The Last Goodbye - through the eyes of an expat (Part 2)

It's my amazing brother-in-law who had the God-awful task of driving me to the airport after my last goodbye to my Dad on February 26, 2014.

We sat awkwardly in the car at the first intersection ... bundled up in silence, twelve layers of underwear, and a parka as we willed the car heater to live up to its full potential.

The light was red.  I uttered my only words of the trip ... "This will be my one regret.  I've worked so hard to live without regret, but I can't forgive myself for leaving him."

Awkward silence.  Really nothing left to say after that ...

We drove on, and my brother-in-law walked me in to the Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Airport departures terminal.  Bless him.  My sister, my mentor, called from Toronto (she'd had to go on a business trip to Toronto the day before I left) as we were saying our goodbyes.  I choked up.  Tried to be strong for her and failed.  

Summoned up all my courage to avoid breaking down again in front of my brother-in-law.  Hugged him and thanked him for his amazing support through all of this.  Support to me, support to my sister, support to my Dad, support all-around.  

Ignored the tears in his eyes and the crack in his voice as he told me to be good, hug Kiddo and say hi to Smilin' Vic.  Focused solidly on the strength in his stance and the warmth in his smile.

Turned towards the Security check-in, but slipped into the bathroom first.  Once my bro-in-law was gone, went to get myself a double-double Tim Horton's coffee (bye-bye caffeine-free pledge) and snuck outside to sip on it as I puffed on a smoke or ten, forsaking the business class lounge for caffeine, tobacco and a "why bother?" attitude in minus 25C weather outside the terminal.

Boarded the plane with minutes to spare, chased a Gravol down with a couple of glasses of Rose champagne, and caught a tear-blurred view of the de-icing of our delayed flight.

Preparing to remove the ice so we can fly to the Land of Sand ...

Preparing to remove the ice so we can fly to the Land of Sand ...

Reclined my seat 'til it was flat, and fell asleep watching "Three Weddings and a Funeral".  It just seemed right.

Champagne and "Three Weddings and a Funeral" ...

Champagne and "Three Weddings and a Funeral" ...

For the first time in my life, I wasn't excited about heading back to Smilin' Vic.  Even the fact that I'd see my Kiddo in 14 hours after being gone longer than ever before didn't ignite a spark.  I felt truly, truly numb.

I considered my life ... an expat life.  

I wondered at the cost of travel, the cost of adventure.  I wondered what it all boiled down to.  I wondered if the only truly memorable thing about Expat-dom might be goodbyes.

It's been said that if we knew what fate awaited us, we'd never bother getting out of bed in the morning.  I guess that's kind of how I felt on that long, long, long road "home".

Landing .... in the Land of Sand.w

Landing .... in the Land of Sand.w

The Last Goodbye - through the eyes of an expat (Part 1)

I was fully determined to make my next post as morose as possible ... but my Dad just wouldn't let it end that way.

He just had to include talk of farts in our last goodbye.

I wanted to let the world - or at the very least my 16 faithful followers - KNOW how incapacitating, debilitating and earth-shattering a last goodbye could be for an expat.

I wanted readers to FEEL how powerless I FELT when I said my last goodbye to my Dad.  How I sat in the darkness of his room on a cold winter's night in Montreal.  

Him, sleeping in his big Lazy-Boy chair, holding my hand.

Me seated in a chair next to him, trying to come to grips with the reality that this was truly the last goodbye.

Me, praying that I would forevermore remember the feel of his hand wrapped tight around mine.  

Holding on while letting go ...

Holding on while letting go ...

Him, rasping.  

Me, willing the thoughts and the love in my heart to reach through the darkness, through the cancerous pain that gripped him, through the murkiness of Alzheimer's in which he was drowning.  

Him, clinging to this blessed moment of peace enveloping him, dressed as sleep but actually concocted from a lethal cocktail of morphine and pain.

