We kneel down on a blue, plastic pier along the muddy Mekong River with a concerning breeze that provides a slight reprieve from the mid-day heat. P. Bon holds an off-white linen bundle with the remains of our friend. I have a small bag of flowers: Susan, Antonia, and Jason are here too.
Yesterday was her funeral. Most of us dressed in black or white and travelled to the temple to say our goodbyes. It was a difficult, intimate, and beautiful ceremony. Some of the other patients she was closest to chose not to attend, but we all grieve in our own ways. I was happy that they all knew they had the option to go. The Monks’ chants get more beautiful every time I hear them, though I have already tired of the funeral chants. This community felt even more like my immediate family as we remained at the temple for an extended time as the cremation proceeded until there was nothing visible when they opened the door the last time to advance the casket into the flame.
She had such a captivating spirit and she was quite an extrovert despite a stroke that left her unable to speak. Of the group, she was the most prepared to interact with a couple of foreigners who could not speak Thai. She would be content sitting by the turtle pond thinking, or watching the construction of the new building in her wheelchair. She was ecstatic anytime she had a 'canome' treat, received a massage from Susan, or when Sam (I talked about awhile back) would share his radio and headphones with her for an hour or so.
I had the honor of giving her individual care for probably 1-2 hours a day for most of the time we have been here. It was a lot of work, and she knew that. She always Y’d in appreciation when we were done. I think we were buddies, and I know she knew I loved her. She was funny, sarcastic, could occasionally be dismissive, and could also light up most anyone’s day.
She taught me a lot about life and myself. For instance, I used to joke in half-gest that if I had a significant stroke I would not want to be saved. She helped me see how selfish that position is. I imagine that she was not the woman she was before her stroke, but she handled it with grace. She still had a life. A simple life that was filled with happiness, sadness, joy, frustration, and value.
When Susan and I left her, she was toasting another patient with a green soda, a full mouth, and that giant, beautiful smile. The next time I saw her she was unconscious, and our efforts to save her were unsuccessful. Contrasting images affixed to feelings of powerlessness and failure that I imagine will stay with me for quite some time. Two days later I was dreading returning to work, I still feel like she should be at the room. Everyone is lonely, heartbroken. And I walk a challenging line of honoring her through showing my grief and remorse, while not burdening those I am caring for with my emotions and not diminishing them as individuals.
At today’s goodbye, P.Bon opens the cloth and whispers her name with a Thai blessing. The breeze briefly lifts up a few ashes, but with the faint scraping sound of broken porcelain most of her remains slip under the water and a few float on and near the cloth. I try to ceremoniously lay a few flowers in the water with her remains, but the quick current forces me to hurriedly dump the rest of the flowers into the fray. Like an abbreviated replay of our time together and her tragic departure, the end is dizzying, breathless, and painful - again.