The cost of living an ocean away from home

A student writes about the death of a relative while she’s miles away.

EMMA STEVENS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Because of the high cost of plane tickets, I visit home very sporadically — typically every two years. 

Last summer, after spending an amazing month with my relatives in the Czech Republic, it was time to say goodbye again.

As always, my last steps on Czech soil led me to a house I am very fond of, where I spent most of my happiest childhood moments. My grandma was born in that house and has always lived there with her older sister, my aunt. 

After our routine complaints about the political situation in our country and the weather that messed up the harvest in the backyard and did not allow our cherry tree to bloom to its full potential, we could not delay my departure with conversation any longer.

My family is filled with loving people, but of very little physical affection. Long-lasting goodbyes deserve special treatment though. I gave a quick hug to my mom and let my grandma squeeze me affectionately.

My aunt had always been very formal; naturally, I tried to shake hands with her like usual. This time though, with tears in her eyes, she pulled me into a tight hug and kissed me. 

I smiled because I thought that our warm farewells were rubbing off on her.

But what I did not know was that my aunt was saying the ultimate goodbye. She knew she’d never see me again.

Three months later, while I was back in the United States, I woke up to a message from my grandma saying that my aunt passed away. I stared at the message in disbelief. That couldn’t be. That had to be some sort of mistake.

I didn’t even know she was sick. No one did. She didn’t tell anyone. 

My aunt spent the last week of her life in a hospital, and only then did she reveal to her closest family members just how bad the situation was. 

Even then, I still didn’t know. The news did not reach me on this side of the world until it was too late.

That morning, I didn’t cry. I just stared at the ceiling. The only thing I wished for at that moment was to jump over the Atlantic Ocean to be there for my grandma, who lost not only her sister but also her closest friend. 

But I couldn’t afford to fly home.

The cost of living abroad becomes infinitely expensive during such a bereavement. Technology falls short. Words transmitted through social media cannot make up for physical presence.

As long as I am on this side of the ocean, it feels almost unreal. Sometimes I forget that the next time we talk about politics in the backyard of my grandma’s house, I won’t hear my aunt’s choked laughter. I won’t see her curious eyes fixated on me while I tell stories about America. 

“What a life beyond the big puddle you have,” she used to say.

My beloved house will not be the same to me.

Because of living abroad, I have missed various happenings: my brother’s 18th birthday and graduation ball, the past six Christmases, my dad’s 50th birthday and countless important family milestones in between. It’s the additional cost I unwillingly, but knowingly, signed up for.

Losing people I love takes an emotional toll I didn’t agree to pay.

Although I wasn’t able to say my goodbye — and how would I? — I am glad my aunt did for me. For whatever reason, she wanted to battle her sickness alone. It was her decision, and I have to respect that.

I have so many happy memories with both my grandma and my aunt. Without grandchildren of her own, my aunt was always there for my brother and I, watching out for us and giving us treats when no one was looking. 

Probably without even realizing it, my aunt taught me something very important — I should hug the ones I love as often as I have a chance and tell them how much they mean to me. I should write to the people I care for more and make sure they know I care.

I’ll never know when I’ll lose the privilege, especially while I’m an ocean away.

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