Skies Revolve

Skies Revolve

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.

Majestic.

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.

Minutes & lifetimes

Minutes & lifetimes

Ten minutes. Ten minutes of sitting on the edge of a pool somewhere in a suburb of Jakarta, eyes closed, breathing steadily, legs dangling in the water as I tried to not let the occasional mosquito fly-by distract me. At the end of yet another harried day of passively commuting through Jakarta’s famed traffic, tortuously moving from government office to government office in my quest for a foreigner research permit, I found these ten minutes of quiet back at the guesthouse.

Ten minutes that set into motion a seismic shift in how I approached my complex, often fraught, relationship with my father – who, at the time, was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from me.

I had been struggling with depression for several months, though an extended research trip to Thailand and Indonesia helped keep me busy – distracted – and superficially fulfilled and somehow able to eat enough food to function (often a challenge for me when the mental doldrums settle in). To help with the ache of emptiness, confusion, and loneliness that still lingered densely in my stomach, I sought solace in a bookstore in Bangkok early in my trip. That’s how I first met the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, in the form of a modest little paperback that seemed to call to me from the shelves: the sun, my heart. It was the warm embrace my soul needed, as saccharine as that sounds.

By the time my work brought me to Indonesia, my reading brought me to a section of the book entitled “My Love, Who Are You?” :

Some day, if you need a topic for meditation, choose one that you care about… your “self,” or the “self” of the person you like the most, or the “self” of the person you hate the most can be the subject of your practice.

…You have to become that person. You have to be one with him or her, to worry about what he or she worries about, to suffer his or her suffering, to appreciate what he or she appreciates.

I decided to try it, hoping for some sort of illumination that might ease my melancholy feelings of disconnection, but also just happy to have something besides work to at least temporarily distract my mind from its own heaviness. I started with someone easy – someone who I had relatively uncomplicated feelings about: my mom. I set my phone timer for ten minutes, settled in, and began deep, calming breathing as my mind embraced the question suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh: “My love, who are you?”

For the first time in my life, it occurred to me: wow, my mom had – with my dad – packed up her life, her three small children, and left her home country to move across the world to a country where she knew nobody, where she would constantly be speaking in her second language, with a culture and lifestyle vastly different from the one she’d known her whole life. Wow.

I loved her, adored her, admired her, but had never taken the time to try to understand her experiences as a person – a realization that humbled my unquestioned assumption that I was a loving, kind daughter.

The next night, I tried a more… challenging… person. My dad. A loving, exuberant person whose joyful energy was tainted by a short temper, tendency toward petty bullying, explosive impatience, and a frustratingly limited ability to focus on the realities and logistics that his family needed. Over the years, these negative traits exacerbated the tough times our family went through, and we all suffered for them. I held great love for him, but also, great resentment.

Over my ten minutes spent meditating on him, I found unexpectedly deep reserves of compassion toward him. I realized that his life had not turned out according to his dreams – and brilliant potential – and that this was a source of suffering for him, a reason to not feel particularly good about himself. I realized that every reactive response I gave to his negative outbursts did nothing to help with the underlying disappointment he felt about himself. I saw that, even though my sharp words and censure might be “justified,” they added to his pain and really achieved nothing. And I saw what a remarkably optimistic, joyful person he was at his core, and how he was eager to show us his love for us, even if he didn’t quite know the best ways to do so.

Wow.

This poolside meditation on the other side of the world evolved into a huge turning point for how I interacted with him, and our relationship became more kind, more peaceful, for the years following. This transformation is all the more precious to me since his death three years ago. Those ten minutes helped me find a way to enjoy the all-too-limited time we had left to share. They’ve motivated me to try to keep such mindfulness alive in my life, to pause and reflect on the people I care about, so that our precious time together can be illuminated by genuine awareness and acceptance.

I’m by no means emotionally fluent in this practice. I won’t pretend that my actions toward others are purified of any misunderstandings, frustration, or lack of sensitivity – far from it. I have to actively remind myself to set some minutes aside, to temporarily shed ego, to open my sometimes vulnerable and aching heart to new realizations. And I have to learn more how to accept that this is not a practice driven by the notion of “fairness” – that the people in whom I invest time in trying to understand will not always return that kindness.

