Life

The winner of the Horne Prize 2020 is this poignant essay about homesickness amid the travel restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. By Steven Amsterdam.

The Horne Prize: There and here

When I arrive – mask on, goggles steamy – the man’s hip pain is already stable, so there’s nothing palliative going on and not much nursing to do.

“The grandchildren are all social distancing. It’s been quiet here.”

He’s from Glasgow, an accent that demands I lean in closer than 1.5 metres.

Since he told the Greek family next door about his cancer, the wife’s been dropping off sweets, which he’s hungry for again. Their son came over to mow his patch of lawn. The conversation never flows easily to the subject of bowels, so I go there. They are fine, even with all the morphine.

He asks about my accent. My visits are usually a one-sided intimacy, but this time he’s curious. If I reveal a little, he’ll tell me more.

“New York City,” I say.

His eyes widen. “New York.” I can’t tell if he’s picturing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Dog Day Afternoon or The Apprentice. “Do you miss it much?” he asks.

“Yes, but I won’t be going back for a while.”

“It’ll always be home though, won’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I came over by myself in 1962. Saw an advertisement for builders. Things were scarce back there, so off I went. Right away I fell in with some mates over here who had all come from back home. We had an agreement amongst us: we’d only marry local girls.”

“Why?”

“If I’d married Scottish I’d have been going home every two years to see her mother. I married a Melbourne girl and had the money left to build this house.”

There’s a shelf of ceramic ballerinas behind him that wouldn’t have been dusted since that Melbourne girl died.

“It was 11 years before I even went back for a first visit,” he tells me, like it’s a badge of honour.

“Do you miss Glasgow?”

“Home is home,” he smiles. “Miss it every day.”

 

As of the last count, more than 7.5 million Australian citizens were born overseas. That’s about one in three of the people you pass on your long pandemic walks. In the past year, another 200,000 took the oath and were given a little flag pin and a gum tree seedling in a plastic cup.

Home has always been a hard word for us transplants. It’s elastic. It’s here and it’s there, but not always in that order.

As far as home was last year, it’s further now. If we want to go back, we must give the Department of Home Affairs a very good reason. If the government approves, here’s hoping to get a ticket priced at less than a business-class fare. When we make it there, we’ll need a few weeks of isolation before hugging anyone. Another snag: travel insurance won’t cover Covid-19, so there’s no getting sick on this trip. When we’re ready to return, serious money and serious luck will be needed. International arrivals are currently capped at about 8000 people a week, leaving tens of thousands of people waiting for flights. If we make it back before the pandemic is over, we can look forward to the cost of two weeks in hotel quarantine before finally putting down our bags.

This hardship isn’t close to that experienced by the hundreds of refugees in what we still call detention, the 100,000-plus Australians sleeping rough tonight or the millions of displaced people around the world. On the list of existential problems or essential needs, what I’m talking about may fall below toilet paper. But still, it hurts.

 

Unlike the Glaswegian, I didn’t make a clean break when I left home.

After the September 11 attacks, a friend of a friend who knew about such things advised me to use up any United Airlines frequent flyer points in case the company went bust, so I came for a wander. I liked what I saw. The size and spread of the trees suggested that there was space for a few more possibilities here.

The following November I came back to Melbourne to live. My decision was driven not by need or despair or love. I just wanted to give it a go. The kind of life choice you make when you are about 20 years younger than you are right now and can’t picture yourself getting any older.

 

A few years ago, I helped Moreland City Council collect reminiscences from women who had migrated from Europe and found themselves in Coburg between the 1950s and 1980s. The purpose of this project was to put together a welcome booklet for new migrant women. The women I spoke with told me similar stories. Mostly their husbands had come for jobs; they had come for their husbands. They were in a new climate with no family aside from their young children. They spoke little English. A common report: I cried that whole first year.

One woman I interviewed, who had left a small town in Sicily for a workers’ cottage off Sydney Road, described transoceanic contact in the ’50s. She relied on the Capuchin friars in Hawthorn, who recorded a radio show that was also broadcast in Italy. A month in advance she would send a letter home to tell her parents when to listen for the show. At the recording studio here, everyone would line up and go on air, one by one, until finally she was given her moment at the microphone, long enough to say, I love you Mama, I love you Papa, and hope they had heard her voice.

 

When I arrived in Australia, I lucked into a house-sitting gig on the Esplanade in St Kilda. In short: I didn’t cry that whole first year. If I got lonely, I always had one of those phone cards from the milk bar, the ones that have you tap in a dozen numbers, wait for the tone, tap in a dozen more numbers, then will patch you through to home for three cents a minute.

Things kept working out here. I found friends, a partner, a purpose, a dog, chickens, a house with a pergola that is currently draped with dark purple wisteria, and Unlimited International Minutes with Telstra.

