I didn’t realize the ways living far away from my extended family would impact my life so much until I was standing at my grandmother’s funeral.
I’d been watching her battle Alzheimer’s, often from her bedside, since my senior year of high school. Her absent-mindedness wasn’t welcome, but it was expected. She’d forget a name here, have to call to ask what route to take to get to her favorite places, and we didn’t take it personally if a birthday passed without a phone call.
After graduation, I moved to another town that was only an hour away. But for a car-less young adult with a single mother, it was worlds away. It was my first time being away from home. For the first year and a half, I prioritized asking about my grandmother daily and calling her a few times a month.
Somewhere in those four years, I learned to drive but I also got busy. I started dating. I fell in love. I graduated. Before I knew it, I was engaged, married, and moving even further from the family that had been the only constant in my life.
I won’t say that I expected life to stay still while I was gone, but I didn’t expect things to move that quickly. Before I knew it, my grandmother didn’t know any of us. She wouldn’t talk. She couldn’t eat. And she was the familiar shell that you only recognized when you’ve watched someone you love lose the fight to Alzheimer’s.
By the time I was settled in my new home more than 800 miles away, I was pregnant and she was gone.
I’d been there for the worst of it and even been her caretaker for a while. But living so far away seemed like I’d blinked, and everything had changed.
But the most terrifying part is that the changes kept coming. Three more relatives got sick. In a quick blur, we’d gone from no deaths in our family in 23 years to three deaths in just four years.
It hurt. And in a weird way, I felt somewhat responsible. I thought that if I’d stayed, I would have been there for them and things could have turned out differently. I knew it was nonsensical, but it felt like my move was the catalyst that got everything started. If I hadn’t changed the family pattern of staying close by none of this would have happened.
Living far away from my extended family meant missing out on a lot of things — both the hard times and the good ones.
My brother was suddenly unrecognizable and at least two feet taller. He was graduating high school and working his first job. Growing up, I never imagined that I would be the one to get married and move to another region. I thought I’d be the one to grow up around my grandparent’s house and raise my own family in its walls but life had other plans.
Of course, living away from my family wasn’t all bad. I was babied a lot as a child. I’d spent a considerable part of my childhood experiences in a sort of pseudo-autonomy. There was a clear boundary in terms of what was acceptable in my family’s eyes. I tried my hardest to operate in those confines.
Moving away meant freedom. It was an opportunity to escape the confines of what everyone expected of me and step into my own world. To be completely honest, I didn’t even know who I was at first. When such a large portion of your life is centered on what everyone else thinks of you, you don’t have the chance to find your own likes and dislikes.
I realized I wasn’t religious when I had the chance to escape the condemnation of the Bible Belt. It was easier to realize I wanted to raise my children with more freedom and open communication than I’d seen in my southern upbringing. Not to mention it gave my husband and I the chance to grow in our relationship without a myriad of opinions from my outspoken but well-meaning relatives.
But all of these freedoms came at the expense of support. I’m often at home alone without anyone to help me with the kids. Being married to a man who travels frequently is lonely. REALLY LONELY. And of course, it hurts me to know my children will miss out on the “village-style” upbringing that I had growing up.
I feel like my time away from my family was important for my long-term development. I had the opportunity to learn so much about myself and the world around me. It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.
I don’t know if I’ll ever live near my family again. I love the freedom that comes with living elsewhere, but I hate missing out on the chance to watch my family age and grow.
I love my family. But I love the life we’ve made for ourselves as well.
Hopefully, one day we will be able to cut even a small portion of the distance between us in half. Until then, video chat and regular phone calls will have to fill the gaps.