By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
Living in Israel comes with many hardships, some of them known and some of them unknown. I expected certain dilemmas with the language, bureaucracy, cultural immersion and finances, for example. But there is one thing that I did not expect to deal with when I made aliyah, namely, experiencing loss from abroad. I believed that if I didn’t think about such a situation, maybe it would go away. As my boyfriend says, “that’s a problem for future Ellie,” as if I could put the problem off in my mind. So I did. Well, at least until it recently came to head.
A few weeks ago, I received an early Friday morning call from my dad. At first, I expected that he forgot that Friday morning is a weekend in Israel. I thought he called to ask a simple question, to update me on something, or just to talk. But when I saw that he had also texted me a few times, including a worrying “call me when you are up,” I knew something happened.
I always begin those conversations by throwing out a litany of the worst possible guesses of what happened – probably to make myself feel better when it isn’t the worst.
-“Did someone die?” I ask.
-“Is someone sick?” I ask again.
Then I hear my mom’s voice in the background.
-“Just tell her.”
-“Millie is very sick,” he tells me.
The rest became a blurry memory as I nearly stopped hearing and my entire body froze.
Millie was my beagle; the beagle that my family found at the Humane Society about nine years ago. Most obviously, we immediately fell in love with her. Over the next few years, Millie became part of the family. We joked that she became “more Jewish” after becoming a Rudee. What we first saw as a quiet, reserved and nervous dog became a sassy, playful and spoiled member of the family. I grew into a teenager and a young adult with my dog Millie by my side. I cannot count the number of times I hugged her and whispered into her soft, puppy ears worries about life – worries that passed nobody else’s ears, neither human nor animal. Her wise eyes that my family fell in love with at the Humane Society showed me so much love and seemingly, understanding. I always felt better after “talking” to her.
When I left for Israel a month ago from a visit to the U.S., my dad told me to “give a good goodbye to Millie.” I shot him an irritated look. I didn’t want to think about what he meant. I knew Millie was getting old, but she’s not that old for a beagle. I ignored his suggestion, believing that if I ignored it, the risks of her aging would also be disregarded.
Now I realize that I used this tactic simply because thinking about loss from abroad scared the hell out of me. For me, the fear of losing someone close to oneself is directly proportional to the physical distance between the two parties. That goes for our furry loved ones as well as for people.
I wish I had listened to my dad. Millie passed away this week. I said goodbye to her over Skype, but that did not ameliorate my feelings of extreme sadness and guilt for all the times I got annoyed when Millie woke me up early in the morning by jumping on my bed. If I knew about the cancer brewing inside her when she jumped on my bed, I know I would have greeted her with an immense amount of love, no matter the hour.
Now that Millie is gone, I’m worried about what this means going forward. What does this mean for the people of my family: my aging relatives, close family members and those who also, like Millie, live very far away from me? Ultimately, Millie is my dog. That does not mean that I did not love her as one of the family, but it makes me wonder what this would feel like if, G-d forbid, a family member became very ill while I was gone. I can imagine that the guilt for choosing to live elsewhere, and therefore not see them often, would heavily weigh on me. I’m sure American expats deal with loss and illness of family members abroad all the time, but I am totally unsure about how they deal. After all, we CHOSE to leave. Did we selfishly choose to build life paths 6,000 miles away over living close by? Is that really being independent and brave, or is it really just selfishly walking away from our families and friends who love us?
Of course, I realize that making aliyah was not a decision made on a whim, or something I chose to do “for fun.” Making aliyah was a decision that can only be described as a calling. Something inside of me was moved by Israel, and in turn, I felt as if I needed to physically move in order respond to the calling. I did this in part to make my life feel completely mine and to bring to my life a sense of fulfillment. Nevertheless, I do feel somewhat guilty for moving away from my loved ones. I would never want them to think that they weren’t “enough” to satisfy my sense of self and fulfillment – but perhaps finding these things apart from one’s roots is normal. I know I will continue to grapple with these questions far long after I am done grieving for my beloved Millie.
Those who live abroad, like myself, are never ready for bad news phone calls. But we know them all too well. At least in Israel, I know that whenever it does happen, I have countless people here in Israel to help me deal with whatever life as an expat throws at me.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Israel Girl” column (formerly “Aliyah Annotated”) for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.