By Lee-Alison Sibley
I went to the Andaman Islands in April 2005, to witness the aftermath, the progress of reconstruction since the greatest natural disaster of my lifetime - the December 26, 2004 tsunami. And although I wasn't swept away like so many hundreds of thousands of others, while I was there I thought about the tidal wave that had swept over me as well - the very night of the tsunami, in my arms, my mother breathed her last.
Married to the U.S. Consul General in Calcutta, India, George N. Sibley, I am a Foreign Service spouse. My mother, Florence Blum, lived with us in India and I was blessed to be able to take care of her for the final two and a half years of her life while her health steadily deteriorated. What made that possible was our being overseas in a country where I could afford 24 hour/day nursing care, doctors who made house calls, laboratories willing to take blood samples while my mother lay in bed; even a portable chest x-ray machine, carried right upstairs to her room and set up just for her. In the United States, I could not have afforded all the personal service my mother received in India.
My mother and I were close, always and I was appreciative of her as a parent and grandparent. As my husband and I went from post to post, my mother, a transplanted New Yorker living in Phoenix, Arizona made the long trip to visit us in Jakarta, Indonesia and in Kathmandu, Nepal. Our two sons, Benjamin and Gabriel, loved her two to three month visits and all the gifts and affection she showered on them. My mother was also a great storyteller who enthralled her grandsons with tales about survival in the Depression Era and her stint as a U.S. Army Nurse in W.W. II. My father died in 1989, so it was my mom alone who went on a plane traveling for two days to reach us. That is why, according to her, she stayed so long with us at post - it took weeks just to recover from the trip!
By 1997 her health wasn't good enough to make the long trek to our home in Amman, Jordan where George was the Middle East Environmental Hub Officer and I was a teacher at the Amman Baccalaureate School. Mom had fallen several times, had two knee replacements, and was plagued with both osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, making walking very difficult. So, instead, we went to her home in Phoenix, and watched my once-active mother getting around in a wheelchair. Excess body weight also added to the poor health equation and she was spending increasing amounts of time indoors.
In 2001 we left Jordan and returned to the U.S. for a year at Princeton University where George was a Weinberg Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School. That same year mom was alone when she fell in her home and lay bleeding on the floor for 14 hours before her visiting nurse found her and called for help. Mom never wanted to live in a nursing home - she said it was "the road to death" and she would rather try taking care of herself, depending on the telephone to order food and to get help. When we visited her that year, 2001, we were shocked by how much she had aged. Three shoulder operations after her fall had sucked the lifeblood from her, so George and I tried to get her to consider tiered housing, but she was not enthusiastic and claimed it would deprive her of her independence.
In December 2001 we learned we were assigned to Calcutta. We would have lots of room in our official residence and a staff to take care of cooking, cleaning and laundry. We were "empty nesters" by then with Gabriel at university and Ben working in the U.S. Virgin Islands as a chef. While there was no international school in Calcutta in which I could teach, I could do charity work and return to my singing career. I would also complete the book I was writing about my four years in the Middle East - "Jordan's Jewish Drama Queen." I was thrilled to be going to India, but very worried about being halfway around the world from my mother.
In the spring, as our move got closer and closer, my worry increased, enough to make my husband consider some options. If my mother wouldn't agree to moving to a care facility, would she like to move to India to live with us? After my third "Really?" and my husband's "yes" I was convinced. I called mom and said, "Hey, do you want to move to Calcutta to live with us?" Three seconds later she said, "Sure!" and within a few months sold her house, gave things away or put them in storage and bought a one-way ticket from Arizona to India.
In September 2002, after we had been living in Calcutta for a month, I flew to London to meet my mother's flight and brought her home to India. Before she left the United States she told her doctor, "You know, I'm never coming back here."
Her life in Calcutta wasn't easy as her health suffered greatly after a fall in the bathroom in December 2002. Yet, her every need was taken care of and I was there for her whenever she needed me and whenever I needed her. As a nurse, she knew her situation would not improve and she accepted the gradual decline with her usual sense of humor, making her popular with her doctors and caretakers.
Because she was not on our official orders, she was not allowed to have the same benefits as other official Americans. The consulate doctor did not treat her when she needed help; we hired outside doctors. Her visa and other documents were paid for by us. Since she was just past 80 years of age when she came to India, she did not qualify for evacuation insurance either. These were all considerations, surely, but not impediments to her living with us. She slept in the room called "the Ambassador's room," the largest in the house, and even received a visit by the Ambassador himself when he came to Calcutta and she was already bedridden.
I often thought about my own future as a senior citizen. I, too, would not want to go to a care facility, but would my family be able to do for me what I did for my mom? Who would take care of me when I am elderly? Without George's career and our lives overseas, the option of home healthcare for my mother would have been nearly impossible.