That Phone Call

Last Saturday week I got that phone call that everyone living abroad dreads. It was my brother telling me my mother had taken a fall and had broken her leg. She had been rushed to hospital in the small hours of the morning and was awaiting an emergency procedure to pin her femur back together.

As I listened to his words the room spun around me.

“I’ll be over as soon as I can,” I told him, and set about booking a flight and rental car.

I don’t think a single thought beyond “must see mother” passed through my head until I was at her bedside the next day.

My mother lives alone and it was sheer good luck that my brother was visiting for the weekend when she fell. Otherwise she could have been on the kitchen floor for God knows how long before someone heard her screams. That’s the nightmare scenario.

I often wake in the dead of night thinking of my mother all alone in her house, a three hour flight plus three hour drive away. Images of her tripping on a rug or stumbling on the stairs bedevil me. There is a mix of worry and guilt. It was, after all, me who decided to up sticks and move from just an hour down the road to thousands of miles away. It was me who weighed everything up, factoring her pain into the final equation, and decided she’d be OK if me, the wife and kids moved to Spain. It was an excruciating decision, but the exciting adventure and sunny new lives won out over and old woman’s loneliness and a son’s guilt.

My mother is tough and has gotten on with her more solitary life these past six years, but I’ll always suffer guilt at leaving her behind. Part of the package of living abroad consists of a large dollop of this guilt and worry as well as all the usual expat neuroses — missing less immediate family and friends, homesickness, sentimentality, a sense of not being settled in one’s adopted country, and the constant pull of the “auld sod”. For the last six years, I would describe myself as having had a foot in both countries, not fully committed to a new life in Spain, but not one hundred per cent sure of moving back home in the near future. On a regular basis I’ve gone through the process of applying for a job back home, doing the interview and mulling over the subsequent offer. The last time this happened was back in early June, with an offer on the table from an old boss back in Ireland, which would have seen me and the family back living in our old house down the road from my mother. After much painful deliberation and a tear-sodden family conference during which the girls told me in no uncertain terms that they wanted to stay put, I came to the decision that my personal happiness and career advancement came second to my kids’ schooling and rich social lives — another equation where emotional pain, guilt and that elusive species, happiness, were factored in.

After this recent process I decided to put to bed once and for all my dreams of moving back home. The kids were too settled. My partner and I both had reasonably good jobs. It was time to finally think of a future for ourselves in Spain. We started making plans. We’d buy a house in my partner’s village. I’d do that masters in brewing and distilling. We’d open a craft brewery. Start malting our own grain. But now, after that phone call and with the realisation hitting me that my mother is only going to get weaker and slower and more accident prone, there are new equations of worry and guilt to be composed.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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4 Responses to That Phone Call

  1. Mary says:

    I used to go around in circles about this. Especially when I lived so far away in Alaska, where getting the phone call was one thing everyone dreaded as getting home could take 3 days, depending on the weather and whether the pass was open or closed. Now I’m closer and could be home in a matter of hours – a lot like living in the back end of Kerry. I used to have that guilt, too. Probably in some ways to a different degree as I don’t have kids myself. But then I asked what I would want were the roles reversed. To have my kid stop living their lives so that I might have them closer? I don’t think your mum would want that for you either. Regular contact and frequent visits is how I’ve rationalised it. That said, I want to spend some time in India but am reluctant to be too far from them … but that’s a choice not driven by guilt, but by wanting to be in the vicinity should something happen. Go for that Master’s I say… and when the brew pub opens, send the address.

  2. I am wishing you all kinds of support for your situation. I know it’s not easy.
    I did the opposite when put in this situation, however I wasn’t happy with my new location after 5 years and needed just one excuse to leave… my mother’s health and needing daily aid made that decision to move back easy. Now I’ve been back 11 years, mom has passed and I can’t wait to get out of here again. However, now my husband has his anchor firmly in the ground… I tug at it daily 😉

  3. ucronin says:

    I get where you’re coming from. It’s all about balancing people’s needs, and sometimes your own don’t count as much as others’.

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