Category Archives: Family

Giving Thanks

Change is hard for most people, some more than others. As an expat for the last 11 years I have been through my fair share of countries and changes. Recently my belly button contemplations have centred around when the change becomes the norm. When things that used to stand out and confuse, surprise, unsettle or just plain irk you, don’t any more.

When using an everyday greeting or words in another language that used to make your tongue twist in circles or make you cringe a little bit on the inside in case you were saying it wrong comes out feeling perfectly normal – to you and to the people you are using it with.  When you stop getting headaches from concentrating so hard from driving on the wrong side of the road and the turns you make across traffic are reflex rather than strategically planned maneuvers. When someone says ‘Wow, you really walk a lot in this city’ as they duck and weave following you along a crowded footpath that you used to find overwhelming and you forgot you ever did, like you also forgot you never used to press the close lift button in the elevator (recognizable by being the only button you are unable to see the symbols for). When checking the local paper for the upcoming power outages (should they feel the need to list them) is as natural as using terms that drive you crazy but you now feel the need to spread the crazy – see use of ‘just now’*. You get the idea.

To me giving thanks on Thanksgiving was always ‘too American’ to contemplate. I certainly was an interested and engaged participant the past two Thanksgivings we have been lived in the US, watching friends post on all forms of social media what they were thankful for, even those Americans (and Canadians who do it a month earlier) living overseas, but I always thought it was ‘for them’. Now on our third Thanksgiving in country while preparing some tasty traditional side dishes for our own Aussie / Austrian (the one with no kangaroos) Thanksgiving feast later in the day, I popped a cork and posted my own spontaneous thanks. It felt quite normal and probably something I will do from now on, wherever we live as we incorporate it into our multi-cultural lives and rituals. A nod to when the change became the norm.

thanksgiving

When was the last time you realised a change had become the norm?

*just now is one of the most used and most difficult terms to define in South Africa. It means, not immediately, but that could be a time between 5 minutes and 8 hours (or lets face it three weeks) . After the initial shock telling me that the repairman would be there ‘just now’  used to drive me crazy, almost as crazy as it drove my children and family when I used it with them.

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I miss my Mum

My cousin is having a baby, it’s her fourth, she has three boys, this one is a girl. Due in November, I found out about it on Facebook yesterday.

My Aunt has moved house, I’m not sure when, she recently had a fall and is now in hospital awaiting surgery on a brain aneurism. It’s tomorrow, or today in Australia. I am hoping it goes well. Found out about that by emailing another cousin whose news I used to know, but the regular information source has been missing for the last nine months.

Someone else has moved interstate, I’m not sure exactly where but they have bought a house and are renovating, she’s an architect. Her mother and my mum were the closest of friends. They were high on the news rotation in our calls.

Despite how plugged in I am and remain to the online world, I don’t know the back stories or the tidbits that fill in the gaps. I see the outlines and scraps on Facebook or a sentence in an email and I feel disconnected where before I felt connected to them and their story.

These are the conversations I miss with my mother, filling in the gaps.

The other day I went for a ‘long run’ in marathon training terms and it was hot, it was hard and I was probably a bit dehydrated at the end. I collapsed on the front step and cried a bit because it was hard, because of the reasons I am training for the marathon, because I miss my Mum.

My six year old daughter appeared

‘What are you crying about?’

‘I was thinking about Mumma and how I miss her’

‘Oh, are you still going on about that? That was months ago!’

We’ll leave the empathy lesson for later, I know that’s how the world sees it as well, she was only speaking the truth. It still hurt.

We have new neighbours Mum would love, she would want to know that some of our regular Thursday night drinks crew on the street corner have moved on and the people who bought their house have a daughter in my daughter’s class at school. Because she came to stay last summer for three months she would be able to picture the people and the houses I am talking about and she would have questions and comments aplenty.  The new school year has started, she would want to know about classes and friends and coping skills.

