Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad

When you get ‘that’ call

When you emigrate there’s always the worry that something bad may happen at home while you’re away, writes Patrick McKenna. What will you do, if “that” call comes?

Sat, Jun 23, 2012, 10:28

   

Patrick McKenna

When you emigrate there’s always the worry that something bad may happen at home while you’re away. What will you do, if “that” call comes? Will you drop everything, to rush home? Will this even be possible? Some situations you just can’t walk away from. What about the parents of the emigrant son or daughter? Do they worry about something bad happening “over there”?

When I emigrated in 1975, I didn’t include these questions in the mental script I had written for my emigration. Neither did my parents. Not only did they not worry about me heading off to Canada, they were relieved to see me go.

The thing is, in 1975, death stalked the streets of Belfast. A young man like me had to be very careful. Dangerous people trawled certain areas of the city for victims just like me. My leaving, took me well away from the insanity of the Troubles.

My emigration was – at least partially – driven my desire to get away from the dangers of my native city. I was too young to know of “fates worse than sudden death”: going gaga, a long drawn out illness, ending up on life support, To be honest, I worried not so much about death. My nightmare was waking up in a hospital bed, having survived a bomb blast, just not quite intact.

After a short honeymoon (I think it lasted a month) with Canada, I was assailed by a cocktail of negative emotions: concern about my family’s safety in the Troubles, survivor guilt, a touch of PTSD, a major dose of culture shock of three years in a small (pop.5000) town, then learning to work and live in French in Quebec, and of course, missing everything imaginable about my home country. As I look back now, I understand, why, for 30+ years, I went back to Belfast almost every year.

I know that not everyone can do that. Undocumented immigrants can’t pop in and out of the host country at will. For immigrants who settle down, with a family of their own, frequent trips back home may be challenging, logistically, financially and emotionally. But I had my papers, then citizenship, I was on my own, and had the means to buy a ticket when I wanted.

Over the years I was aware that my frequent journeys home didn’t help my integration to Canada. Sometimes I wished I had invested my measly two or three week’s annual vacation visiting Cuba, Mexico, or Thailand. But, now, when I think of the times I spent with mum and dad when they were alive, I am glad I went back often.

On my trips back home, when I rented a car, I’d take them out for drives to the Antrim Coast Road, buy them lunch and so on. At home, at about 8 pm, I’d make and serve them tea. While mum drank her tea and watched TV I’d sit with dad in the kitchen and listen to his stories of the old days in Belfast. I don’t know if Skype could capture the magic of sitting at the kitchen table listening to dads wonderfully intertwined wit and wisdom. I doubt it.

I got to see mum and dad make their way through the aging process. They changed a little bit every year. They grew old gracefully, with no long drawn out illnesses, just the inevitable health problems of advanced age. During my last visits, I noticed Mum saying, more often, but good-humouredly, “You can live too long”. As for dad, in his last few years, it was obvious that “his bags were packed”. He was ready to make the final journey home.

Their deaths occurred about two years apart. They both died very suddenly, thank God. In fact they went so quick that none of their kids, even those living close by, could make it to the hospital to be with them. There was no way I could get there in time.

I got over for dad’s funeral but not for mums. I was sad about this until one day I had this thought – “Love is for the living.” Its true I didn’t get back for mum’s funeral, but I was there as often as I could when she and dad were alive. That was what counted, I thought. My visits were my way of letting them know I loved them.

Later still, it occurred to me that if “love is for the living” then “life is for learning, growing, and becoming all that you can become”. It – life – shouldn’t be about fear. To hold back on emigration for fear that something bad might happen is to hold back on life. However, by the same token, to emigrate for fear – of not finding suitable employment at home – may not be life based strategy, either.

Later still, it occurred to me that if “love is for the living” then “life is for learning, growing, and becoming all that you can become”. It – life – shouldn’t be about fear. So, don’t hold back on emigration for fear that something bad might happen while you’re away. By the same token, don’t emigrate for fear – of not finding suitable employment at home. Emigrate or stay, put fear to one side, and give yourself fully to life wherever you are. It’s your life, after all, and you only have the one.

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