Mothers in the distance


I miss him terribly, my son who went away two months ago to work in Amsterdam. Hopefully, only for a year, but no one knows.


These two months have felt like two centuries. When dusk falls, and I’m alone in our huge apartment, when I pass by his empty bedroom and fail to hear his key in the front door lock coming from work, I feel an immense sadness invade me. A sadness that fell over me the day I realized he was really going away – the evening he booked his flight, as much as I knew he had found himself a job there and was determined to go. Up to the last moment I hoped – against all reason, because I know this move is good for him, for his career – his employers would say “don’t come”, because of the pandemic situation. But they never did, on the contrary. Even if the hotel he’s working for has been almost empty these last weeks, due to the lockdown, he was most welcome and is happy and fulfilled. It is only I, the mother in the distance, who cannot get over this feeling of emptiness and solitude that has been my companion these last months.


I speak to him every day, and I see his dear face and we tell each other things and we joke, and we laugh, and those moments are precious. Today’s technology has made distance a little less painful.  I can see he’s well and happy, enjoying this new phase of his life, this new challenge. He’s in a safe place, and I’ll soon fly over to see him, and he will come back too at the earliest opportunity. Still, I’m sad.


But it could be so much worse.


The other day at the office, where we are slowly returning, one step at a time, I met the cleaning lady. She comes from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in Africa. We only get to see her at lunchtime, because she comes to clean in the early hours of the morning when we are still asleep; on other days she comes back after we have all left, getting home late at night, when we are all comfortably watching TV or preparing for bed. We all love her, because she has an amazing smile and always seems in a good mood, baring her perfect white teeth as she says “Hi” with her lips and her heart.


Knowing a little of her story, I truly admire her courage. The mother of three children, she had to leave them years ago – I believe around ten, now – to escape poverty and search for a better life. She emigrated to Portugal where she knew absolutely no one, by herself, with no husband to keep her company or give her support. She came to work, so she could send money to her children and help them survive. She told me she left them with her sister, and soon after her youngest son died of some disease. How she must have suffered, thinking perhaps he would still be alive had she been there to care for him. When she told me this story, I was shocked, and my heart went out to her. I could not imagine what she had been through. On that moment there was no possible smile on her lips, only a shadow over her face, the same shadow that hung over her heart, never to fade away.


Much impressed by her story, I took the habit of asking her about her children (the remaining two), who were still back home, with her sister. On those occasions her beautiful smile lit up her face, and she said they were fine. When I asked her if she was going home to see them, she said yes, I will, when I have the money, but for now I can’t, I need to send the money for their food and studies. It’s very expensive to go there, she told me. I can well imagine. Guinea-Bissau is not around the corner, and a cleaning lady’s wages will not allow for many luxuries.


So many years have passed since she has seen her children. She often talks to them, but so far, she hasn’t been back; neither have they come to visit her here, or to live with her. Once she told me it was her plan, for them to join her here, but so far it hasn’t been possible.


The last time I met her, some two weeks ago, worry clouded her eyes, and there was no smile on her lips. I knew why. There was a revolution, a coup d’état going on in her country. I asked her about it, and she told me she was terribly worried about her family, because the insurgents were too near the place where her sister lived, and she was not getting any reassuring news. In addition to the distance, the suffering, the loss of her small boy, the years apart, now she had to worry about the safety of her children, during a revolution – I can well picture images of horror going through her mind. They went through mine, and I had no children over there.


There was nothing I could do to help her, but mutter a useless, “all will be well, you’ll see”. I watched her leave, with heavy steps, and I thought how this was the first time I hadn’t seen her smile. Suffering had become a habit, I suppose, but this time it was a bit too overwhelming. These last days I have often wondered about her and how her children will be faring in this scary new reality, and I sincerely wish they are safe and well. I’ve been looking for her but haven’t seen her around.


The next time I am home, alone, and dusk falls, I will still feel sad because my son is far away. But I will think of this other mother, and her hard life, and think I have no reason to feel as I do. My son is only a mere three hours’ flight away, he’s an adult and happy and in the place of his choice. I haven’t seen him for two months and will soon be able to hold him in my arms. And, most of all, he’s healthy and safe. My feelings are nothing compared to the pain of this mother who has, and will still, give up so much for her children to live a better life. Even if that means the ultimate sacrifice of their growing up without her.


When sadness invades me, I will know there’s a much greater pain than mine. I will know I am privileged and feel grateful that in my life I haven’t had to make choices as hard as this woman has or needed her strength and courage. I will call my son and tell him everything’s okay, and then I will smile and start planning my trip to visit him. Because distance can break a mother’s heart, but some children are so much more distant than others.



Photo by Monstera on Pexels


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