I’ve loved being an expat. Apart from Dubai’s double-sided sticky red tape, the ridiculous season they tamely term “summer” and those few crazy drivers that are always trying to kill me, I’ve been very happy here. To be honest, I haven’t missed Melbourne much – all the things I have missed have been made up for in other ways. But you can’t replace your family and your very best friends. And when their health fails, you do to. I’m back briefly in Dubai, after getting a first hand look at the worst part about being far, far from home.


“hey Dan! How are you?”
“ahhh. Hi Sep. Ahhh… Not too good actually, Ma’s in hospital.”
“….        “
“you there?”
“Ma’s in hospital”
“she can’t open her eye. They think she’s got swelling in her brain. She’s in Frankston hospital, but they don’t seem to be able to help her.”
“Sarah… Dad doesn’t know what to do. We think she needs a specialist. He said maybe you could call Tony for us?”
“can I speak to Hambone?”

Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. Hambone’s dad was hospitalized for a subcranial bleed a couple of years ago. The cavity between the brain and the skull filled with blood, caused swelling and then it had to be drained. He was ok after a couple of days. I google like a crazy woman, and find at least three diagnoses that fit her symptoms and go some way towards easing my state of mind. It could be a subcranial bleed, or a random swelling pressing on the pituitary gland which would refer swelling to the right optic nerve. That could be with or without tumor. Of course it would be without.


I’m stuck. I’m her daughter, her eldest. We’re very close – we email every couple of days, skype frequently. Each year either I go home or she comes over. Mum and dad were due in Dubai on July 21. We were going to have 5 1/2 glorious weeks in Europe. My brother, although he lives in Melbourne, does that non-committed drifty thing that all sons seem to do. He’s there, but more on a NEED basis rather than a want one. I regard myself as the important one. But with my move to Dubai I lost that vital ‘R’ and became impotent. I can do nothing. I can’t tell her I love her, or that everything is going to be ok. I can’t make sure dad’s coping. I can’t help in any way whatsoever. I can’t even seem to hold myself together enough to talk on the phone. Hambone plays phone tag with My brother and his own (Tony, our savior in all serious health issues, who is a highly respected and well connected Melbourne surgeon and all round incredibly nice and helpful bloke), sorting out hospital beds, which seem to be very difficult to find despite my parents’ private health insurance and the urgency of the situation. Dan rises up and does all the important things, and the only thing I can do is book a plane ticket.


“Don’t get on a plane straight away. We don’t know how bad it is.” They keep on telling me.
My mother had a knee replacement 6 weeks ago. Besides that, she’s always been the tough one. Her own mother is 92, and they share similar constitutions. I had noticed mum had been a little off-form the last few weeks. I’d even questioned Dad about it, but it all got hidden because of the operation she had just been through. Mum has never reacted well to anesthetic, and her headaches, nervousness around a computer, sudden impatience and baffling frailty in stressful situations had been put down to post operative trauma.

She even told herself that this was normal. When she had fallen out of bed and couldn’t get up, she had refused to let Dad call the ambulance. She was fine. She was always fine. Dad, who takes a cocktail of candy-colored pills each day for cholesterol, blood pressure, arthritis, blood thinning, pain and all kinds of other things was the one who got sick. Mum was always the strong one. So now, when she is lying in Frankston hospital unable to talk, with a morphine drip for the blinding headache and an oxygen mask to keep her breathing, dad tells himself it’s going to be something simple. Mum’s going to be fine. She’s always fine.

Dan calls again at 5am.
“she’s still in Frankston. They haven’t moved her. They’re not doing anything here, but I cant get Epworth hospital to come get her. Tony says to call his secretary but I can’t get onto her. Sarah…. They’ve got the scans back…. It’s a tumor.”
“I’m coming.”
“We don’t know if it’s cancer. Dad says don’t race off thinking crazy stuff.”
“Dan, she’s got something growing in her brain. I’m coming home.”
“Why don’t you wait till she sees a neurosurgeon?”
“Dan, if you were 14 hours away by plane and you got this news, you would come, wouldn’t you?”
“Ok. Speak to hambone. I’ll see you soon”

I put the phone down. I go to the computer. I buy my ticket for the ten am flight, come back to the bedroom and stand in the middle of the floor, shaking and wringing my hands. I know I have to pack a bag, but I can’t make my feet move. Then I can move them, but only to pace the rug, turn around and pace it again, and say “oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck”

Hambone makes me tea.

