Sunday, October 4, 2015

Loss and Difficult Times in a Foreign Service Life

Every life, no matter where it is lived, will have its truly difficult and painful times. I'm talking about the big ones: health crises and death.  Foreign Service life obviously is no different in that respect, and some could even argue that it's riskier for both. However, when living abroad there is the additional factor of distance from home, family and familiarity - where we usually turn for solace in these times - that makes such bleak periods all the bleaker. There is also a separate layer, a lens or filter perhaps, that often alters the way we view these events.  It is the guilt that perhaps something could have been different were it not for the fact that we were living wherever we were living when said event took place. 

"But what if we hadn't been here, would this still have happened? What if we were living closer to "home"? What if we didn't have the stress of the move? What if there were better health care here? What if..." 

This is not a healthy internal loop, but it is an inevitable one. Unfortunately, I'm speaking from experience instead of conjecture this time. In my last post, I wrote about the stresses of moving and starting a new assignment.  I wasn't ready yet to discuss what was also going on during that move, but now it's time.  

Daphne in Bucharest on her easy chair.
I mentioned in my last post that Daphne, our only she-Tabby, had suddenly stopped eating about four days before our move. Even after multiple vet visits, they weren't sure what was wrong and the vet gave me basically a bag full of different medications that I could use to help get her to Bucharest comfortably where she could then seek longer-term treatment. The vet knew she wasn't contagious (i.e. a health risk to others to travel), but she also knew what we knew: the plane was leaving and we all had to get on it.  There was no family nearby to care for her and no other great option but to do our best and pack her up.  

I syringe-fed her baby food for about five days and she actually managed the trip quite well.  She even did her best to settle into the new house, exploring it as she always did and sleeping on our bed. But she still wouldn't eat.  On our first Saturday, we took her to her first vet visit. And on Sunday we went back. And on Monday, we made the decision to check her in so that she could be monitored and receive treatment during the day while we were at work and learning our new jobs.  Throughout the day, between meetings, between pleasant conversations with new co-workers, between visa interviews, at lunch as I tried to enjoy the lovely summer weather, immediately when I woke up in the morning and as I tried to get to sleep at night - her situation came back to me like a big, wet, black blanket: ... but Daphne's still sick.

I suppose I knew the inevitable, and by our second Saturday here, the vet called as we were in the cab to see her.  She had a "respiratory incident" that morning, her condition was deteriorating and she felt we should now make a decision for her.  This was a change from the report we got the night before, when she said, "No, it's not time yet. She still wants to be petted, she still has a chance to improve."  But now her systems seemed to be shutting down, and for the first time the vet believed her to be uncomfortable. And she still hadn't eaten.  

My husband and I held her on our laps in the lovely courtyard of the vet clinic on that quiet, sunny Saturday morning.  We talked to her and petted her for a long time and I told her everything I wanted to tell her.  She was very calm and seemed relieved to be with us and not in the cage nor on the treatment table hooked to an IV, which was where she'd been each day that week.  But her eyes were not bright as they always are. She was tired and it was time.  

We have her ashes at home now, next to a photo of the Daphne we all knew: in the garden, tail straight up in the air as she was always happy and excited to see the day, her surroundings and us.  I'd like to bring her back to that garden of the house we still own where she spent her first 13 years, but it may take some time for me to say goodbye again.
Our little Daphne memorial

Intellectually, I understand that she was a 17 yr. old cat and this is what eventually happens. But in my heart were all those questions I posed above, and the worse one: What if we didn't have to move while she was sick?  

I wish I could tell you the story ends there and we have had the past month to grieve and begin feeling better.  However, we were given just one week mental respite where we took off on Labor Day Monday and went down to Constanta on the Black Sea shore.  A day of seeing new sights and beginning to look towards the horizon again.  

And then the very next Friday we came home from work and found Dodger (Daphne's full brother) spread out in the hallway on the hardwood floor where he'd usually only stay a moment, and it was clear that he wasn't there by choice.  Off to the vet again, and the next morning to the radiologist and then the cardiologist (yes, the pet cardiologist), each office located in a different part of this sprawling city. 

Dodger had what is called a "saddle thrombus" - basically a blood clot lodged just in front of his hindquarters. Frequently a death sentence for cats, if not now - than sooner or later.  His hind limbs were partially without blood for many hours while we were at work and the damage to the muscles and nerves had been done.  He could still feel them and move them, they were just uncontrollable, rubbery limbs frustratingly attached to a very alert, motivated, active kitty.  He wasn't in pain, he ate, he drank and all that comes after that. That first week was a series of vet visits and treatments nearly every day, each involving cab rides at rush hour, early weekend mornings, bike rides (on the part of my husband) to pharmacies all over town to find blood thinners and special amino acid tonics that aren't stock products in the vet clinics.  
Dodger on his bedroll and favorite horsey pillow. 

We're now at week three.  Dodger is getting stronger as his uncooperative limbs gain strength.  He got to the point where he could go where he needed to go about 80% of the time, even if it meant flopping over every third step.  But then he suffered a set-back last week (I think another smaller clot), and his progress has stalled a bit, but we still have the same bright-eyed, hungry, loving kitty that is not ready to give up.  It just means patience, a lot of attention, and waking up each middle-of-the-night to take him to the litter box.  

Back to my main thesis: if I were in a "regular" job and living situation, I'd be using some of the loads of sick and vacation leave I have saved up to ease this period. I'd be going in my own car, through my own familiar city, to the regular vet.  I'd be doing all this in English (I've been fortunate in that respect here, I must add), and I wouldn't have all this on top of the brand new job/country/language/culture/home pressures and responsibilities. It might not feel quite so difficult. 

On the other, more practical, hand - all of this treatment in the US would have easily cost multiple thousands of dollars.  Perhaps I would have had the sickening experience of choosing between what I could afford vs. what was the right thing to do. Being in Romania has, ironically, been the best of both worlds: a well-educated society that cares for and understands pets with a very affordable cost of living.  All of Daphne's and (to date) Dodger's treatment has barely crested the $500 mark.  Just the initial cardiologist appointment we had when we were in the diagnosis period would have been $600 in Virginia, and would certainly NOT have come with a follow-up ultrasound scan wherein the vet said, "No charge; it was a nice conversation."

Obviously all that I've described also happens with human family. And when it does, the real-world difficulty of traveling half-way around the world to be at someone's bedside, or the associated guilt and anxiety of leaving others to care for aging parents, is not to be underestimated.  The fact is that life, with all its beauty and ugliness, happiness and sorrow, moves on regardless of where we are.  I don't have an answer or suggestion for how to best handle these hard times and decisions. It's simply a fact that when we choose a life that takes us far away, we will eventually face situations where the bad stuff happens while we're nowhere near home. And it's a lot harder. 

Next time: Something cheerier, I hope.