Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Best I Can

from here
Those of you who are my friends on Facebook know that I'm currently trying my hand at a windowsill potted herb garden. I bought two kinds of thyme, rosemary, basil, sage, two kinds of mint, catnip, a raspberry bush, bergamot, tea tree, verbena, chamomile, two kinds of lavender and oregano. This in addition to the plants already out there: two orchids, a huge bougainvillea, a small poinsettia and two plants I can't identify that the former tenant left us along with aforementioned bougainvillea.

I'm not much of a gardener, but I try to check them every day and add a bit of water whenever the soil looks too dry or they look a bit wilted, and am cautiously beginning the task of learning how to add fertilizer - which kinds, how much and how often. I'm not very good at it, but generally speaking, I've been able to keep my plants more or less alive. I figured it would be like expat life - a bit shaky at first, a few brown leaves and wilted stems here and there. Then it would get a little easier and require less watchfulness. Then a bit easier after that, and then something approximating normal and natural. Living in Taiwan has become like that. Most things do. Gardening should follow that paradigm too, no?

Not many of you know that my mother is an excellent gardener. Growing up we always had fresh produce mixed among the staples from the grocery store, herbs growing like weeds, profusions of flowers and a landscaped front and side garden. Lilacs would perfume the breeze blowing into the kitchen window. I loved it, even as I chided my mother for doing things like running outside in a rainstorm brandishing a knife because "I need to get a squash for dinner!" I felt, growing up, that all she had to do was look at those plants and they'd just sprout for her, like fecund, green little servants. She knew exactly how much and how often to water them and while she had failures, she had enough successes that we didn't notice.

But all of you do know that we're currently dealing with a serious family illness, and now I feel I can say that the illness we're facing is my mother's. I'm going to reveal a bit here, not because I'm generally in the habit of talking about family illnesses but for two other reasons: first, it will help you better understand what I'm going to write below; and second, this might be useful for anyone reading who is dealing with the reality of living on the other side of the globe while a close family member faces illness, and the reality of how to approach expat life in such a situation.

So, basically, my mother has cancer, it's not the kind you can "cure", it's metastasized, and while chemo is working for now, eventually all cancers become immune to any available chemo drug after it's been used long enough on the patient. She's healthy now, and things are basically OK...for now...but as you can probably extrapolate from the above information, it's not going to be OK forever, and not even necessarily for very long. The only bright side is that it's not one of those "you have six months" types of cancer.

While, of course, my mother's health is first priority, it does raise the question of what we should do.

My sister has a cram school job that she doesn't even like and a pre-furnished apartment - although she adores Taiwan - and she's 25. So, when she's ready, she can chuck the job and move back home without any major or long-term life consequences. My career is here, my cat is here, my entire social life (except for a smallish group of good friends in DC, New York and Boston whom I've hung on to) is here, my wage earning potential and strongest employability is, if not here, then in a country where English is not the native language. I'm thinking of this also in terms of disposable income. I could possibly find work in the USA, but would have significantly less to spend after taking care of the essentials, and disposable income is, honestly, a very useful thing to have when dealing with a family illness and the reality of visiting often.

After a long conversation with my parents - perfectly ready for my mom to say "please come home as soon as you can", and perfectly ready to act on that, because she's my mom and we're now talking years, not decades - we all agreed that for now, we'd stay.

I would not have made this decision without the blessing of my family. I simply would not have. I could not have, as much as I really do want to stay in Taipei. As much as it's my home - really my home. As in a home I like rather than merely tolerate as so many expats seem to. This is the only thing that keeps me from leaping into a pit of "Jenna, you are so selfish". We all agree that this is what's right for my and Brendan's lives and careers, and that visiting every six months, especially for the holidays, is an acceptable solution for now. This is why disposable income is so important: we can afford it. This is why tending to your career is important: I have the flexibility to do this.

