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: