I am overjoyed to be in Paris, to have seen yesterday’s drizzle falling on the Eiffel Tower and today’s sunshine streaming in the apartment windows. I’m thrilled to have awakened in our own bed this morning, and to hear the rumble of garbage bins on the courtyard pavement as the gardienne wheels them back in from the street.
As I wrote in ‘The Hills of Montmartre, Paris’, it’s always a challenge for us here, albeit a mostly nice one, to determine how best to spend our time. We want to walk a lot, explore new places, visit old favourites, and get things done in the apartment.
We’re in desperate need of a better Internet connection than France Telecom’s Orange ‘Internet Everywhere’ service, which I wrote about in ‘Family Globalisation: A New Way to Stay Connected’. The Orange connection is dodgy, especially during the day, and ridiculously slow and expensive. This morning it tried for 22 costly minutes to find Google, and failed. If I publish this post, it will be a miracle. It’s now a priority to find out what company services the building and what time and cost may be involved to sign up for a proper cable and/or wireless service. Today while we were out walking , Clive picked up brochures at France Telecom and Darty, so we’re on our way (we hope!).
Until Now, No Time for Emotions
Sometimes life gets so busy doing it’s hard to remember to pause for even a few minutes. For the past two weeks in New Jersey, our days were all something like this:
Wake to alarm to be sure we got up and out on time
Meet father for breakfast at greasy-spoon diner, whose food made Clive sick twice so we’re never going there again
Stop by lawyer’s office to sign papers
Daily (almost) trip to K-Mart to get a few things for my mother and/or ourselves
Late morning visit with my mother, including short walk with her if nice weather
Pick up tax return from mother’s accountant
Eat sandwiches in car at Ridgewood Duck Pond
Pick up mother mid-afternoon for various appointments
Meet with bank manager to make account changes
Nuke frozen dinner in hotel microwave or go out for my favourite cheeseburger club (sandwich) at Nellie’s Place, a local restaurant
If there was time, stop at Barnes and Noble bookstore, to sit in comfy chairs or have an after-dinner browse
Return to see my mother for an evening music program at assisted living facility
Return to hotel, check e-mail, make calls to family in Australia, process the day’s paperwork, and organise files for the next day’s activities
Once or twice if not too tired, lie on the bed together and watch an episode of ‘Sea Change’ (a late 90’s Australian TV series) on Clive’s laptop
Fall asleep and hope we don’t wake up with jet lag in the middle of the night
Life Means Change, but Still …
I know life means change, but wouldn’t it be great if we could slow everything down once in a while?
When I moved to Australia in 1995, a Canadian expat who had just returned from visiting her parents told me, “It gets harder as the years go by.” As my fellow expats reading this know well, she was right.
My parents are both approaching their mid-80’s and, until fairly recently, were both blessed with a lifetime of good health. Now my mother is facing early Alzheimer’s on top of a heart condition, and my father, while in reasonably good shape, is facing the physical and emotional stress of caregiving to a wife thirty-six (yes, 36) years his junior who is in poor health herself.
My parents are very different individuals (which led to their divorce many years ago) but in their own way they each have remarkably positive attitudes and amazing resilience. For this I am very grateful and know I’m extremely lucky.
Sadly, I’m also aware I’m not alone in having a parent in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. My mother is taking the latest drugs, which may slow down symptoms. But a dear friend in Washington who lost his mother to the disease told us, “It only goes in one direction The way she is now is the best she’s going to be.”
I’ve witnessed my mother’s gradual but unmistakeable deterioration over the past several years, and I know our friend speaks the truth. It’s a heartbreaking truth, because I’m losing my mother. She is happy and that’s most important. But I’m slowly losing the most precious woman in my life, the one who raised me and my late brother in Ho-Ho-Kus, the only other person on earth who shares with me the personal, private, family memories of the life the three of us had inside the house on Gilbert Road.
I still have much to learn. Too many friends have experienced this disease in their families, and I know from talking with them I’m not alone. I’ve also found two books incredibly helpful: The 36 Hour Day, by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins, and Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s, by Joanne Koenig Coste.
My mother’s memory is fading, but we can still talk about her activities at assisted living, the extended family, my brother, and life in general. I have more of a sense of urgency than ever before about spending as much time with her as possible.
As for my father, he and his much-younger wife K. are yet another example of a May – December relationship that didn’t turn out as expected. When they married in 1994, after living together for three years, K. was 34 and my father was almost 70. Everyone thought she’d end up caring for him, but that was before she had several serious operations and developed multiple health issues. K.’s parents have died and her siblings rarely assist, so my ageing father is doing virtually all of the caregiving. For various reasons I’m not sure how much I’d get involved if I lived closer, but I know my father appreciates being able to talk openly with me and Clive when we visit.
The Younger Generation
We had such a great visit with my son in Washington, D.C., and Clive finally got to see the U.S. capital. I wish we could have spent more time there, and no doubt we will in the future. But I know there’s a limit to how much we should do this. What normal 23 year-old male wants his mother hovering around him in his new city?
I’m learning here, too, about the empty nest after college graduation, about missing my son when we’re far away from each other, and about the next phase of letting go. I’m so proud of my son, and it saddens me beyond measure that his father isn’t here to provide his always constant, always reliable, always loving practical and emotional support, and to share in this phase of our son’s young adult life.
Again I know I’m not alone. I have several widowed friends who lost their spouses when their children were very young. I am thankful my son had his father for almost 18 years, and that in the past few years, he and Clive have developed a wonderful relationship.
Global Families, Guilt, and Sadness
There are many benefits to family globalisation, as I wrote in ‘Family Globalisation: It’s Personal’. Still, at the heart of the challenge is the need and desire to be physically with loved ones.
There’s no easy solution and there never will be. On this trip, I’m more conscious than ever of my parents’ increasing age and declining health. I’m more aware than ever that my son is leading an independent life. I’m sad I can’t be with everyone at the same time. I feel guilty for thinking living in New Jersey would drive me mad.
We’re keeping in touch with Clive’s family in Australia. His son and daughter-in-law are facing another job challenge and his daughter is planning a volunteer trip to Rwanda. We miss them and Clive’s grandsons, and Clive’s almost-88 year old mother has a new health issue, about which she cried to him over the phone.
Technology can bring us closer than ever before and keep us connected to loved ones when we travel. But family globalisation has physical limitations and impacts. Sometimes you just have to be there, sometimes you want to be there but can’t get there, and sometimes you’re happy right where you are.
Taking My Own Advice
I’m sad about leaving my U.S. family, but we’ll see them again relatively soon when we return for my mother’s birthday in May. Today I feel relief and joy to be Paris.
In my jet lag post, I recommended if a certain activity is important to you at home, try to find a way to incorporate it into your routine at the new location. Visiting my U.S. family, I had little time to think, let alone write, and until we got to Washington, D.C., Clive and I didn’t do nearly as much walking as we like to do.
Here in Paris, I’m going to try to take my own advice: slow down a little; make time for reading, writing, and walking; regroup before we head to England in two weeks to see Clive’s father and family; and savour every moment of being in this city I love so much.
And we’re looking forward to meeting new friends next week!
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