When someone back home falls ill

Compared to the average expat, I know I am lucky. I have the sort of job and financial security that allows me to travel home at least twice a year. But that’s little solace when someone you love falls ill.

A couple of days ago, I received a pretty nasty email. They had seen my episode of House Hunters International, an American reality TV show, and wanted to know why I complained all the time. They suggested I mediatate to relieve my anger.

At the time I laughed it off. That show was scripted. I was told to whine more because it made for good TV. Then I woke up the next morning to news my grandmother had been taken to hospital. It was Saturday morning and while doctor’s were immediately able to identify the lump as cancer they couldn’t tell us anything more until the following Thursday.

The news was delivered to me via Facebook messenger. As convenient as that app is, I’m not sure it’s intended purpose was to deliver bad news across the oceans. I tried calling my mother using Facetime. Nothing. She was out of range. I tried Skype. I tried the house phone. Nothing. So I wrote “call me” and waited.


The feeling of uselessness was all consuming. And it only got worse. From waiting to know, to knowing to knowing when they were going to operate, I found myself on the outskirts as the last to hear the news. The last to be informed.

Yesterday, I got to say a few words to my grandmother from her hospital bed. The Facetime commercials make it look so easy, but all I could hear were crackles and a broken word or two. My grandmother was trying to tell me the story about one of the nurses who asked her for her gnocchi recipe and all I could hear was static. I could even wish my grandfather a happy Father’s Day because my mother’s mobile reception wasn’t good enough for international video chats.

My mother has been trying her hardest to keep me in the loop, but her words are veiled and vague. She doesn’t want me to worry and she doesn’t always remember exactly what the doctors said.

And all I can think of is that this isn’t the first time. A few years ago, my grandmother on my father’s side passed away. I couldn’t even attend her funeral. My sister had to read my eulogy.

It’s your worst days that put your life into perspective. Distance isn’t just a physical state, it is an emotional one too. All those birthdays and milestones you miss, the crises and the celebrations, the good and the bad, they are the currents that push you further out to sea, further away from your family until one day you’re hardly better than a stranger.

So stranger who didn’t even have the courage to include their name in their email, I complain because I wake up each morning knowing that I will one day receive the news that my grandparents have died and I can’t be at their funeral. I will think of all the minutes, hours and days I could have spent with them and didn’t. And I will be left knowing that my siblings, my cousins, my future nephews and nieces won’t consider me as anything more than that insignificant relative who lives in Italy. And that I have torn a huge hole in my mother’s life as she thinks of the grandchildren she will hardly know.

My grandmother asked me to go to Sunday mass and light a candle for her. It wasn’t the least I could do. It was the only thing I could do.

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