Claudiaexpat tells us about the painful moments of her sister’s death, while she was living in the Congo.
My sister was first operated on breast cancer after I returned from Guinea Bissau in 1994. I was « grateful » that it happened precisely at that time, because I could be close to her and to my mother at such a difficult time. Living abroad never made me feel particularly guilty towards my family for being far when they might need me, but I remember very well how relieved and thankful I felt for being in Italy at that time.
Unfortunately this operation was just the beginning of a calvary that would end in January ’97 with Elena’s death. In ’95 the cancer reappeared in the left breast (she had been operated on the right one which was completely removed), and again the year after. It was the summer of ’96 and by this time I was living in the Congo, but went back to Italy for the last months of my pregnancy, and to give birth. Despite my sister being under chemotherapy and hence very weak, I have lovely memories of that time. Everybody was on holiday and me, my mother and my sister had gathered under the same roof in Milano – I had to rest due to a low placenta that put my pregnancy at risk, Elena had to undergo her chemotherapy. That was the last opportunity to spend a bit of time quietly together, which we had not done for a long while, since I had been living away from Italy for several years already.
When you receive such a piece of news and you are away, you really panic. Not only for the bad news in itself, but also because nothing of what surrounds you relates to the painful situation you are living
My second son was born at the end of September of ’96, and two weeks later I was ready to go back to the Congo. I hugged my sister in front of my house in Milan. She had finished her chemotherapy cycle and was wearing a wig. Her hair was supposed to grow back and everybody hoped that the nightmare had stopped there. In my heart, though, I knew there was a big chance that this was the last time I would hug her. That moment remains very clear in my mind, because it is emblematic of our lives as expatriates: when you see people you love only once a year, every time you say goodbye you know that it might be the last, since there is always the risk that something could happen while you are away. In the case of my sister, given the situation, that possibility was even more real.
Actually Elena never recovered, and at Christmas she was hospitalized because of a cough that prevented her from breathing properly. At the beginning of January (of ’97) doctors told my mum that she had two months left to live at the most. My mother told me this on the phone, of course. At that time it was early days for the Internet in Africa, and I did not have any connection at home, so all of our communications went through the telephone.
Curiously I have never, not even for a moment, « chided » my expatlife.
When you receive such a piece of news and you are away, you really panic. Not only for the bad news in itself, but also because nothing of what surrounds you relates to the painful situation you are living – no brothers sharing with you the same tragedy, no friends that have known you or your sister forever, no familiar place that you feel « yours »…
However it must be said that relationships in expatriation, at least as far as I am concerned, are closer and more finely and more deeply felt, due to their temporary character (and this is especially true in Africa, where I have always found a big solidarity and a huge support among expatriates ). I therefore felt immediately supported and protected. The most difficult thing at that point was to choose the moment to go back to Italy: I could not be away for long, since my husband travelled often for his work and I was in charge of the family; at the same time I did not want to wait too long since I feared to arrive too late and to be unable to hug Elena for the last time. Certainly this is not a choice you have to face very often. The solution came by itself: Elena’s condition suddenly got very serious and I had to rush to buy my ticket and go back as soon as possible. I took my baby with me, who at the time was four months old, and was still completely breastfed.
And I honestly tell myself that in any case when someone you love dies and you are not at her side during the last moments of her life, the most important thing is the way you said goodbye.
Unfortunately Elena left us while I was landing in Paris to take my connection to Milan. She was 41 years old. When I arrived in Milan, my brother came to fetch me with the sad news.
Curiously I have never, not even for a moment, « chided » my expatlife. I must say that both my mother and my family have been wonderful and never reproached me, not even silently, for not having been with them during the last difficult moments of Elena’s life and on her last day. I often wondered how I would have gone through this experience, had I been at her side instead of being in Africa. And I honestly tell myself that in any case when someone you love dies and you are not at her side during the last moments of her life, the most important thing is the way you said goodbye. This is why after my sister’s death I never quarrel with my husband before he travels, or if I do, I try my very best to reconcile before saying goodbye. I have really become very strict on this point. This experience taught me that every time you leave someone, you should always think that this might be the last time you see him. I know it sounds a bit tragic, but when you have been touched in this way, you learn to live with this concept deeply rooted in yourself.