When I do find my way back to this practice, these beautifully unfolding minutes, I find greater peace in my life, no matter what others choose to do with their own minutes.

One of my last interactions with my dad would strike most observers as fairly bland. I have chronic pain in my left upper back – near my shoulder – from an old muscle injury, and it had been flaring up during a visit home from Myanmar, where I was living and working at the time. On my last evening there, he walked up a bit shyly to the desk where I was feverishly toiling away on last-minute travel logistics and work tasks that needed to be done before I boarded my flight. He gently tossed a small package toward me. A shoulder brace.

“Hi honey… I saw this on the TV and thought it might help with your shoulder, so I found it online and ordered it.”

My knee-jerk reaction in the past would have been irritation. Yes, I know, that sounds remarkably unappreciative and bratty, but – without getting too much into our family history – he had a long-running habit of wasting money on overhyped informercial products, even when there wasn’t money to spare. The purchased goods mainly ended up taking space in the chaotic, tangled mess of a garage. The often pointless products baffled me, and his gullibility as a consumer and his disregard for the realities of our financial situation had frustrated me countless times over the years.

A faint tremor of that irritation flared up, but I was moved by the kindness of the gesture. I looked at the diagram on the packaging: a set of straps to help keep the shoulder stable.

“I think it has magnets or something which might help with the pain,” he offered.

Further examination showed no magnets or any other pain-relieving features.

Striving to express the kindness and appreciation I felt, I softly said, “Oh, thank you, Papa… that’s so nice… but I don’t think this will help. My pain isn’t quite in the shoulder joint, and I think this is just meant to keep the shoulder stable. Are you able to return it?”

He was downcast, but he tried to cover it up: “Oh! Oh, I see. Yes, it was confusing to order with them. I saw an ad for something with a magnet in it that might help with the pain, but it was for the wrist or something, so I tried to find one for the shoulder and back area, but it was so confusing…”

“Yeah, that can happen… Thank you, though – it was so thoughtful!”

I could sense he was still disappointed, but I found myself immediately sucked back into the world on my computer screen, and he slowly walked out of the room.

My heart kept tugging at my mind’s hem, refusing to let me focus on work. I tried, impatiently, to shoo it away – “What? It was a nice idea for a gift, but it’s useless, so I thanked him and just nicely suggested he return it to get his money back. He’ll be fine!”

After some minutes of this, I paused. I closed my eyes. I looked inward to where my love and empathy for him dwelled.

Yes, I had been gentle, but he was still disheartened that his gesture of love had not been as helpful as planned. And, though I could rationalize that this situation was “no big deal,” his feelings still existed, and they mattered to me.

I scurried out to the living room, where he sat in his armchair, his TV-front refuge. I kneeled down next to him and put my hand on his arm.

“Papa… I’m sorry that it wasn’t what you wanted to order. I really appreciate you trying to help me. It’s so sweet. I just didn’t want you to lose money on something that wasn’t going to be used. I’m so sorry. It was such a kind idea!”

His dismay evaporated, his usual chirpy energy quickly rushing in – just a small bit of reassurance and extra kindness was all he’d needed to buoy his spirits. “Well, sorry honey, I really hoped it would help you. These companies need to make it easier to know what you’re ordering!” And so commenced some perky chatter on the logistics of online shopping.

That was my last evening of normalcy with my dad. The next time I came home, just over a month later, he was in a hospital bed, on a ventilator, unable to speak. He died a couple of weeks after that.

One of the memories that I clung to in the days, weeks, months following his death was that evening’s exchange. That decision to take just a handful of minutes to pause, to reflect, to show my love to him when he needed it, even if in such a seemingly trivial way – that decision and the feeling of connection, of peace that it brought both of us.

I still, from time to time, search out that memory and turn it over and examine it and gaze upon it with gratitude.

Originally published in Leo in Bloom Issue 01: From Awareness to Acceptance

Rounds of the Sun: Commemoration in a time of Pandemic

Rounds of the Sun: Commemoration in a time of Pandemic

My father died in 2018, of pneumonia following a brutal flu infection. The experience of watching him wither away on a ventilator, and the profound, immense world of emotion and realization that I fell into, changed me in ways that I am still trying to grasp. This is something I wrote about the emotional struggle of deciding what to do when I was on the brink of being stranded in Myanmar as the COVID19 pandemic exploded.

