My mother phoned last Friday morning to see if we were OK. She’d been following news of the earthquake in Japan and had heard about tsunami warnings on the west coasts of Canada and the U.S. At first I tried to brush off her concerns and stopped just short of telling her she was silly to worry since British Colombia is thousands of miles from the earthquake and we live in a hilly neighborhood far inland. But of course I understood why my mother called. The worry may not be logical, but the empathy one feels for the people who suffer in the disaster zone stirs a need to connect with far-off family and loved ones. I feel deeply for those affected by the devastation, especially for relatives outside of Japan anxiously awaiting news of family members. I’ve been especially touched by interviews with Japanese students in Canada, who’ve been unable to get word from their families. It must be incredibly frustrating to be so far away and powerless to do much to help. The distances that separate seem even greater when we fear for the health and safety of those we love.
In our day-to-day lives my husband and I mark the distance from our families by the time zones that dictate when we can conveniently phone: 1 time zone separates us from my husband’s family, 3 time zones separate us from my parents, and 8 time zones separate us from my sister. My husband and I find we’re more likely to worry about our parents when we can’t see how they get along in their day-to-day lives. Complaints about aches and pains raise concern, but so does the silence at the other end of the phone regarding health issues. “Everything’s fine” can seem like just the opposite when we don’t see our parent’s regularly enough to see for ourselves. My sister and I sometimes have amusing conversations where we both second-guess and try to interpret what we’ve each assessed through phone conversations or cryptic emails from our parents. It’s easy to fret when we just don’t know what’s going on or when there’s not much we can do from thousands of miles away.
So it’s with a mixture of excitement, relief, and a bit of apprehension that my children and I embark on a spring break trip to see my parents. I worry a little bit about seeing the latest changes in my parents brought about by aging. Even little losses in physical abilities seem much more striking when long periods of time have elapsed between visits. It’s been over three years since we’ve been to my parents’ house and over a year since I’ve seen my mother — far too long (my dad came to visit in the fall). My six-year-old has only scattered memories of her grandparents’ house. But she’s excited to pack her little apron so she can cook with Grandma. Many years ago my parents renovated their home and dreamed of filling the spare bedrooms with visiting grandchildren. Unfortunately given the long distance, the high cost of air travel, and our own crazy schedules, we’ve not made it to see them as frequently as we’d like. The few times we’ve met up with my sister and her family at our parent’s home it’s a scene of wonderful chaos. It’s far too quiet for our parents when we leave.
Telephone calls, Skype, and emails, allow us to negotiate the distance and instantly connect. For this I feel very grateful. And we have the ability (if not always the financial means) to travel without being cut off from our families due to conflict or immigration restrictions. Despite these ways to stay in touch, there are times when my family seems so far away. And these days particularly I hold a special thought for those who’ve been unable to pick up a phone or connect in some way to be reassured of their loved ones’ safety. My heart goes out to them.