“Hello, darling! I need to call you as soon as possible. It’s urgent,” my father texts. By the time I read his message, it’s three hours after he sent it and well into the night in Paris. Although my phone never leaves my side, it’s always on silent and I check it infrequently.
Despite the nine-hour time difference, I text back and he calls me immediately, voice shaking, a 71-year old man fighting back the tears. As always, he resorts to blunt humor.
“So, um, the shit hit the fan… big time,” he says.
Given his tone, I immediately understand this to be a pithy understatement. He launches straight into a horrifying description of his nightmarish dental ordeal of the last few months.
He doesn’t fool me. I know this is only the prelude to the actual news. He’s setting the scene with extreme attention to detail to minimize shock. Our brains work very much the same way, we always try and protect others from harm, that’s the very reason why I hid my own illness from him for so long.
Eventually he takes a deep breath, swallows, exhales loudly, and drops the news.
In response, I forget to breathe and my head starts spinning.
My stepmom, A., has advanced breast cancer.
At the time of this initial call — last week — she and my father have just come back from the clinic and that’s as much as they know.
The next day, I receive a text from her.
“I know your father told you but he’s far more rattled by it all than I am. He’s going to need a lot of support so I trust you to be there for him.”
This text tells you everything you need to know about my stepmom.
My throat closes. Because of depression and resulting hardship, I don’t exactly have a good track record in that department. To make matters worse, I’m an only child so if I’m not there for him, no one is. It’s painfully clear I need to step up.
And yet, I’m sitting in the Pacific Northwest with hardly a red cent to my name.
A week and several medical appointments later, it’s worse.
Like waiting for a bus for ages only for three to show up at once: My stepmom hasn’t got one cancer but three. And that’s just the interim diagnosis until her nuclear scan in two weeks. Great though the French health care system is, waiting lists are a thing there too.
On the phone, my father is less despondent, more determined. However, he has lost his trademark joyful demeanor; the magnitude of these latest medical news has flattened him.
After explaining everything that’s happening to her in dispassionate, clinical terms, my stepmom tells me everybody is having a hard time. My father is barely coping; her son is absolutely shattered.
“It’s weird,” she says, “I feel like I’m in a shell. I still haven’t cried, you know… I’m trying to stay strong for everyone.”
She has dissociated.
And, despite the seriousness of her situation, she’s still putting others first.
I can’t help but think this doesn’t bode well for the future as she’s going to need whatever strength she can muster during treatment. Since we’ve always been open with each other, I tell her, gently, that ‘everybody’ will deal, and that she should try and focus on herself for a change.
She laughs, we say good-bye, and she hands the phone back to my dad.
And just like that, our being estranged is history.
“Sorry to bug you with this on your birthday,” my father says.
I tell him my remaining on this Earth while it completed yet another orbit around the Sun is hardly worth mentioning right now. We both agree it doesn’t mean much as neither of us is in the mood to celebrate anything. Today isn’t about me, this call isn’t about me, and, come to think of it, this piece isn’t about me either.
It is about my stepmom and about my father, and about how to be present for them by remote, at least until I can haul my backside across the Atlantic so I can try and cheer her up, and give him a break. My stepmom and I have always gotten on well; she’s the mom I’ve always wished I had.
Fellow immigrants will be very familiar with what is a universal scenario: You’re half way across the world, a loved one gets sick, you need to be there for them but you can’t.
Technically, I can up and go at any time. I don’t have kids that need me — I have cats that do, but my husband was a solo cat daddy before I met him so they’ll be fine — and I’m not tied down to a regular job. I can work from anywhere.
But first, I need to get the money together for an airfare, local transportation, and modest sustenance so I can be self-sufficient when I’m there although my family will probably refuse to let me buy any food. French folks, you know…
How I make the funds happen has become my main preoccupation. My household budget is so tight bills are always in arrears. Further, we have no credit cards nor are eligible for any so there’s no sticking this on plastic and paying for it later. (My husband’s credit rating is appalling and I have no credit history.)
The solution is obvious: Go back to pitching publications; put a couple of book proposals together; write more. While I’ve no objection to either of the first two and they’re my end goals, that’s not the way to go when you’re cash-strapped and in need of quick funds. Not only do most pitches disappear into a black hole, but publications can take months to pay you. As for book publishing, it’s a game of cat and mouse that can go on for years and seldom pays much.
Right now, I don’t have the luxury of time.
In practical terms, this means my editorial output may become more frequent from now on so I can eventually afford to travel and go help my family navigate this new challenge.
I cannot let them down again.
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