic, we would all look at each other and then listen in to see who was calling. A day before my May exams started the call arrived. She died just 7 weeks after diagnosis and was only in her early forties. Heartbroken doesn't even cover it, being 8983 miles away from my family when they needed us was the worst. My grandparents were distraught, my Nanny made us feel horribly guilty for being over the other side of the world, and because my parents couldn't take me out of school during exam time, we missed the funeral. I was sat in my English Literature exam on the day of her funeral, and instead of getting the A grade I was predicted to get, I sat there sobbing and didn't write a single thing on the exam paper. They gave me 'mitigating circumstances' and a D grade so at least I passed. We went back to England as planned in July, and I will never forget the moment my mum saw my uncle for the first time since my Aunty died, and they both just burst into tears and threw their arms round each other and held on.

    Being an expat is an amazing experience, but sometimes it really fucking* sucks. Being so far away from family is the one thing that makes me scared to move abroad again.

    C x | Lux Life

    *Please excuse the language.

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    1. Oh Catherine - I am so, so sorry to hear that. Thank you for sharing such a personal story with me. I totally, completely agree with your last sentence - language and all! You've hit the nail on the head x

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  3. This post sent chills down me. When I was younger my dad travelled a lot with work and him dying in a plane crash was a recurring dream that I had.

    Slightly similar to Catherine's sad story my grandmother died whilst she was on a cruise and I never saw her for the last time - but at least I know that she died doing what she loved - travelling. She was a real inspiration, having travelled basically everywhere but then in her eighties, still going strong and going on cruises.

    A great thought provoking post as usual, my lovely.
    Lots of love,
    Angie

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    1. So sad, Angie. But like you said, I suppose the silver lining was that she passed away doing something she loved - and how fitting that it was travelling! I know where you get your love of travel from :) Thanks so much for taking the time to read and leaving such a personal comment xx

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  4. Such an emotional post, Jaime. You poor thing! I can't imagine what that must feel like, and can only say that I'm happy that it was just a nightmare and not reality. I think we've all just got to make the most of what we have when we have it and deal with the curve balls as they get thrown at us.

    Lots of love,
    Lauren xx
    The Lifestyle Diaries

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    1. Thank you for your lovely words, Lauren xx

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  5. This is also my biggest fear, that one phone call that will change everything and then the hours long flight with the horrible knowledge. My brothers are in high school and every Friday and Saturday night I pray and hope that they do not get in a car with a drunk driver.

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    1. That's tough, Bailie! I worry about my younger brother a lot too, especially as the US is so car-dependent (well, depending on where you live, but definitely where my family lives)!

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  6. Oh, darling Jaime. I've had similar dreams before and it's the absolute worst. I think one of the hardest parts about it for me is that even when something does really happen, you can't be there right away. It's not just a drive, or even a 2-3 hour flight home. Even when you're ticket is booked, you're looking at at least 24 hours before you can really get home. I know that rot, and I'm definitely thinking of you today. If you want to talk, you know where to find me!

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    1. Thank you, sweet Robin! I know you know. And I am so happy that you'll be closer to your family soon!

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  7. This is probably the worst thing about living abroad (especially when your home is a 24 hour flight away). My grandmother died last year while I was in London, it really sucked not being able to be there with my family.

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    1. I'm so sorry, Stacey. The same thing happened to me when my grandfather died in Hong Kong and I was in York. More than anything else, I just wanted to be there for my mom - and I couldn't/wouldn't. It was so hard.

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  8. I know it must be a terrible feeling. My mother lived in Germany for 10 years while I lived in the states. And I too worried that something would happen while she was abroad. Lots of hugs!

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  9. This post reminds me of the one you wrote about daughter-guilt a while back. And I admire the same thing in you in this situation as I did in that one: your feelings push you to demonstrate how much you love that person. I worry about the death of my family members no matter where I am (and I'm sure you do too), by that I mean...it's TIME that's become my greatest fear. That I'm getting older means that those adults I looked up to, who I thought would alwaysalwaysALWAYS be there no matter what, are getting older, too. And they won't always be there. That realization hits me at odd moments and it scares the sh** out of me. But then I do what you do: I call them. I ask them how they are. I stamp my brain all over with memories -- new and old -- of them and it calms me a little. Everything is temporary, including the bad feelings :)

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    1. Oh Gianni, your comment just made me cry. You have a wonderful way with words. I know that you *get* exactly what I'm saying. I need more memories - mostly new, but to remember the old. And thank you for reminding me that even the bad feelings are temporary.

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  10. Oh my goodness... The first night I arrived in the UK when I moved here, I had a dream just like that... I have such lucid dreams, that I had to ring my mum instantly when I woke up, because I was so convinced that it was true. It's an absolutely horrible feeling to think that something like that might happen, and there's no real way for you to get home in time. I'm so sorry to hear that you went through something as heart wrenching as this as well.

