The Eternal Guilt of An Immigrant


My oldest nephew will turn 16 on Christmas Eve. When he was born, I lived in Slovakia and my sister lived in Germany. The first time I saw him he was two months old. I still remember it like it was yesterday - getting off the S-bahn, my sister meeting me with the stroller and I couldn't see anything but layers of blankets. Holding him for the first time. Having him falling asleep on my shoulder every time I picked him up. The love. The dread. My sister bundled him up in a stroller and sent me out for a couple of hours so she could clean. Me, walking down the streets, too afraid to check on him so I wouldn't wake him, too terrified that he might be dead in there. What if he stopped breathing? I didn't have any maternal instinct, I wouldn't know!

But he didn't die. He will be turning 16 soon, the same age that my sister was when she met her husband. He is smart and caring and accomplished and funny and handsome. He has two younger brothers and a sister that will turn four next year. I love them all to bits. And I've completely missed out on their lives.

To keep my relationship with my sister is easy. It still hurts to be so far away. It always will. But we have an established relationship that can withstand that. My nephews and my niece - they are the ones I missed out on. They are the ones I was supposed to babysit, feed them ice cream and watch scary movies with. And I never did. And I never will.

To leave one's country is living a little death. Yes - everything still stays there. Yes - people still talk to you. Yes - we live in times of emails, Skype, FaceTime and social media. But it doesn't get you there.

All the things you left behind.

Not the things. The things don't matter.

All the memories and laughs and tears and hugs and fights and relationships and jokes and references and wisdom and words and language and scents and scenery and accomplishments and failures and needs and warmth and frustrations and dreams and DNA that will never let you forget. That will never let you stop regretting.

The guilt.

The very guilt of not being there.

The guilt of not being there in need.

The guilt of not being there in joy.

Maybe not every single day. Because there are days when you are just too grateful and too amazed and too thankful and too excited and too happy. Some days you are just too happy. Until it catches up with you.

Until your parent gets sick or your sister struggles or your friend has a baby. Until the one you love dies. And you are thousands of miles away, saying "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry but I am over here."

All the things you have to relearn. All the things you have to accept. All the things you have to embrace. All the changes. All the time.

And all the while, listening to "you are so lucky to be here" and "if you don't like it, just leave. Go home."

But I am home.

I am.

It just doesn't always feel the same.

It never will.

It will always be the music to an immigrant song.



1 comment:

  1. Everyone handles the challenges of immigration differently. I suffered from intermittent depression, which I didn't know at the time; loneliness, of which I was painfully aware; and a range of other psycho-emotional ailments I only came to understand over time. Never guilt though. It's my life, the thinking goes, why feel guilty for pursuing my own path?

    To be honest, when I, a native of Košice, read this, I immediately thought, 'This is very Slovak.' The atheist and student of religion in me says it's also very Catholic in spirit -- given that 6 out of 10 Slovaks identify Catholic, there's a good chance it's both. By the way, the weekly Týždeň recently ran an analysis about how the cult of Virgin Mary shapes the Slovak national spirit, check it out at www [dot] tyzden [dot] sk/casopis/26587/nasa-sedembolestna/.

    We're all entitled to our own feelings. This piece was very helpful in understanding my own immigration experience and my fellow Slovaks. Thank you. I'm glad to have discovered your blog.

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