Two of my sisters, my brother and one brother-in-law seated down the hallway, allowing me a final 30 minutes of blessed quiet with this man to whom I owed my very existence.  Allowing me to close my eyes and shed tears in absolute silence as I tried to synchronize my breath to his.  Allowing me to pray to God in silence that I might find the strength to say the last goodbye to my Dad without shedding a tear so that he might believe this goodbye was simply a "good night" like any other that we'd shared over the last three weeks. 

Me and my Dad, seated side by side, so very like so many times past, yet so very different.  I'd never appreciated sitting next to him quite as much as I did on the night of February 26, 2014.  Knowing it was the last goodbye ...

He opened his eyes once and whispered to me that his wall was pretty full.  It was a wall that we'd literally plastered with pictures of friends and family.  I said: "Yes, it's a good wall", and he nodded.  "It's a good family."  And he nodded.  And he closed his eyes.

It's a good wall; it's a good family ...

It's a good wall; it's a good family ...

Fifteen minutes before I had to leave for the airport, my Dad woke up, and I asked my family to come back in.  I didn't want him to be alone when I finally left.  Since he'd lost most of his voice by now (one of the sure signs that the end was imminent) and his ability to sing, we all sat in silence for a bit.  But my Dad could still whistle.  And so, despite all the healthy lungs in the room, it was he who - despite his crumbling lungs and pain-wracked body - finally broke the silence with a whistling tune.

I had put all my stuff outside his room.  When it was time to go I simply said goodnight and told him that I had to get to bed, hugged him, gave him a kiss and told him I loved him.  Because of his Alzheimer's, it was crucial that I not leave him with the pain of a last goodbye.  A "good night" meant I'd be back.  But he still had enough wherewithal to know what a "goodbye" from me meant.  I went out and put on my coat.  

But I couldn't help myself; I had to go in and give him one last kiss and touch him one last time.  

He smelled my coat and asked in a barely audible whisper if I smoke.  I said "yes".  

He asked if I fart too.  I said "yes".  

Somehow, beneath that veil of morphine and forgetfulness, it's like he knew he couldn't leave me on a sad note.  I avoided looking at my family; I knew that their teary-eyed smiles would break me.

I breathed in his smell one last time before boarding the 14-hr flight that would carry me 10,500 km to my husband and daughter and life back in Doha.

I said "je t'aime Papa."  He whispered "je t'aime aussi".

And I left.  I didn't cry in front of him.  God helped me with that.   

Remember Me ...

It's freezing outside, but we're toasty warm here inside.

You in your big blue lazy-boy chair, me sitting on your bed, basking in the sunlight pouring through the hospice window.  Sochi and the Olympics playing out mute on TV.  

We're silently enjoying the cherries I brought you earlier this morning.  Just you and me. It's a nice, quiet moment, father and daughter.  Normal.

"Have some more" you say.  "I bought them to share; what's mine is yours."  You smile and wink.  It's almost as if you're joking.  But you're not.  You actually believe you brought the cherries.

You look up at me suddenly.  "Who's your dad?" you ask.

I shyly point to you.  "YOU, Daddy, YOU'RE my dad!" I make a silly face.

Trying to make light of a very awkward moment.  Awkward for you, awkward for me.

We both make a twisty silly face, pretending you hadn't actually forgotten.  

After all, I tell myself, yesterday you told me that no one says "Papa" quite the way I do.  Obviously you still know I'm your 43-year-old baby girl. 

You nod your head in acknowledgement.  But there's confusion and fear in your eyes now.  You know you should know but you don't. 

It's another first.  A first in reverse.  A fucking kick-in-the-nuts Alzheimer's moment.  

The first time you're not one hundred percent sure who I am.

I'm thankful, though, because at least my face, my touch, my smell still bring you comfort. 

But for how long?  

Who needs the comfort right now?  Who needs to remember right now?  You or me?

As the memories slip away, I wonder does it hurt you more to fight to keep them or to just give them up?