I went to BlogHer recently in Chicago. I was looking for my tribe. I’m not sure what I found but I did love the conference, the city and the people I met. One of the speakers was Sheryl Sandberg, I am a bit of a fan girl. When she spoke she pitched the whole thing perfectly to her audience, as you would expect a speaker of her experience to do. Before she spoke she spent time in the audience meeting and greeting some people and learning their stories, then she used, with their permission, those stories in her speech.

Many people spoke of how they admired her approaching it that way and found it impressive. I found her a great speaker, but I guess I expected that she would do that. That was Terrie Baxter to a T, it was how she did it, her role as the International President of a Public Speaking organisation may have had something to do with it, but it is the standard I expect.

There are so many things in my every day life that remind me of Mum and they are hard. Lately I have been thinking about them, a lot. My relationships with my other family members, my father, my mother in law and even my brother have suffered in the last nine months as I try to adjust to this change in my life. I will get there, I think I just need a moment or two to pause and collect myself, or another one…

Recently a special friend sent me a message

I thought of you today sweet, as I often do. You need to get Gold Dust, the ministry of sound version, to run to. If uninspired, it’s a fab song. Hope all is ok, from personal experience, this is when I found losing Mum really, really hard. Hope you are doing ok sweetie, I really am thinking of you often.

Haven’t got the song yet but the rest of it is spot on.

IMG_0087

Swim Team

Don’t do it!

Do it!

It’s awful, you will be SOOOO glad when its over!

It’s great, they will be soooo much better at it by the time its over!

Everyone gets a ribbon, no matter where they come!

The excessive exclamation marks are warranted because everyone I discussed it with had a strong opinion and they were all heartfelt.

I may have mentioned 77 days of summer vacation already. While Phineas and Ferb thought ‘their generation’ was the one deciding how to spend it, I can assure them that their parents also had to get out their thinking caps, their wallets and more cleverly their calendars – in about January.

Failing that, those of us that are less organised, not heading elsewhere for three months, new to the extremely lengthy summer holiday season for school age peoples of the USA, or ALL of the above, need to scramble to take the scraps of what’s left activity wise or enter those that accept enrollments when the ground has thawed and there are birds singing in the trees.

Swim team was one such activity. As an Aussie girl who wanted to see the swimming tradition passed to the next generation it seemed a great fit. Six weeks of 45mins a day per age group. Why couldn’t it go on all holidays I wondered? Why only six weeks?  Sounds great on paper, until the information that they train not all the same time but in a consecutive fashion. Read the fine print Nikki. Sadly too  late to fix the three and a half year age gap between Ms 6 (aka WASYO) and Mr 10.

Poolside daily 8.30-11am gets you these tan lines

Poolside daily 8.30-11am gets you these tan lines

Then there were the Swim Meets. A once a week reminder of the reason we were all there – a six hour extravaganza where all kids regardless of their abilities get the opportunity to swim a lap or two or four of our or another neighbhourhood pool with their parents and coaches cheering them onto victory – or just lap completion, whatever worked better for them. The theory is beautiful, the reality hot, humid, filled with volunteering pitfalls and swim parents* aplenty.

Heres the thing about swim meets – there are about 650** children from age 5-18 (most in the lower age groups) and their parents and coaches all packed onto the pool deck of a neighbourhood pool.  These pools are not Olympic swim meet certified, they are not designed for this kind of activity. Most of these kids / tweens and teens swim between three and six races EACH between 6pm and 10pm on a weeknight in summer.***

What the pool deck looks like during a swim meet - this one an 'away' meet when the away team gets the sunny side of the pool, lucky!

What the pool deck looks like during a swim meet – this one an ‘away’ meet when the away team gets the sunny side of the pool, lucky!

In summertime the temperature in Georgia peaks between 5-7pm. Just so you know, it is impossible to look any kind of reasonable at a swim meet and that’s before you start your three hour shift managing the 6 and under ‘bullpen’. The bullpen manager is responsible for ensuring that not one of the sugar fueled swimmers, did I mention the concession stand ‘Oh, they’re swimming they can have some treats’ (I’m guilty too),  leaves the proscribed location for the duration of the event, and gets the relevant swimmers to their relevant heats in reasonable time before they swim.

