Published in the Jakarta Post 15 Sept 09
(the follow-up piece on my mom’s death this year to come, when I get the courage to post it)
My dilemma is one shared by so many. When I first moved to Indonesia almost 30 years ago, I already knew this moment would come. It was so easy to say, “Don’t expect me to come home for funerals”, because I can’t. It’s simply too far from Jogjakarta to Fort Lauderdale or Chatham or Santa Rosa where the remaining bits n pieces of my family still live. In those 30 years, I have obviously changed, becoming more and more Javanese as the world I chose to live in enveloped me with its charms, its inconveniences, its disasters, its differences.
Now my parents are old and unwell. Mom has early Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and a host of other ailments normal to the aged. Dad is almost 85 and has constant pain and forgetfulness. They need their kids in a way they never did before. I have two brothers living in the US but neither of them can or want to care for my parents the way they need. We are Americans. The stereotype states we are independent and we disrespect our elderly by tossing them away to old-age homes. This must be true as all three of us left home as soon as possible and made our own way in the world. We all broke communication with each other for many years while we each struggled through our own journeys, finding our own rocky roads to maturity. And, yes, we did get our parents into a home for the aged just this year. But then, I have lived in Indonesia for almost 30 years where the stereotype emphasizes family and support. I have no idea if it is the Indonesian influence that tears at me now, demanding I spend each available moment with my parents. Meanwhile, my own parents and my American expat friends tell me that I am ridiculous. I have my own life to lead and that is where I should focus.
Twice this year already I flew from Jogjakarta to the US. The first trip was to help convince my parents to move into an independent living facility. We were successful and my parents chose one that would be able to care for my mother as her memory and ability to take care of herself faded. They would move from Las Vegas, where they built a retirement home 14 years ago, to a small apartment in a facility for the aged in Florida. The second was when dad begged for my help in packing up and moving. It is not easy helping a senile old lady pick through all her belongings and selecting what to bring and what to toss. Neither of my brothers would or could do it so I never thought twice about booking the flight – despite not having enough money in my account to cover the fare.
My mom was a shopaholic – with a huge wardrobe full of things she had not worn in decades. We actually had fun trying it all on – laughing at the fashion changes over the decades and her rather radical changes in body size as her weight fluctuated and later her height decreased. We went through and organized into neat albums the family photos and news clippings of our lives and shared stories about those I didn’t recognize.
In Florida at the new home, my parents immediately settled into their usual patterns – dad at the computer all day and mom at the tv, bored and itching to do things. Dad is talkative and easily meets people, whereas mom is shy and reserved. My job was to take her to activities – anything as long as she met people and could feel at home in this new environment.
Dad hates going places and exploring while mom and I love to see and do new things. We had never been to Miami and with thoughts of pastel-colored, Art Deco grandeur, we decided to drive the 30 miles to Miami and explore the beachfront hotels, selecting the most elegant for afternoon tea. I only left mom alone for a minute to run to the bathroom. In that time she must have fainted, fallen and hurt herself badly. Instead of Miami, we rode in an ambulance to the hospital. Instead of fun and adventure, we had tears and pain.
It was early evening as I turned from my Jogjakarta garden toward the kitchen, loaded with fresh greens for dinner. I had been back only a few days and the pain of leaving my parents in such an awful state was like a huge weight on my back. There were no flights available to Indonesia for 8 weeks. I had no choice but to leave for home with mom still in the hospital. I am now torn between wanting to be with my folks in the US and my own life here in Jogja with my home, my husband, my garden and all the things that keep me busy here. The guilt over causing my mother’s injuries weighs me down so heavily it feels like a cement block in my chest. And then there is the knowledge that her injuries were not really my fault. They are just as equally my dad’s because he too was not with her at the time she fell. More than anything I want to be back there, helping ease the pain, accompanying both my parents through this horrendous time. I assume this is the end for mom. She is on her last ride into the unknown. How will dad handle losing his partner of 65 years? Can I really stay away and ‘live my own life’ fully well knowing I will never see my mom again? Feeling like it is all my fault and not easing just a little bit of their fear? Whomever I ask for advice the responses are clearly divided. My expat friends insist I stay in Indonesia and not take responsibility for the death of my mom – a demise I clearly did not cause – regardless of how I feel about it. My Indonesian friends unanimously insist I must go home and relish every last moment with her. The split is so glaringly obvious! My Javanese instincts pushed me to book another ticket as soon as possible. Fate would have it that the only tickets available were far more expensive than I could afford. So here I am – at home in Indonesia, feeling increasingly guilty, but resigned to strengthening my American side. I have no choice really. My mother forgives me. But the Indonesian side of my character has won out. I shall live with the pain and guilt forever.
Laine Berman has lived in Jogjakarta since 1981. Since writing this, her mother has miraculously recovered!
Jogja & Makassar
1 Sept 2009