late May 2018. Mawlamyine, Myanmar.
It is oppressively sunny, blaring, glaring. I’m in the upstairs living room with heat streaming in the rows of windows, sitting compressed under the heavy air, bleary eyed, frantically hunched over the computer, disheveled. Flights booked. Hotel for the unwanted overnight layover booked. It’s been ten minutes since I got the call.
Now, phoning my supervisors – one in town here, one in Bangkok – to alert them. We’re just on the cusp of a remarkably busy time for our project here, the final rush before the chronic rains of monsoon season muck up transportation to the villages we work with. But they understand, they tell me not to even think about that, they wish me well with concerned voices.
And now I anxiously text the taxi driver I usually go with for longer trips, hoping he’s available for this last-minute departure. And I send terse, uncertain messages to my closest friends and colleagues here.
Packing. What to pack? Going through the motions. I feverishly wander around the house, my home for the past many months, my abode since beginning full-time work in Myanmar. How does one pack in these situations?
And then, somehow, I’m on the road with the trusted driver, on the four-ish hour drive to the Myanmar-Thailand border. Steely clouds now staunchly cover the sky, the one omnipresent constant as we pass by a jumble of rice fields, tree-lined roadsides, rest stops and duck farms and villages and small towns, the occasional broken down cargo truck defeated by the steep winding road toward the end of the drive.
At the border, the driver is eager to be helpful and unnecessarily carries my featherweight bag for me as we rush to the immigration office. He earnestly wishes me well before he undertakes the return trip. I’m grateful that someone so kind was a key part of this journey.
After I make it through Myanmar immigration, I hike my barely-packed bag on my shoulder, eye the increasingly somber skies, and scurry quickly across the border bridge, over the river, past the transition point where large cargo trucks wait to officially move from driving on the left side of the road to the right. The rain starts down as I make it under the large roof sheltering the immigration complex on the Thai side.
I navigate my way through the lines of Myanmar nationals who have crossed the border for work, rush to the immigration window for non-Myanmar foreigners, and secure my visitor’s visa into the Kingdom of Thailand. More scurrying until I reach the outpost of motorcycle taxi drivers waiting for passengers, and, in rusty and poorly intonated Thai, ask for a ride to the border city’s small airport. A zippy ride on the wide, well-paved road, punctuated by quickly multiplying raindrops.
From here, the flight to Bangkok, where I’ll spend the night – there was no faster option within my budget – and then the long trans-Pacific crossing, where I’ll stare out over the impossibly white clouds for hours and hours and have no idea how to think or feel.
early June 2018. San Diego, California.
The afternoon is luminous with a sort of dense, suspended golden brilliance.
This after a morning swaddled in gray fleecy layers. I’d spent the night in my father’s hospital room in the Intensive Care Unit, alternating between resting my cried-out self on the small couch tucked by the window and standing vigil at his bedside as the ventilator gently whooshed, begging in my hoarse, plaintive voice for his unresponsive body to give me some clear sign: do we let you go? Or do we keep hoping for a miracle? Give me some sign, either way. Please. I can’t make this decision, I can’t bear to make this decision.
In the early morning, I stepped out into the lobby. I was shivering from the excessive air conditioning, from fear, from misery.
When the doctor stepped out into the waiting area and starting walking toward me, I knew. “His kidneys are failing.” Doctor friends had told me that this was the clear indicator for relinquishing any desperate hopes. His body had been fighting the flu, then bronchitis, then pneumonia, for almost two months. He’d been unable to breathe on his own for two weeks – that’s when my mom had called me, told me he’d been put on a ventilator and that the doctors had advised me to fly home to see him. And now, it was done. This was the sign I’d begged for, but not what I’d hoped for.
My mother and sister showed up just afterward. In the gloomy light diffusing through the large waiting area windows, I held them and told them that our decision was now very clear.
We waited until my brother could join us in the afternoon. The clouds burned off with the hours. The nurses removed the ventilator. We gathered around him, watchful. And very soon, it was over.
And now, we are walking out of the elevators one last time, through the hospital’s high-ceilinged, glass-paneled lobby flooded with saturated sepia afternoon light, and now we are taking our first steps out of the hospital and into the now sharply defined “after.” Carrying his belongings in bags on our tired shoulders to bring home. Without him. And wondering how are we possibly doing this right now – this practical task – how are we doing this, how are we going to just get in our cars and simply drive home and have dinner and brush our teeth and function now?
The sunlight, somehow, seems otherworldly, as if from another dimension. Is this real?
mid-June 2018. Mawlamyine, Myanmar.
Deluge. The sky is pouring its heart and soul out, forcefully expelling an impossible density of raindrops. Abrupt flashes of lightning, disorientating crashes of thunder. It all feels cavernous, and I sit, insignificant, in the profoundly dark living room, upstairs among the wind and rain and thrashing tree branches. It’s four in the morning; my body is still on California time.
I have never before witnessed such a storm, such fury, such echoing fury. It is overwhelming but also somehow an extension of me. Me, my grief, the new abyssal depths of turmoil that I had never imagined existing. The skies are grieving with me, unleashing a ferocious, all-encompassing downpour. Despair.
