When we decided to move to The Netherlands, we had a brief conversation about what to do in the event that "something bad happened." It could have been a lot of things: business things, personal things or family things, and we needed to be prepared in the event that we were called back unexpectedly. Do we fly back or not? Together or separately? We tossed a few examples back and forth and decided to make decisions case by case.
As it happened, Brian had to go home for a brief time in August to take care of some business. He used the opportunity to visit family, check on our stuff in storage and bring back some items we were missing. But in November, as my grandpa's health was rapidly deteriorating, we reviewed our situation and realized that we couldn't fly back. Flights back to Canada aren't cheap without scoring a fantastic deal, and every euro we spend costs us double in our painstakingly saved Canadian dollars. Furthermore, we have yet to secure employment, so while we are comfortable for the moment, we are living leanly.
When my grandpa, Jacob Gartner, passed away November 18, I contacted airlines to see what options there might be. I had a number in my head that I thought I could justify spending, but unfortunately what they could offer wasn't any different than what I could find on Google. I finally accepted that I wasn't going to be able to visit. It was difficult for many reasons, but stung especially because of the loss that sent us here in the first place. It brought back a lot of negative memories and a feeling of helplessness independent of the distance between our old home and our new.
For that reason, I was honored (and apprehensive) when I was asked to write my grandpa's obituary. I was so far away and removed from the communal process of grief that was happening back home. But I pulled myself together, and thought about my grandpa, the kind of person he was and what was important in his life. I sent off my draft, hoping that others would see it as representative of the man he was to his family and community - gentle, kind and loving. He lived a long and happy life, all 92 years of it, and I wanted to do him justice.
The family liked what I had put together, and I was able to fine-tune it in real time through Skype and email. I was able to see old photographs of grandpa and grandma as the family sorted through them and reminisced, and thanks to the files on my laptop, I was also able to contribute a photograph of my grandpa from our wedding that was perfect for the obituary.
Between Skype and email and Facebook Messenger, I was able to stay in contact with people when it was most important, no matter what time of day or night. It wasn't like being there in person to help with caregiving, to offer words of encouragement and solace, to give a hug or run an errand, but it was a way of being present.
I was able to tune in via webcast to the prayer service at 3 a.m., and I was able to tune in via webcast to the funeral the next evening. I was even able to join at the interment via mobile Skype, until the Canadian winter froze the cellphone. I was able to join the family in chatting and drinking afterwards, but I do wish they hadn't shoved so many delicious looking sandwiches in front of the camera. In any case, earlier that evening we had eaten a German meal in honour of Grandpa, as he was born Canadian but of German ancestry. Now through the power of the internet, I'm able to return the favour.
As conflicted as I felt about old memories and wanting to be what I wished someone was there to be for us once upon a time, we made a less-than-ideal situation work. I doubt Grandpa ever used a computer, or a cellphone for that matter, but these are tools that I use every day, as an expat, to hold on to those ties I've made in other places at other times with other people. Distance is not an obstacle anymore.
We can't always be there, but we can still be present.