I look at you and every single bit of you is etched in the wrinkles on your face and in the twinkle in your eye that refuses to fade.  On the outside, on the surface, everything is as it always was.  Well, other than the shakiness in your legs when you stand, the hollow in your cheeks, the protruding shoulder blades upon which muscle and fat used to lay solid.  Other than the fucking tumor that is crushing your lungs and making it harder and harder to breathe.  And the fact that yesterday I heard you say no one could ever imagine feeling this bad.

It hurts my heart.

And I fight back the tears.  "Big, fat crocodile tears" you used to call them.

Because I'm a big girl now.

43 years old.

Nobody's baby girl anymore.

And I replay the confusion and the fear in your eyes over and over again in my mind.

And know there's not a fucking thing I can do to help you.  Nothing but fail you over and over again, every day the same, every day a little bit worse.

And sit here silently for a few more days, eating cherries, holding your hand, singing bits and pieces of old Hank Snow tunes with you, basking in the sun, and watching you fade into the darkness.

And in seven days, I'll say goodbye.  I know it will be the last goodbye.  I know I'll remember it forever.  I pray you'll forget it as soon as I'm gone.  

Yet I pray you'll remember me.

It hurts my soul.

And the floodgates open.

 Moby - Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad

Fa'Me'ly ...

For someone who proudly boasts 'communications' as a skill on LinkedIn, I am a piss-poor, crappy communicator. 

Don't get me wrong; I can be effective when I actually DO communicate.  The problem is, I don't do it enough.

I can go months without e-mailing my best friend in Canada.  Months without messaging my closest cousin.

I e-mail my brother individually about once a year.   A bit more if you count the group e-mail updates I occasionally wing off to him and my three sisters.  Horrible, I know.

I have two sisters I email on a more or less weekly basis, sometimes a bit more if something big is going on.  We skype every once in a while.

I don't even go on Facebook much anymore ... I always feel like my status updates read sappy or boastful ... I'm not one to air dirty laundry via broadband, so I figure a steady flow of positive, sentimental and inspiring updates on recent travels and accomplishments might lead to the mistaken assumption by 'friends' that either my life is miraculously trouble-free and zen (not the case), or I am entirely full of $h;t (won't say it's absolutely impossible! ...). 

As an expat, you'd expect me to be absolutely prompt, punctual, methodic and diligent with my correspondence, wouldn't you? 

I'm not quite sure why my communications are so sporadic.  Maybe it's because I grew up as an expat child, far away from most of my loved ones yet never doubting they would be there when I came back.  Maybe it's because the time difference is so inconvenient (in the morning in Qatar, my loved ones are snuggled deep asleep in their beds; in the evenings in Qatar, my loved ones back in Canada are at work).  Saturday's the only day we all have off in common, which is also the day virtually no one is home.  Maybe it's because my siblings were a generation older than me so we never actually lived together that long.  Maybe it's because I've always kind of preferred dealing with my stuff internally.  Maybe it's because I spent so many years wanting to escape the place I was in; sometimes a simple phone calls brings me right smack dab back. 

Or maybe it's just because I'm lazy.

Yeah, THAT.

Yet for the last year, I'd been calling my Dad every single day.  Just to say 'hi'.  Just to hear his voice.  Just to have him sing me a song. Just to repeat the exact same conversation every single day (if you've been following my blog, you might know he's battling small cell lung cancer and Alzheimer's).  Just to savor the moment, however fleeting, however geographically disparate we might be. Just to laugh at the same joke day after day.  Just to feel like I was breaking up what have become very mundane days for him.  Even though he would forget my call virtually as soon as I hung up.  Even though I knew our conversation would be nothing more than a slight itch at the back of his brain when he placed the handset back in its cradle.  Those daily conversations became a balm; if not for him, at least for me. 

That changed in July of this year.  I'd gone back to Canada in late May without Smilin' Vic and Kiddo, just to spend a few weeks with my Dad.  To have his eyes widen like saucers that first time he set them on me again after almost a year.  To hear his excited exclamation of joy as he uttered my name in amazement as only a loving parent can.  To see tears glistening in the corners of his aged eyes, making them bright with false youth once again as he shuffled towards me as quickly as his failing legs and walker would allow him.  To feel his once powerful arms wrap around me and hear him repeat 'aye, aye, aye, aye' over and over again ...  

