We had a tough time in my wife Claudia’s family village in the European Black Forest. After the death of her father in early July, we stayed on to care for her mum. As carers, we didn't get to leave the house much. On shopping trips I saw apples on the district’s ancient trees ripen rosily as people walked forest paths and children played, enjoying Spring and Summer.
Four times we re-booked our flights home to Australia; unable to leave until we found good care for Claudia's mum. My boss was compassionate, but I knew colleagues and patients in our small remote town missed us. Our homesickness for the desert, with its red soil and dynamic skies, never went away.
In Europe we felt the limits of our physical and emotional capacities. We worked to show Claudia’s mum that we love her; that what becomes of her matters. We worked because it was the decent thing to do. Claudia’s mum was in and out of hospital. When she was in hospital, Claudia visited every day. In 3 months, I had one day off. One Sunday I stayed at home to rest, cook and get a sense of myself back. My wife has not had a day off. But friends and family visited, bringing cakes, hugs and normalcy.
As often happens, Mama’s physical and mental health deteriorated during her hospital admission.
Over the weeks it became clear to Claudia and me that the complexity and relentlessness of her mum’s care needed a team of people. All her mum wanted was to be in her home. While I talked about the possibility of a nursing facility, Claudia was determined to try to care for her mother at home. Our fatigue and grief mounted.
The work of care was not the only cause of stress. Money was already low after the emergency purchase of summer airfares. The overdraft and credit cards were consumed by costs of daily living. Meanwhile, our patient was sometimes impossible, especially with her daughter. Demanding, petulant, insulting — ‘Why can’t you fix this?’
This new dependency was especially hard for Claudia’s mum to accept. She needed Claudia to be her eyes and voice in the world, her arms and legs in the room, sometimes her final comfort in a sea of loss. Through the long days of pain and balm, need and supply, I reminded my wife that one person can not be all these.
Nevertheless, I saw Claudia stretch. I saw her grow. I saw her leave resentment behind, leave her grief behind and keep going a thousand times. Sometimes before sunrise she woke in tears of frustration and exhaustion. Through the day I made her food and drink or prompted her to make her own, watching to see if she had a little.
But her devotion was worthwhile. In hours of companionship and storytelling, I heard laughter from the room which had become her mother’s world. I took my turns lifting, turning, administering medicines, smacking my own lips as Mama swallowed her tablets with apple sauce.
As Claudia became more adept at the physical and psychological routines of caring, she took on more and more work. She was the one who got up at 4am when the bed remote control buttons — hard to see — made the feet and head of the bed go up at the same time. Or Mama cleared her little beside table and cold coffee and cordial were all over everything.
When I could, I spent hours on the internet, looking for the carer we needed. I deleted a hundred requests from workers all over the world — good-hearted people who could not talk the language. I don’t speak the language. I have been learning the basics under duress — ‘Open the window, please’, ‘My foot is stuck. Please move it.’ I know the word for pain now. I know how to say, ‘It’s very hard.’ We had to find a person who understood.
Sometimes, also, my job was to keep up connections with our life at home — paying bills, corresponding with friends and family. After the fourth re-booking of our tickets, I emailed a friend to say that the return to our lives was again postponed. ‘I’m a bit worried about your visa,’ he wrote. I hadn’t thought of that. I checked.
The three months I thought I had to stay in Europe were actually ninety days. I made phone calls on Day 91. It was Day 92 when Claudia took me to the Foreigner’s Office in a complex of council buildings in a nearby town.
Through a revolving door, we entered a waiting room full of refugee- and asylum-seeker families. Whole families overflowed on and around the plastic seats. Children were dressed in their best and being well-behaved. A compassionate Egyptian man was the receptionist and organiser.
‘You should have brought your wife,’ he said to the man in line ahead of us. ‘She is listed on the application, too.’ ‘I forgot about her,’ said the man off-handedly. ‘You don’t forget her next time,’ said the receptionist, his lips tight in fatherly disapproval. Renewing his good humour, he greeted us and listened to our story. He made a phone call, went to another office down a concrete hallway, to find us someone who could help. We got a number from the machine and waited.
The administrative officer who saw us was a weary, heavy woman who avoided eye contact, as if she spent too much time with distressed people she could not help. She had a photo of couple of flowers from home in view of her desk, taped to the concrete wall.
’You know, during this time, my father has passed away. We nursed him. And we have been nursing my mother, who has become severely disabled. Couldn’t immigration make some allowance?’ asked Claudia, my advocate. ‘They really don’t care,’ said the officer, looking Claudia in the eye.
She explained to Claudia that I needed to be registered at Claudia’s parents’ address in Europe. Because there are so many people seeking new homes in Europe at this time, the required documentation meant that I would have no other address in the world while the documentation was in force. Claudia could rescind it for me in a few weeks so that I would become a resident in Australia again.
In the meantime, my only legal address would be the place I was no longer allowed to stay.
