The things we lose – thoughts on distance

Last week we had a stark and difficult reminder of just how far away from home we are. My husband’s grandmother passed away, somewhat suddenly, last Wednesday. In the days before her death, it was hard to get details from his family about her condition. It was also hard to know what to do: should my husband fly home right away, or wait for more information? Should we listen to family or just do what we thought was best?

Thankfully, we were able to work things out quickly and make the right decisions for us. I left Amsterdam a day after my husband, arriving in the U.S. the morning of the wake. We were glad to be with family and I know it was important to my husband to be present for the funeral. And it was a lovely celebration of his grandmother, a vibrant and funny woman who had a fondness for telling dirty jokes to the priests at the Knights of Columbus hall many years ago. Last Christmas, someone gave her a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and when she opened it, she said, “FINALLY! Everyone’s been talking about this and I want to see what all the fuss is about!”. Her spirit and humor were infectious, and she will be missed.

I had time with my dad, sister, and my nieces, all of whom came to the funeral and the luncheon that followed. We also managed to squeeze in a visit with friends, joining in on what has been an annual outing to the famous Woodman’s. While my husband is still in the U.S., I returned the day after the funeral – a total of 55 hours in America. Whew.

For both of us, this was the first time that we really felt the distance between us and our families and lives in the U.S. It is relatively easy to keep in touch with people these days. With email and Skype and regular phone calls, I can maintain the illusion that nothing much has changed from when we lived in Boston. On top of that, there’s the ease of travel. Our families are on the east coast, so we tell ourselves that we’re “only” 6 or 7 hours away.

But in times of crisis or stress, the miles seem to stretch and I can suddenly feel very, very far away. In an abstract sense, we anticipated this when we moved here, but I don’t think we really understood what it meant to leave, to be away from family. You don’t see the incremental erosion of health in aging relatives. You can’t help with the day-to-day maintenance. You miss the regular gatherings, the summer festivals, the sporting events. And when you do return, whether for a few days or for a week, you can feel like you don’t quite belong.

These are the trade-offs we make for the chance to live abroad. In this case, since the crisis was in my husband’s family, I’m acutely aware of the fact that our life abroad was my doing. If not for me and my crazy plans, we would have been a mere hour’s drive from family. John would have been able to see his grandmother before she passed away, and may have felt that he was giving more support to his mom and family.

Maybe it’s just the distance that matters, and not the geography. Maybe I’d be feeling the same if we were living in California or Chicago. We’re not the first people to deal with this challenge, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time we experience this distance, this disconnect. So we’re left to find ways to cope, to be as present and supportive as we can be from far away, and to keep working at it.


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