Despite the Alzheimer's ravaging its way through his memories, he hadn't forgotten me.  And he knew it was a big deal that I was there.  And even though every day of my visit he greeted me with a hug and a kiss and a smile and excitement, I never once again got that same reaction as on the first day I arrived.  The disease is ravaging his brain, but it's not killing his smarts.  Somewhere deep inside, his emotional intelligence was telling him on those subsequent daily visits that it hadn't been that long since he'd seen me last.

When the July night finally came for me to fly back to Qatar with my husband and daughter, we had a last gathering at my sister's.  Two of my sisters, my brother-in-law, Smilin' Vic, Kiddo, my dad, me.  Just Fa'ME'ly.  We sat outdoors on the deck, enjoying the cool breeze and late afternoon sun.  The guys, including my dad, had beers. We all had pizza.  We laughed.  My Dad sang an old Hank Locklin song .... over, and over, and over again. My sister had bought a ridiculous amount of cherries, and my dad ate a huge bowl after dinner, followed by the most amazing jaw-clenchingly moldy Roquefort.  He truly seemed happy.

It was perfect. 

All but the part when I decided I should communicate honestly with my dad, treat him with the respect a parent deserves, risk hurting him so he wouldn't resent me the next day for not telling him the truth.

How self-centered my motivation.  How totally, totally selfish and unfair of me to not realize all my honesty would do was break his heart. 

You see, a person with Alzheimer's lives in the moment.  He totally feels anger, joy, sorrow, pain.  And yet, though the memory of what gave life to that feeling may quickly dissipate, the feeling itself will linger.  And so on that night, as I bade him farewell, I told him I wouldn't see him for a while, I had to go to Qatar, but I'd be back. 

He didn't latch on to that last bit. 

He hung on to the fact that I was leaving.  And he hugged me, and we both cried, and I felt horrible.  What a crap poor communicator I'd turned out to be. 

He shuffled away with my two sisters, turning one last time to raise his hand in his signature half-twist wave; almost like a baby's first fist-fumbling attempts at signaling goodbye.

When my one sister (I'll call her 'Mentor', because it's what she's always been to me), returned, she sat down outside with me and broke down sobbing.  I've rarely seen her break down.  Not that I think that she doesn't break down .... I've just never seen her do so.  

She told me that my dad was angry and stifled his cries all the way back to the nursing home.  He couldn't remember why he was angry when she asked him, nor why he was sad.  But boy, was he angry, boy, was he sad.  Because the feeling lingered.  My words to him were gone, the memory of our parting was gone, but the feelings .....

They lingered .....

And I looked at the mess I'd left my sister in.  Mentor goes to see my dad most every day after work.  She spends a few hours with him, gathers his dirty clothes to bring home to wash (even though the home would do this for him ... she just feels it's too personal to leave to others).  On nice days, when he is not having chemo, she brings him to sit down on the boardwalk, or to the restaurant.  Every Sunday, sometimes Saturdays, she brings him to her place for the afternoon.  They Skype me on those days, and my dad is bashful, week after week he is bashful, as he removes his ball cap to shamefully show me how the chemo has robbed him of his luscious white crowning glory.  And Mentor stands behind him, rubbing his shoulders, reassuring him that his hair is growing back 'very nicely indeed'.

Mentor was there when he first fell ill. She was there when they first told my dad he had a lump the size of a football engulfing his chest and wrapping itself not so coyly around his arteries.  She was there to endure the brunt of his anger ... and much as I love the man ... I know his wrath towards her was ugly and so, so unjustified. 

Just because she was always there.

She was there when they told him he could no longer function independently and would require full time care.  She was there when they told him he wouldn't ever drive his Cadillac again.  That very same Cadillac he'd driven himself to the hospital in.  That very same Cadillac that represented all his boyhood and manhood dreams rolled into one. 

