Its the thing all expats dread: the phone call that a loved one is seriously ill and you are miles away.
There is the internal debate: should I go now? Or wait? Can I leave? Can I afford to go?
In my case it wasn’t a phone call, but the sight of my mother struggling with two sticks to walk the relatively short distance to the toilet. Within an hour I had booked my flight home. It is one of the huge benefits of FaceTime that the camera will show what they avoid telling you in case you feel guilty for not being there. For the choice you made when you became an expat to be miles away when they might – or would- need you.
Four days later my husband drops me at Austin Airport at 4.30pm. I drink a margarita and message my mum I’m on my way. She looks in pain and can only manage a short conversation. The few days between booking my flight and going she has kept wishing me safe flight and I have had to tell her its not yet. Now at last I can say ‘see you tomorrow ‘ and know that I will be there to hug her in person.
The flight, pushed by hurricane Irma, makes it across the Atlantic in record time. With only hand luggage and no one ahead of me in automatic passport control I am on the Heathrow Express platform in 20 minutes. I FaceTime mum. She still looks in pain but she has finally had the scan to see what has happened to make her feel so unwell. 2 months ago, after a massive operation which removed most of her lower pelvic organs, she was declared cancer free. But now she can barely walk and is in constant excruciating pain. I am still hopeful that this may be the result of a post-operative complication. But I am also aware that it may, as the GP believes, be the cancer back again.
I like trains and, though it takes four different trains and four hours, the time passes relatively pleasantly. Having not really slept on the plane, I find myself dozing on the train to Ipswich. Then at last I pull into Halesworth station. The last time I was in this station I was helping mum sort the flower beds ready for the Hooker centenary weekend. I couldn’t believe then, as I pushed the heavy wheel barrow across the train crossing, that my mum was the one pushing it up to then. Despite being 80 years old, she had gone every week and pushed that heavy barrow filled with watering cans around the station to keep the planters (that she had organised to be there as part of her beloved Halesworth in Bloom) watered and perfect.
I expect to see my Dad waiting on the platform for me as usual. He loves trains too and rarely passes up the opportunity to meet people or see them off. He’s not there. It creates an uneasy sense of change. As I walk out the station I meet him hurrying up.
We get in the car almost immediately to drive the 50 minutes to the hospital. In rural Suffolk my parents are stuck in the dead zone between 3 major hospitals all miles away.
We park in the, oh too familiar, car park. The last time I was in the UK I left my mum in this hospital recovering from her surgery. With only 3 weeks to spend in the UK over the summer and knowing she had cancer, I made the difficult decision to spend the majority of time with her before, rather than after, the operation.
Now, returning to see her, it feels to me like she never left in the two months I haven’t been here. On the ward she seems smaller, tired, in visible pain. I want to give her a huge bear hug but I am afraid I will crush her. So I lean in gently, then sit and hold her hand.
She tells us that doctor will be coming to see us to talk about the results of the scan. She is finally out from the surgical team into the care of oncology. Within 10 minutes the doctor is there. I realise the news is bad when she pulls the curtain around. This sense intensifies when she proceeds to sensitively ask my mum how she has been before telling us the results of the scan. When she finally does she is quick and frank. The scan shows the cancer has spread widely to her lungs, liver, lymph and bones.
I sit quietly, which is hard for me, and let my mum talk. Barely taking in her declaration that she wants palliative care and no more treatment. Not that they have offered treatment. Instead the lovely kind doctor has told us quietly and carefully that my mum has a particularly aggressive cancer that has spread extensively quickly.
Finally, my mum asks the question I have held back. ‘How long?’
“No one can be certain’ the doctor says ‘but baring in mind how quickly its spread’ she pauses and looks my mum in the eyes ‘we are talking about weeks’.
I can’t help the tears then. Though I want to be strong. Mum is calm and tells me not to worry. She has had a good life. 80 years is a good length. I have to know that she can”t be there for ever. This doesn’t stop the tears.
But despite them, I am glad that I took my friend’s advice and I made the 16 hour trip as soon as I felt something was wrong. Because it meant that I was here holding her hand when she got the news. Relieved that, despite the jet lag and exhaustion, I was here beside her, to hear it first hand and not hundreds of miles away across the Atlantic getting a phone call about ‘bad news’.