Many expats would probably agree that the most harrowing part of living an ocean (or more) away from your family and many of your loved ones is the emotional distance you feel during life’s big moments. When people are celebrating, you feel lonely, isolated and full of regret that you can’t be there in person to share their joy. When people are hurting, you feel lonely, isolated and full of regret that you can’t be there in person to share their burden.
Last week my family lost Ryan, son, cousin, nephew, after he held on as long as he could. Even from here, I can feel the ripples of shock and pain that are passing through our family members, in different ways. My pain is amplified by the fact that I can’t be there, physically, for them and their stress is more because they know how alone it feels to be away from the pack when things have gone wrong. Over phone lines and Skype calls and e-mails we do our best to squeeze each other as hard as we would if we could in person.
I’m lucky to be able to say that I’m from a close extended family. We may not talk every day, get together every month, know the details of each other’s day-to-day. But we hold sacred our familial bond, we keep in touch faithfully, we make each other a priority, we give affection openly. Although it’s not often that we can all be geographically in the same place, we make the most of those occasions every time we get the chance.
We are an emotional group of sensitive but strong people. We get angry. We laugh hysterically. We weep openly. We say ‘I love you’ not just with actions but with words, and we don’t use those words sparingly.
When my cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and sister tell me I was there with them in their hearts when they said goodbye to Ryan together, I know it’s true. But “in their hearts” never feels as safe as in their arms, and on that day it was very hard to be in Norway, or anywhere but Detroit, Michigan.
Almost 10 years ago our family endured the loss of our patriarch, our Papa, a figure who held us all together by virtue of his love of us and, reciprocally, by our need to show him we loved him too. Despite our pain, our grief, our sadness during that time, I feel it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one who feared that losing Papa would lead to losing each other. That the planets can’t orbit without the Sun. I feared that the loss of him would be the end of “us”, and that only added to the emotional tumult that death always causes.
Ryan, it’s safe to say, is nearly as central a figure in our family as Papa. It’s never good to play favorites, except with Ryan. Anyone can make me cranky, except for Ryan. A family gathering can still feel complete if someone can’t make it, except for Ryan. Like for all my cousins, I would do anything, go anywhere, if Ryan had needed me. But unlike my other cousins, Ryan couldn’t physically do that for me. And from that, through Ryan, we all learned the beauty of difference, the need for perspective. In a family full of talkers, Ryan taught us to show love, joy, pain, and companionship wordlessly. As we grew up and learned to help Aunt Dor and Uncle Tom care for Ryan, we understood the need for patience, the value of taking things slow, the virtue of being flexible in your plans. The importance of family, over all else, under any circumstances. For my aunt and uncle I truly can’t imagine what the loss of him means or feels like. Such a loss, in all our lives, in truly devastating.
So last week, after so much waiting, hoping and fearing, my cousin Derek finally called to tell me that Ryan was gone. At that moment, his was the only voice that I could have heard that could have made me feel any better about something so awful. My cousin, my friend, a big brother who was able to use so few words to say what I already knew was coming but that I needed to hear gently.
In those next moments, I was transported back to the day we lost our Papa. The pain of the loss amplified by the fear of what this change would do to our family dynamic. And it dawned on me that all those fears had never come to be. That our family, in many ways, is closer now than ever. That the idea of Papa is still is in the room at every gathering, for every shot of Ouzo, for every joyful celebration and tearful goodbye. Each time we’re all together, we inevitably turn the topic to Papa, each telling our favorite story, always the same plot, always the same punchline. We use these stories and our shared laughter as comfort, for bonding, to remember. Without even knowing it, Papa taught us one last lesson (to add to the lessons about dry farts, Oprah, the re-use of tea bags and slot machines) that I didn’t realized I’d learned until nearly a decade later.
The last time I saw Ryan, at my cousin Craig’s wedding in October, we were in Pappas celebration mode. Happy, carefree, dancing. Ryan was right there with us, at one point being taken by the groom on a few laps of the dance floor at a speed that made us all a little nervous but had Ryan laughing hysterically. I had flown in from Norway, that flight being the most generous and now cherished birthday present my mom and dad have ever given me, for a quick weekend in order to show my cousin and his new wife how important they are to me. Despite jet-lag and airplane food I couldn’t bear the thought of them being all together without me. And now, knowing that it was the last time I would see Ryan, I realize that my gut was right, that being together despite cost and inconvenience, is never a regret. I got to make him laugh, tell him I love him, kiss his adorable cheek, hold his tiny hand. I will cherish those memories the same way I still remember the last time I saw with Papa and touched his soft white hair, the way I can still picture the pay phone from which I last heard his voice.
Without Ryan, our family will be different. We need to come together now to support my aunt and uncle and eachother in a way that we probably won’t sustain every day for eternity. But we won’t fall apart. We won’t dissipate without our most loved member. We’ll adapt and grow and continue to tell each other ‘I love you’ as long as we have the words to do it. We’ll tell stories about Ryan, our favorites, the best of the best, over and over and then we’ll laugh and cry together, which is so much better than laughing or crying alone.