Things kept working out back home, too. I became a donor father for two friends, which pulled me back more often. With a son in Brooklyn, elderly parents in Manhattan and friends scattered all over the United States, there was no chance I would cut ties. And, like the girls the Glaswegian avoided, I have been going back yearly or nearly.

The view from these trips is, as my mother says, of a time-lapse flower: watching my parents lurch from their 70s to their late 80s; watching my friends and their children becoming themselves; watching my son go from diapers to high school in one sped-up shot.

He and his mums had tickets to fly here on March 15. Remember that week, when we realised we were playing musical chairs and the record had stopped? Run to the shops and stock up. No more offices, no more school. When the mind wandered – to think about a museum, a restaurant, a movie – there’d be a short circuit: Oh, that’s not happening anytime soon. And so it was with the idea of going home.

 

The 17th-century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer was the first to put a name to the condition, describing the phenomenon of Swiss mercenary soldiers who were incapacitated by their longing to return home. He called it nostalgia: nostos, for homecoming; algia, for ache. Excessive sighing and disturbed sleep would eventually progress to palpitations, loss of appetite and “a stupidity of mind”.

For centuries, nostalgia was a legitimate medical diagnosis. During the American Civil War, it could lead to a soldier’s furlough or discharge, as home was the only known cure. Five thousand soldiers were diagnosed; 74 died of it.

In the 20th century, nostalgia came to mean something less deadly – a longing for the past. The newer definition feels like a brush-off from psychology, an attempt to explain away a medical condition as a framing problem. You’re not missing a place; you’re missing a time and since you can’t time travel, you’re just sentimental. No one’s ever died of that.

Even “homesick” sounds like a distinctly soft condition, the diagnosis for a kid being carried away early from a sleepover. Still, psychological studies relate homesickness to separation anxiety, acculturation disorder and adjustment disorder. Among people who have moved from one place to another, the assumption is that everyone has a case, which suggests 30 per cent prevalence across Australia. The only variable is severity.

 

Holding a blanket around me with one hand and carrying my porridge in the other on a cloudy September morning, I sit down at the dining table and try to FaceTime my son. He answers – not always a sure thing.

“Cool. I’m making dinner,” he says. “Keep me company.” He puts me on the spice rack, just to the side of the oven. An orange sunset lights the side of his face. I know this kitchen well. I could count the number of steps it takes to bring a plate out to the back deck on this warm summer evening.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Baked ziti. I’ll make it for you some time.” He picks me up to consult a different screen.

“Have you made it before?”

No reply. His mouth hangs half open as his free hand moves things around the counter and oven. He’s focused on the screen, not on me. His pale skin is still clear and soft, with golden fuzz just becoming visible. This will be different by the next time I’m there.

“Okay. We’re good. The sausages are cooking.” He puts me back on the spice rack. “Guess how much I’ve saved from babysitting?”

“A lot.”

“Like new sneakers a lot. I’ll send you a picture. What’s up with you?”

“In an alternate time line, I’d be visiting right now, so I’m writing about feeling homesick.”

“I get it.”

“What would you say homesick feels like?”

“A stomach-ache.”

If I were conducting a homesickness assessment, I might use the language of pain management – direct the patient to point to the site of the pain, give it an adjective (stabbing, tight et cetera), and give it a rating from one (mild) to 10 (the worst).

“Is it dull or sharp?” I ask him.

“I don’t know.”

“Is it okay if I write about you? I always change the details, but you get a say.”

“Sure.”

“What name do you want to go by?”

“SuperAwesomeMegaDestroyer.”

“Done. What’s that sound?”

“Shit shit shit. The sausage. Gotta go. Love you.”

My handheld portal goes back to a dark screen and my own reflection.

 

A study of workers on overseas assignments tied homesickness, however transient, to impaired motivation, lack of team spirit and poor job performance. Although excessive use of alcohol or recreational drugs is common, these do not fall into the cures category. Successful approaches include engaging in team activities with locals and other expatriates to normalise the new place and to contextualise the feeling of displacement. Self-directed cultural learning of the adopted home is also recommended. Together, these strategies avoid what the literature calls “expatriate failure”, which in the early stages has physical manifestations such as frowning, grinding of teeth, constipation and unfriendliness, followed later by depression, immune deficiencies and diabetes. The more extreme the circumstances that caused the migration – and you can imagine a thousand scenarios grimmer than mine – the more severe the clinical response.

 

Halfway to Geelong, we hit a police checkpoint. I let my partner do the talking.

He tells the police officer, “I’m going home to visit my mother. She lives alone. She has heart problems and the lockdown’s been hard.” We get waved along.

His mum was pregnant when she came from the Netherlands. Her husband had already started working as a mechanic in Geelong while she was still on the boat. She cried that whole first year.