We went to a string of offices, got passport photos taken and bought compulsory insurance. Once or twice we were treated harshly by people who didn't think people like us should exist.
The result of our efforts was a piece of paper stating that I was being forced to leave the country. Usually granted to people who have been in detention or prison, the purpose of the paper was to allow me to leave without penalty, but the paper itself was a kind of penalty, it seemed. At least this would make it less likely that I would be forbidden to return to the country, explained the lady admin, when we saw her the next day. ‘All will be well,’ she said. Giving me the completed form, she met my eyes and smiled broadly.
I had planned to leave anyway. After such a long time and so many false starts, I needed my life — my home, my job. I needed to make some money. But now I had no choice. And Claudia, without that carer in the home for her mum yet, had no choice but to stay. On my last day there, I arranged for our best applicant to come and stay with Claudia to be trained into the position. She would arrive the day after I left.
We had a drawn out and emotional farewell in the days leading up to my departure. When I left, last Tuesday, Claudia came to the airport with me. We left the house in the chill darkness, promising Mama Claudia would be back for her 7am meds. I didn’t notice the sunrise. At the check-in desk, Claudia arranged for my baggage to be booked through all four flights I had to get to Australia. I appreciated that. She was not allowed to come through security with me, though, so I left her with an awkward kiss on the cheek. We separated under the iron gaze of the man working on the electric-gated barrier.
Later that morning, after two domestic flights, I was finally to leave the country. The immigration officers were fresh-faced, amenable men, younger than my son. They shared a perspex booth.
‘During this time you did not go anywhere else? Not even a weekend in Paris?’ asked the officer, leafing through my passport. He discussed the form I had for overstaying with his colleague.
I thought of long days when a trip to the shop was impossible, when leaving the house for a walk in the neighbourhood at sunset had to be negotiated and planned. ‘No, I really can’t say I have been anywhere. We barely left the village,’ I said.
‘Is that really true? Are you sure? Not a little trip to see family in Austria?’ ‘No,’ I said.
‘Then you will have to see the policeman. Wait over there,’ he said with a sigh. He made another phone call and then called the next in line.
The policeman, too, was young. His fair skin showed marks of a quick shave. He continued the same line of questioning and suggestion. ‘Think carefully,’ he said. ‘Are you really sure there was not just two or three days you were away over the border? It was a long time. You might have forgotten a little trip.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘We really did not go anywhere.’ I was too exhausted to be able to tell any kind of story. I had no mental energy to think of a lie or to deal with any consequences of telling such a lie in a foreign, formal situation. So I told the truth, not knowing what the consequences of that would be, either.
‘We will have to go to the police station, then,’ he said.
The airport police station was behind several sets of doors. The station was basic and tatty. I was put in a room with walls marked by boots and baggage. It had the furniture of police stations all over the world — pine benches, a worn table with grey steel legs. A mirrored window had a flashing light, some kind of alarm, on the other side of it. I straightened my posture. The tattoo on my foot showed above my travel worn shoe. I pulled my foot back under me.
The policeman returned after a while with forms he had typed up. I had to correct my name and tick a box under marital status that said ‘civil union’. He went back to re-make the form. Crossing more boxes, I declined to make a statement or consult a lawyer. Doing so would have meant I missed my flight — the next leg on a journey of several days. If I missed my flight things could get more complicated. I knew that having no time to explain my circumstances or get legal advice could be costly, too.
‘This is the criminal charge,’ the police officer said, showing me another form. ‘Because you were already two days past your ninety days when you went to the Foreigner’s Office we have to charge you with overstaying your visa.’
‘There will be a hearing.’ He must have seen my apprehensive look. ‘But the judge will say ‘This is only two days, what is this rubbish?’ and nothing with come of it,’ continued the policeman. He gave me a form with a phone number to call and check on the progress of the case if I needed to. ‘But you won’t need to,’ he said.
‘You have a lot of attention to detail,’ I said to him. ‘And you are a very honest person,’ he replied.
He took me back into the main airport then, with its international clientele all waiting to go somewhere. It was a world of shops selling luxuries and food places with dark, pretend wood facades — all meant to lull weary and stressed people into indulgence. Sensing a kind of freedom — overshadowed by leaving Claudia, the centre of my world — I went to the gate. My flight was boarding soon. In the waiting area I saw another woman with a tattoo on top of her foot. She was at work, in corporate uniform, but the curlicue of ink on her foot served as a reminder of her joy and freedom. My own tattooed foot seemed to sing in response.
Later in the plane, as I looked out over the deep green forest and little villages of the countryside, the flight attendant offered me an apple. I thought of the apple blossoms scattered on the ground under ancient trees behind Claudia’s parent’s house when we arrived in the Spring in June. Now, Summer almost past, I thought of the reddening fruit. As I ate the apple I felt that somehow in the gentle Autumn, in spite of all that’s rotten in the world, good things have grown.
I spoke to Claudia yesterday. Her mum and the new carer adore each other. ‘Train her!’ I said. ‘So that you can come home’.