I am on my second marriage but I currently live with my parents.
Even though I arrived at the end of December, I’m still having great difficulty wrapping my head around this new reality. A born and bred EU citizen, I immigrated to the US in 2013 after spending my entire adult life moving from one country to the next, and home is in the Pacific Northwest.
And yet, here I am, living out of a suitcase in my father’s spare room in Paris and getting to grips with old family dynamics I had forgotten about.
Before I hopped a plane back to Europe, I hadn’t seen my family for five years, possibly longer. It’s been so long none of us can actually remember the last time we were together before depression and hardship kept me trapped in America.
When my stepmom received a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis last September, she made me promise I’d be there for my father. In the time it took me to get the airfare together, my parents got progressively more exhausted and terrified. My 71-year-old dad is my stepmom’s sole carer and the first round of chemotherapy was heavy, brutal, and took a toll on them both. Not knowing what comes next means the atmosphere at home has become quite volatile of late.
My father vocalizes his distress by griping constantly about everything and everyone. So constantly in fact that his inner monologue is still going when he is under the shower, alone in the bathroom.
If we French have a worldwide reputation as complainers, my father embodies it. In fact, he possesses the uncanny ability to zoom in on the cloud within the silver lining.
Meanwhile, my stepmom is struggling. She’s the assertive and optimistic type but chemo has zapped all her energy and she’s always cold. No matter what the room temperature, how many layers of clothing she wears, or how many blankets she’s under. I gave her my thick black slouchy beanie and it seems to help keep the back of her head warm unlike all her other headwear. As a bonus, she looks like the most adorable cross between a smurf and an emo skater. She’s 68.
But although we’ve always been a laid back family of bons vivants, we all keep forgetting how to laugh — anxiety contaminates everything.
I’ve become the buffer between my father and my stepmom.
It’s a difficult role that requires more chill than I can usually muster. Even though I try to remain calm and collected, tempers flare because there is no privacy whatsoever in this small condo.
Being on top of one another calls for constant corrective action so I can carry on working and earning.
To block out the sounds of TV blaring around the clock, I move through the days with headphones on, plugged into Portuguese electro-pop.
In the absence of silence, music helps keep me alert, focused, and quite cheerful. And I revel in the Portuguese language, which is proving a surprisingly effective mental health aid at the moment. Scrap that: Portuguese is what keeps me going and I frankly have no idea what I’d do without it.
Having led a peripatetic life in the past, I’m used to working from almost anywhere, be it an economy seat on a plane, an airport, or even a shopping mall. At any hour of the day or night even. The internet is the lifeline that makes everything possible.
But my father’s ancient ADSL connection means waging a constant battle with his modem, and thus with him. While rebooting tends to fix issues for a while, whenever I ask him to he takes it as a personal affront. And so several times a day, he will argue at length that the internet works as I stare at web pages that won’t load while grunting like Marge Simpson, with tears in my eyes.
Because I’m still in the middle of pulling myself out of illness and hardship, I remain a little fragile. Technical issues that endanger my already precarious livelihood tend to stress me out. Although I try my hardest not to lash out at someone yelling at me, I sometimes fail. This isn’t ideal for my mental health.
My father doesn’t understand why I spend so many hours chained to my laptop but the only way I can remain present for my family is to keep writing. I’ve tried to explain how dire my household’s financial situation is, that I had to write my own airfare over, but he doesn’t get it yet.
I’m only one month into my three-month stay, we’re still getting used to one another again and we’re all unsure how to approach a very uncertain future.
Because I write mostly in languages other than the one spoken at home, there’s neither interference nor crossover.
This is helpful: My parents see someone working very hard and respect the hustle without asking questions.
But anything else I do is subject to constant scrutiny, right down to what little I eat only once a day, or when I use the bathroom.
“There’s light under the door, she’s in there,” I hear my father commenting out loud as I prepare to shower. And then I always turn the shower on so I don’t hear the rest.
Sometimes, I hear whispers, too. I have no idea what they’re about and I don’t want to know but I suspect my parents are wondering who the strange woman living with them is.
Almost everything about me is a mystery to them, right down to the husband whom they’ve never met… I sense there are many questions they’d like to ask but don’t trust themselves to. And if they did, I’m not even sure I’d be able to answer them despite being very open about everything. I spent the last five years under the yoke of major depressive disorder and holding my own hand, a situation that never made much sense to me either.
Once removed from my usual airtight American environment, epiphanies started happening. This adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult situation but there’s no space in my current life for heartache. Or doubt. Or hesitation. Or faltering, even though I did have a burnout that lasted over a week but that I somehow managed to conceal. Initial jet lag, insomnia, and working irregular hours made good excuses even though they had little to do with it.
I’ve also started to remember who I am and the process feels like being inside a washing machine during the spin cycle. I have to pinch myself regularly, such is the contrast between the last five years and now but of course I can’t share any of this with my parents.
I spent five years trying to spare them and almost alienated my father, but I must continue to spare them as much as possible as they already have quite enough to deal with.
In a couple of days, there will be more medical news.
As pertains Stage 4 cancer, they won’t be good. I see my stepmom every day, she isn’t well. I absconded to Portugal for a week and she didn’t improve in any way. In fact, she looks worse. Both her and my father are still in denial; I remain neutral and noncommittal but I’ve read the medical reports.
My stepmom longs for warmth so I’ll be shipping out to Lisboa in the spring and establishing an EU base there so she and Dad can come and stay whenever. All I know is that it’s a move that’ll benefit us all as a family even though I’m still unsure how to make it happen.
At the moment, my parents expect me to disappear back to the US at the end of March and not come back for years. They have no idea I’ve already committed to spending 2019 in Europe because I made my stepbrother promise not to tell. There’s only so much information they can process so we’ve been saving this for when they need some better news.
Although the particulars of my current living situation may be unusual, the situation itself isn’t.
Many adults move back in with family for all sorts of reasons and it is always a sacrifice for all parties involved.
Parents find themselves parenting again, reflexively and often against their will. Kids revert back to being kids, also unconsciously.
To my parents, I haven’t aged a day since I was a chubby baby resting my head on my hands and mooning the world in my cot. But to me, they are two terrified elderly fellow humans whose candor and defiant optimism breaks my heart every single day.
I may not have much besides determination and words, but I’ll do everything in my power to help them enjoy whatever time they have left together. And if desperate times call for desperate measures, so be it because these are truly desperate times.
Whenever the constant scrutiny and the absence of privacy get too much, I remind myself that now is my one chance to help my parents and give back.
At the end of the day, this is the only reason I’m here.
And I’m very glad I am, in spite of it all.