It has been a difficult year. It began hopefully enough, with Eid seemingly on her way to recovery after major surgery less than a month earlier. The fact that she had been released from the hospital on our tenth anniversary — December 23 — seemed especially auspicious. But just three weeks into the New Year, she was back in the hospital with severe abdominal pain. She would remain there for the last three months of her life.
In my last post, I wrote that I wished that my father and Eid had been able to die at home. As one with a very tenuous grasp of the meaning of the word “home”, it’s perhaps odd that I should think this way. In any case, I later remembered another photo of Eid sleeping that I took 10 days after her return to the hospital, when she was moved out of her room for about an hour so that the air conditioner could be cleaned. By this time she had been operated on again, but we still had no idea how serious her condition was.
After spending three months in the hospital with Eid and then two weeks with her family after her funeral, I returned to Chiang Mai in mid-May for some time on my own. I still have two or three friends to hang out with here (most are now based in Rangoon, though they occasionally return for a visit) and I also spent a few months teaching, but for the most part I’ve been alone, giving me plenty of time to reflect on my life here and especially on the part that Eid has played in it. (Next month it will be exactly 10 years since I returned to Thailand after five years in Japan, so I often find myself thinking of the early days of our life together as husband and wife.)
I’ve done some writing since coming here, but have made very little progress on a couple of larger projects that I’ve been working on. Another thing I’ve tried to do is move most of my non-trivial Facebook posts to this blog. It was supposed to be a simple task to pass the time when I wasn’t in the mood for much mental effort, but I’ve found it quite time-consuming, so I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to closing the gap between January 2016 and November of this year. There are also quite a few posts that I didn’t bother to add, including this one:
I remember posting this because I liked the way it added nuance to a phrase most people are familiar with and think they understand. I recall it now because while this passage is about ways of taking hold of life, it also seems to apply to the idea of letting go. Just as carpe diem is not about greedily seizing the objects of your desire, “letting go” is not merely a matter of abandoning things you no longer want. Some effort and attention is required; in fact, for Buddhists, it entails a lifetime of practice. When Eid was in the hospital, she was encouraged to practice mindfulness of breathing; even her mother sat with her and tried to help her maintain her concentration by repeating “Buddho, buddho,” with each breath. Like most Thai lay Buddhists, however, Eid found it easier to use devotional practices to keep her mind on wholesome objects.
For my part, I have found that it helps to follow certain rituals. One has been to play a recording of Buddhist chanting that Eid asked me to download for her while she was in the hospital every Saturday night before I go to bed. It’s actually quite long — more than six and a half hours — so it plays through the night while I sleep.
I have also observed each Sunday since Eid’s passing by wearing the black mourning shirt that I bought on the day of her death and wore at her funeral. It’s the same shirt that millions of Thais have worn since King Bhumipol (Rama IX) died on October 13 of last year. Unlike most Thai mourners, however, I have continued to wear mine since the king’s funeral two months ago. But today, the final day of the year — exactly eight months and eight days after Eid’s passing — will be the last day that I wear it.
Eid died on a Sunday — April 23, exactly 13 weeks after she was readmitted to the hospital — so I attach a special significance to the fact that the year began on a Sunday and also ends on one. What this means to me is that Eid’s life was complete, that she lived a full and meaningful life from beginning to end. This is, of course, merely my way of finding closure, which I have hoped to do by reflecting on her life and the circumstances of her death.
Now that the end of the year is less than two hours away, I leave this as a final offering in her memory. It will not be my last word about Eid, but I hope that it serves as a lasting reminder of my love for her, and of my gratitude for all that she has taught me.
Thank you so much, Eid. I love you now and always.
Over the past two and a half years, I’ve spent nearly a full year in the company of the two people I loved most as their lives slowly came to an end. Dad died 10 days short of six months after our first meeting in more than 16 years, and Eid lived for just under five months after I quit my job in Chiang Mai to be with her after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer on November 21, 2016. (Dad’s death was exactly one year earlier, on the morning of November 20, 2015, which would have been the 21st in Thailand, where Eid was at the time.)
These two photos were taken during peaceful moments at home, before the long months in the hospital that lay ahead. A few days after the photo of Dad was taken, he was rushed to emergency after collapsing. The photo of Eid below was taken a few days after she was released from the hospital after her initial surgery, and less than a month before she was readmitted on January 22 of this year.