Before the first meet someone told me not to wear a dress or skirt, it was good advice – all the sweat ran straight into my shorts so at least I looked like I had an accident in my pants as opposed to it all running down my legs and looking like something else. Not kidding. I was not alone, every other volunteer parent, same thing. Someone should have tipped me off to wear a sweat band too. I am thinking of getting some printed for next year, or my head shaved, or both.****

Six weeks, five swim meets – six really if you count the washed out one that had to be continued after we waited for one hour and ten minutes in the pouring rain because you have to be out of the water for 30 minutes after each incidence of thunder.

We made it and we have the many many ribbons and one 9 & 10 Boys most improved medal to prove it. Yay us!

Swim team booty!

Swim team booty!

I also have the perfect crowd control item for my kids – if they misbehave I threaten to wear my ‘swim team pin’ (its a badge to me) in a public place, it came in my swim team photo pack, I had no idea but it works a charm.

Behaviour control badge

Behaviour control badge

See y’all next year, maybe….

* As part of my ongoing identification of new opportunities for reality television shows in the US – which there are MANY, I am currently working on a proposal for ‘Swim parents’. Please treat this accordingly as a copyright notice. My idea, thanks.

**OK its probably really only 100 but it FEELS like many many more

*** Even thought the swim meet starts at 6pm you have to be there by 4.30pm to enable warm ups, volunteer job distribution and ‘sugaring up’ of the kids in advance of the 6pm kick off.

**** Someone obviously had tipped my husband off as he was out of town for five of the six events – out of town completely.

25.3 kgs

‘Your bag is overweight, I’m not going to charge you this time, but be more careful next time. It’s 25.3 kgs’
The Delta check-in lady using a stern tone.

‘Did ya do a lot of shopping while you were home?’
The assistant checker-in person joined in. The strong Aussie accent dressed in a Delta uniform somehow seemed out of place even though we were standing in Sydney airport. How quickly I have come to expect an American accent.

Tears welled up – I had no control over them.

‘No, its my Mum’s stuff, I came back for her funeral.’

Murmured apology from Team Delta, awkward moment, both suddenly looking closely at the computer screen. I felt I had to let them off.

‘Doesn’t everyone about to spend 13 hours in economy on a plane with no spare seats cry?’

Ha ha – good one, they could look up at me again and we finished our transaction in a more relaxed fashion.

Of course I didn’t come home for her funeral. I came home to do the unthinkable, to say goodbye. A carefully timed trip, cancelled once, designed to allow time with my mum but also not leaving my husband and kids alone too long in a new country with no support system in place.
Clinical, horrifying.

The kid’s anxiety of their mother leaving indefinitely, knowing when she came home it meant their beloved Mumma would no longer be in the same world where they could talk to her on the phone and  run past the computer when she was on Skype. Photos and memories would be it. Thankfully we have just had two months with her, the memories are fresh, I can’t think about six months or a year from now when they are not.

My husband had to juggle full time work and full time carer responsibility for an unknown quantity of time. His work requires up to fifty percent of his time traveling, on hold indefinitely.  A perhaps uniquely expat moment bringing the family unit under pressures it had not previously faced, not knowing how we were all going to get through, it seemed impossible.

We’ve made it so far, my husband was given a 7/10 and an 8/10 by the kids for his efforts. The six year old (7/10) booked herself into after school care because apparently I said she could before I left, that gave the nine year old (8/10) peace after the school bus trip home to do his homework and have his one hour screen time before the whirlwind returned.

It wasn’t a funeral, it was a ‘Celebration of Life’.  I wore a bright blue dress, there were pinks and blues and reds everywhere. The ‘Celebration’  was held at Glennifer Brae, a special location, the school my mum attended, taught at, where we lived in the cottage on the grounds when we were very little, later after the school shut and it became a venue for public functions we were married there.  Then the property passed to the Conservatorium of Music (Wollongong) and it was closed to public functions. There were special envoys to council, special permission had to be granted to hold a function there. For mum there was no other option, it was Glennifer Brae or bust. It was one of the last days and her close friend Cookie raced up the stairs to the bedroom to sit by her bed and tell her the good news, she smiled so hard, for an hour at least.

