Wednesday, November 30, 2022

I love my life in Mexico, but I know my family back home pays a price for it

Guess what, y’all? I’m in Texas again!

Unlike my last trip here, this is not a vacation in any way. My dad is downsizing to a smaller place after having sold the house he’s lived in for 40 years — the house I grew up in — and I’m here to help him do that.

We’ve had a lot of long, exhausting days as we sort through 40 years’ worth of possessions, deciding what to get rid of and what to make very purposeful space for. We don’t have a lot of time, so plenty of things that we could probably sell for a good profit will be donated instead.

We’ve also done some bickering, as families do:

I think the shower chair, which belonged to his deceased second wife, is worth taking to the new place; he doesn’t want to because the chair itself is loaded with meaning, signifying that he’s officially “old” (he’s 68).

I’m a notorious backseat driver — I just can’t help it; if I were superstitious, I’d say I’ve died in car accidents in at least five past lives. My dad drives an average of 25 miles per hour, usually in the fast lane, as cars swerve angrily around us on the right. I close my eyes and try to avoid gasps, reminding myself that he’s survived as a driver for this long.

He wants to keep every piece of writing his own father ever wrote; I argue that there’s little point since they’ll just remain in storage boxes for another 20 years. There’s little time for it during this trip, but maybe in the future, we’ll sit down and make digital copies of it all before tossing, framing a few nice examples.

But I’m here. He needs me. The rest of my family needs me, too, to lighten their load.

The topic of caring for one’s parents from afar as they age is a fraught one for immigrants all over the world, and I’m no exception. I suspect that we all feel a measured amount of guilt about this.

So many questions come up: would our parents’ lives be better if we were closer to them physically? Would my sister’s life — who’s had to be there in big ways and small for all three of our parents at different points — be better? (Answer: certainly.) And if I lived in the United States, would I even be able to both support myself and have the time to care for them? (Answer: uncertain.)

For a time after my daughter was born, I wanted to move back to Texas so that I could help take care of my increasingly sick mother, sure that I could improve her quality of life, if not extend it. But I couldn’t get my now ex-husband on board with the idea in time. In the couple of years after my mother died, I gave up both on going back and on my marriage, deciding I’d stay in Mexico forever and just try my best to earn enough money for frequent trips back home.

For me personally, life is easier in Mexico. I’m happy, and I live a good life. I don’t want to leave, and probably never will. But the tradeoff is that my family’s life is very likely slightly harder because of my absence.

So, here I am, doing the same thing for my dad that I did six years ago for my mom and stepdad: organizing, packing up, getting a new place ready — complete with labels, calendars, safety features and organizational systems that would make Martha Stewart proud. My contributions are in short but very intense bursts.

I’ve tried my best to create small, comfortable palaces for them, with their every need anticipated and dealt with in advance, with their every worry already imagined and solved before they can even have the thought. I wanted, and still want, to make their lives easier.

But my mother didn’t care about labels and handrails in the bathroom as much as she cared about me. And “me” is what she couldn’t keep with her. I lived elsewhere.

Thankfully, she had my sister and my other dad, Richard, who weathered the most difficult parts of her care in my absence. My contributions, while appreciated and needed, could only solve so much: the handrails and furniture placed “just so” couldn’t prevent her sudden fainting spells that resulted in concussions, worsening her dementia a little more each time.

The labeled bathroom and kitchen cabinets couldn’t stop her from having terrifying hallucinations. And the bright sunshine pouring through the windows through soft, translucent curtains were no match for her sense of longing to spend time with her granddaughter, who was born in and lived in Mexico.

During Hurricane Harvey, it wasn’t me who stayed sheltered with them during days on end of flooding outside and no water or electricity inside. I’ve escaped the most hellish, difficult parts of parental care simply by being in Mexico, unavailable by default.

As I’ve complained to friends about the difficulty of the work I’m doing, some have asked incredulously, “…and nobody is helping you? Your sister’s not there?”

She’s not at the moment, but I’m the truly “not there” sister.

And for everything my sister has had to deal with in my 20 years of absence, I’d spend months walking on my knees through gravel for her: not simply out of penance but also because she is constantly going it alone. So, single-handedly getting my parents packed up and moved to a new place feels like quite literally the least I could do next to what would actually be fair — moving back to Texas to help with the increasing amount of day-to-day work there is to be done as the years go by. But although I’ll continue to come to the States as often as I possibly can, I will not be moving back.

What does family mean when physically you’re only a fleeting part of your own tribe? What are our responsibilities to the people who raised us? I know that this is generally a human question, not just an immigrant one, but living so far away raises the stakes of the conversation: the conclusions are real, not imaginary.

All I can do for now is argue over a shower chair and lay down some good, sturdy bathmats. My dad might wish for me to sit at his table every week; he might feel lonely sometimes; he might mourn his old house.

But I’ll tell you what he won’t do: slip on the tiles in the bathroom.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com

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