Homage to Oma

Being away from home is hard because life goes on without you. It’s lonely to sit in your apartment FaceTiming your family as they stuff their faces with turkey and mashed potatoes, or open presents on Christmas morning. It’s hard to miss out on the every day things, too: the football games and fishing trips and barbecues. And it’s hard when you can’t be there to celebrate with the ones you love.

My little sister graduates from high school in a few weeks, and she’s starting college at Oregon in the fall; I won’t be there to cheer her on or to move her in. At 24, friends are starting to get married. Getting save the dates and invitations to weddings that I won’t be able to attend is tough. Knowing that many of my college girls will be reunited for a friend’s wedding in June, or that high school friends will gather for another in September, and I won’t be there sucks. It can be hard to shake the feeling that I’m missing out; guilt creeps in, like I’m letting people down—I should be there.

It’s a trade off: I am sacrificing being a part of the fun things at home, and I am choosing to have my own adventure abroad. Some days that trade off feels worth it. I get to live in a foreign country! I get to see and do new things that I would never do at home! On darker days it’s harder to stay optimistic: I wish I was home. It’s hardest when you can’t be home in the sad times.

My dad’s mom, who has always been “Oma” to me, got sick last fall. For all of my life she has been this impossibly thin woman, taller than me but fewer than 100 pounds. You would never know from her size that she cooks and bakes like crazy, using more butter than is recommended for anyone in week, let alone in one slice of cake. Giant pans of dinner rolls, chocolate sheet cake, every Christmas cookie you could imagine: she makes it all, probably with a cigarette perched between her fingers, the kitchen window cracked open to the cold, and a diet soda on the countertop. Honestly herself: no apologies.

Since falling ill, she has bounced between hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and assisted living facilities. Before I left, I went and saw her in one of these homes, looking even more small and frail than usual. At this point, she was still optimistic about a potential recovery and I didn’t want to discount that. I said goodbye, as if I was leaving for a year; in my head, I said goodbye with the possibility of it being for real. I’m glad I did. She passed away in her sleep last night.

Since hearing the news, one memory keeps coming in to my head. When my older sister, Riley, and I were little, we would spend the night at Oma’s apartment. As a kid, I hated sleepovers; I had a terrible fear of being the last one awake in a strange house, and this fear would keep me awake long after my friends had fallen asleep. But sleepovers at Oma’s place were ok. She had a big bathtub with bubble bath, soaps, oils, salts, and lotions in the scent of every flower under the sun. We would luxuriate (read: make a huge mess) in a bathtub full of these potions, and when we were ready to get out Oma would pull our plush towels—pink and purple for Riley and myself respectively—from the dryer. She’d wrap us in these cocoons of warmth and love, and I knew that if I needed her in the night she would come.

It’s funny that this, of all memories, is the one that stands out as I reflect on my Oma. We weren’t super close, but she was always around: for holidays, birthdays, big events, and family dinners. As I got older, the sleepovers ended and I saw less of her. But every time I did, she would feed me and tell me she was proud of me. That’s all a girl really wants, right?

It’s hard choosing to do something different: to live somewhere that makes it impossible to fly home for the weekend. It’s hard to miss out on the moments back home, and to miss the people who are mourning or celebrating without you. Because that’s what it is: a choice. I’ve chosen to be here, and despite the hard times and the homesickness I’ll persist. I know my Oma is proud of me. And I know that good friends and family understand my absence.

Surround yourself with people who value you and who support you. Nurture relationships that help you grow, keep you sane, and allow you to be the truest form of yourself. Value the people who tell you what you mean to them, the ones who wrap you in warmth and love and are there in the middle of the night if you need them. Make the effort. Send the text. Make the call.

Rest easy, Oma.

July 2011

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