I’ve been overseas for a while due to what must be every expat’s nightmare: parental illness. Anyone vaguely middle aged lives in faint dread of the time they’ll have to face the music of ageing parents living thousands of miles away. We know that we exist in a bubble, sheltered from the every day concerns that our siblings (if we’re lucky enough to have them to share the load) back home may have. Knowing one day at that will come to an abrupt end.
Our end came a couple of months ago when we received news that my mother in law was in intensive care. Leaving aside the guilt of dropping everything at work, the difficulty in finding last minute flights and the punishing cost of them, we travelled to the US as quickly as we could. Even then, perhaps naively, we thought we were there for a hospital visit and to help sort out some household chores not to spend the last few weeks of her life with her and arrange her funeral.
Now that we are back, the grief has kicked in along with the guilt over not being there for my father in law and own parents. And fielding emails and phone calls while there, and since I’ve been back, I’ve found that bereavement is polarising. Many people, my age or older, sympathized saying they’ve been through similar experiences with at least one parent or in law. Others avoid contact like the plague, literally leaving messages unanswered, as if death is catching. A local friend told me that the Chinese think dealing with hospital visits and death is unlucky.
Dealing with strangers and casual acquaintances is the worst. Having to carry on as if everything is normal when inside you’re thinking: let me tell you what I’ve been through. Our first day back I called to make an appointment at our regular reflexology place. “Oh, you haven’t been for a long time!” the receptionist chastised. “Yes, we’ve been overseas for a long time, we’ve had family matters to deal with,” I replied calmly. When we got there that evening she repeated the reprimand with a flirtatious smile to my husband who admirably took it on the chin while I literally felt like slapping her. Then both of our reflexologists arrived, each of them repeating one after the other: “You haven’t been for a long time! Haha!” Ha, ha, we laughed along with them.
I felt for my cleaners though. When the pair arrived to find several removal boxes in the apartment, one (the only one that speaks English) asked if I was moving. I explained that they were from my mother in law’s house. “Oh!” she said cheerily, “She’s moving here?” “No, she passed away,” I said. Her face immediately turned sad while her (non English speaking) colleague stood there smiling and laughing in a misguided attempt to join in. The poor woman probably died when her colleague translated the conversation later.