MAY 1, 2013, 10:13 AM 71 Comments

Dying Long Distance, By JAN BENZEL

PARIS — The last conversation I had with my father was by Skype. He was in a sunny room in southeastern Pennsylvania; I was in Paris, where I live and work. He was surrounded by my siblings and their spouses; my mother had visited earlier that day.

At that moment I was relieved to be able to see him and talk to him. I was also filled with gratitude that my sister-in-law, in the midst of the sadness and chaos of the day, had the brilliant thought to get me there on screen and took her laptop along to make it happen.

Dad and I had a little visit, but he was having a rough time breathing. He marveled briefly at the technology that let him see me, but tired quickly and drifted off into a nap.

The call came in the middle of the night that he had died. I don’t remember anything at all about that conversation, not even which of my five siblings was on the other end of the phone.

People who live across an ocean from their families — students, adults on work assignments, those in the military, people who’ve chosen to make a life in a different country, whatever the reason — miss, at some point, a life event: major, or less so; sad or celebratory. The decline and death of a loved one thousands of miles away may be the most difficult part of expat life.

Friends and colleagues with frail, aging parents make lots of phone calls and trans-Atlantic trips. Some have raced out of the office, jumped on a plane and made it to their relatives’ side before death arrived.

I’d been visiting Dad whenever I was in the United States, and we’d been talking every Sunday, as we had when I was in college. He’d pulled through one health emergency after another, seemingly miraculously. I had rushed from New York, where I lived with my family, to Pennsylvania for many of those.

Should I have jumped on a plane this time? I wouldn’t have made it. Should I have chosen to stay nearer my parents, as my siblings had?

A year later I still wonder.

Is yours a bicontinental family? What happens when there is a health crisis and or approaching death? Tell us your stories.


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