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    1. It's the worst, Talia! Glad (well, not really glad, but you know what I mean!) that you know what I'm trying to describe here. As our parents grow older I think we just have more concerns about them/their health, especially being so far away - but even though it's at the back of my mind all the time, I also try not to think about it too much and check in with them more regularly.

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  11. You poor thing, Jaime. I do sympathise, having lived in France for more than 10 years before, there's a certain guilt that goes with it. Having said that, when you do see your mother, I bet you have real quality time together

    Suze | LuxuryColumnist

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    1. Thanks, Suze - I'd forgotten that you lived in France for that long! Yes - we definitely have quality together ... I miss shopping with her the most!

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  12. Sending you a HUGE HUG. I think every expat has felt exactly the same at some point in time. The worst is when guilt, worry and homesickness comes together in a big melting pot!! Horrendous. It's only natural that making things a little more permanent by buying a house could bring some of these feelings out, even if subconsciously.

    Out here it's extra tough because my passport is suspended while I'm in the country, meaning that if anything were to happen back home, I'd have to apply for an exit permit first to allow me to leave! Sometimes this could take days!! But I try not to think about that too much...

    Polly xx

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    1. Thanks, Polly - I know you understand! I would be very anxious if I didn't have access to my passport at all times - I forgot that that's the case in Doha. xx

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  13. This just brought tears to my eyes. I've felt this same fear (as, it appears from the comments, so many others in our shoes have too) & it was incredibly cathartic to read your brave & open account of it. Your vulnerability has made an impression on me today - thanks for sharing, Jaime. And do tell me more about this new lamp of yours, haha! xx

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and to share your lovely comment, Natalie! And ... p.s. I'll tweet you a photo of the lamp! ;)

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  14. I just want to give you all the hugs - it's hard being an expat sometimes, in ways you wouldn't even think.

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  15. This post hit me right in the heart.

    I live with this fear every single day. When my dad got his first cancer diagnosis, which was almost immediately followed by my grandfather receiving his AML diagnosis, the guilt I felt for being so far away became almost crushing. I remember being terrified of every single phone call and waking up in a panic from nightmares. I started to fly home for visits more frequently, trying to time them during some of the longer durations of their treatments (they were both going through treatment at the same time, so there was a lot to do) so that I could be of help to my mom and brother, and each time I left, I'd almost beg for them to beg me to stay, but they never did. In retrospect, I realize that the last time I saw my dad (when he and my Mom dropped me off at the airport in Memphis), that he had already realized that it might really be the last time he saw me. He hugged me a little tighter, and cried a little harder than he had any other time they had dropped me off for a flight. I remember walking through the security line thinking "wow. dad is really upset this time...." but it never occurred to me that he was actually that close to dying. I thought he was just exhausted from treatment, and it made him more emotional. I still thought he would go into remission again, and that his cancer would soon be something that we could put - and leave - in the past. After he passed away, I went through a period of time where I felt a little angry that he allowed me to leave him when he knew his time was so limited (something they had kept from me because they knew I would come home and not leave), but now I realize that just knowing that I was living a happy life (even if it was across an ocean) brought him a little comfort and peace during a terrible time in his own life. He once told me that even though he missed me and wished I was closer, it brought him so much happiness to know that he did his job - he helped raise me to be a good person and sent me out into the world, and I was going to be okay, and that's all he could have ever hoped for. When he reached the very end, and I (thankfully) did make it home, it was a huge relief to be there to help take care of him and my grandfather for their last few months of life. It was painful and difficult to watch, but I almost felt it fitting that I was there to help usher my dad out of the same world he helped usher me in to.....being able to do that for him gave me the strength to get up every day and take care of him. It was my duty. It was an honor.

    anyway, (I went a little off course with what I was saying up there....) I still live with the fear every day of something else horrible happening. With every poorly timed phone call (my mom sometimes completely forgets about the time difference and calls me at obscene times. ha!) or vague "call me ASAP" text message I get (which are almost always about something completely benign), I think my heart stops and it takes a few seconds off of my own life. I realize now, a year and half removed from the deaths of my Dad and my Grandfather, that no matter where I'd lived - next door, two hours away, across an ocean - I couldn't have changed the outcome. I couldn't have stopped it or at all altered the course of what happened, but the guilt still remains. The nightmares still creep in from time to time. The fear lives on.

    I'm really starting to think that maybe it's a "daughter" thing - I sometimes envy my husband because he doesn't seem to feel the same way I do about these things. No guilt. No nightmares. No fears. He's all "que sera, sera" about everything, and I'm a little jealous of that. Ha!

    Big hugs to you - those dreams/nighmares are the worst!

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    1. Oh Charlee. I was honestly at a loss for words at your comment. I remember crying (and still being heartbroken) when I heard the news about your dad, even though we've never met! I can't imagine losing a parent at your age (touch wood). Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your thoughts. I hope your fear - while it lives on - seeps in on that rare occasion, rather than being a regular occurence.

