I’m on an emotional tightrope (baby) this week. My Auntie in Liverpool died so I’ve been slapped in the face with a reminder that I’ve chosen to live very far away. I found out in an email from my mum. The time difference meant she didn’t want to call me in the middle of the night and wake us all up, or give me that worried, sinking feeling that someone had died, even though they had.
It hits home sometimes that I’m not there. I haven’t been able to go and see my uncle and tell him how sad I am and see in his eyes how grief stricken he really is, or how thin he’s getting. Or see my Mum and dose her up on grandchildren love and give her the strength to get through losing another sister-in-law that she loved. I won’t be able to attend my Auntie’s funeral next week and find out details about her life, stuff I never knew, then mime at an unfamiliar hymn. I will miss being reminded of all the family funerals I’ve attended, recalling the people we’ve lost and re-grieving them communally, while emotionally sturdy uncles pat my arm and talk to me like I’m still a child. I’ll miss the en masse celebration of her life that moves the grieving process to another level and the reassurance of overhearing snippets of conversations while ladies I’ve never seen before drink tea – “what a shame she’s not here, she’d have loved this”, “that was a lovely service, like they really knew her”, “doesn’t Bob look well”, “oof! This tea’s a bit weak isn’t it? But what a lovely spread”. I’m not there and I feel very far away.
Instead I have poured my heart out in a card to my Uncle and promised to tell the children stories of my Auntie – the trips we went on, what made her laugh, or how we used to enjoy watching the wrestling together on a Saturday with a 20p mix. As I grieved the news, Abe wanted to know why I was crying. “I’m sad because my Auntie, our Auntie has died.” He stroked my arm and I gave him an over-bearing hug and fed off his love. He doesn’t understand death but he won’t stop asking about it.
This week he watched Star Wars for the very first time with his Dad. As the Death Star was destroyed he sighed “well that’s Obi Wan Kenobi’s cloak gone”. It’s funny what we cling on to. Patti is more obsessed with marriages, proposing to me whenever she gets chance. I’m beginning to wonder whether my kids have been watching job ads for the ‘General Register Office’ when they could’ve been watching cartoons.
When I left our building yesterday the staff in their matching purple t-shirts had gathered in the drive-way in front of trestle tables adorned with offerings. As one man wai’d (bowed with his hands in prayer position) and the others waited their turn, I couldn’t help notice there was a dead pig and bottles of red pop sitting behind the candles he’d lit. When we first moved here such offerings struck me as odd, or unusual, now I’m used to seeing beer or a plate of rice swarming with flies on a shrine outside hotels, malls, or the 7/11. I wanted a photo but it seemed disrespectful. I asked James to find out from his Thai colleagues what the day meant. He came back within the hour to tell me it was a Chinese festival to respect dead grandparents. Death is a feature this week. In our house especially.
I’m not trying to bring you down, sorry if I do, it’s just I’m noticing a different attitude to death here than at home. There is a lot of superstition embedded in Thai tradition and culture. When we travel on the sky train through town, or look out our windows at the surrounding buildings, there are plenty of golden ‘spirit houses’ on the rooves. Usually adorned with colourful garlands in front of which people take a quiet moment and light incense. I always think it looks like a nice thing to do, like putting flowers on my Grandma’s grave (I never liked the idea of my feet treading where she lay and tried to lean over from the side – my own superstition). I learnt that shrines on the roof top are put in place when new builidings are built so as not to disturb the spirits already living there. It’s kind of like a countrywide re-housing project for homeless spirits (have this new home, and a bottle of pop) and an insurance policy against the arrival of unwanted poltergeists (though without the enforcement of a hideous bedroom tax – our government should take note).
On occassion I’ve wondered whether anyone robs from the shrines <insert scousist joke at will, but remember karma’s gonna get you>. When I researched what the shrines were for, I learnt that 6 years ago a man with mental health issues was beaten to death by by-standers who caught him vandalising a popular shrine along Sukhumvit Rd. I imagine this is enough of a deterrent for the light-fingered, but I don’t think its a regular occurrence, or one to be scoffed – somebody died at the hands of 2 murderers for whatever the reason. I just want to highlight that people here take this stuff seriously.
On a cheerier note – not really, I’m just lulling you back in – back to the subject of death. The Buddhist view put very simply is that death isn’t the end of life, it’s just the end of the body which is separate. When people die according to Buddhism, they go on to inhabit a new body and begin a new life. The way you’ve behaved in your past life will determine who you become in the next – karma. Well, that would make death easier to get your head around as a kid wouldn’t it? And as a parent instead of saying Father Christmas won’t come if you misbehave, we could ask – do you want to return to the next life as a Chuckle Brother? When Patti tries to rifle through my make-up bag she tells me “when I was older I wore make-up”. Perhaps she’s getting her tenses wrong, she’s only 2, or perhaps she was on Broadway, living a wonderfully glitzy musical past-life, and this life for her will be even more mega on account of the joy she spread along 42nd Street.
Abe’s just told me to close my eyes, then he built me a shrine on my desk made up of Gromit, Jake (from Adventure Time) and Pluto. I suppose what you offer is what you can afford to give and what you value, or what you think other people will like. I think his kindness in that simple act of love and sympathy is enough to warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.