Confucius said: “To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage, or of principle.”
The reality of solo ageing and solo traveling hit me hard this weekend. For me it’s a wake-up call and a lesson I have to learn through the experience of another person who lived out her nightmare.
It started just before Christmas 2018. I was in Tainan City and met up with another foreign teacher, from South Africa, to attend the Christmas pageant in the closed-off street next to the Literature Museum. It was also the switching on of the lights on the colourful and very big Christmas tree in front of the Museum. My friend was already there sitting next to the tree very occupied with her smart phone. When she saw me she showed me a photo and asked if I knew this woman. The photo was of a western woman, middle aged, lying in ICU connected to many machines. My friend tells me this woman is from South Africa, her name is Jenny*, she is a teacher in Tainan area and in a coma in a local hospital. The photo was sent to her via a church that my friend attends in Tainan. The people at the church heard that there was an expat in the hospital and went there to see how they can assist. Nobody from the church knew her and they started circulating the photo among the expats to try and find her relatives.
I immediately phoned my agent. Even though its late on a Sunday afternoon I have confidence in the agency and I know they will take my call. My agent says that they know Jenny. She is one of the 32 teachers in our programme. I have never met her because she never attend our training sessions. The agent also tells me that Jenny had flu and it got worse and when it turned to pneumonia the agency was told she was admitted to a hospital about 10 days previous, and she since has slipped into a coma. I asked the agent if they have contact details for her family and whether they have informed the family. Her answer was “We told the South African Embassy about her.”
So that was a dead end. My friend then went ahead and posted this picture on her Facebook page saying “This is Jenny from somewhere in South Africa, she is very ill and does anybody know her family.” With poor Jenny in my thoughts all evening I even forgot to take a photo of the magnificent Christmas tree. A few hours later, we were on our way home after the concert my friend gets a text message via Facebook saying “Hi, I’m one of Jenny’s sisters. I was told to contact you about Jenny.” My friend passed on the contact details to Charles, from the church, to the sister. About a week later my friend told me that Jenny had passed away.
I always see the good and the positive and I expect it. This is how I imagined the whole Jenny-story had played out. Thinking if I was Jenny this is what would have happened since that Sunday evening when my sister gets a call saying I’m very ill and in hospital. My sister, and only sibling, would immediately make plans to fly out to Taiwan. She knows all my PIN numbers so even if she does not have money for the plane ticket she knows she can take it from my account. Then she will arrive in Tainan and sit at my bedside, giving me reflexology and BSR treatments and just be there when I slip away to the next life. Then she would have me cremated and take my ashes back with her to Tasmania and when she is ready she will scatter them at Nelson Falls, just east of Queenstown in the west of Tasmania.
So with that scenario in my head I say prayers for Jenny and her family, and she slips from my mind. Till 14 weeks later.
Yesterday I get this news, which leaves me feeling like a fist has just hit my solar plexus. Charles from the church called my friend, and she called me to invite me to a ceremony the church is organising to scatter Jenny’s ashes in the sea. It turns out not a single member of Jenny’s family came to Taiwan to be with her and take her ashes home. She died alone in a foreign country and her ashes are going to be scattered by a group of people she has never met.
Here are some of the thoughts going through my mind and I would love to hear your, my readers, thoughts too.
If I just die I have no problem with how others deal with the aftermath. I know where I will be spending the next life and I will be happy to be there. So even if my sister and friends are not around, I’m sure it won’t bother me. I really, in my heart of hearts, hope this is how Jenny felt.
My ideal situation would be that I will be with my sister and that I could tell her I want all my organs donated and what she must do with my ashes.
Here is the reality: It’s not about the person who has died. Its about family and friends that should be informed and have the right to be informed about your situation or your passing.
- The agency that employed me has never asked for contact details for next of kin. They rely on the embassies of their foreign teachers to deal with this situation. The agency also trusts the foreign teacher to register at their embassy. It’s not asked of you, nobody reminds you, as everyone thinks its a standard / common sense thing to do. In all my years of living in foreign countries and traveling to the off the beaten track places, I have never done it.
So the responsibility lies with me to make sure that these things are in place.
- I rotate between three schools and at each school I have found a responsible and English speaking person who has my sister’s contact details and my sister has theirs’.
Here I have set up my own little system and I trust it works.
- On a daily basis how would my sister know if I’m still alive? I admit that I’m not one for small talk. It has always been a battle for me and all the years of living alone has eroded away what little skill I had. I also have a problem talking on a phone. My hearing is fine but I always think I can not hear the other person because I can not see them. I feel very stressed when I have to talk to someone on a phone. And do not even mention Skype, I can’t stand that people are looking at my face that close, that sends my stress levels into overdrive. I’m one of the people who regularly send around Facebooks posts saying something like: Good friends are like stars, you don’t always see them but you know they are there. Here I’m saying thank you to Facebook. My sister has included me in a group she has established with some of her friends. I have met them all so I’m no stranger to them and we all post or like something someone else has posted on a daily basis. There are seven in the group and this way us seven are keeping tabs on each other.
- Closer to my home in Taiwan, all my fellow teachers have assured me if I don’t turn up for work they will come looking for me. The previous paragraph may create the impression I’m a shy and reserved person. I’m not and here in Tainan (like in all the other countries I have lived in) I make friends as I go along, when I’m invited to visit or to join a group for a trip, I always say yes. Twice a year I invite all my friends to a big restaurant to say thank you to them for including me in their plans, lives and activities. Although I know most of these friendships will fall by the wayside once I leave Taiwan, it does not hold me back from becoming part of a community here. I know many expats who live the life I do don’t bother making friends because you are going to leave anyway so save yourself some sadness by not making friends and having to say goodbye to them. I can’t be like that. I know I’ll be crying when I say goodbye to my friends at the end of my stay here, but that’s the option I choose.
I think Jenny was one who did not make friends and create her own little community. I also hate going to our agency’s training sessions but I go for the brief social interaction with other expats. I think its important but I don’t want that interaction more than once a month.
- I remember many years ago in some western countries people were asked to add there next of kin number on their cell phones saved as ICE. In Case of Emergency. That way a paramedic who found an unconscious person could just take their phone look up ICE and make the call. But those were the days when we all had basic little Nokias. Remember when you had to push a button three times to get to C? Now with smart phones where many people keep precious information passwords are required to get to the contact list so an ICE is not very helpful any more.
I will be doing a lot of research now to see how others deal with similar situations and I will write about it in another blog. In the meantime let me know what you think, do and or suggest.
*I changed her name for the purpose of this blog.