What We Left Behind – Phantom Pains of Friends and Family Back At Home

Living abroad has been a mixed bag of ups and downs on every front.  But I never realized how much family and friends mean to us, and how “distant” I could feel until disaster struck last week, and close family members were forced to postpone their long-planned visit for health reasons.

This time last year, as we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, one member of our family leaned in to Kalpana and whispered conspiratorially, “You know you’re gonna get this job.”

She protested, “I haven’t even had the interview.  I don’t know if I want it yet.”

“No. You’re gonna get the job, move to Ireland, and we’re going to come visit you.”

From that moment on, there was a feeling of inevitability about the whole affair. And in the months that followed, Kalpana rocked the interview and we rolled the dice and prepared to move to Ireland.

Then, in March, before we’d even booked our tickets to move, Joe (the one who’d been so encouraging at Thanksgiving), my cousin Kim, and their son Ben booked tickets to spend Thanksgiving with us in Dublin.  The perfect circle.

Thanks in part to social media like Facebook, our relationship with Kim, Joe, and Ben had grown even though we lived hundreds of miles away in Indiana and would soon be an ocean way.  Previously, we’d been the “once a year at holidays” type of relations.  But by sharing our hobbies and daily dalliances we’d gotten to know them better in recent years, culminating in cello/guitar jam sessions on the back deck after holiday meals.

In July we moved to Dublin.  None were more supportive than Kim, Joe and Ben. As the time approached for their arrival, we communicated regularly, and, as other guests came and went, Kalpana and I dialed in our guest room, and made plans for hosting our faithful friends and supporters.

Then, two Mondays ago (four days before their scheduled arrival), we got word that Joe had been diagnosed with cancer.  Their trip was off, and our tireless supporters needed our support at a time when we were anything but present for them.  Saddened by the news, and concerned for Joe, I found myself doubly thrown by our inability to be around for them.  Granted, there may be nothing for us to “do”.  But, through the whole emigration process, I’ve never felt so distant and impotent.

In today’s world we have the benefit of Skype, and Facebook, Flickr, and other tools of the electronic age.  We can see and “be with” loved ones easily.  But these are a trick of the light, false hope, and the stuff of carnival hucksters.  We see them, and tell ourselves that we are with them.  But it’s almost too easy. It feels like cheating, and is somehow still so very insufficient.

When I ponder the immigrant experience in times past, I’m reminded that existence was entirely in the mind’s eye.  For those that left, family in the “old country” were a vision in their heads.  They were alive and well until news arrived (sometimes months after the fact) telling them that someone had passed.  Yet seconds before they cracked the brittle gum on the envelope and shook open the letter, mama (or Aunt Julie, or Uncle Ebb) were as alive and well as ever they had been.

And for the family left behind, the departed émigrés were always out there, somewhere, living the life of their dreams.  The truth or falsehood of that could only be confirmed through ponderous lines of communication.  That takes faith.  Yet faith is the immigrant’s stock in trade.  It’s true that faith of another sort was (and still is) often the reason why people left one country for another.    But I submit that the true test of the immigrant’s faith is their belief that they are still a part of the lives they left behind.

Is it we ourselves who have been ”left behind” as something from their past, now far away and oft forgotten?  Time moves on, holidays are celebrated without us, milestones are marked, and lives are lived without us.

The question of who left who behind, and the notions of distance and separation have, on the one hand never been so handily dispatched. And yet they’ve never been felt so deeply.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

Holidays Away

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Before We Go, Friends & Family, Home & A Sense of Place, Immigration & Emigration, Modern Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What We Left Behind – Phantom Pains of Friends and Family Back At Home

  1. Amy Carlson says:

    Glenn – great post – such a wrenching story – and you raise a good point – just how many immigrants saw their families for the very last time as they boarded a ship? It still makes my heart stop to think of how it must have been, how much courage it would take to leave family, forever. My mother was first generation and her father left his whole family when he came to the US. My grandfather came to the US in 1928 and did not return to Germany until 1965, much of his family was gone by that time.

    I can still remember receiving black rimmed envelopes from Germany as a child. the black frame let you know that there would be a death notice inside. So you could brace yourself I suppose – German efficiency? I don’t know if it was only the Germans that did that. I still remember when they would come in the mail. I don’t know if it is still done that way. But I do know that the news came in bursts, like you said, everyone was fine, in stasis, until you received a letter.

    So sorry to hear about your friend – our thoughts go out.

    Amy

    • Amy,
      Thanks for your kind thoughts. And thanks also for the black-rimmed envelope information. I’d never heard that. That’s yet another tidbit to add to the “what was it like to immigrate back then” file.

      Wishing, you and yours fabulous holidays, and a great new year.

  2. Chris says:

    A very touching post Glenn. Perhaps this is the reason why expats stick together. They bond with folks to try to ease the pain and to find a substitute (even though it never is) for family and friends left behind. Thank you

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