Feeling stretched thin when family is 10,000 miles away

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The phone screen glows eerily in the dark. I’m thankful for the distraction, even though I don’t really feel like talking to anyone at 3 a.m. My eyes burn with fatigue, and somewhere in the busy recesses of my brain I hear the fading echoes of the chant I’ve had on repeat for so many hours: Please sleep please sleep please sleep.

“Hello?” My voice is low. I don’t want to wake anyone else.

“Hi, Mom!” He’s cheerful after a full day. “Oh. Did I wake you?”

As he suddenly remembers we are on opposite sides of the world, separated by the vast Atlantic and about 10 time zones, I hear his sheepish grin. “Sorry.”

I am in South Africa, visiting my parents and providing support after my mom’s recent surgery. My kids and husband are in Piedmont, caring for our new puppy and organizing carpools, dentist appointments and what’s for dinner.

I reassure my son that he did not wake me and affectionately remind him to check the world clock on his phone before he calls next time. Unless it’s an emergency. Although what would I do from 10,000 miles away?

I am caught in that otherworldly place where I usually find myself after a long flight: My mind is spinning in California, full of kids’ schedules, conversations with my husband, to-do lists for when I get home even though I just left … and my body is firmly and by now exhaustedly in South Africa. Jet lag.

And something else. Something difficult to name but just as ethereal and frustrating — kids in one place, parents in another, and me more here than there and desperately wanting to be in two places at once.

It’s not easy to be away from my family, on both ends. I have kids in elementary, middle and high school. We keep extracurricular activities to a minimum, but four kids in three schools amounts to a lot of coordination and communication. I imagine this to be true no matter how many kids there are in a family. My husband keeps it all together, but the workload does seem to grow exponentially when I need to be away.

And I miss them.

Halfway around the world, my parents lead full and mostly vital lives in South Africa, but they miss their children and grandchildren who live so far away. We all worry about each other during times of sadness, illness and surgery. And it’s not easy to catch a 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Johannesburg to provide timely hugs, meals and help.

There have been too many times and too many wishes that I was there. To help. To cook. To fill the pantry and the fridge and the quiet with essentials like milk and eggs and gentle conversation. I want to take my mother to her doctor’s appointment and hear firsthand how she is recovering. I want to sit at the dinner table with my father and talk about his day. I want them both to know I’m in the next room, on the other side of the wall, not a face on a screen on the other side of the world.

“Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.” The fifth of our Ten Commandments is explicit in the ways we are expected to relate to our parents: with honor, love and respect, just as we are meant to relate to God.

For me this means showing up, taking care of and being present for my parents as much, as often and wherever I am able. Mostly I am a face on a screen, a lengthy email or a few cute photos of the kids with the new puppy sent via text message. But sometimes I am able to hand over those photos in person, to sit close to my mom and giggle over my daughter’s expression or share a memory from when I was that age.

I lie awake a little longer, caught in that ethereal place. It’s not easy to leave my family there, so that I can be with my family here. But it’s essential.

Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.