“D,” W says over the phone, hiccuping sobs, “J’s dad. He’s passed.”
Muffled cries, inaudible words.
“Oh my god,” I manage, feeling the pit of my stomach tighten and tears instantly fill my eyes.
I think I hear her ask me to come to where she is. Even if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s Feb. 27. J’s birthday. And, over dinner with friends, they have just gotten word that his father passed unexpectedly. In Wales.
I grab my keys and rush down the street to where they are. My heart breaking into a million pieces just imaging the pain he is going through.
W stands on the street outside of the restaurant, surrounded by friends. I walk up silently to her and wrap my arms around her. She turns to me, streaks of wet rushing down from her swollen eyes. Her normal smiling face eclipsed by the shock and grief.
I grab her again, hugging her hard.
“I’m so sorry.”
She takes my hand in hers and we walk down the street.
“Come over and have a drink with us,” she manages.
“Are you sure that is OK with J?”
W nods her bobbed auburn hair.
The two of us stand outside the store, waiting for J. He looks up at me.
“Hey, D,” he says softly.
I can barely speak. Just looking at the anguish on his face kills me. I walk up to him and hold him tight, my chest constricting as I fight my own sobs.
He cries on my shoulder and tells me to go back with them to their home.
W and I walk hand-in-hand down the street, her fighting audible sobs as she clasps her free hand over her mouth, tears streaming down her face.
His birthday. His father. His unexpected passing.
The two of them were just getting all of the pieces to fit for their lives in Thailand … and now … tragedy in a time when everything was going right.
We sit at their house, bottle of vodka being liberally poured in the warm February night. The three of us don’t say much at first. We just cry.
I don’t know J’s father, but I know J. And W. The two of them have been incredibly important people to me since I met them in September. Seeing them so overcome with sadness … imaging myself in their position … it just shatters me.
“What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?” W asks over and over, holding her hands to her head. “It’s your dad. You’ve got to get home. I have to go with you. What are we gonna do?”
I scramble to help them look for flights, researching bereavement policies, figuring out how quickly they can get home.
“Fuck,” J says through tears. “Fuck.”
The tickets are expensive. Especially since they are last-minute.
“What are we gonna do?”
I volunteer to help cover some of the costs, then another friend messages me and says she will cover the remainder of J’s ticket.
“You have to go home,” I say quietly to J. “You have to be with your family. I missed my grandma dying, J. I missed her funeral because I couldn’t get back in time. You are going to go home. We won’t let that happen to you.”
Memories rush back to when my grandma passed away when I was in Croatia. Being alone … being so far from home … it is the worst feeling in the entire world. And those days after death? Forget. It.
When she died from ALS in 2010, I never felt so powerless. So little. So devastated. I would never wish that pain on anyone. And now, here they are, going through something so similar.
Except, thankfully, they are not alone in this country. They have people who care about them. Who love them. Who will help them.
The amount of love the people in my life here have shows no limits, and it took J’s father passing to learn that. As W and I walk down the street to book him a flight, both crying, Nico sees us and his normally bright face clouds over.
“What has happened?” He asks. W can’t respond, so I choke out the story the best I can. We sit down, and he makes W a hot booze-filled drink. Neighbors who love W come by and see her, and stand with her and talk. Later, Nico and his wife and baby, Beau and Bella, and our friend Paula (who also helped cover the cost) come to the house and we all sit together while they grieve.
As the alcohol flows, J begins to share stories of his father with us. Funny stories about his childhood, moments he spent with his dad. Between the laughs, of course, there are tears, but just being able to sit and listen to him … it is what friends do.
The next few days, I reflect.
What do you do when you are an expat and your world comes crashing down?
When my grandma died, it was expected. I received an e-mail from my dad, telling me to call him.
My friends, the other night, in Thailand? They did not.
“We just talked to him three days ago,” she says between sobs. “He was fine. He was fine.”
Life as an expat can be amazing, it can be beautiful, but then there is the other side. The tragic, heart-breaking side. The reality nearly every expat faces but never wants to discuss. The reality of loss.
What do you do when you get word when someone you love passes away and you have to uproot your life in order to get back? What goes through your mind about being so far from home?
Coming home to sadness is never the way you imagine your return to be. You imagine getting on the plane, excited to see people you care about. Excited to re-visit your old life (perhaps). But then … that picture in your mind is shattered. Destroyed to bits with one phone call. With one message.
Someone you love has passed away. You need to come home.
As an expat, it is the biggest fear I have. I consciously made the decision to leave my old life, to leave my friends and family on the other side of the world. But, that fear never ceases. As an expat, I know I miss out on so much. Weddings. Births. Milestone moments. Sickness. Aging. Death. But, it is a choice I made.
Sitting with my friends, witnessing their loss, suddenly I got scared. Petrified.
This could be me. Sitting with my friends. Immersed in grief and vodka and feeling entirely powerless. Utterly helpless. Then, I look at my life. Where I am. What I am doing. And, I have to wonder, what is it worth?
I know my family would never want me to stop what I was doing to come home and wait for the unavoidable. When my grandma was dying, I asked repeatedly if I needed to change my flight to come home.
“No,” my mom would say. “You don’t need to come home and wait for death. You stay. You do what you do.”
Except when grandma passed, and I was alone, and so close to coming home, I was devastated. Heart-broken. Not only for my loss, but for the impact the loss was having on my family. I wanted to be there to comfort them. To ease my pain. To ease theirs. But, as an expat, you don’t get that chance. You don’t get a re-do. You don’t get the last word. Instead, you have to constantly let people who are so far away know how much you care. Know how important they are. Because, you never know …
This post is dedicated to W, J and J’s father, Roger.