No one said being an expat is easy. No one said it is all unicorns and rainbows and glitter (damn). In fact, being an expat means missing out on the lives of those who are important to you and not expats. The friends who get married, who have kids, who celebrate happy and mourn loss. It’s about not being with your family in the time of need.
When I am on my career break, I lose my grandmother to ALS. Two days before my scheduled flight home. I fly from Zadar to Frankfurt to Dulles in a veil of grief, my cheeks consistently tear-stained. Her funeral is the day of transit. Being in Croatia, alone, is one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever gone through. There is no one to sit with me, to take my hand, to hold me as I sob.
Losing my grandmother is one of the hardest things of my life. We all know it is coming, but I am so close to being home. So close to seeing her one last time, to holding her soft, wrinkled hand in mine and telling her the final time how much I love her and how grateful I am to have her in my life.
Let me tell you something — losing someone and being so far from home is NEVER easy. It cuts you to the core. It takes your world of security you have created and stabs it you over and over and over until you think you can’t breathe. Thankfully, as an expat (versus solo traveler), the community created is one of the most important things when dealing with grief.
On Wednesday, October 9, I once again experience death. This time, my grandfather passes away. Like his wife, my family knows it is coming.
The e-mails start over the summer. Little updates from my mom informing me he has a heart attack, or has fallen, or he is retaining liquids. Then, they start to get worse. Leaving his apartment and being admitted to the hospital. Moving into a nursing home. I dread opening my e-mails during the summer. Dread the words being written in front of me that something has happened. And, once again, I am thousands and thousands of miles away.
When I return to home to the USA at the beginning of September, it doesn’t look good. My first day with my parents, outlet shopping in Rehoboth, my mom gets a call from my aunt saying he has days.
I stand in the parking lot watching my mom’s reaction — stoic, prepared — as she relays this information. My mind shoots back to Croatia. To crumbling against the ancient stone wall and sobbing.
I’m not there. I’m here.
I do the only thing I can do. I grab her hand and let the tears fall from my face.
“Thank goodness I am here,” I whisper, choking on my words. “I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”
At first, we plan a trip the next day to Pennsylvania to go and see him. I have a sense of urgency. I have to see him again. I have to say “goodbye.” Then, we get another phone call saying he seems a bit better. He isn’t going to get better. These are still his last days, but he is OK. For now.
Instead, we postpone going to see him until my last day with my family. I fly from Philadelphia, and his nursing home isn’t far from there, so we drive up on a Tuesday morning to go and see him.
The entire drive up, I mentally prepare myself.
It’s time to say goodbye. This is not a “see you soon.” I know this is the last time I will see his twinkling blue eyes look into mine.
When we arrive to the home, he is in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blue blanket. It’s been nearly a year since I last saw him, and in that year, his frame has shrunk. His 91 years have caught up with him.
I walk up, smiling as big as I can, and wrap my arms around him and tell him “hello.”
He asks me briefly about Thailand, asks if I am happy, and then begins to rattle off about the food at the home.
There’s one thing about my papa — he is a picky eater. He likes his soup boiling hot, his meals filled with flavor. This nursing home falls short. Way short.
A few minutes later, after we question what he is eating, he produces a single cookie from his breast pocket in his shirt.
I can’t help but laugh at the adorableness of that one gesture.
Then, it’s time to go. I want to leave, but I don’t. I want to get the pain of letting him go beyond me, but don’t want to actually let him go.
When I stand up, I can feel myself tense. I can feel the tears sting my eyes. I can feel myself choke on the words.
I walk up to him and bend down, wrapping my arms around his bony shoulders. I hug him tightly.
“I love you,” I say into his ear. “I love you so much.”
How can I convey 34 years of gratitude for having him in my life without admitting to him I know this will be the last time I see him?
Instead, I manage a “take care of yourself, Papa,” and tell him once more I love him before I have to turn my body from his so he doesn’t see the pain resonating through me. I don’t want him — for even an instance — to think that he is the cause of my tears.
I take one last look, smile and wave, and my parents and I head back to the car and the late summer afternoon in Pennsylvania.