She helped make all the arrangements for his transition and care.  Whenever I've gone to see my dad, she and her husband have opened up their home to me.  To me and my little family.  And she's never said a word.  She's just there.  Stoic.  There.

She's been there since the beginning; she's been through it all.  My whole Fa'Me'ly has been there, been instrumental, but Mentor has seen it ALL.  And she's never said a single word.  Never uttered a complaint.

So after that goodbye in July, I felt ashamed.  Ashamed that I'd made my dad sad, ashamed that I'd left Mentor to deal with his frustration.

I flew back to Qatar, and I didn't call every day.  It wasn't a conscious decision.  It was a subliminal selfish motivation.  I didn't want to have to hang up.  I didn't want to have to say goodbye again.  The less I called, the less I had to say goodbye.  Simple as that.  No sadness, no regret, no wondering if he'd end up frustrated with Mentor because I'd had to say goodbye again.

Especially, no concern that I might call him one day only to realize he'd forgotten me.  To realize that the sound of my voice would no longer be enough to evoke a memory.  Or worse, not even enough to make him happy.  Horribly selfish, I know.

Then I lost all my Skype contacts; a strange glitch brought about by an upgrade to a newer version.  Further motivation to delay a phone call or two ...

Last Thursday night, after a killer workweek, I sat down at the computer, fully intending to call my dad.  A rare night in Doha where Smilin' Vic was out for a few beers with a buddy and Kiddo was early to bed.  I poured myself a glass of wine, I called ...

No answer. 

"That's ok", I thought, "I'll call back later."

And I started to blog.  Got so caught up in catching up I forgot to ring again.  And then I got this message from Mentor at 12:40 a.m. ...

The call/message every child dreads ...

The call/message every child dreads ...

I called her, but being in the back of an ambulance, I guess it was kind of hard for her to answer.  So I left her one more burden to deal with ... my sappy, snivelly, four-year-old plea on voice-mail asking her to call me when she could and to text me ASAP. 

Then I tried to call Smilin' Vic.  I got a message telling me "the caller you are trying to reach is currently unavailable."  That's when the floodgates burst.  That's when I truly felt my 'expatdom', my degrees of separation. 

That's when I felt really, truly alone. 

I called Smilin' Vic's buddy.  He said SV's phone had died, but he'd gotten a cab back and was probably no more than fifteen minutes from home.  I texted Mentor  (my text in green) ....


And bless her, she texted me back.  She's a great communicator.  She made my dad and me feel like we were actually sitting there together.

My text in green ... 

My text in green ... 

Mentor got us to sing together, that old Hank Locklin song that has reverberated in my head ever since, the one that reverberates in my Dad's head daily.  

The song that says it all.  The one that says 'no matter what, I get you, and I love you', 'I'm there for you'.  And at first I thought he was singing it for me.  

And then I realized he was singing it for no one else but her. 

For Mentor.  

Because she is who she is. 

I hope she realizes that we were both singing it for her.  For us, and for her.  What a blessing she is.

She let us sing that song together ... in our heads, in our hearts.  Both of us, seated 6,000 miles away, singing together.  Holding hands.  In our hearts.  Because of Mentor.  Because of her.  

It was the call (text) I'd dreaded since childhood.  But Fa'ME'ly helped me get through it.  Thank goodness for Fa'ME'ly.

Thankfully, once again we were spared.  My dad fared ok.  They did some tests, kept him overnight, and then released him. 

I came away with renewed appreciation and a little less navel-gazing.  I came away more thankful than ever for Mentor, thankful for Fa'Me'ly.  For the Fa'Me'ly I've been given, the Fa'Me'ly who carry on without me there but keep me there as best they can. 

Maybe one day I'll call and he won't remember me, but I've decided that until then and as long as he can answer, I'll call every single day and sing that same song with him over and over again.  For Mentor, for him, for me.

Because the memory may fade...

But the feeling ...

The feeling will linger...