I live in Thailand and my parents live in England. Like every good son should, I call them once a week - every Tuesday - as regular as clockwork. Thankfully we now live in an age of cheap long-distance phone calls and lord knows how many other cost-effective hi-tech ways of keeping in touch with our loved ones on the other side of the world.
It's a far cry from the early 90's when a long-distance call meant traipsing down to the Central Bangkok Post Office on Charoen Krung Road and sitting in a private booth, praying you got a decent connection, praying your folks were at home...and then paying an arm and a leg for every minute and part-minute of the conversation. Oh, those were the days!
My parents are now both in their mid-70s and as you would expect for a couple of relatively heavy smokers, their health is not what it once was. My mother has difficulty walking any kind of distance now following a replacement knee operation a couple of years ago. My father has just undergone his fifth operation to remove a tumor. In fact he even found himself in hospital on Christmas Day after suffering from post-op complications.
Listening to family members tell you about their serious health worries never ever makes for a pleasant telephone conversation and I'll admit to putting down the phone on such occasions and becoming a little emotional. You can offer all the support you can over the phone but nothing ever beats being there with them in person. But here you are, thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. What use can you possibly be?
Several years ago, while living in Spain, my father had a series of minor strokes which caused him to temporarily lose his speech and the use of one side of his body. I spent several weeks phoning the hospital every day and encouraging my Dad to get better. All he did was complain about the noise from the other patients in his ward and the poor quality of the hospital food. All I wanted was for him to say "yes, I'm definitely getting better" but each phone call turned into ten minutes of stress and heartbreak. After making a full recovery, he was then diagnosed with bladder cancer. Sometimes it's like there is no light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.
Of course, many of us expats out here in Thailand are all in the same boat. We might get some sympathy from friends and colleagues when it comes to family health issues but by and large, they are problems we have to deal with alone. And that can make life so much tougher.
I was talking to a teacher a while back; in fact he was the guy who inspired me to write this short article. His mother had been diagnosed with late stage cancer so he dropped everything and got to the airport as fast as he could to get a plane back to the UK. Fortunately his school was very understanding and told him to take as much time as he needed. A cover teacher was then arranged at short notice.
When the teacher got back home, his mother suddenly rallied and her condition improved. The teacher spent three weeks nursing his mother and sitting at her hospital bedside but eventually he knew he had to return to Thailand or his teaching position would be in jeopardy. So return to Thailand he did.
He hadn't been back in The Land of Smiles for more than a few days when he got the terrible news that his mother's condition had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and shortly after, she passed away.. So it was another mad dash for the airport to make it home for the funeral - another costly air-fare and more time away from his classroom duties. But what else can you do in these situations?
A terrible situation
Being grateful for small mercies, at least this teacher was in a financial position to do something. I remember working with a teacher at a private language school in the mid-90s, who wasn't it must be said, perhaps the most careful person in the world when it came to saving money and putting a little aside for emergency situations.
His mother too was diagnosed with late stage cancer but there was no way he could afford the plane fare home. He had no choice but to literally listen to his mother die on the other end of a telephone. There were no other family members he could go to for a handout and you are never going to have much luck passing the begging bowl around a teachers' room when every one of your colleagues is living a month-to-month existence anyway.
He was a very popular teacher as well, the kind of bloke who always had a joke to brighten up the greyest Monday morning. But news of his ailing mother resulted in a dark cloud descending over the teachers' room and where there was once joking and laughter, there were nothing but awkward silences and a feeling of not being in a position to help a fellow teacher and good friend. It was a difficult time for everyone at the school.
Another Bangkok expat I am good friends with - admittedly not a teacher - flew back to the USA an incredible SIX times in a 12-month period to take care of his 90-year old mother in a nursing home. Tom was his mother's only son, the only person she had to turn to in her hour of need. The responsibility of making sure his mother was well cared for fell squarely on Tom's shoulders, despite the fact it took him the best part of two days to get home.
Whenever I'm out with Tom and the conversation gets round to family responsibilities, there is always a sharp intake of breath and a shake of the head as Tom recalls what he refers to as ‘his lost year'. "I seemd to spend the whole year either on board planes or waiting at airports. It was exhausting"
These family life or death situations are something most of us have had to deal with or will have to deal with at some stage. When I left home to come and work in Thailand, I was a young man in my mid-20s. My parents were in their late 40s and both in the prime of their lives. It never occurred to me that one day they would get old and I would still be thousands of miles away. But time catches up with everyone eventually.
It feels like every week there is news of another celebrity death - very often the names of famous people who were somehow part of your childhood or teenage years. They are a stark reminder that no one is going to live forever.
What's your situation? Is there an ailing parent or two back in your home country that are a constant cause of stress and worry? Or are you ‘lucky' enough to come from a family whose members have either passed on or you have fallen out with and no longer keep in contact with?