Both photos express my desire for them to find peace. I wish they could have died like this, at home, instead of among strangers in institutions (Dad in a hospice, Eid in a hospital) where doctors and nurses treated them professionally but impersonally.
Since Eid’s funeral at the end of April, I have returned to her hometown twice. The first time was in late July (I left on the 21st, my birthday) and the second was for a week in late October. The photo above was taken during the first trip, on the day before we held the 100-day ceremony for Eid. The photos below were taken on that occasion.
The second trip coincided with the funeral of the late King Bhumipol, who died last year on October 13 (six months and 10 days before Eid). The photos below show Eid’s mother and her sister watching the funeral on TV.
Since Eid died, the house has been largely uninhabited: Her mother and sister, the only two people still living full-time on the family’s five-rai property, both sleep outside of the main part of the house, which includes the living room and two bedrooms (the one that Eid and I used, and the one that Eid’s brother uses when he visits on weekends). These days, it is home mostly to Kanda and family members who dwell there only in spirit.
The third photo shows Kanda with the portrait that Eid’s mother wants to be used at her own funeral. Here it is again in a photo of Eid taken during the last month she lived in the house, between her release on December 23 of last year after her first surgery and her return to the hospital on January 22 of this year:
During my last visit, Eid’s brother told me that he would like to get his mother and sister to move into town. I can certainly understand why: They are both getting older and experiencing more health problems. The property itself is almost unmanageable, as it quickly becomes overgrown if it’s not tended to all the time. But it’s difficult to imagine the two surviving women of the family ever leaving the small patch of land that has supported them almost their entire lives (apart from the decade or so when Eid’s father was still alive and moving his family around the country because of his job with Thailand’s national railway, before he killed himself in 1971).
I have always been intrigued by this connection that Eid’s family has to the land that they live on, which is so different from my own experience of restless rootlessness. I’m sure that a large part of the reason I wanted to move there more than three years ago was because I have always had an unacknowledged longing for such a sense of belonging. (Ironically, it’s difficult to imagine a place where I — a non-Thai-speaking foreigner — would feel less at home than in rural Chonburi, among people who speak almost no English. Without Eid, my fantasy of building a life for myself there quickly evaporated.)
Here are a few photos of Eid’s mother that show her spiritual connection to the land of her ancestors (some of whom emigrated to Thailand from China):
Even though she lived in other parts of Thailand (in the North and Northeast) for most of her life, I felt that Eid also had a strong connection to this landscape. These two photos were taken during the month after her release from the hospital at the end of last year. (Her release coincided with our tenth anniversary, which we planned to celebrate in Canada with my family).
Finally, here’s a poem (accompanied by a video clip of a bamboo grove on the family property) that expresses my own, more tenuous connection to the land:
No Fixed Abode
This morning I awoke from a dream into another dream.
I dreamt that I lived in a house I had built myself,
And wrote poems wrought from bamboo —
From the sound of bamboo when it creaks in the wind
Like a wooden ship far out to sea.
I knew then that I was lost.
And with that thought
I finally awakened.
(When I was in the hospital with Eid earlier this year, this poem — which I wrote in August 2014, shortly before I decided to quit my job in Chiang Mai and move to Phanat Nikhom, Eid’s hometown — became a sort of mantra for me. It was around this time that I recalled this verse from the Dhammapada: “O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.”)
*Sung to the tune of “Finland, Finland, Finland”
Everybody knows that the most likely site of the Vinland of Viking lore is Newfoundland (makes sense, since the only known Viking settlement in North America was located at L’Anse Aux Meadows). Few realize, however, that the last Canadian Viking died just last year, in the city of Maple Ridge, British Columbia:
Dad had a wicked sense of humour, nourished by the absurdity of growing up Nelson. When he was in the hospital in Abbotsford, the city where he was living when I went out to see him last year, he received an unexpected visit from his brother Geoff, who I had called a couple of days earlier. Dad and Geoff had been “estranged” for quite a few years (“estranged” was Dad’s semi-ironic way of describing his relationship with his family—a posh-sounding word normally reserved for families that are as distinguished as they are dysfunctional), so they didn’t have a great deal to talk about. It was an awkward encounter that didn’t last much more than 15 minutes, and when Geoff left, Dad looked at me with a sarcastic glint in his eye and said, in a mock-melodramatic manner delivered in the stentorian British accent of my grandfather, “I can die now”—as if the only reason he had been clinging to life was so that he could see his long-lost brother for the last time.