      I agree that it's a "daughter" thing. I don't think my brother has the same (or the same intensity, at least) concerns and John has a very pragmatic view about things.

      Huge hugs to you too.

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  16. I totally know what you mean and I have these fears a lot. It's such a catch 22 as if I was there then I wouldn't be with the people here and vice versa, it's difficult! But as you say, everything is temporary, there are always lots of holidays! x

    Jasmin Charlotte

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    1. I take comfort in knowing that I'm not the only one, Jasmin! And yes, I definitely need to reserve my holiday time for my family ... it's hard when there are so many places I'd like to visit too. I feel selfish for going away rather than going to visit them, often!

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  17. I totally know what you mean and I have these fears a lot. It's such a catch 22 as if I was there then I wouldn't be with the people here and vice versa, it's difficult! But as you say, everything is temporary, there are always lots of holidays! x

    Jasmin Charlotte

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  18. I had a very real dream that my mother died a couple years ago. I woke up because I was actually crying. It was such a weird feeling and I can relate to this post so well. We just moved to London a few months ago and it seemed the moment we moved, we had so many families things come up. We are learning to live in our moment and not wish away our time here in order to get back and feel secure again. Trying to find balance in living our our dream but remembering whats important in life. As you said, everything is temporary—the good and the bad.

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    1. It's an awful dream to have, Brittany - I'm sorry that you went through that! I think you're right about striking a balance. It's hard to find but I'm getting there, I think. Thanks for your lovely comment.

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  19. Oh, I get this. I really do. In fact, the most recent incarnation of that fear was that something would happen to me/us while we were away with the baby and no one would know. And worst of all, no one would know the baby. It was one of the reasons I wanted to come home. The distance can be overcome a lot of the time, but there are some fears that are just too horrid to contemplate at times.

    I'm glad you popped on some heels to kick the rot into touch. A good pair of heels will bring out the fierce in you.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Amy - I can imagine that having a child would add a whole other dimension to the situation. It's (being a long way from your "family", however you might define that) tough but something to be worked on/through!

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  20. Omg, this is my worst nightmare too. Deathly afraid i'll lose my mum. Probably never forgive myself if anything happened to her while im in London. I totally get it. Scary.

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    1. Ugh, it's such an awful feeling. And worse because I know people who it's happened to ... I guess if anything it reminds us to live our lives to the fullest and to check in with our loved ones often!

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  21. Such a sad and thought-provoking post, Jaime. I can't really sympathise with how you feel, living a 30 minute drive from my parents, but the rest of my family live in Northern Ireland so I know in some small part how it feels to only experience life updates on social media (when you'd really prefer to hug them than leave a comment on their Facebook status) and hearing bad news over the phone, when they're a plane ride away.

    x

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    1. Thanks for your honesty, Charlene - having family in Northern Ireland must be difficult too! At the same time, I often think that I'd take my parents/brother for granted if I lived near them. I know my mom would love me to move back, but then I always say that I wouldn't see her very often or even talk to her as much if I did! x

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  22. Expat life never gets any easier when it comes to family issues. Unfortunately I lost my brother this spring, and getting the news from across the world was so terrible. Head up <3

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    1. I am so, so sorry for your loss, Shane. Thank you for sharing with me. I'm sending good thoughts/hugs/condolences your way. <3

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  23. Wow, what an emotional post, Jaime. I think it's something that hides in the back of all expat's minds. When I first moved to the US I wasn't allowed to leave the country for nearly a year while I waited for my Green Card paperwork to be processed, and (although I don't think I realised it at the time), that knowledge that if something happened, I couldn't get home, really bothered me. Now, at least I know I can get home in about 14-ish hours if I need to - the journey from London to the north of Scotland often takes longer than the one from NYC to London!

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    1. I would feel panicked without my passport too, Katie! And so crazy that you could get home quicker from NYC to London than from London to the north of Scotland! When I went home a few weeks ago - it wasn't really planned trip. I was feeling homesick, my parents missed me, so I decided to do something about it (well, my husband decided to do something about it for me and booked me the trip home using his airmiles). The knowledge that I *could* get home in a matter of weeks comforted me a lot, and that's why I think I left the trip feeling calmer than ever before. Does that make sense? Usually, I plan those kinds of trips months and months in advance and so it feels monumentous when it actually happens and I get really emotional when I have to tear myself away. This time, I went almost spontaneously and knew that they'd be back in the winter, so I felt better about things. Expat-ing is hard no matter how we look at it!

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    2. That makes complete sense! My big trip home this spring felt momentous too, and it makes leaving so much harder. I would love to just pop home quickly for a week at short notice (and I do keep an eye on flight deals all the time!). It must have been so nice for you to go home so spontaneously :)

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