I stand in her backyard, admiring her cabbages and broccoli, while my partner breaks the rules to go inside briefly, just to unpack the groceries we brought; herring and rollmops, a block of Emmental, witlof, kohlrabi.

She tells me her daughter was supposed to drop by the other day, but at the last minute was too tired to come. First, this is reported as a wound, but then, without even a pause, she’s telling me about leaving home in 1957, what it was like saying goodbye to her parents. She looks at her garden, shakes her head, wondering out loud what her departure must have done to them.

 

I would love to drop by my parents’ apartment. #9A, home. Cook them dinner, do the dishes, put away some leftovers for tomorrow night.

Instead, I time my calls for the middle of my workday, 10pm their time, after MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow – at top volume, captions on – has rendered them informed and despairing about all that is broken and breaking in the US.

I like to think my call settles them for bedtime. If we Skype, it feels even closer. Plus, I can do a visual health check.

In the first months of this, when it seemed every old person was doomed to intubation and death, I consoled myself about the distance between us with the thought that even if I lived there, sensible precautions would put a screen between us in any visit. If they went to hospital, I wouldn’t be allowed in. I may as well be on the other side of the Earth.

Even so, I wonder, not out loud but often: What must my departure have done to them?

To the Skype screen—

In their bathrobes, they head slowly towards the computer, get themselves into position, each one in a chair at my old desk, leaving me with a clear, focused view of my high-school bookcase behind them.

This is nothing at all like being there.

My mother says, “We wish you were here to help us watch the news.” Tonight, Trump is like Hitler. When she’s feeling calmer it’s only Nixon.

My father tells me the Metropolitan Museum of Art has reopened, and recounts how they’re directing foot traffic, managing the crowds. “Everyone is managing to adapt.”

I turn my laptop to face the garden so I can show off the wisteria, which doesn’t know about pandemics.

“So lush!” my mother says.

If asked, I would point to my sternum, say it feels like a hollow ache, and rate it seven out of 10.

 

I once read that moving to another country makes you a stranger in two lands at once. Isn’t this feeling exactly what I signed up for?

 

Our nursing manager schedules psych check-ins for us. We’re taken off the road in groups of five for sessions with a therapist in the conference room. When prompted to speak, we each describe how disconnected nursing has become this year, how we miss all the little things we used to do. Holding out a supportive hand without thinking about it. Using our fingers to palpate a stomach for ascites or examine a new lump without having to put on a visor and prep for surgery. Or, at the end of a visit when we’re talking to a carer in a doorway and they start to cry, giving a hug.

 

I walk into another family’s home. The hospital bed is in the lounge room, with the matriarch in the middle of the action. This is more people than I have seen in one home since March. Three generations milling about, including a daughter who lives in Vancouver and just made it out of quarantine.

She tells me, “Thank God I’m finally home.”

I refill the syringe driver so the dying woman may be comfortable for another 24 hours. When I’m done, she waves over her son, who’s about my age, to come to her bedside. “He makes good lattes,” she tells me, grabbing his hand, proudly offering.

I decline and make a joke about trying to sip through the mask.

She smiles. With arthritic fingers she squeezes his wrist.

 

What am I doing in someone else’s house on the other side of the world, looking after someone else’s mother? I should be home.

Every time I hear that word, or even think about it, I’m knocked back with a symptom I haven’t seen in the literature – a kind of vertigo.

That’s not it. It’s not in the head. There are no tears, no outward indication of full-blown expatriate failure.

It’s quieter than that. And lower.

An amputated feeling, deep inside.

 

This much I know: one affordable seat on a flight back next week would not provide a cure. I don’t want to walk through New York City with all its temperature checks and closed restaurants and empty theatres. I don’t want to sit in Central Park with my parents, all of us in masks.

I want to go home.

By home I mean #9A, but in the 1970s, with my parents still young and my sister sticking her tongue out at me across the table when they aren’t looking; I mean riding the CC train up to high school and leaning my head out at each subway station to see if any of my friends are getting on; I mean standing next to my father at the smoked-fish counter at Zabar’s, holding up the little paper number that tells me we’re next; I mean my niece making me latkes in her cramped kitchen; I mean the couch of every friend there; I mean my parents 20 years ago; I mean my son as he is right this minute.

 

What I’m saying is that wherever you go, even if you find yourself in lockdown again, one in three of your neighbours is hovering between here and a there that’s an impossible distance away.

 

Or maybe you’re the one in limbo.

 

I’ve revealed a little, so tell me: How are you sleeping? Are you missing some place? Someone? Are you experiencing a stupidity of mind? Are you grinding your teeth? Where or when is home? Point to where it hurts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "There and here".

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Steven Amsterdam is a palliative care nurse and an award-winning author. His most recent novel is The Easy Way Out. He is also a PhD candidate in creative writing at RMIT.