For those living abroad and still able to visit (one of) their parents, spending time at 'home' is always a strange and mixed experience. At least it is for me.
I love going back to the Netherlands to stay with my parents and try to go for a few weeks when I can. This visit was 3-1/2 weeks, and time has flown by.
My parents no longer live in the house, or the town, where I grew up. So I have no nostalgia about the place itself where they live, other than the unmistaken Dutch-ness of it. It's only 30km from Harderwijk, where I did grow up, living there from the age of 2 until I swapped the parental home for a student one in Deventer at the age of 19.
My parents have always taken a strong interest in my life, and their door is always open. They have supported me in my decision to live overseas, even though they prefer I didn't. Goodbyes are never easy, and I am certainly not looking forward to the one at Schiphol tomorrow. You never know when you'll see them again but it's likely to take at least another year, if all remain healthy.
They have always come to visit me; in the various places I lived in the Netherlands of course including Rotterdam and Gouda, and in Brussels, later in Toronto, and even in Australia. Since I moved to Canada at the end of 2007, they have visited me twice. If it wasn't for my 95-year-old grandmother, who was recently diagnosed with dementia, they would have been to Canada already a third time as my sister moved close to me earlier this year.
A friend from high school asked me recently what I did during those 3-1/2 weeks here in the Netherlands, stunned I could stay that long with my folks. As I prepare to pack my stuff today, I wonder if I did enough. Did we talk, say, enough? I always think we could have said more. Did I show enough interest in their lives, and did I share enough about mine?
Did I do enough? Did I help where I could? My mom at 71 and my dad about to turn 70 this month don't look and act their age in many ways. Active, they are always doing something and are independent. My help is usually contained to the washing up, cooking (though most help is declined), and some computer stuff. I 'helped' with the Christmas decorations but it was all about taking part and they'd have been more than fine without me.
All that can change on a dime; it has happened to friends and acquaintances on an increasingly regular basis, and family hasn't been spared either. I know my parents certainly don't take their health for granted, and I don't either, theirs or mine.
No one knows what tomorrow brings; whether you live close to family, or abroad. But living a 10-hour flight away always leaves me wondering; have I made the most of those measly 3-1/2 weeks with them? Will I see them again, and when, even where?
While my grandmother's quality of life is diminishing with the increasing amount of time she's confused, most frustratingly so about constantly misplacing everyday items like house- and mail box keys and teeth, she has a very strong will to live, right along with a sense of humour.
Much stays the same, and just as much, if not more, changes especially when we move geographically. Family relationships are as fluid and dynamic as they are stable and rigid. We see our closest relatives in a certain light, a habit that has formed over years and decades.
Living overseas, that habit is broken as we spend time with our family via phone, Skype and email rather than in real everyday life (though one can argue those communications are a way of life, too). We live in context; when our setting changes, so do our circumstances and the way we live our life. I've often downplayed these differences, taken my choice to move and stay overseas as a simple fact.
But each time I come back to the context of the Netherlands, and my parents' home, I cannot ignore the fact that what is 'normal every day' to me isn't what it would have been, had I remained here. I would be a different person had I chosen to stay in the country where I was born and raised. No one bats an eye when I open my mouth, though think it odd when I struggle with finding the right euro coins to pay in a shop. Nothing in my communication seems to instantly reveal that I am in many ways a stranger here 'at home', as it apparently still does back in my real home, Canada.
As a writer and runner, I bring much of my everyday life wherever I go. When I go to the country where I was born, and speak my mother tongue, I feel like I am thrown back to a person that still is in some ways, and yet has changed so much that she is no longer there.
My life has changed - I have changed - more than I believe I am able to express to my parents. Then again, the same could be true for them. I think I know, and understand what's going on in their lives. Perhaps they do understand mine too. A visit like this reminds me how important it is to stay in touch, to reveal the simplest things that go on every day so that they are able to see me in the context that is my home, that is me.