I Haven't Always Swum in this Water

The one decisive factor is not just that I'm a foreigner about whom no one knows or cares, about whom the only fact of any biological significance is that I won't be staying here forever, it's that there's no one here who knew me as a young man or as a child. That's what really troubles me, [...] there being no witness here to my continuity, to the fact that I haven't always swum in this water. (From "All Souls" by Javier Marias 1989)

I was not in the same country as my father, when he died in 1983. And last September I was not in the same country as my mother, when she died.

My father died in Rotorua, New Zealand and I was in Australia. He was the expat then. We'd never been close and I had visited him not long before. He was the one away from home, and after his death life went on, with a touch of sadness and loss that gradually faded.

With my mum it was different. We'd been very close and her illness was long and traumatic. I was overseas here in America, for the last five years of her decline. I visited her briefly for two weeks shortly before she died, and at eighteen months intervals before that, when she was frail but coping. The long illness, the death, the problems of accommodation of the elderly and ill; these are all issues that eventually face us all. But for an expat they are issues that are different, both in their focus and in their acceptance of the final loss.

It did not fully hit me till I was on holiday in Wales a few weeks ago - on a holiday away from my foreign home in America. I was no longer anybody's daughter.

The full impact came when I started to go shopping for souvenirs, and thought of taking photos. But who for? There wasn't anyone that such things were essential for, anymore. We like to see our children's photos, but it's a one-way street. Children do not care the same way a parent does.

Unlike Judy Bryant and Anthony Lee, who are both expats in Asian countries, I am in a predominantly white, Anglo Saxon country, where people speak the same language as I do, and where the cost of living is not much different than that back home. It seems strange to me, that living in a country superficially so similar to my own, that I should experience the aloneness and isolation that I do. But there's a culture gap all the same. And as appearances belie the differences, the differences are more easily overlooked.

I could write at length about those differences; the differences in food, quality of life, male-female relations, but my interest right now lies not in those. My current interest is in the area of personal continuity. The fact that no one here knew me as a child or as a young woman strikes me as very important and has an impact greater than would first appear.

Maybe it is brought home to a greater extent as I live in what I feel is an uncaring city. I was always thought of back home as a very sociable person and picked up new friends wherever I went. I enjoy my friends from my childhood, who I still know. But in New York, the only phone number we have programmed into the telephone is that of the local Chinese takeout. In nearly five years I've been inside the houses of Americans only four times. I'm rarely asked about my children, and I doubt that many of my American acquaintances would even know their names. When the telephone rings, it is a sales call or friends from Australia or the UK. I've learned to live inside my own head and to keep in contact with my social world by email and long-distance phone calls.

When a parent dies anywhere, it is a shock. One's link with the past is severed and when one's mother dies, the solid rock has gone. There's no one to answer to. Of course we don't go through life answering to our parents, but when the second parent dies, we are completely free and the umbilical cord is irretrievably cut.

When a parent dies and you are in another country, the shock is different, and the lead-up to the actual death has problems that are uniquely those of an expat.

For a start, we don't see the gradual decline the way that those still at home do. If the illness is a long one, and the visits home by necessity, infrequent, each visit presents a shock. People at home have usually been reassuring, and in email and in phone conversations have made comforting statements, that things are not too bad at all, and that the situation is under control. Whether it is through kindness, or whether it is due to the fact that they do not notice the extent of the decline, as they see your parent constantly, I do not know. I expect it is a bit of both.

When we are away from our family and friends we tend to hold a picture of them in our minds, frozen in time. It's like movie stills, and the person is imagined in our mind in a number of characteristic poses. Typically one's mother is seen as strong. The caregiver who is always there. The image we keep jars with what we may see on our quick trips home. And at the end, if the illness is cancer, the reality bears little resemblance to the images we held.

It is harder to accept something to which we are not introduced gradually. And on each visit the parting is made more difficult because we don't know if we are really saying good-bye, as opposed to farewell. Australian expats are most likely to be so geographically distant from home that a quick trip back is not possible. Vacation leave is shorter in the US and in many Asian countries than it is in Australia. And all one's "holidays" must of necessity be to the place we know as home.

There is also the guilt. Someone else, not us, is caring for the person who brought us into this world and who nurtured and cared for us. Friends flock to the house, later to the hospital, and finally to the hospice. We get back when we can. It can never be enough.

And just as we cannot care for the parent, neither can our friends offer the support we need and would get were we not so far away. The people in the foreign country who do care, do not even know the person we are worrying about and later grieving over.

I am sure that the culture one is in must have an affect on the nature of the experience of losing a parent. Australians seem to have a tighter more caring family life than do Americans. We have closer friendships that continue over many years. We cannot really expect to get the concern from those who have never known it themselves.

Apart from the isolation, guilt and the difficulty of the visits home, there's the horror, in the later stages of the illness, of working out when to fly home (and when and if to leave the dying parent). No one can help. The hospice workers told me to leave as I had originally planned. That they could not predict, and said that when they had tried to do so with other children visiting dying parents from overseas, that they had inevitably been wrong. My mother died just two weeks after we left to come back to America. I was not there at the end and now the image frozen in my mind, the movie still, is no longer that of the strong woman who I formerly remembered.

When it is all over and death has finally come, these's the inevitable void. This is the same for anybody losing a parent, and especially the second parent. But for expats, there's no one there to mourn with; no one to share the memories and the feelings.

There is the bringing home of the discontinuity of your life - the fact that there is no one where you are who knew you as a child. As well as this, now the person who knew and loved you as a child is gone. There's no one you must write home to. No one anywhere close by who knows the water you first swam in.

Kate Juliff
New York