I finally pack my bag. Once I arrived in Melbourne in the midst of winter I would find 15 pairs of underpants, one bra, no socks, three pairs of high heeled boots, one jumper, jeans, and 6 summer shirts and 6 pairs of dangly earrings to match them. No toothbrush, toothpaste or comb.

It’s my fault. If I had been there I would have known earlier. I left Melbourne thinking this was the best time for my family to be expats, forgetting the older generation of my family. I’m selfish. Then I chastised myself for being so self centered. I’m not so all important as I like to think sometimes. Dan could obviously handle things in my absence. I rethought – maybe I wouldn’t have noticed. My ego gets a guilt trip. Then I feel guilty for leaving my children behind. It will be difficult for my husband. They should see their grandmother. But I don’t want them there, and then I feel guilty for not wanting the work of dealing with my own offspring while monitoring my own misery. Then I am guilty of being miserable, when I am not the one with the tumor. It’s a wash cycle of acid and doubt and it makes me want to vomit.

I approach the airport a different Sarah than usual. I’ve never flown for a reason other than holiday or work. I don’t want to be here. I hate flying, it scares me. The only thing that usually makes me get on a plane is the thought of the wonderful experience waiting at my destination. Airports are horrible. They’re full of fluorescent lights, queues, women feeling you up and making you take your boots off, grumpy looking men with guns and walkie talkies. Shiny floors that mirror my grimace, bouncing my unhappiness back at me in cold grey marble. Nobody else is looking at the floor. They’re smiling at each other, laughing, practicing French, talking about what they’re first going to do when the arrive. I want to curl up in a corner with a huge motorcycle helmet on and block all the buggers out. How dare they be so jovial?

It gets worse when I’m on the plane. They put me between a chattery melbourne woman on her way back from a holiday in Dubai, and a surly Italian who sleeps with the blanket over her head and freaks me out. One I want to punch because she is so happy, and the other I want to run away from because she is dark and scary.

I put on my headphones and tune into the trashiest movies I can find. Then I spend 14 hours saying “oh God please help her, oh God please help her”. And nobody brings me enough wine.


And then, as though from a dream, I step off a plane and find myself in Melbourne. Home. But I’m here for all the wrong reasons, and I just want to curse at everybody. I want to cry, there is water sitting behind my eyes, but my body seems to have released some hormone, and I’m oddly numb. All I can do is plod, plod, plod to the slow tock, tock, tock of that damnable clock, and do the things that by rote I know need to be done. It’s so unreal – a TV soap-drama issue, not an everyday normal family problem. And it can stay unreal until I see her, so I almost want to put it off. It’s wrong to have been so far from family for so long, then fly back just to hold yourself off the reunion. But now the guilt, worry, denial, impotence, all flood through simultaneously in anticipation of the shock that is coming. This is not a good day.


You will be happy to know mum is ok. She could be better, and she has had pretty horrible week or so. Most of the tumor is gone, and she is set on a more optimistic path than the one laying before her this time last week, but she still feels pretty awful, and like me, is scared stiff about what the future holds. Please send any brain tumor recovery stories, they would be much appreciated.

And I’m sorry about the mood. I thought maybe writing it down would help. It didn’t.

25 thoughts on “Just in case you’re wondering where I’ve been…”

  1. Sarah – you've written out, and experienced, one of my greatest fears – THE long-distance phone call.I, too, am the oldest daughter with 2 younger brothers. What is it about the vagueness of brothers who don't seem to be able to make a decision in times like these?After living away from NZ since 2004, with elderly parents both in their late 70s, I know that it's inevitable, and will happen one day, and there's nothing I can do to prepare for it; we have to deal with it when it happens.I did have a scare with Mum when I was living in Melbourne and they were in Auckland. Mum had a heart-attack – stopped breathing – revival with paddles in the ambulance in front of my youngest brother (34, but still the baby of the family!) and my father. They didn't ring me until she was in hospital and stable. Melbourne Cup Day 2007. Melbourne still felt like a world away from Auckland at that time. But now I'm in Barcelona, faced with at least 40 hours of travel once I can get the flights sorted out. This is why we get to NZ each year to catch up with my family, because we never know when it's going to be the last time to see any of them. Thankfully, for both you and me, our mothers have come out of both their traumas this time.Sending all the best to you, your mother and your family – lots of positivity and healing light going her way. regardsMichele

  2. This is really shocking news, I'm so sorry to hear this Sarah. All my prayers and wishes for your mother's recovery. This must be one of the most horrible times of your life, but hang in there and be strong, your mom needs that of you I'm sure, now more than ever.