It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun shone, it was predicted to be cloudy and possible showers, someone must have had a word. There was no celebrant, our Mistress of Ceremonies was a close friend of mum’s with a perfect background and experience to set the tone and engage the crowd. There was a choir that sang a four part version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and later the Glennifer Brae (SCEGGS Wollongong) school song along with the impressive number of old girls in attendance. My brother and I got through our words without breaking down, my mum’s sister got through her own toast similarly unscathed. We celebrated her life with French champagne, as she wished it to be.

Two days later I was standing at the Delta counter heading back to Atlanta with a suitcase that was 25.3 kgs, 9kgs heavier than when I arrived. The sum total of ‘things’ I bought back that belonged to Mum is 9kgs.

Two nights later I am still awake at 2am trying to work out what actually happened. Today (since it is 2am) is Thanksgiving, our first in the USA, I am thankful to be home again with my family, but it doesn’t feel enough. I am hoping the haziness will pass with the jetlag. We’ll see.

It’s not all beer and skittles

We had not yet moved into our new house in the ‘hood but were making use daily of the community pool, given the scorching Hotlanta summer and the seemingly endless school holidays. The accents used loudly across the pool by brother and sister made us a stand out and the small community targeted us as the ‘new people’.

Introductions were made and stories shared, friendly folks who oohed and ahhhed at the countries we have lived in, shared their love for all things Aussie (a welcome change to our last country of residence) and admitted to having always wanted to live in another country.

‘But we couldn’t do it, our parents are here, they’re getting older, they could get sick and we wouldn’t take their grandchildren away from them’

Stab, stab, stab.

Unintentional stabbing of course, but it hurts all the same.

A quick chat with any expat will reveal many reasons why they love the life they lead with its swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, opportunities and experiences they and often their third culture kids would never have had if they stayed ‘at home’.

By extension this often also applies to family and friends who visit the expat adventurers in a new and different country, one they may have never been to with no good reason to visit, or just needed an excuse to return to a favourite destination. These are special and cherished times, when the visitors get an insight into the life of their hosts, sharing experiences they may never have otherwise had. We as hosts push the boundaries of our day to day to make sure everyone has a most memorable trip and send them home to sing the gospel and  spread the word to make sure our calendars with penciled in possibilities become concrete conversions into visitors bearing jars of Vegemite and Strawberry Freddos.

There are so many special memories from the visitors we have had in our time away, friends who honeymooned with us in Hong Kong – delaying their trip so we had time to return to our flat from their wedding in the Blue Mountains, my cousin who swore to never live anywhere else but her home town became a regular visitor for ‘the shopping’ and since then has moved twice overseas with her husband and kids. To this day she remains the only person I know who shopped Stanley Markets from opening until closing.

Then there was the travel pack who visited and required a mini van to ferry around. My cousin (of course), her two kids and another of their cousins, her husband, his aunt, her parents and my grandmother, 88 at the time. It was a special day shopping over the border in Shenzhen introducing her to all our regular shopping haunts and telling all the shopkeepers about her very auspicious age. I think we got actual real discounts that day in deference to her age and agility and gracious charm with the locals.

The best man from our wedding and his wife and baby – discovering en route that the baby had inherited his father’s peanut allergy, my brother and his then partner, her terrified of bird flu every time we stepped out of the house, my husband’s sister and brother-in-law came and we popped off for a blissful grown ups only trip to Kota Kinabalu.

My Dad and his wife on more than one occasion – once sailing through the harbour on the Queen Mary and of course my Mum.

South Africa was lighter on the visitors but again my brother and Mum put in appearances. I am pretty sure my brother will never forget the elephant that just wanted to say hello, his first lion spotting or sidling up to the penguins in the Cape for the best photo opportunity.

