3 min read

31. Emigration: The Family Members Who Stay Behind

The difficulty of retaining a connection with relatives on the other side of the Earth.
31. Emigration: The Family Members Who Stay Behind
Photo by Matt Bennett / Unsplash

A continent and an ocean away, 10,000 kilometres from where I live, my extended family is slowly aging and entering the end of life phase. It is frustrating that they are so far. The fact that I only have one pair of grandparents and a few great-aunts makes this all a little more manageable. I hear of my grandfather’s falls, and how my grandmother spent five hours at night trying to help him up from the floor and I cannot help, nor can their daughter, my mom, who like me lives in Vancouver. We hear about how that same grandfather tried to run away twice from the hospital – he's got Alzheimer – and broke two ribs. My grandmother cannot lift a 250 pound, 6ft3 man, and we again cannot help. His memory is slowly degrading and I would like to visit before he forgets who we are. He occasionally forgets he has a granddaughter, my daughter.

Living far away from an aging family affects many immigrants. My mother is an only child and after moving to Vancouver, her parents remained with no family except for a few of my grandmother’s siblings. They didn’t get to see their grandkids anymore, and the second time they came to visit Canada, my grandfather, unfortunately, had a massive stroke and discovered he was not properly medically insured. At twenty thousand dollars per day in the intensive care unit, the money melted fast. Seven years and 200k later, my grandparents had exhausted their savings.

The Beaujolais, where my maternal grandparents live.

It took me 5 years to first return to France after moving to Canada. It was not because I did not want to — that’s pretty much all I had wanted to do for years as I missed my culture — but $1200 for a flight, in addition to transportation prices in France, seemed like an unattainable goal to a 15 years old. In the 13 years I lived in Canada, I went back three times. It was always heart-wrenching to see people I knew go visit France as tourists. I wish I could have had the money and time to go back more.

And now my grandparents are growing old. We watch and regret not being able to help them more from afar. To their luck, they had incredible help from people in their lives and neighbourhood who extended a hand to help. The restaurant owner of the place they ate at every week now comes at 6:30 am to help raise my grandpa out of bed as he cannot get up by himself anymore.

I feel angry to receive news of my family’s declining health. They are far away and we cannot help. Our lives are now established in Vancouver. It often feels like we severed, and perhaps abandoned the rest of the family behind. When my direct family first moved to Vancouver, we were cash-strapped and I told myself over and over that we were leaving to go never back because we could not afford to. That was extreme and irrational thinking for a 14-year old – which is not unconventional for a 14-year old. However, thinking that I have only been back 3 times in 13 years irritates me.

A typical Beaujolais landscape.

Everyone is vowed to die and I would like to be there, able to help in their most difficult moments, around when death comes. There are some positives to emigrating, but abandoning family surely is not one. My grandfather used to say he was given a second chance after his stroke 10 years ago. He had an aneurysm 3 years ago. And today, he was taken away to live in a place with support for people with Alzheimer's, leaving behind my grandmother in her countryside home.

I hope that after he passes away, she will move to Canada, where her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live, but knowing how stubborn she is and how difficult it is for senior citizens of a different culture and language to adjust to a new country, I would not blame her if she stayed home. Only, I think it would be a terribly solitary end for her, and that saddens me. We are creatures of connection.