  3. Sarah, I don't know what to say. I wish your mum all the best and a lot of strength for a speedy recovery and the same to you, to be by her side while being thousands of miles away.

  4. Oh Sarah, I can sympathise, but all I can say is I'm so so sorry. My thoughts are with both you and her, and I'll hope for a complete recovery. Cry when you need to, so that you can be strong when you must. -AnotherDayofCrazy

  5. We're all with you in thought and prayer, but we might never be able to feel the anguish you have just gone through. But for all it's worth, I think the worst is over. And knowing the stuff mums are made of, for all you might know, she might just spring back action much sooner than you expect (and order you to be back on the first plane out to tae care of husbands and the kids). Wishing your family the very very best.

  6. Sarah I am very sorry to hear this, although glad your mum is doing better. I also experienced the dreaded long-distance call 5 years ago. I´m an only child, so i totally understand the guilt feeling you talk about….Thankfully my mother recovered, although i quit my job at the time and stayed with her for a couple of months before i moved to Dubai (we weren´t living here at the time)Best of luck to all of you!

  7. So glad to hear she's on the mend. Sarah, you have nothing to feel guilty about, we all have to cut the apron strings, move on and live our own lives.

  8. Sarah, so sorry that you have to go through an expat's worse nightmare. I too dread the day that I will receive "that" phone call. Don't berate yourself for not being there. You are doing the best you can right now for your family and you cannot possibly be everything to everyone. Take one day at a time and breath. So glad to hear that your mom's on the mend.

  9. I know exactly how you feel. My dad was diagnosed with cancer on the last day of 2010. I did that horrible airport trip not once but twice. First time his surgery was scheduled for Feb 14th, I got back to Scotland on the 10th only to find out the next day that it had been re-scheduled because they'd discovered heart problems. They wanted to fit a pacemaker first and then wait a month. So back on the plane to Dubai after a just a week. I was back here a week when I got another call to say they were fitting the pacemaker tomorrow and doing the surgery the next day so I was back on the next plane to Glasgow!Anyway, you wanted some good news – he had the surgery, he's now fine. His boat is back in the water and thanks to the pacemaker he has more energy than he ever had. They built these oldies tough!It was a very scary horrible couple of months though and a big wake up call. Sending you big hugs.

  10. i know i am late to the party…sorry for your bad news…expat or next door it is never easy (I feel helpless) when a loved one is ill or has health issues…sending positive vibes for a continued recovery…

  11. oops i did not mean party i meant something that was not so callous, but forgot to edit it to a better word which at this time totally escapes me…..

  12. Dear Sarah,I'm really sorry to hear abt your mom and I totally understand how you feel as my mom had a brain tumor in 2002 and needed a major operation to remove it. thank god she recovered, it took her 2 years of follow ups before the docs gave her the all clear signal. Recovery takes time and you need to be strong and be there for your mom. Ps my mom was taking loads of lingzhi (reishi mushroom) and it seemed to help her in recovery.Hope this helps.

  13. Best wishes to you as you go through a difficult time. Over 5 years ago I was told I had a pituitary adenoma. They didn't know what it was until they went in my head and saw it was a cyst; not a tumor, not cancerous. I was lucky the surgery went well and none of the giant horror story list of prognoses came true. Sometimes it can be better than one feels appropriate to hope for. I hope your friends and family are offering the support you all need.

  14. Sarah you put into words what we all fear being expats, especially with aging parents miles away. I think you handled it amazingly well – no matter how logically you know the guilt is useless it doesn't stop the feeling. As some other posters said, you are doing the best you can. You make the decision that seems best with the knowledge you have at the time. Don't beat yourself up, hindsight will bite you in the arse every time!I wish your mom all the best for a speedy and complete recovery. And I send you and your family much strength and love. Hang in there!

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