Rushing to the Rescue
Wealth is being able to say 'I love you' - in person
International families really suck sometimes. Mostly at the beginning and end of life. In between, they are fun, exciting and the best mind-expanding education the world has to offer. But when the first (or latest) grandchild is born a continent away and you watch cuddles and first smiles by video, the charms of jet-setting fade fast (while the guilt of the carbon footprint just keeps rising). Or when your mom starts feeling violently sick, and the neighbour who checks in calls emergency services to get her to the hospital as your brother jumps in the car from the country next door and you start booking a PCR test on your way to Heathrow Airport to cross an ocean.
This October, in one of those life pile-ups, my first grandchild was born in Dakar, my daughter moved from Hong Kong to New York and my mom was rushed to the hospital in Toronto. There are only so many continents you can be on at the same time. Like, one. So I am now sitting in a quiet hospital room in Toronto, hoping my mom’s indomitable spirit will either her see her through yet another bump in the road, or let her fly towards a peaceful end. It’s all the in-between stuff she has always feared, and I, as her seeking-to-please daughter, along with her. The loss of consciousness, the inability to return to her beloved home, the ferocious determination to live independently.
Mothers are unbelievable role models – either to emulate or reject for the rest of your life. Mine, luckily, is the former. A powerful force of resilient nature, having survived some of the 20th century’s worst horrors - and blossomed. As you know, I’ve been thinking of life in quarters now. If I apply that to my mom’s life:
Q1: her first quarter started in love and luxury and ended in Nazi death camps.
Q2: Her 2nd quarter saw her marry, emigrate to Canada, bear 3 children, and, when she lost her husband at age 39 (and her mother the same year), went back to school and became a university professor (like my dad) to earn a living and support her family.
Q3 & 4: Her 3rd and 4th quarters were dramatically more stable. Same house, same town, same job (professor of French and French lit), same friends for all of the 2nd half. She loved her adopted country for its peace and its welcome (not its weather).
A life half turmoil, half cold calm in Canada. Now 96, I watch her napping in her hospital bed, deciding - on some level - whether to stay or go.
Luckily, the 21st century has gifted international families new tools that allow them to unite across vast distances. So my husband in London, daughter in New York, son in Dakar and brother in Buffalo have been in almost constant contact throughout the day, sending love, care and videos down the wires. I get to see my granddaughter digesting her breakfast (or not). My kids are being amazingly supportive, switching caring roles with me, and now worrying how I am. Like a series of dominos, the generational hierarchy flips between the carer and the cared for. My kids are checking in on me as I switch to spooning apple sauce into my mother’s unhungry mouth.
For the moment, I’m the one who has been weaving a spider’s web of geographical connection between this far-flung brood. The therapist wandering around the hospital floor dedicated to elderly patients told me there are mostly older women here, with their daughters visiting. My brother, who was first to get to my mother’s side, was very much the exception, she says. What, I wonder, is that all about? Don’t men want to succour their moms in need? I have read that the average carer of the elderly is a 49-year old woman, sandwiched between ageing parents and still-young children.
I tried to move to the suburbs of family life. But when alarm bells ring, centrality returns and the only option is to jump on a plane. That’s how I’ve always defined wealth. Enough money to be able to afford the love miles needed to get out of - or into - any country, on a moment’s notice.
There is a strangely hierarchical set of assumptions about care. I don’t want my kids to have to take care of my mom. That’s my and my brother’s role. The kids will have to take care of us one day. To each their turn. For now, I’m sitting next to mom, hoping I’ll be able to see my granddaughter next month, and my daughter for the holidays. Grateful for the powerful lineage of women I’ve been gifted – and the men who love them so well.
In the meantime, it’s one day at a time.