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.
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 ...
"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. ...
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.
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.
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 ...