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The price of long distance love
Maybe I should have knocked on wood. Or stroked a rabbit’s foot. Muttered a prayer. Maybe I should’ve found any sort of good luck talisman, the closest within reach, and given it a thorough polish.
Or maybe professing your love isn’t tempting fate.
Maybe luck has nothing to do with it.
Maybe life is just life, and sometimes shit happens.
The shit that happened, in this case, went like so…
A couple of days after my last post gushing about how gorgeous and wonderful and ah-maze-ing is Portugal (it still is), I got word from the U.S. that my 78-year-old mom was in the hospital. In my dad’s words, “Well, her right leg isn’t workin’ right.”
Seems he got home from work last Wednesday and my mom was lying on the couch. She asked him to get her the walker, my deceased grandmother’s walker, from the attic. Her back was hurting, she said. She’d be fine, she said.
But then she fell, and she kept falling. Five times that night. Because her right leg wasn’t working right.
Dad buckled her into the car and drove to their small-town hospital. The hospital checked her out, then put her in an ambulance bound for the nearest big-city hospital. When I got the call, they were still awaiting word on exactly what her damage was. But the word “stroke” was being bandied about. A lot.
For a few days, we bounced from one diagnosis to another. My dad, in northern Illinois. My sister, in northern California. My cousin, in northern Indiana. The MRI came back clean. Maybe it wasn’t a stroke, they said. Maybe it was something with her spine. More tests were ordered.
By Friday, it was decided: ischemic stroke. I had to google it. I spelled it wrong the first time, but the internet swiftly corrected me. The most common type of stroke, it said. Narrowing of the arteries, it said.
In the end, what it all means is that now my mom can’t walk unassisted.
She’s lucky—we all are—that only her leg seems to be seriously affected, although there is some weakness in the grip of her right hand. But her speech isn’t skewed, nor is her cognition—other than, you know, the dementia.
She’s also lucky (we all are) that my sister could come. She and her family left California and headed to the farm in Illinois. Her three kids are distracting my dad (Papa, to them) with discussions about baby goats, and her husband is making the farmhouse safer for my mom, and my sister is at the rehab facility, painting my mom’s nails and brightening her room with flowers and with her steady presence.
My cousin P from Indiana has been there, as well—she’s a nurse, and my dad listens to her medical (and life) advice far more readily than he’ll accept it from my sister and I. We are his girls, after all. I understand that it’s not easy to accept life advice from your kids, especially when it’s about your spouse.
So everyone is there, lending all the hands. And I am here, in this gorgeous place. Waiting for my LaRedoute carpet delivery. 4,117 miles away.
An Ocean Between Us
I knew when I moved to Portugal there would be a cost that went beyond dollars and euros. I spent months considering the emotional toll that moving so far away would demand.
There’s no way to reckon it fully until you actually go ahead and do it, but I had a taste of it two decades ago when I left Illinois for California. We all got a taste of it during COVID lockdowns, too, when we couldn’t even be with our friends who lived a mere mile across town.
So I have had practice in long distance loving. I have years of letters and plane ticket stubs to prove it. For the most part, it’s gotten easier with time and technology. Zoom and Facetime and Marco Polo video chats make staying connected more feasible.
And yet. All the technology in the world can’t help when you just want to hold your mother’s hand.
I knew this would come, at some point. Not the stroke, necessarily. But an emergency of body. Hospitals and phone calls in which the only sound—on either end of the line—is weeping. My parents are both nearly 80. Old age tends to hold unpleasant surprises, for everyone. (My grandmother’s last piece of advice to me, days before she died, was: “Whatever you do, DON’T get old!” I asked her if she knew any vampires I could contact.)
But I made the mistake so many of us make. I assumed I would have more time.
So in those first early hours, as my sister and cousin and I sent a flurry of texts, phone calls and videos back and forth, I felt a crushing sense of guilt.
That evening, at 10:45pm my time and 2:45pm his, my Dad sent me a video message. This is what he said:
“LaDonna, I wanna make sure you’re not feelin’ guilty about not bein’ here. I don’t want that. If those thoughts are comin’ to your mind, I don’t want ya feelin’ that way. I’m 100% behind your move, and I think it’s pretty exciting. So please don’t beat up yourself or let anyone beat you up.
The way I look at it is through the Scriptures, that things happen in life to everybody, and it’s not a punishment for mom or a punishment for me. Our bodies just wear out.
There’s nuthin’ to feel guilty about. Your move is a dream, and I think it’s pretty neat. It’s just unfortunate all this happens right when you’re tryin’ to adjust there.”
I’m lucky, I know, to have a dad such as this, who would give me such a gift. Who would know that of course I’m wobbling beneath the weight of my own self-imposed guilt.
I am doing my best to do what he asked. To refrain from beating myself up and attempt instead to help in whatever ways I can. To call my mom often. To offer support and a listening ear to my sister and my cousin, who are the ones in the trenches right now. To answer my dad’s questions about the dolphins in the Sado so he doesn’t have to talk about my mom’s prognosis all the time.
But the things you’re afraid of, before you take a leap—often they aren’t frivolous fears. Often they’re perfectly realistic.
The bald truth is what it has always been: making this move—putting an ocean between us—it takes an emotional toll. You can’t always be there when you want to. Especially when you’ve barely hit the four-week mark on your visa and haven’t yet had your immigration appointment to establish a more permanent residency.
This truth isn’t right or wrong. It just is.
And it’s a truth that must be considered, and reconsidered, if you take the kind of leap we have taken.
I still believe in our decision to move to Portugal. I still believe it will all be worth it in the end.
But I find my eyes drifting west more often than they have since I arrived. My thoughts drift with them.
So it’s a more somber post today, not so much trilling about azulejos. This, too, is part of the journey. This, too, is part of life.
To Fit the Mood: A Not-What-You-See-On-Travel-Blogs Photo Dump
(a.k.a. Shit Gets Real)
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer