In recent years, the thought has crossed my mind many times that if anything could keep me from my mother in Belgium, it might be World War III. Never had I considered a virus-related near-global quarantine. But the very first day of lock down in France my worst nightmare as an expat and as an only child, delivered a punch in the face: my mother, who lives independently, took a nasty tumble down the stairs in the middle of the night.
It was the third time she would be in hospital this year, and the eighth time since my husband and I moved to Europe from the US after announcing she didn't want to fly anymore, anywhere, let alone across the ocean. But when I think back in my expat life of twenty-eight years, it is only the third time that I have experienced a roller-coaster of stress as extreme as now.
The first was when my father passed away suddenly, twenty-three years ago. The flight from Memphis to Amsterdam, then to Brussels and the drive home were sixteen of the longest hours I have ever wept through. This was followed by, like many an expat will have experienced, the challenge of moving on with life when such an important part of it is missing.
But I'm very proud to say that my Moeke (as I call my mother) became a fiercely independent woman who enjoys life to the fullest. As an extrovert whose only mode of transportation was a bicycle, I am quite aware that her learning to live alone was no easy feat. Regardless of distance, my parents and I have always been very close. So, feeling an innate responsibility to help guide Moeke and myself through our time of mourning, I started a routine then of calling her several times a day.
Our regular phone calls every day in the last 23 years, has proved to be a powerful routine.
The second time of stress was not being able to get a hold of her for many, many hours, and knowing in my heart something was wrong. I can't say that I remember the year. Mostly because don't want to. I remember sitting rigidly upright in bed at three o'clock in the morning, trying to reason any disaster scenarios from my imaginative mind. She was with a friend to help out, she's not alone. She'd simply forgotten her cellphone. They'd decided to spend the night. Rest assured the Geminis held relentless battles in my head.
At a decent enough hour allowing for time difference, I was on the phone trying to sound the alarm bell. It took some convincing and making a bitch of myself, but when my mother's friend's family couldn't get a hold of them either, they -eventually- found the duo in a small elevator where they had been trapped for thirty-one hours.
Later, I learned that Moeke had been convinced they would be found alive, saying "Don't worry, Brenda won't rest until she finds me." I won't lie. Her incredible belief in our bond despite the distance between us, brought me to my knees. I was so deeply moved by it. We learned then just how powerful our checking-in with each other truly was, however, had the heating been on in the building, they would not have survived the ordeal.
That our mother-daughter relationship is a source of strength for us both would be proven again in Corona-virus lockdown.
Calling my mother is the first thing I think about every morning. On March 18th when she didn't answer my eight AM call or any of the numerous calls in the next forty-five minutes, I asked the neighbours to use their emergency key. They found Moeke trapped in a precarious position on our winding staircase with blood dripping from a head wound onto the floor. It was a harrowing tableau but she was conscious and lucid and said "oh sweetheart, I heard all of your calls, I was waiting for you". It took two fire trucks and an ambulance a.k.a. the 'circus' she never wanted outside of her house, to free her from the stairs! By 9:08 AM or so, she was en route to the emergency room... bruised and bleeding and with bronchitis.
The emergency rescue teams praised our routine as having saved her life.
My writing work is designed to allow for travel at any time. This in case my mother needs me. It has worked out well in the last five years since moving to France. Until now. The doctors advised strongly against it as the hospitals in Belgium were already on lock down. There was little for me to do. The embassy said I would be able to cross the border with the necessary paperwork but urged me to take the greatest care, to take food and water from home and stop as little as possible. My heart had me jumping into the car with the clothes on my back. My head said I should at least wait for the emergency care assessments.
That morning is a blur. As if the ordeal wasn't bad enough for my poor mother, the bronchitis lit up the x-rays like fireworks on a dark night. She was tested for Covid-19 and moved into isolation as a "suspected case". To boot, her cell phone battery had little power. In the first two days my updates came mainly from phone calls to the head nurse in the isolation ward. Waiting for those test results was so much stress it felt like my head would explode. It was a lot to carry and she never mentioned having been tested which let me to speculate that they hadn't told her. I was damned if I was going to tell her and give her that worry. If the test results proved negative, there was no point.
