It’s hard to know when to go home. Situations arise back in Canada that often tug at my heart, wanting to pull me across the ocean. Though we get to experience many wonderful things while living here, we expats also miss out on a whole lot. While we do have most of our lives here: our partners, house, jobs, kids, pets, friends, routines etc., we also have a whole world back home. My friends in Canada know that I won’t be there for their birthday parties or that special “girls night out”. My family knows I won’t be joining them for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas morning breakfast. But we miss more than the simple occasions; I have also missed important weddings and the birth of my best friend’s baby. So what does eventually compel us to interrupt our pleasant European life, spend a couple thousand bucks, hop on a plane, and fly back overseas?
In the winter of 2008, while I was living in Dusseldorf, Germany, I received a call from my mom back in Winnipeg, Canada. Rather than the usual daily call to check in to ask about school and hear about my most recent German adventure, this time she was calling with serious news. She told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was to undergo a mastectomy and receive both chemo and radiation treatment. She was forced to take early retirement and spend the next year between home and the hospital, sick, in pain, bored and scared. As an only child I automatically knew that this was an occasion that warranted a trip home. My friends in Germany all assumed the same: “I am so sorry to hear about your mom. So when are you going home?” It seemed the sentences automatically went together. But when I suggested it to my mother, she immediately exclaimed “Absolutely not.” She deemed it completely unnecessary that I leave my partner and disrupt my studies, fly across an ocean, just to sit there with her, sick and useless; My mother, always so logical. She asked that I keep living my lovely life, keep calling her everyday, sending her lots of pictures, and offering her all the positive distraction that I could. I was stunned. How was I to carry on with what now seemed to be such a spoiled life over here in Europe, enjoying walks along the Rhine, indulging in Glühwein at the German Christmas markets, taking weekend vacations to Paris and Italy, all while my mother was losing her hair, battling incredible nausea, and quietly feeling terrified for her life? It just wasn’t right. But I did as I was told. She had another request though, that made me feel a little more at ease with her directions. She asked that when it was all over, when she was better, that I then make the trip, so we could actually enjoy each other’s company and celebrate life.
That summer, I made the trip home to Winnipeg. When I arrived, there was my mother waiting at the airport, pale, eye-brow-less, sporting a wig, but with a huge smile, and eyes burning with courage and determination. She was nearing her last round of chemo and things were looking very good. I spent that summer in town with my mom, offering her the last bit of support she needed, and being there for the good times that came after the last round of chemo. I was even able to throw her a big surprise party for her 55th birthday. The guilt however, that accompanied being the one that got to swoop in at the last minute, to be there for the fun, was ever present. Again, my mother explained to me that all that mattered was that there was fun, that there was a 55th birthday party, and that we were together at that moment. My mom doesn’t have breast cancer anymore. She says that in addition to her own strength, it was with the help of her husband, siblings, friends, and my daily overseas phone calls and emailed photos, that she was able to win the battle.
I am now facing another dilemma. My grandfather died last week, unexpectedly and too soon. This is another occasion for which I automatically start planning a trip home. Once again however, my mother quickly chimed in stating, “He’s already gone”, and not to trouble myself. I have not yet decided if I am going to listen to her this time, but this sad event has me thinking. Why are we expats so drawn to be with the people we love, to make the long trip back home, only in times of sadness? It seems crazy to me that I willingly missed Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago, an occasion so simple, yet purely joyous, with everyone together in high spirits, and then feel so compelled to be with those same people only when times have grown dark. Like my mom says, we expats should reserve the effort it takes to make the trip home for when times can be enjoyed. I just wish I had come to this realization before that Thanksgiving dinner, so I could have enjoyed my grandfather one last time.