The Hardest Thing About Being an Expat

One of the hardest things about being an expat is not being there in a time of need.  Since I have been in Turkey, many of my friends have lost a parent.  My friends may not have felt like they needed me at the time, but I sure needed to be with them.  It puts me at a loss.  They have all been there for me at critical points in my life, and here I am, far far away.  For them, time has stopped, even if only briefly, and my days go on and on.

Just weeks before moving to Ankara, my lifetime best friend lost her mother.  Paulette was a strong woman.  An expat from France, she married an American and moved to the US, shortly after WWII.  She raised four children in the States and ran a bridal salon and tuxedo shop with her husband and continued to do so after he passed in 1993.  I was happy that I could be with Martine during this time.  Her mother fought a long and hard battle and it had taken its toll on Martine and the family.

That was the last time that I have been able to let a friend use my shoulder to cry on.

After moving here, Suzie lost her father.  Suzie was a new friend but we had become very close quickly.  We were roommates and she had helped me every step of the way to plan my wedding. I never met her father and I honestly don’t recall the details of his passing.  Suz is a doctor and she leads a very busy life, so it is more difficult for us to keep in touch between her schedule, the time difference, and my hatred of talking on the phone.  I am sure she let me know when it happened.  But I was so tied up in my new life here, I did not respond appropriately.  Some time has passed now and Suz is now planning her wedding day.  I plan to at least  be there for her on her special day.

You may remember last October that I was in Istanbul for the marathon.  My husband, my nephew, and my friend Petra were all going to run a 15k.  Petra is the partner of my cousin.  He is my age and one of the closest of my cousins.  When she joined the family, Petra quickly became my “German best friend.”

Petra was not able to fly in from German because her father had become very ill.  Sadly, he passed the day of the race.  I could not fly to Germany because of the trip to Istanbul, and because my nephew was still visiting.

Next, in December, I went back to the States to visit my family.  During that time, my “Best Turkish Friend, aka Kanka” had been struggling with her own father’s illness. She is also an American expat. Jules knew he was terminal.   She needed to decide when she would go back to the States, as if one could possibly judge when a parent will be called home.  She finally set a date for mid-January.  I was happy to know that we would have a couple of weeks together to share our friendship, before she would head back tot he States.

However, Jules got the word that she needed to go back sooner than planned.  She left just days before I returned to Ankara.  That was sad for me because it feels like a long time without her.  She is my Turkish rock.  But I am so happy for Jules.  She spent a lot of good quality time with her Dad.  I met him once in Ankara.  Really nice guy.  A go-getter.  Very smart.  Very friendly.

Dan passed away just over a month ago.  Jules seemed devastated.  Having just been back to the States, I couldn’t go again.  I try to message her and be more supportive than I had been for Suz.  But I know I don’t do enough.

Then death struck again.  I was in Kayseri enjoying the snow at Mt. Erciyes.  Petra messaged me.  Her mother died suddenly.  She had been ill since the loss of her husband.  But this was unexpected.  Within months, Petra found herself an orphan.

I was just about to head back to Ankara.  Instead I took out my laptop and started searching for flights.  But I just couldn’t afford a last minute trip.  The prices were high.  This time, my husband encouraged me, telling me Petra is family.  Do what I need to do.  But I didn’t.  Petra insisted that I didn’t come.  When she finally said that her mother wouldn’t want me to spend money like that, I let it go.

Last week I learned that another friend’s father was ill.  Brenda is someone I met at law school.  We went back to school later in life.  We spent four years plugging through night school.  With over 100 people in our class, Brenda walked up to me after the first evening.  She said she was looking around the room counting the number of Blacks in the class.  When she got to me she was confused.  I busted out laughing!  That was the beginning of a very dear relationship.

It turned out that she had moved from Philly to West Chester and lived right around the corner from my Mom.  We studied together and played together.  But fear struck when Brenda didn’t show up for our first exam.  She had cancer.  She fought through it and ended up back in law school, finishing a year later than planned.

I tell you all of this about Brenda because it leads up to the story of her Pop who passed away yesterday.  While Brenda was in the hospital, her Pop of course came to see her.  One day he said something like this to her, “I only knew one person from West Chester.  I was in the War with him.  Tommy Henson.”  My Dad.

Wow.  Brenda’s Pop had fought in Italy and England with mine.  Through the years, I got to know my Dad better through the stories her Pop had told.  They separated when my Dad took the option to go on to occupy Germany, after WWII, where he met my Mom.

I actually only met Brenda’s Pop a few times.  Unlike my Dad, he was more talkative and easily willing to share those stories with me.  He was handsome as heck.  Smart.  The kind of guy that would put you back in line with just a look.  He taught his daughter so much more than any of us can fathom, and way more than I will feign to know.  Imagine taking your daughter on a trip to the South and having to explain to her the separate bathrooms and drinking fountains.