My mum was the first visitor we had here in the USA, arriving the same day as the container full of boxes. Our first two months in the new house was experienced together. The drama of the pre-school vaccinations and medical checks, the first day of school, the slight changing of WASYO’s accent to move to a short ‘a’ sound and a rolling of the ‘r’s, drop offs and pick ups at a real yellow school bus, weekly drinks on the street corner, WASYO learning to read, Mr 9 saying he quite liked the new school (relief), introducing the local kids to fairy bread at the event where WAFYO became WASYO, she experienced it all at the same time we did. She arrived armed with my childhood set of Winnie the Pooh books and read them to her eldest grandchildren each night before bed, she did jigsaw puzzles with WASYO and talked to Mr 9 about his views on life and video games and became our personal laundry lady – daily collecting the clothes from various baskets around the house and returning them later washed and folded – apparently I have to get used to no ironing (that’s a story for another time).  After proclaiming to get lost in the house on the first few days, as we pulled away last Monday on the way to the airport she said she’d come to like our home. It has been a lonely week since she has left.

Regardless of what happens next, the choices to be made about visits, before or after operations, when, where, how and who with, all five of us will have that special time in our memories. Two months where she was part of our everyday life. Daily this week more than one resident has said ‘When Mumma was here…’

It is hard to be away from family in another country, especially when every phone call or text message could be news that puts everything on hold while you plot a course home, but if we lived in Australia, an hour and a half away by car it is unlikely we would ever have spent so much time together or that our kids would have kissed their Mumma goodnight every night for two months (except for those two pesky hospital visits).

Life goes on here, next week is my husband’s birthday, the following week my Dad and his wife are visiting, Halloween is shaping up to be bigger than Ben Hur and there’s some marathon in New York on November 4th I’m running in, but family near and far are always top of mind. You take the good with the bad and hope the decisions you make, when you make them, are the right ones and that holds true no matter what country you live in.

The lady in the hot pink shoes

I wrote this for my other blog – but I think the post is just as relevant here as it is there….Cancer is fucked pretty much wherever you find it

She didn’t have the pink shoes when she arrived after six weeks in Europe and Canada with friends and other family, they were purchased on a shopping trip we did to buy new training shoes for me. They were put to use pretty much straight away, gentle circuits of the neighbourhood and its surrounds, greeting the locals, introducing herself and bringing home bits of chit chat from around the place.

Then the pain got worse and the shoes came off for a while, the daily walks being replaced by mornings by the community pool – and laps and laps of walking through the water to keep up the exercise part of her health management regime.

Next there was a hospital visit – the scans showing the American doctors what the Australian doctors already know, there are tumors growing in and around the body and they are causing problems, nasty problems. The one in her muscle that gives the constant leg pain and the others that cause the bloating and ongoing discomfort, pain and worry about what’s going to happen next since the radiation is over and the chemo was stopped due to it doing basically sweet FA*.

Now in a way we know, four weeks after the first hospital visit there was a second one and there were more scans, tubes in noses and a terrible three day hospital stay which at one stage took us all to the darkest places you can go. There were surgeons ruling out surgery, any travel home and Palliative care nurses talking home hospice care set up.

It’s been quite a time at our house recently.

Six and a half years after the diagnosis of Bowel Cancer Stage IV and a week after her release from the second hospital visit on a fluid only diet, lest we wake the beast that is the bowel obstruction, the roller coaster ride continues.

UPS today delivered the scans done in Atlanta, Georgia to her Oncologist in Wollongong, New South Wales and he has called with a plan. The plan involves flying back to Australia in two stages, Atlanta to San Francisco and San Francisco to Sydney, then tests to locate exactly the position of the blockage in the bowel and most likely surgery to bypass. That was one option, the other option was to stay here, do nothing and to use the words of the Oncologist ‘you’ll be dead in six or seven weeks’. Nothing confrontational about that phrasing.