Why am I here? Why did I come back so soon? How am I going to cope, across the ocean from my family?
It is now fully monsoon season here. It will be months of almost continuous, somber rain, mold everywhere, mud and flooding and nothing ever having a chance to dry. And I’m realizing that this – this grief, this finding some way to exist – will take a while.
I feel so much more alone now than I’d expected.
late July 2018. Palawan, Philippines.
It’s been about six weeks. Somehow, I’ve been putting one foot in front of the other, enough to somewhat function, to work.
I’m on a beach and it’s dreary and damp. I’ve taken the day off from an intensive work trip here, rented a scooter and scooted out on the sleek black highway among the gorgeous lush Palawan hills, over to the other side of the narrow island, in the middle of a downpour, protected only by a rinky-dink helmet and a boldly blue poncho.
The waves are messily tumbling in disarray, but still surfable. I’ve rented a board from one of the almost-empty beachside restaurant-hostels and set up my beach day camp in one of their nipa-thatched huts on the sand. My out-of-shape arms are exhausted after one session, and I’m resting, half-napping, before going out again. I share the water with a small crew of local guys who effortlessly swoop into the sloppy waves, all of us small dots bobbing before a rain-splattered backdrop of mist and stately emerald hills.
A couple of days ago, I felt truly light again for some moments – the first time since May. One of my colleagues was driving me on his motorbike to a meeting, and the sun was shining through a brief window of clarity among the storm clouds. The breeze, the sun, the shade of the rustling leaves, and suddenly, joy.
Late August 2018. Conor Pass, Ireland
He is with us in this moment. Surrounding us.
I’ve been more on the skeptical side regarding possible visits from his spirit, but in this moment I’m undeniably immersed in his embrace, somehow feeling comforted and held close while also feeling my soul resonating into the breathtaking expanse before us, the setting sun playing among the receding curtains of fog out over the green fields and shimmering ponds into the ocean and the sky.
Not entirely unlike those Thomas Kinkade paintings he always loved. But less cloying.
We – the rest of our little family and I – reunited here in Ireland a handful of days ago for his official funeral in Dublin, his hometown, during which we were surrounded by relatives who showed us such warmth and care despite the rarity of our reunions. And now, we’re on a quick getaway on the other side of the country, just the four of us.
We’d just now been driving back over Conor Pass from the tourist’s “must see” village of Dingle back to our cozy guesthouse for the night. The guidebook promised stunning views here, but warned of frequent fog, and the latter is what I cautiously drove through on our way over the pass to Dingle earlier in the day. But on the return trip, the dense clouds and mist gradually faded, slowly revealing limpid periwinkle skies and delicate, angelic rays of light. I pulled the car over at the viewpoint, and we jogged to the edge of the steep drop-off to eagerly gaze, breathless, captivated, at the enthralling vista unfurling before us.
We are like children giddily gazing upon something magical, something immense, filled with wonder. And I don’t even have to ask the others; I know we all feel him with us.
We will drive down to the other side of the pass, find our way to a cliffside trail overlooking the pearlescent indigo sea, and frolic in the evening light with him, reveling in a new sort of deep-welling happiness and exuberance that I hadn’t known was possible.
Tomorrow, I’ll begin the long journey back to work and life in Myanmar.
And there, and in the many other places I’ll find myself in the coming years, there will be quietly astounding moments like this, and I will gaze up and feel – know – that all of it was somehow sent by him.
early June 2021. San Diego, California.
As I lie down in the sand, gravity seems to trickle through my body, percolating like the sand grains that shift under me. I am so, so tired, no room for elasticity in feelings or impressions beyond the surface. Tired from late nights working on Asia time while I’m here in California, juggling different contracts in my new existence as a freelance consultant. Tired from the grief of my family that surges this time of year. Tired from anticipation of my own grief. Tired from the uncertainty of the past many months, not being sure where “home” will be after this pandemic. Tired from being out of shape and surfing bigger waves than I’ve tackled in a while.
The gloomy marine layer started burning off a couple of hours ago, just around noon. It makes the day feel disjointed, starting out all heavily gray for hours and hours and then – abruptly – turning intrusively bright.
I’d set my surfboard on a small ledge, with the nose sticking out just enough to form a small patch of shade for my face on the sand below.
I don’t know how long I’ll lie here, now that I realize just how exhausted I am.
I don’t relish the sunshine and warmth in particular today. I just rest in it. It doesn’t seem quite like an idyllic summer’s beach day. Maybe it’s that the waves are crashing with more vigor than they normally do during the generally mellow summer seas here. They carry not only the energy but also the mood of their source storm somewhere out there. The cloudless sky feels bare, stark almost.
We’ll have some more weeks of June Gloom, the marine layer that lingers on the coast (often into July, sometimes even August). And then the golden crisp brilliance of late summer into fall. And then the temperamental clouds of winter, bringing all-too-precious rain and rare showy thunderstorms and frequent flamboyant sunsets.
I seem to have decided to not delve deeply into the grief these days.
This was written in response my brother Danny’s request for an essay on clouds and grief for Leo In Bloom Magazine’s June Issue: Clouds. Originally posted here.