I can describe Brenda’s Pop to you, and her Mom too, by telling you about her.  She works much harder than I do.  She is smarter than me too.  But what I really like about Brenda is how level headed she is.  She takes shit from no one and does it in a very calm and respectful way.  I really look up to her.  She has been through a lot in her life and will get through this now too.  She is a living tribute to both of her parents.  Her Pop was very proud of her.

I lost my own Dad suddenly during law school.  It will be 20 years in October and seems like only yesterday.  So I know how these friends feel.  Life goes on and there’s not a damn thing that can be done about it.  Their parents are still dead.  It all seems so wrong.

What I want to say to all of these friends is that I love you.  You are not only my friends, but my sisters and my inspiration.  I miss you all and although it may not always be obvious, I am here for you.

Martine, Suzie and Brenda, I plan to see you all before Summer comes.  Jules, I am looking forward to your visit this Spring, however brief.  And Petra, my visit to you is only weeks away.

Be strong, be healthy, and thanks for being my friends!

15 thoughts on “The Hardest Thing About Being an Expat

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  1. Nicely put Terry! Mortality is a funny old thing, with our oldest daughter knocking on the door of 50 J are very aware that we are of similar age to those friends and family who are ‘checking out/popping their clogs’. Living here in Okcular and having such a close relationship with our neighbours has resulted in our being ‘adopted’ by the family of our ‘Turkish son’. They, as our family will take care of everything and we’ll be buried with their/our family – one less thing to bother about.
    Mind you, don’t wave bye-bye just yet 😀

    1. Alan, although we have never met, I think you are pulling my chain! A daughter who is 50? No way! Refuse to believe it from such a young man. You are right about the Turkish family! They will take care of us!

  2. Terry I loveeee your blog. You’re an inspiration. While I was reading through the stories of friends who had lost their family members it brought tears to my eyes. The feelings are so close to home. When I first moved to Turkey in 2000, I remember I used to always fear the worst. I would imagine I would get a phone call from one of my siblings telling me that either mum or dad had passed away. Well, in 2006 that fear became reality. I was told my dad was unwell and that he wanted me by his side. It took me 48 hours to get to Melbourne because I missed the connecting flights. Once I got to Melbourne I had this strange feeling that I wasn’t told the truth. Again my sixth sense was right. I was taken straight to the morgue to see my father for the final time. I can’t even begin to explain the pain and confusion I felt. Even to this day when I recall those 48 hours of travel and not knowing how my father is and then to kiss his cold face for the final time is the hardest and saddest memory I will have for the rest of my life. I empathise and share the sorrows of all those who have lost loved ones and could not be there for them in their last hours.

  3. Sorry to hear things have been kinda rough lately with friends and passing on family members. It’s never easy when you live you so far away and can’t be there when bad things happen (or for happy occasions like births, anniversaries and weddings too). My dad’s health isn’t the greatest, so I make the most of the time with him when I do see him. I worry, of course. But in the US, I lived on the East Coast and parents in the Midwest, so we still only saw each other once a year.

    Hang in there!

    1. Thank you Joy. And you brought up a very good point. It’s not just in the hard times that we wish we could be someplace else. The good moments are just as important. I am really looking forward to spending some of those good moments with friends soon.

  4. Having recently lost two uncles, one this month and one in November, I can sympathize with what you are going through. I come from a large family too with 6 brothers and sisters and 35 cousins on my maternal side. At my uncles funeral last week one of the comforting things was seeing many of my cousins and my Mom’s five surviving sisters. Unfortunately I have reached that time of life when loss is going to be too common an occurrence, for me and for my friends and family. But the reality is that we can not be there for everyone in a physical sense. Even though you are far away from your first home you can still provide your friends with emotional support that I am sure will be appreciated.

    1. Thank you for the kind words and I am very sorry for your loss. You are so right. As the years pass, there will be more and more funerals. WE can only do our best to get through it and to be supportive of others. Wouldn’t it be nice to have lifestyles where we could just pick up and go.

  5. Liam and I have elderly parents and we always knew the time would come when we would have to put the expat thing on hold for a while to attend to their needs. We’re lucky. We made it to four years before the call came. But, the call has come. My motto is live for today. We don’t know what’s around the corner. Oh, and Alan IS that old.

    1. My dear Jack, I was thinking of you and Liam as I wrote the post. I had actually just read Chapter 12 of your book, just before reading your blog post. Wishing you both well and the courage to face things to come.

      Nice dig on Alan!

  6. Great posting Terry, I was always afraid of loosing a relative or one of my parent when I was living abroad…. Not being able to get there on time, I have friends were in the same situation…… Sometimes we can not stop the nature of cause unfortunately…

  7. I stumbled upon your blog when I was clicking aimlessly. I am very touched by the losses as I am at the other side of the world but in the same situation. Being from Ankara, and living in Canada for slightly more than a decade, I have been the same situation a few times, last being on Feb 28 this year. Those similar times always make me question my choices of libing location or whether it worths to be away from relatives in times of need. Hang in there, and enjoy nice cuisine for me.

    1. Thank you for reading my blog. I am sure it is very difficult for you to be away from home. We have to look at these challenging times as part of our growing process, right? I am so sorry for you your loss.

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