Nearly one month to the day later, I get the message from my mom.
But, I am prepared. I know it is his time to let go and be reunited with my grandma.
That day, I can’t sit still at work. My mom is staying in Pennsylvania, keeping him company. I send him a voicemail, telling him I love him and how grateful I am he is in my life. In the late afternoon, I can’t sit in my room anymore. I can’t sit and wait for the e-mail I know is coming. Instead, I message my friend, Hollywood, and ask him to please meet me for a beer.
He obliges, and we head to a tiny bar on the moat and talk about what has been going on in our lives. I look at my phone — it is nearly 8 a.m. in Pennsylvania and I haven’t heard from my mom yet. I send her off a quick e-mail and then return to the bar.
My phone lights up with a Vox message from Mom.
I look at Hollywood and already know. I excuse myself and listen to the message.
“Hey D,” Mom begins, sounding weary. “I just wanted to let you know I am driving home. I just got a call from my brother, and Papa just passed away …”
I listen to the rest, but don’t. My stomach turns. I can’t see anything anymore because salty tears are overflowing from my eyes.
I knew this was coming and yet it doesn’t stop the pain. At all.
I walk back in the bar and Hollywood knows immediately. He wraps his arms around me as I sob into his shoulders.
“I know, I know,” he says in my ear as I just let go and cry.
I don’t want to be in the bar anymore. I want to be home.
In a daze, I wander back towards my house, making a few calls to friends in town who know what is going on and tell them the story.
Stacy, one of my closest friends here, meets me at Smith. Before I am even up the stairs, her arms are around me as I cry. Then, a few other friends there all take turns hugging me, holding me, offering their condolences. I don’t have to tell anyone there what has happened — they all know.
We sit together at Papa’s, the local hangout for Smith residents and former Smith residents, and I try to wipe my face, but more tears erupt every few minutes.
“Let’s go light a lantern,” Stacy suggests.
“Yeah, I think that is a good idea,” I say, handing her the keys to my house so she can go and get them.
In Thailand, lanterns are lit for many things. In this case, we decide to light one to honor my grandfather’s life and the new “life” he is about to embark upon.
A crew of us go upstairs and prepare the lantern. We light it, but we don’t let it fill up with heat long enough, and when we let it go, it teeters over the edge of the eight-story building and crashes down into a tree, lifts up for a moment, and then hits the street below.
“Did your grandfather like to fly?” A friend asks me.
No. He didn’t. Not at all.
I burst into giggles and explain that after he served in the military, he only flew once more in his life and that he hated flying.
“I guess it makes sense that the lantern didn’t make it,” I offer, and then we decide to light another one.
This time, it does fly.
My friend, Kirsty, holds my hand as I watched the golden flicker of the lantern rise, rise, rise and then fade into the black sky after a few minutes.
“I love you Papa,” I whisper to myself. “Thank you.”
I cry a little more during the night, but am surrounded by people who care. By people who hold my hand. Hug me. Offer their support. It isn’t the first time in Chiang Mai I have felt so connected, so grateful for the people in my life, but it is the first time I am so deeply appreciative and moved by it.
The next morning, I look at Facebook and see Stacy’s status update, along with a photo I posted the night before of the lantern and flame. Her words said it all:
“Something magical happened tonight. Tears fell, but somewhere in the tears magic happened. What was meant to be an amazingly spiritual moment turned into an amazing way for her to say goodbye. We lit the first lantern, and it didn’t float. It fell, and the door guy had to put out the fire. We had a great laugh. We lit the second lantern, and it too started to fall, but as it fell between the power lines, then around the tree, it lifted. It floated, and it went back between the power lines, and around the tree, and up in the sky it went. It went into the stratosphere, and out of sight. She said goodbye. Together with friends and loved ones. It was magic.”
And it was the perfect moment of pure peace. Even when my blood family was on the other side of the world.
In loving memory of Louis Lindenbaum. Thank you for your love and support. I am so blessed to have had you in my life. I love you always. Ruff, ruff. Meow, meow.