And having most of your social network around you is important, too: I know my friends back home would be there when I needed them. My direct experience, though, has been here: and as upset as I have been these past few weeks, I can say that people have come through. All I've really needed recently is a few sympathetic ears (talking about it helps - this is what I learned from the last time we went through this and I was more secretive, and it affected my physical health), and I've gotten them. A friend cut out of work for a few hours to keep me company the day after I found out (I thought I'd be OK, so I hadn't asked my husband to take off work). Another friend, who is generally a difficult fellow in other respects, came through for me in the evening when I still needed company. A few friends have told me their own stories of family illness, reminding me that as horrible as I feel right now - as much as I fight back tears and my stomach sinks when I think of the future - that everyone has a sad story to tell. Nobody gets a perfectly green garden under a perfectly blue sky.

We also agree that the time will come when something may have to change. I don't fear this in terms of the changes it will bring to where I live and what I do (although I can't lie: those worry me too), but more in terms of knowing that when that time comes, it will be near the end. It fills me with tears, weeks after hearing the first bit of bad news, to think that I might reach that time, look back, and regret the decision we've made now. Will "every six months" seem like it was enough? Probably not.

All I can say is that we're making the best decision we can now, for the situation we're in now, and as much as I might regret it, I will at least have this. I'm doing the best I can.

I used to think of the Pacific Ocean as an annoyingly wide but otherwise surmountable thing. Now I think of it as a deep, unending pit of separation. And yet, I'm doing the best I can.

Students and local acquaintances tell me how great it is that I live here, and have this idea that expat life is this magical thing in which all foreigners are rich and happy and having adventures and have better lives. I say nothing, but there's tension right between my shoulder blades. Do they know the price I'm paying to stay? No, because I've chosen not to tell them. But it is a hefty price, and it sits right there in that knot below my neck. The one that hasn't gone away since all this started. And still, I'm doing the best I can.

I'm jealous of my sister - she can chuck it all and move back home. I can't do it nearly as easily and I'd suffer real consequences.

She's jealous of me because she can't afford to go home every six months, nor does she have the job flexibility. She doesn't have the luxury of choosing to stay. Choosing it, for her, brings consequences I can somewhat avoid.

Today dawned cool and lightly overcast - not the interminable dark gray of winter but a lighter, cleaner grayish blue. It was almost welcome after two days of sweating under a hot blue dome. I parted the sheer blue curtains on our living room window to see how my herb garden was holding up.

Well, it wasn't. My tea tree and bergamot are basically withered stalks (although the tea tree has some straggly hope). My raspberry bush and oregano have noticeably dead brown spots. My thyme is completely gone - this surprised me: isn't thyme a Mediterranean plant? Can it not survive heat spells? The other plants are dangerously wilted. Even the mint was very unhappy - I thought you had to basically actively kill mint to get it to die - what gives? My basil looked sad.  The sage was floppy and hanging off the edge of the pot rather than standing up straight. The chamomile is half gone, not looking like anything I want to harvest for cooking. Only the rosemary, orchids and lavender (surprisingly) are soldiering on, and one of the lavenders isn't quite happy.

I gave the whole lot a good watering, and I see some improvement, but all in all I'm worried. Will my plants make it? Will I be able to continue making pastas, drinks, sauteed meat dishes and stews with my own fresh harvest? I'm doing my best, but will my best efforts pay off?

Was I ever guaranteed a happy ending in which all my plants were luscious and green, and Taipei was eternally a great place to live, without having to worry about life back home? Could I ever really have counted on a green life under a blue sky - no brown spots, no bits that didn't quite work out, no issues that could not be resolved satisfactorily despite my best efforts? Did I really think I could do my best and that it would pay off, always, every time?

Finally, what makes me sad as I survey the blasted heath that is my window garden, is that I know deep down I started it in part because it's something my mother would do - not that she'd ever live in the middle of a big city as I so enjoy doing - but that she finds a way to grow plants wherever she is. She'd have the ability to make those plants thrive. I think I was hoping against all rational hope that I'd cultivate that ability too: a little piece of my mother in Taipei that lives on in the green thumb I am determined to inherit, whether it is my rightful legacy or not.

It really saddens me that, so far, I'm failing.

And yet I will continue to water my plants and hope hope hope - because I do not pray - because I'm doing the best I can.

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