Mum in Transition 2
Expats are used to coming and going, but what happens when your children move country and you stay behind? In the second in a series of new articles, Ata Bos writes candidly about her confrontation with an empty house after her sons leave Finland for a new life in Holland, her country of origin.
On the first day of sick leave I’m home with heart palpations, headaches, muscle pain, and every time I think about fetching a cup of tea from the kitchen, or hand cream from the bathroom, my legs feel glued to the floor, as if weighed down with lead. Getting out of bed seems hard, because it’s followed by going to the bathroom, choosing clothes, and making breakfast. I usually drink water with yoghurt, but dragging myself to the fridge and holding the yoghurt pot sounds like making dinner for six people. When I get there, I stand beside the fridge, drink the water straight away, then follow it with the yoghurt and go to bed, or to the couch in the living room to stare. This is ridiculous Ata, I think for a split second, but the guilt requires too much energy.
The challenge of the people I have to contact and the practicalities I need to deal with in order to be on sick leave seems overwhelming, like climbing the Nihahi steep cliff mountain in Canada. Phoning doctors and bosses and colleagues and friends to discuss this new foetal Ata requires that I give a simple explanation for a variety of symptoms, behind which is a deep disquiet or fear. I feel like I have no control: a rollercoaster is going down I’m strapped in; the dip is getting steeper and I have no idea when it will all end. I repeat terms for this new Ata’s condition on the couch in the living room. Sorrow, upset, sadness, trauma, pain, stress, breakdown—are those illnesses?
As I close my eyes, I imagine how my mother might react to all this. She’s not militaristic, but I think—I feel—that sick leaves from exhaustion just wasn’t discussed. It isn’t something they’d do. I can’t remember my mother staying at home for flu—definitely not—let alone something as difficult to describe as a breakdown. If I had a problem as a child, her answer was to send me on a bicycle errand for a delivery, to gymnastics class, or to work on my Dad’s farm. “You’ll feel better then,” she’d say. I imagine doctors and nurses advising similar things, a general practitioner reading my chart and shouting “exhaustion, really?” before sending me off with yoga exercises.
The immediate contacts to settle are my boss and two appointments and a lunch meeting. I stare at my mobile phone for a few minutes, thinking what I should write, wondering if I can get away with nothing, then put it down again. I do this again and again over two hours. Should I send the message, I think? Finnish city administrators can take two days sick leave without explanation, but two days probably won’t be enough. What if I text something now and the doctor disagrees? What if my boss sees me as a Lucille Ball type, over-the-top, curlers in her hair, upset over losing some make-up?
I’d like to sleep and not talk to anyone as I’m certain I’ll immediately start to cry. Eventually, I begin pressing buttons on my mobile phone. “Sorry to let you know I’m ill again,” I write. I’m not quite sure whether the words describe me at all, I think. The sentence seems strange. I can describe the symptoms, the feelings but, ultimately, I really don’t know exactly what is behind it, the range of the fears and uncertainties. And I am scared. I need to say what’s necessary so I can stay at home, but sending the message means I’m finally admitting it’s serious, and behind that is the realisation that I don’t know how I’ll be spending my next weeks or months.
It’s done. My mobile beeps. My boss has replied ‘Ok.’ I’m hugely relieved. Being given permission to stay at home seems an enormous victory. I can relax now, I think—and abandon the idea of seeing medical personnel before the weekend. Hidden in bed, under a duvet, I’m vaguely aware that my mind is ‘in denial,’ that I will have to see a doctor soon, because two days at home will not be enough. Immediately I find myself listing ten reasons why not to go ahead, as I had done with the yoghurt pot. Ridiculous. I have flashes of the future, meetings in which physicians with large moustaches stare at my watery eyes and evaluate my clenched fists or irregular intonation. The future is vastly uncertain, a chasm. Will he give me a week off? A month? A year?
In the most fantastical of these imaginings, I’m on sick leave, then it’s discovered I shouldn’t be, as a spy might be in a foreign embassy or on assignment to a strange country, prompting grandiose gossip and a new set of situations to handle. The explanations to these ever-increasingly complicated scenes play out in variations. ‘Ata is depressed, she can’t work,’ says a colleague on discovering that I’ve been staying at home. I reach the Sunday of the weekend after my days off with a resolution that I’ll return to work. I tell myself that this is the right thing to do.