So after that conversation with the oncologist, one with my husband and I followed by a Skype call with my brother, the lady donned her hot pink shoes and took a stroll around the ‘hood. As you do. Keep on, keeping on.

Next Monday I will fly with my Mum to San Francisco, where we will stay overnight, my Aunt will fly from Calgary to meet us and she will take Mum the San Francisco to Sydney leg home. Back to the doctors and medical team that have taken care of her for the last six plus years, to the place we all have to believe is best for her to be.

Then I will board a flight back to Atlanta and wait for news about what comes next. I will keep training for the NYC Marathon in just over five weeks time knowing at least it will fill my days and make me physically tired so I will be able to sleep at night. That’s my plan.

And I will keep telling everyone I know to tell everyone they know to GET TESTED for bowel cancer.

The hot pink shoes go exploring the local waterfall – Roswell, GA.

* sweet Fuck All being an entirely appropriate medical term

Tips from a multi country mover

Today I reached the bottom of the boxes labelled ‘Kitchen’, ‘Kit’ or tick box picture of an oven. Lets be clear there are still many many many boxes in all other areas of the house – ‘Mstr Bed’ for instance is filled with them and ‘Playrm’ gets interest from a wide variety of parties and strewn a bit further round the house each day. ‘Dining Rm’ or picture of a knife, fork and plate are stacked on the table in that room because I can’t bear to get too close due to the terrible light fitting adorning that particular location.

There is much left to be done.

It is four days since the big rig pulled up outside our new location and I had a discussion with the movers about how long it took to unload a 40 foot container. On the day they told me 6-8 hours, I think the real answer might be forever.

Even though this is officially our fourth country of residence I am still making rookie errors and so I am going to write them down and share them with you, that way I can refer to them next time we move. I can’t write that last bit without wincing as today I declared I never want to move again.

Anyway – while its still fresh in my mind, traps for young players and things you may expect someone on their fourth country move may NOT do.

– Do NOT move into a new house during school holidays, any unpacking continuity at all is lost in the various requirements of small people who would be much better served being in a classroom. (this tip of course only applies to those with school age children)

– It is worth the extra effort of supervising packers if you can before you move, if you are lucky enough to have packers that is, if you don’t move on to next tip. While I am pleased to report none of our boxes had any ants in them after four weeks at sea and fumigation by the USA Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, we probably did not need to pack every one of our ant traps from Durban (hint – they leak when not placed on a flat surface, only of course if they were in use in your previous location)

– The crap drawer in the kitchen is full of crap, I suggest binning the whole thing if you aren’t a super organised labeller who has everything in ziploc bags.

– Related to tips above, don’t pack a huge ziploc bag labelled ‘Used Batteries’

– 3/4 burned down candles can probably also be left behind

– If you don’t know what something is for, perhaps don’t pack it ‘just in case’

– Try not to move with a husband who is working from home and pops his head up every now and then to check on the progress and look slightly disappointed that the whole thing is not yet completed after he last checked an hour ago

– If you’ve moved something from one country to the next and didn’t use it, its very likely you shouldn’t take it to a third country where it won’t be used – unless of course it is part of your extensive collection of powerboards and plug devices. A sub-tip here for those moving from South Africa – there are no plugs anywhere else in the world that convert ‘from SA to …’

– Related to above, you don’t need Take Away menus from any country you don’t live in anymore.

– The things you want to break and replace will not. Yes, I am speaking of the dip’n’chip bowl that Sam K and Anthony S gifted me for my 21st birthday and I am still moving with me. The things that you don’t want to break / chip / become damaged will be broken – such as a wedding gift from your bridesmaid’s father/husband’s godfather.

– Related to everything above, you may not find out you are a hoarder until you move countries, again and then again.

Just the kitchen boxes – tomorrow’s job to empty them and fold to make way for the rest

That’s it for tonight’s wisdom I have to dash off and catch the delayed Olympic coverage that NBC is sharing with the US public six hours after the events – and I thought I was moving to a first world country.