Today I was told that a friend had died. It was, it seems, completely unexpected and happened quickly. He leaves behind a young son and his partner – someone I have known for about 14 years and is indeed the reason I know him in the first place. Friends who are with them in Singapore have said that she is being strong, and although devastated, is putting on a brave face. I sent a message expressing, no doubt in clumsy words, just how sorry I was to hear the news – there is little that I can do from a practical perspective at a distance of nearly 4,000 miles.
He was also five years younger than me.
It is never easy to hear news like this, but it did make me realise two things.
Take whatever life throws at you and make it your own because you never really know for sure that tomorrow will be yours to use. I know that he had done so and had a life with his family that was a joy to experience, and in the latter years, be a part of on occasion when I visited. I hope that I am doing the same with the decisions I am taking.
Secondly it brought home one of the most challenging aspects of being an expat. Something that both expat and those at home collude in. Simply put, you can’t always be there. And because you aren’t always there, you don’t always know. People will keep things from you “because there is nothing you can do”. My own family and friends are guilty of this. Their reasoning is that not telling you stops you from worrying when you can’t be there to assist, step in or help. Family illnesses, challenges and mishaps go unreported in the belief that what you don’t know can’t hurt or bother you. Without realising it, they are simply making the shock of the news, when it inevitably arrives, greater. There has been no time to prepare mentally and the casual “Oh, didn’t we mention this?” when you know that it is covering awkwardness and tacit agreement doesn’t help.
But I am also guilty of the same thing in return. I have kept things from my family until it was absolutely necessary to tell them – for exactly the same reasons. They weren’t in Manila, Singapore or Sydney, so there was little they could do. It seems to be the unspoken rule among the expat community. Does it really help? I am not sure, but still do it anyway, to some extent. Over the years I have tried to be more understanding and to discuss things tentatively, open up about plans and discuss issues before they become more urgent.
It doesn’t always happen that way, especially with my parents. I know how they worry and how things will upset them if they feel they can’t help. I censor my conversations and my news, making sure enough is offered that should a major piece of news need to be shared, there is a foundation there, so that nothing, or little, comes out of the blue. It is however still an edited version of life.
Is it the right thing to do? Again, I don’t know. But it seems to be the way things work, the oil that keeps life moving smoothly and at this point, I don’t intend to challenge the status quo of something that is working. For both parties.
I have a small print that I bought many years ago from an artist in London, which consists of a series of coloured dots and the phrase “There are no gaps, just differences of opinion about the concept of distance”. How true that is, especially on a day like today.