New Beginnings: Expat Empty-Nesting
By Sue Mannering
I’m heaving with sobs, standing in front of a Talipot palm, Corypha Umbraculifera, in a blue tank top, dark with sweat and perspiration trailing down my legs and soaking my socks.
I had jogged through the main gates at the end of Main Gate Road in Singapore Botanic Gardens. The gates are wrought-iron lace and colored the same light grey as the Singapore sky at sunset. I then jogged along a narrow path fringed with several species of plants with some tall enough to give welcome respite from the inevitably yellow day. The path opened into a grassy area.
That’s when I happened upon the tree. “Look Up,” a sign exhorted me, and as I did I saw what looked like an upside-down candelabra sprouting from the very top of the palm and towering over its umbrella leaves. A warmth spread across my chest and I smiled as I realized there were countless tiny pale emerald buds along each arm. Those miniscule flowers appear luminous white in the early morning and glow gold as the sun sinks. The trunk of the tree is covered in green vines that bear countless, perfectly round, bottle green leaves like a barber’s pole decorated with green polka dots.
After it’s exhortation, the sign prefaces its information about the tree with a statement.
“Every end has a new beginning.”
I stopped jogging and read on and learned that this roughly eighty-year-old tree flowers once in its lifetime and will die after it produces 24 million flowers and hopefully some seeds. Tears started streaming down my face and I put my hands on my hips and tried to take in air. I’m saturated, suffocated, with this new tropical environment after living seven years in the desert, and I’m saturated with emotion too.
What did I feel? Sadness that this tree could produce such a display – just for me it seems, as I was alone – and then die. Grateful that I could witness this late bloomer, in a glorious instant, showing off. And something else. This tree, in silently living and towering over the gardens for decades, then indicating death with a floral show that took my breath away, had affected others enough to draw attention to it and to state a simple truth. Every end has a new beginning. This idea had shocked me into other feelings – feelings I’d kept pushed down, deep in my chest, and the sight of the blossoms and their meaning had my feelings up and out. Every end has a new beginning. A concept both freeing and frightening to me.
I had come to Singapore already an expat and a trailing spouse. A move is exciting with new places to explore and learn about, a new language and culture to discover. But this move was different. This move was without our three children. They had become adults in our last home, Dubai, and had one by one moved back to our home country, Australia – the last doing so just as we moved to Singapore. I left Dubai, my desert home, my life for seven years, and said goodbye to the friends I made there on auto pilot. We expats know about this, we have seen the transitory nature of expat life and, to protect ourselves from heartache, we close a little bit of ourselves off. Another friend leaving, another family to farewell; over the years I watched them going outside myself. I watched them with some detachment because I knew that, one day, that friend, that family would be me, my family.
Departing is loud. The noisy farewells, the hugs, the preparation. “We’ll keep in touch,” we promise each other and we mean it. I had my teaching, my dancing, my socializing, my farewells, my last child’s final year of school to wrap up, graduation ceremonies, proms, organizing paperwork, summer holidays, then moving house, packing and throwing away. How light it felt, how freeing to be rid of all the junk and clutter accumulated after so many years.
It is silent in a new country. No schools, no job for me yet, just saying goodbye to my husband each morning and watching him drive away as I turn to tackle the final touches on settling in.
It is quiet in our new abode – a new beginning as we empty-nest in Singapore and my mind is constantly obsessed with my children in another country, studying, working and partying, going about the business of their lives without me. They no longer rely on me for anything practical, like meals or transport, and my constant checking on them is annoying to them. I have to learn to let go; no longer in control of their lives but totally in control of mine. I have the time to watch a tropical rainstorm; I flinch at lightning as it streaks across a flint sky or hits earth just outside my glass sliding doors; I jump at cracking thunder and listen to the steady drum of rain. Droplets of water fall hard and fast like thousands of glinting needles, hitting the ground so sharply they flick back up.
I set about establishing a routine. Shopping for two is an adjustment, as I don’t need to stock up on my children’s favorite things, but I will when they visit, and that comforts me. I have time to walk the aisles and study the products, many in not only a different language but also a different script. Some foods are strange to me, but I look forward to finding out how to use them. I discover my new running track, the Botanic Gardens, and as I jog past snakes, turtles, swans, monitor lizards and strangers, I wonder if I will be lonely.
The tree had a hidden surprise in store for me too. It is not native to Singapore, rather India and Sri Lanka, so it’s an expat too, growing roots and thriving here, surrounded by nature.
Six months later I stand in front of the tree with my 34th guest, my youngest sister on a solo visit. Our situations are very different; she lives in the country of our birth and her nest is full. But she is experiencing her own new beginning. She has moved states and, in Australia, that means a 10-hour drive. Her new beginning at a beachside town means the end of almost daily meetings with our other two sisters whom she had come to rely on when her babies came along. The little intimacies, words of advice, the eyes watching over her parenting were gone, yet her children now have the opportunity to wander the beach every day in a warm and laid-back environment.
I point out the sign so she can discover the tree for herself. She looks up and I watch her eyes widen and hear her intake of breath as she sees the delicate flowers, perched at the top of the tree, light green in the mid-morning. A slight wind crosses the gardens, causing the candelabra to wave and petals to swirl down onto the grass. Then she reads on, and I see her head shoot up as she calls out, “Oh no! It’s dying.” Her voice is strangled and thin. She puts her hands out to block the words on the sign and a second later her shoulders drop almost imperceptibly as she accepts the terrible beauty of the tree. Then she cries too.
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