Later, when Dad had been transferred to the hospice in Maple Ridge, a volunteer asked him how old he was. When he said 70, she seemed to be trying to calculate the year of his birth, so I said he was born in Croydon, England, in July 1945—not long after V-E Day, and less than two months before V-J Day ended WWII. The volunteer, who struggled with the sort of chitchat that she felt was part of her duty to the dying, didn’t have anything to say after that, so Dad stepped in to fill the lull in our conversation. “Too bad I wasn’t born just a couple of years earlier,” he said in a tone of genuine regret, as if he wished he had been around to live through the epic struggle against the Nazi scourge. “I bet I could have done some real damage.”
Dad was the only one of the four children of Ernest and Mona Nelson to be born outside of what is now Canada. The eldest son, Ernie, was born in Newfoundland when it was still under British colonial rule (having lost its earlier dominion status after going bankrupt, in part because of its contribution as an independent nation to the First World War). Geoff, who is younger than Dad, was born in Newfoundland after it became a province of Canada, and Anne, the youngest, was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Many years ago, I asked my grandmother why my grandfather had decided to move back to England from her native Newfoundland when the war was still raging in Europe. For a good 10 seconds or more, she just stared ahead blankly, as if she had never considered the question before. Then she looked at me with a bemused expression and said in her Harbour Grace brogue, “I don’t know. I wonder, was he all right in his head?”
The whole family later relocated to England again in the late fifties or early sixties. Dad told me that in those days, most Brits thought Canadians lived in wigwams and hunted beavers for a living. When I went there myself in the late eighties, it wasn’t much better. At a party in London, a woman asked me where I was from. When I said Canada, she asked me which part. I answered Newfoundland, but said it in the usual Canadian way, with the accent on the last syllable instead of the second, which sounds more like “f’n” than “found.” Thinking I had said “New Finland,” she said, “Oh, so you’re Scandinavian.” I didn’t bother to correct her.
It’s been a long time since I last visited my native New Finland (or, as I prefer to call it, New Vinland)—a very long time. After returning to Canada from London in the summer of 1988, I joined another uncle, Edgar (or “Huncle Heggler,” as I called him as a child, when I still had the Newfoundlander habit of adding aitches where they don’t belong and taking them off where they do) on a moving trip, delivering furniture from Toronto to St. John’s. At the time, Burmese friends my age were fighting to bring down their country’s dictatorship. Later, as I returned to Toronto to start university, they were fleeing to the jungles of the Thai-Burmese border, going into hiding, or being rounded up and sent to prison, where many would spend the better part of the next decade. (Throughout most of the nineties and into the twenty-first century, Burma’s prisons were the closest thing the country had to universities, as all post-secondary education had been suspended to prevent student activism, and the prisons were full of young people in the prime of their lives, learning what they could from each other in preparation for the day when they would be free to continue their struggle.)
Many of the Burmese friends I’ve gotten to know over the past 18 years (since I first came to Thailand to volunteer, first as a teacher and then as a reporter and editor for exiled media) have since returned to their home country. The six and a half months I spent with Dad last year came close to ending my own self-imposed exile, but now I’m back in Thailand, far from the lands of my ancestors.
Sometimes it has to make me wonder, with my dear old Nan, if I’m all right in my head.
And now for something completely different:
Another new year has arrived, and I’m wondering if this will be the one that finally sees this blog get off the ground. It’s been sitting in the shed for a long time, waiting for the right moment to take the world (or at least my immediate circle of friends and family) by storm.
Anyway, I won’t think about it too much. To get things started, I’ll just post this video compilation of photos from a two-week trip to Chiang Mai, my old stamping grounds, where Eid and I spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays with old friends. We stayed free of charge at our old apartment, thanks to our delightful former landlady, Khun Mod, pictured here:
It was wonderful break from the worries of last year, and a well-deserved one for Eid, who stayed behind in Thailand while I spent six and a half months with my father, who passed away on Nov. 20 after a long battle with cancer.
Who knows what the future will bring? But really, do we need to know? Just strive on with diligence. As the great Ajahn Chah says, “Everything is uncertain, don’t cling to anything.” (Buddhism is world’s only doubt-based faith.)
Happy New Year, folks. May we all have a good one.