Friday, March 22, 2013

The Down Side of Picking Up and Leaving Home

I think I’m a bit of a fickle blogger. Though less so with my paid writing, with my personal writing, I really have to be all in on a topic or I just can’t get it off the ground. That’s often the reason (or my rationalization, hmm…) that I have such long delays between blog posts—if I can’t muster the enthusiasm for the topic, I can’t fake it.

That’s why I’ve started—but not finished—three or more different blog posts, about clothes shopping in Italy—but I felt like I was grousing too much, about a great archaeological site near Viterbo—and that one I will finish!, and about male bonding, Italian style—that one was shaping up pretty well.

And then, my dad up and died.

It was the moment I knew I’d have to face, and I knew how much harder it would be after I moved abroad. When my sister and I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood in front of their assisted living facility in Florida, my pared-down possessions, including my beloved dog, Daisy, loaded in a rental car for Phase 1 of my emigration to Italy, I knew that my parents’ deaths would be part of my experience as an expatriate. And I knew those deaths, though imminent no matter where I lived, would be all the more painful when I was so far away.

And I wasn’t wrong about that.

A World War II veteran and a lifelong Democrat,
my dad at an Obama rally, 2008.
My sister called me about three weeks ago to say that my 90 year old father, who’d been slipping in mental acuity and physical health for the past year, was in the hospital with a massive infection of unknown origin. We stayed in constant contact and debated whether I should fly to Florida or whether I should wait and see what happened. Keep in mind that flying from Italy to Rome on short notice would require extra cash that we didn’t have laying around. On top of that, and even more troubling, is that I’d have to leave my 15 month old daughter, Naomi, at home with Paolo. Not that she wouldn’t be in good hands with Paolo and his family, but it’s a tender age for one’s mommy to up and leave for a week or more.

But when my sister called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with sepsis, a blood-borne infection that is more often than not fatal in the elderly, I thought for sure I needed to get on a plane. But then, he rallied. He could pick up the phone in his hospital room when I called, and he was mostly lucid when we spoke. I reminded him that the three of us already had our plane tickets to come visit in May, and told him he needed to stick around so we could drink a glass of wine or two together. “I’ll see you then,” he told me. Days later, when I made him make the same promise, he told me, “I’m looking forward to it.”

Another week passed, and there were mixed messages from the hospital staff about when he would be released, whether he’d have to go to a nursing facility for rehab, whether he’d come directly home to the ALF with my mom, whether he’d have to maintain a catheter, etc. But all signs seemed to point to him getting better, and getting out of the hospital. My sister was providing regular updates, and on a Sunday morning two weeks ago, she called to say he would probably be released to rehab that same day.

My parents in 2010 at Heathrow Airport,
en route to Italy for the second time.
Later that same Sunday, my sister’s number came up again on the caller ID. Except it was my brother-in-law on the other end of the phone, relaying a message that my sister just couldn’t bring herself to tell me. The hospital doctor had called to tell her that they’d given my dad a chest x-ray prior to releasing him, and found an extensive infection in his lungs. He was no longer responding to antibiotics, and his body was starting to shut down. Their recommendation was to stop all meds other than pain relief, and to transfer him to Hospice.

Hospice, where people go to die. This really was it.

My sister and I had a brief, tearful conversation, and then I started looking for plane tickets. I found one for the next morning, Monday, but I’d have to leave the house at the crack of dawn—earlier than that, actually—to get the train to Rome to get another train to Rome’s Fiumicino airport, to catch the first of three planes I’d need to take to get to Florida. I had to kiss my sleeping baby goodbye—that was the hardest part of leaving—knowing that I wouldn’t be there when she woke up and that she would be looking and calling for me.  I stoked her hair as she slept, and I’m pretty sure that most of my tears landed on her blanket, instead of her cheek.

At my wedding, 2009. Photo by Phillippe Diederich.
When I arrived at my destination Monday night, after 16+ hours of flying and a 7 hour time change, I saw my sister waiting just outside the security checkpoint. I tried to read her face to determine if my dad was still alive, or if I’d arrived too late. The last she’d seen him, she said, he was groggy, but still alive. I wasn’t too late. It was nearly 11 pm, but we decided to stop by the hospital anyway, just in case he was gone by morning.  He was sedated, and didn’t stir when we entered the room and spoke to and embraced him. But he was still alive.

The next day, he was in and out of consciousness, but shook his head yes when I asked if he knew who I was. We joked about how he might like some pretzels and beer, and he muttered, “beer.” Other than my mother’s name, which he repeated several times that evening as she held his hand, “beer” would turn out to be one of his last words. I think he would be pleased with that.

A little more than 48 hours later, he was gone. He passed away peacefully at Hospice. All three of his children and his wife of 63 years were with him in the hours before he died. I hope he knew so.

Meeting his newest grandchild for the
first time, 2012.
I write this not because my father’s passing is any more painful or significant than the loss of anyone else’s beloved parent. I’m lucky that he lived as long as he did, and that I got to know him for 46 years. I’m lucky that he got to visit Italy three times, including to walk me down the aisle when I married my husband, and to hold his baby granddaughter two years later. And I’m lucky that I got there before he died, to talk to him and hold his hand and kiss him goodbye.

His loss has made me reflect on the less “glamorous” aspects of life as an expatriate, far from friends and family. I had to follow my heart to move to Italy and roll the dice with Paolo. My parents waved me on and urged me to drive away that day, with my dog and few important possessions in the car with me. I took the same leap that many have taken before me when they’ve moved abroad. But nothing really prepares you for the hole in your heart for the things you leave behind, no matter how much you anticipate the pain.

I know everyone “of a certain age” who lives abroad has felt the same fear and foreboding that I’ve felt these last four years in Italy. And now that those chickens have come home to roost, and one of my parents is gone and the other is so far away. Our lives and lifestyles—at least as they’re imagined by others—may be envied by many. But we don’t leave behind one world and embark on a great adventure living abroad without the daily knowledge that we’ve left a piece of our hearts—and ourselves, behind.

My dad couldn’t stick around to drink that glass of wine with me in May. And for that I will always mourn.  But I’ll raise a glass in his honor anyway, and maybe I’ll drink the whole damn bottle. I’m so sorry you won't be there to share it with me, Daddy.

Back home in Italy, where I belong.