Living in the French countryside, I shared my agony with the trees and the sky. With underlying conditions, I fear my mother could not survive the corona-virus. My heart ached for every single person with a family member in hospital, every single expat who couldn't feel further from home in this pandemic time. What an unholy mess! I cursed every politician I'd seen in recent weeks as saying it wasn't necessary to take precautions or to keep people from travelling. I held, and still hold, every single one of them responsible for this absolutely dire situation in our history.
The doctor who told me the good news that my mother really just had bronchitis was so kind. I remember little, sadly not even his name, only that I cried with relief and that he said: go ahead and have a good cry, I'm right here. But due to the muscle damage and possible kidney failure because of it, she was not out of the woods.
The first week was rough for my Moeke. Until the test came back negative, there wasn't anything that could done, really, like checking for broken bones or the state of her kidneys etc. Even the blood that had caked and dried into her hair wasn't washed away! They only treated her wounds, which took hours. Between pain and bronchitis, my sweet mother suffered.
And here I was in sunny Vendée, pacing, cleaning, washing the curtains and fretting like The Clash song: should I stay or should I go.
I mulled the question for days and days. still do. I love my mother so much. Every fiber of my being wants to be with her. Having always striven to be the best daughter I can be, even at a distance, it feels I am now falling horribly short. Covid-19 has snatched the reigns brutally from my expat hands.
Thank goodness for modern technology and fantastic neighbours! Between the social services at the hospital and myself, we managed to coordinate Moeke's return home two weeks after the incident. Home nursing care, daily catered meal service, as well as a personal alarm bracelet were arranged. Our neighbours moved furniture around to accommodate her bed on the ground floor, bringing clothes to the hospital etc; my cousin is running errands when needed. They will never know my heart, nor the depth of my sincere appreciation. I also send my sincere thanks and appreciation to catering service De Kokmuts, the fire brigade. police, ambulances and AZ St Lucas Gent. especially the excellent care by doctors and nurses in the ER, Street 33 (quarantine floor) and Street 44 (geriatrics floor). All of you are heroes. (continue reading below images)
As a GenX'er and until Covid-19, the notion of personal sacrifice for the greater good
was a concept that belonged to history.
Jeep-ing in Georgia, U.S.
Price & Moeke exploring Savannah
78th birthday in Pairie Daiza
Love kissing the softest cheeks!
at our wedding in Asheville, NC
cruising the southern Caribbean
Life beyond our personal space is at a standstill. We are forced to accept that our best is good enough. It's a concept I have never been very good at. The dark Covid-19 cloud above our heads holds terrible secrets, wounded souls, but also silver linings e.g. look at the positive impact on the environment! Life lessons bring personal growth. I'm learning to accept that I'm doing what I can. I'm learning that when it comes down to it, I would never want my mother to feel responsible for anything that could happen because I travelled through a pandemic to be with her. If I made her sick, I'd never forgive myself.
Either way you twist it, there is absolutely no possibility for balance in this situation. The notion of personal sacrifice for the greater good is a tremendously harsh life-lesson.
Across the social media hub in recent weeks, I have seen many an expat question their decision to live and/or work abroad. Plenty of folks are questioning fellow expats if they regret their decision, if they are moving back home now, or putting their moving on hold.
It makes me sad. Why not question your motivations and even if you were doing enough before Covid-19 and now to stay close with your family and friends. But never question your dreams and desires for a different lifestyle, a life of enrichment which creates innumerable opportunities for everybody you know. To give up on that is to give up on freedom and all our ancestors have fought for in the real wars. Above else, our society as well as our souls must be free.
Expat or not, the stress we're all dealing with in the 'moment', from our to day-to-day, to keeping healthy, to home-schooling (often in another language), to being restricted, to worrying about our loved ones... it is a lot to shoulder. This pandemic is very like being sheltered during a tornado alarm, for protection.
Eventually we will climb out of our shelter, probably in a bit of a daze, to assess the damage. We are certainly not the only family that is facing important life decisions once the storm has passed. Somehow, we'll all have to find a new status-quo.
For now, I admit, I am managing only to pick up the brick that is right in front of me. I am learning-badly at times- but learning nonetheless, that in the moment, my best has to be good enough... that through it all, the bond between my Moeke and I (and my husband too) will not break. Our love is stronger than any adversity and, eventually, we'll walk together in the sunshine again.
All the best xoxo