When I first talked to my husband about getting my parents to the United States from Moldova, it seemed like a straightforward idea. We had been married for seven or eight years at the time, and the two boys were preschool age.
My parents had not met my husband, nor my children, not counting a six-month visit from my mom when our oldest was a baby. My husband was gone for much of that time as part of his active-duty annual training with the Army Reserves, so mostly for Mom it was a chance to see our life and my new home in a new country (I had left “home” at age 18 about four years prior to go to college and had not been back).
Moving my parents to a new country across the globe, a country that had nothing similar in ways of traditions and lifestyles, was, obviously, not the same proposition as having me leave the nest at age 18 in search of a new adventure (and away from the leash). But after years of wishy-washy talks, Mom surprised me one day by saying they would go for it.
By then, things in Moldova were desperate at best. As one of the former USSR republics, the country traded its old position under Russia’s thumb for political and economical turmoil.
Salaries were paid by the government irregularly — and sometimes in odd currency like television sets or commodities. The crippled mass transportation system in the capital, where my parents lived, left many people walking to work for an hour or more in a city where car ownership was for the elite.
Hot water was unheard of even in the capital. Hospitals reused medical instruments by washing them under tap water. Those who wanted semi-adequate medical care got checked in with their own supplies, complete with medications, and sufficient cash for bribing the nurses.
The young people were fleeing en masse to Europe, many of them using tourist visas as a ticket out. Moldova became prime land for sex traffickers, and young women followed promises of great jobs as nannies or waitresses, leaving their kids to be raised for grandparents.
When I finally returned home after 13 years, my task was to help my parents downsize their lifetime possessions into stacks that fit into six suitcases and make the journey to their new home — our home.
What they were leaving behind was obvious from the small crowd that showed up at the airport to see us off at 4 a.m. and waited around for more than an hour (Mom always had to be early so she wasn’t late). There were more of our relatives there than passengers getting on the small plane.
Uprooting emotionally from their network of friends and family (including my sister and her two daughters) was far worse than crossing the physical barriers and getting through the immigration red tape of their corrupt government.
The plan was simple: My mom, aka Grandma, would find part-time work and help with the household. Dad, who didn’t speak English, would create a garden (we made sure to buy a home with acreage) and do some woodworking, which he used to be in demand for. I would move out of my home office so they could have a bedroom.
The plan went awry within six months. My dad, aka Grandpa, was diagnosed with colon cancer (on the same day I learned I was pregnant with our third child). With no income and no medical insurance, they spent all the cash they brought — their life savings and proceeds from selling their apartment — to pay for medical bills.
During the 10-day hospital stay, Grandpa had severe confusion. For much of the time, his mind was back somewhere in the ’50s, back in his native village. He cursed and yelled at the nurses (in Romanian, thankfully) when they wouldn’t let him get out of bed.
As we went through a few chemo rounds and other postsurgery ordeals, the new diagnosis: Alzheimer’s.
That was about four years ago. Since then, Grandpa has become progressively more ill. He is no longer able to walk farther than a few feet without falling due to a new neurological condition. He still recognizes all of us but he forgets, within minutes, simple things like having Skype or phone conversations with my uncles or sister back home.
Fortunately, as Grandma’s command of English became more proficient, she has relied less on me to take care of all her affairs. And since they became American citizens (a day of great pride for her), they’ve been able to get Medicare and some token income through SSI due to Grandpa’s illness – which gives them a little more autonomy with having some spending money instead of relying on me all this time.
Our sandwich has changed flavors a bit, but I’m still the pastrami.
Now a part-time caretaker for Grandpa, I’m also the driver, the advocate, the medical care coordinator etc.
On the top side of the sandwich, I’m the children’s taxi, the household manager (Grandma cooks!), the homework whip-cracker, the go-do-your-chores nagger, the referee between the sandwich layers. Oh, and the primary bread-winner.
My husband’s great and involved, don’t get me wrong — and he’s the cheese, after all. But since I’m self-employed and coordinate my work out of a home office, I’m the one who has the flexibility to take everybody to doctor’s appointments, pick up the kids when needed, or take the calls from the principal (with an oppositionally defiant child, surprises are like the rain in the Northwest — always keep the umbrella handy).
In my culture, three-generational homes are common so for me, the adjustment was easy and eventually the rest of us found the grove in this sandwich.
But toss in a little cultural differences, a little homesickness and isolation due to being away from friends (for the grandparents), a little financial stress and a little clashing of ideas with the two very American teenagers, and pretty soon this panini gets more and more flavorful.
But love it or hate it, it’s our sandwich. And a little flavor never hurts.