The ties that bind
The strain of living miles away from ailing parents and loved ones
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?
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During a two year contract at the first ever international school I worked at, my mother called me and told me she'd been diagnosed with stage four cancer. I remember standing on my balcony in Bangkok at night, looking out over the big city and crying my eyes out. My world came crashing down and needless to say it was a very challenging time. My mum insisted I stay in Thailand and carry on with my job as she told me she was so proud of me. So I stayed but it was a real struggle and I stopped socialising and locked myself away at weekends. Friends would come knocking at my door but I'd tell them I was tired because I felt so emotionally tired knowing that my mother was suffering without me by her side. I completed my contract and she amazingly fought for longer than the original prognosis of six months to live. I returned home and boy was I glad to be there with her. A month later she passed away and I was by her side.
Fast forward five years, I'm back in Thailand again doing what I love....'teaching'. I was nearing the end of another two year contract but I'd just signed up for another year at the same school. I go back home as usual for the summer holiday and 'boom' a bomb is dropped, my sister tells me that dad has cancer but that the doctor thinks it's not the aggressive type. I calmed myself, believing he had more time. Dad tells me to carry on, just like mum wanted me too, so I returned to Thailand after the holidays. I arrive back at school feeling emotionally drained despite having a holiday. There were many changes at my school aswell to contend with including a new boss and many new staff. Two weeks into the term my sister calls me and informs me that the doctors misjudged the situation and dad's tumour was growing fast and spreading all over his body. In a state of panic, I approach the new boss with this news and apologisingly told her that I must rush back to see dad. She shows a bit of sympathy but seems more concerned with how the parents will react to me leaving so suddenly at the beginning of a new academic year. She tries to convince me to wait a bit longer whilst probing me for more details in relation to exactly how long dad has got left. The new deputy head comes to speak with me and she quietly reassures me to go and see my dad asap. I flew out the next day and two weeks after my father passed away after a painful struggle. During those two weeks I regularly corresponded with the school and uodated them. The new Head and M.D reassured me that they were behind me and that I didn't need to rush back. A few days after my father's funeral I receive an email from the M.D telling me that parents are asking when I'm coming back and do I have a date of return. The new Head also sends me an email asking to talk with me on the phone. I thank her for her email and explain that I'm not ready to have a telephone conversation but I'm okay to communicate via email. She then sends me a strange email telling me that she's sorry for upsetting me and then stops communicating full stop. Meanwhile, the M.D is still hassling me and we sort out a return date which I agree too. I return to the school only to find my job has been filled by somone with little experience teaching and half my age. The new Head told me they had to replace me as they didn't know when I was returning. However, teachers told me this employee was offered the job a week before I was due back when the school already new my return date. The new Head gave me new duties including covering for absent teachers which I was okay with. To cut a very long story short, I wasn't happy with all the changes and agreed to resign (with encouragement from the new Head). Upon my resignation she assured me that I had nothing to worry about by breaking the new contract as I had done nothing wrong and she was happy to be a referee and explain my situation to potential employers. She even went as far as telling me that she'd make contacts for me when I felt ready to work again. For four almost four months she corresponded with me via social media but strangely wouldn't respond to any of the emails I sent to her school email. She was friendly and showed concern for my welfare in her correspondence. So I start applying for jobs to start in the summer and put her name down as a referee as most schools ask for most recent Head. She advises me to be honest about when I left and again reassures me that she'll be a referee. Weeks down the line I miss out on job offers because she hasn't responded to them and job agencies treat me with suspicion because my most recent Head won't respond to emails and telephone calls. Meanwhile, I'm grieving for my father and getting increasingly anxious about finding work. I email the M.D and ask him to help me scan a testimonial onto school headed paper than my boss before the new boss agreed to sign. He refuses on the basis that I've left the school and so has the previous Head. All this, and bearing in mind I was a good teacher, with a good/outstanding observation record and parents were happy with the progress their children had made in my class. I was also the only one of five teachers who stayed on at the school. Then to be treated like this, for no apparent reason. But after all this I still would have done the same and gone back to be with my dad who will always be more important than any school will ever be.
By Anonymous, Bangkok (7th April 2017)
I can relate fully as my Mum died last year during the big floods. I was in oz watching her die and my wife was in Thailand coping with flooding. It wasn't a happy time. However, one thing I found most the distressing was dealing with Mum's effects. I was fortunate because my siblings helped me with storage as we divided up her "stuff". It disturbed me that a person's life could be dismantled in such a way. However, reading these posts has left me with the thought that I am not Robinson Crusoe, others are coping with much more and so I gained strength from what everyone else had to say. Thanks folks
By Lobert, Nakhon Pathom (11th December 2012)
Thank you for your article. I've been living and working in Thailand full-time for well over a year now, albeit not as a teacher, and I love my job and the life I've established here. Then I found out last week that my 66 year-old father back home in the US has cancer. They say it could be beatable, but in any case, I've got some serious questions to ask myself now. Reading your story helped, not to answer those questions, but at least to reassure me that I'm not the only one going through it. Thank you.
By Dave, Bangkok (9th December 2012)
A good article that many of us can relate to, I think.
My mother's health started to deteriorate a few years after I moved to Thailand. I felt extremely guilty that I could not be there for her, even though my dad was healthy. But she always told me that if I were happy (living in Thailand), then she was happy too.
She hadn't really told me how serious her health problem was, and one day I suddenly got a call from my dad that she had been hospitalized, and the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do for her.
I rushed back to my home country that same night and was by my mom's bedside the next day when she passed away. I will forever be grateful that I made it back in time to say farewell, but I guess I will always feel guilty about not seeing more of her during her final years.
By Michael, Bangkok (5th December 2012)
Yes that is true Philip fortunately in my situation I have a brother and 2 sisters so it is not just falling on one persons shoulders only. Of course I do not take it for granted and express my appreciation but I do not sense any resentment from them. As far as paying expenses I know they would not accept my money as they all have plenty and know my financial situation being a teacher here and are just happy that I am able to communicate with everyone from the other side of the world.
By Thomas, Thailand (4th December 2012)
Thomas, I think many of us have a 'brother or sister' who we've left in our home country and it's unfortunately they who are left to shoulder the burden when parents become ill. I know I have. A younger brother in fact.
I kind of reached a compromise with my brother over these issues because 'geographically' he's in a much better position to offer emergency help. We agreed that if he needed to rush to someone's bedsie, I would pay for the flight, car hire and any other expenses. It seemed like a fair compromise to me.
By philip, (3rd December 2012)
Jay I feel for you and others in similar situation as I can totally understand. I also have 2 aging parents in their 80's back in the USA. My Father is as healthy as a horse but my Moms health is declining. But I am very fortunate to have an older Sister who is a retired nurse who is helping to take care of my Mom as she also needs an operation for a knee replacement. I also have another Brother and Sister who visit them regularly. So I am very grateful for all they do as all I am able to do at the moment from here is call them weekly. If I was there only child it would be of course extremely difficult situation but fortunately I am not. But sometimes it still bothers me not to be there physically for them but I know they are being taken care of. Yes I think what you wrote about is becoming a more common situation for teachers and non-teachers here in Thailand but it is part of the challenges of living and working in a far away country. Take care, Thomas
By Thomas, Thailand (3rd December 2012)