I got the call a week before Christmas; the call that all expats with families overseas dread. My mother, aged 80, who lives in the United Kingdom, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The doctors advised that the next six months would be grim as she went through chemo, but after that there should be another couple of good years. As a starting point I booked flights for late January and March, to offer support where I could.
But doctors don't always know what's coming. After an anxious Christmas, suddenly in early January every instinct I had was telling me to get on the plane now, so I dropped everything and fled. My mother literally deteriorated before my eyes and suddenly she was too ill to even start chemo and we were looking at two to three weeks life expectancy. We had been nursing her at home, but it was soon too much and at 10pm one snowy, freezing night, I watched my suddenly shrunken mother being taken away in an ambulance to the nearby hospice.
We expected her to die very shortly, but once in the hospice she seemed to regain a bit of strength and the doctors thought eight to 10 weeks was now more likely. Clearly I couldn't stay in England for that long, but how long should I stay? Those awful guilt feelings I had about taking my family so far away came up at me again from nowhere. I felt so horribly torn between wanting to spend more time supporting my family in England and wanting to go home to Melbourne. The last four weeks I had lived in a curious vacuum of old age, ill health and severe winter weather which, on the one hand, I longed to escape, but, on the other, felt terribly guilty about leaving.
But what exactly did I have to feel guilty about? In the 17 years we have lived in Australia, I have visited my parents every year with my children and I know I have been as good a daughter as I could have been. We have progressed from sending cassettes and videos to each other to weekly Skypes, sending text messages (often daily), frequent emails with lots of photographs attached and great bundles of children's artwork sent on a regular basis. I have sent flowers just to say hello, and gifts when she didn't expect them. We have enjoyed wonderful holidays together and my children know my parents very well.
I have a flight booked for next week which I may or may not take, but I know already that if I miss my mother's last breaths, I may feel sad, but I don't need to feel guilty about it. My love for my mother will not be measured by whether I am there in the final days, but by how I have treated her in the years before that.
I have spent my money on flowers for the living and I urge you to do the same. If money is short take advantage of cheap flights in the low season and free communication tools like Skype. When the time of grief comes, the grief will be hard enough – don't make it harder on yourself by thinking of all the things you could have done, but make sure you do them now.
Patti McCarthy is an expatriate coach who helps take the pain out of relocating.