Originally posted on Medium

My father’s birthday was last week. He would have been 76. As with so many of his birthdays, I was far from home, though the situation this time was certainly more surreal. I was whiling away the days in my partner’s apartment in Yangon, self-isolating instead of pursuing my original plan of meetings, field visits, and trainings for my 8-week work trip. I had arrived just as the COVID-19 situation started to grow more frenzied, and had been instructed (several days later) to self-isolate as a recent arrival from the US.

Two years ago, I was also in Yangon, also missing his birthday. I was living full-time in a smaller city about 6 hours away, but had come to Yangon for meetings and for an important mission: to find an appropriately odd birthday present for my dad. I went to one of those higher-end souvenir shops in Yangon, the sort of establishment that makes me feel a slight grime of “expat” privilege with its higher prices and skewed clientele, but that also does wonderful work supporting social enterprises. Within moments, I’d found the perfect gift: a papier-mâché dog, painted orange with a cacophony of colorful patterns, modeled in a permanent “play bow” with a golden lampshade hanging above its big, cartoony eyes from its elongated tail. It was the kind of whimsical, impractical thing that Papa would delight in.

It had taken years to figure out what gifts he would reliably enjoy, but I’d learned from two recent successes: a surrealistic metal-and-stone roadrunner sculpture from Baja California and a tacky plastic “hula dancer” figurine (solar powered) from Honolulu.

I presented the belated birthday gift during my visit home the following month, when I had time off work for Myanmar’s Buddhist New Year holidays. Papa was indeed delighted by the loud dog lamp, and by everything else about my visit. He was always delighted when we were all reunited under one roof: “Well, this is wonderful! My little family, together again!”

Mark, my partner, had traveled with me, and Papa adored him — they had a night of card games with my brother while I was out with friends. Delighted. We had a lovely outing to the beach with our dogs. Delighted. We went to play tennis, for the first time in years. On the breezy car ride home, he kept joyously declaring: “This is my dream! Playing tennis with my family, on a sunny day! We’re going to do this every weekend now!”

These moments seem impossibly precious now.

He started coughing a day or two before my return to Myanmar. He had pretty severe asthma, and would often get into low spirits whenever he felt even slightly under the weather. But this time, he seemed chirpy, happy, unusually good-humored. He insisted on bringing me to the airport, though it was a long drive back for him.

On the way there, I drove while he sat in the passenger seat, clad in his signature blue sweatsuit. He chatted away happily, even as his coughs punched through the conversation. I enjoyed this bit of time with him, appreciating that for him, a long drive was nothing if he was able to spend a little more time with one of his children.

At the airport, he got out of the car and gave me a big hug. He said, “Take care of yourself over there.” And I said, “You take care, too, Papa. Watch that cough.”

As I walked away, I glanced back at him as he honked, waved, and drove away.

That was our last real time together, our last in-person conversation.

Now, the orange dog lamp sits on his old desk. It’s part of an eclectic, colorful shrine to his boisterous spirit. The hula dancer is there, along with St. Paddy’s day paraphernalia, including a bold green tie and a vibrantly green top hat. He loved St. Paddy’s day, as a Dublin born-and-raised Irishman; he loved that his birthday was the day after St. Paddy’s.

The centerpiece of the shrine: a framed photo of Papa standing, oh so proudly, next to a large sunflower he’d grown in the garden. He adored sunflowers.

*

For this most recent trip to Myanmar, it was my mother who joined me to the airport. News about the novel coronavirus was only starting to seem alarming in the US (had my trip been 24 hours later, I would have cancelled it).

My mother is a strong, tough woman, and we admire and adore her immensely. But she is also 70 years old. And tiny. And more precious to us than ever.

As we chatted in the car, I felt a weight in my heart, a whisper in my consciousness: “This is like that last ride with Papa… And the next time I saw him, he was in a hospital bed, on a ventilator…”

I fluttered around topics of conversation, not wanting to stop and think about the similarities, not wanting to let a single second of attention dwell on that whisper.

But it continued: “Is this the last time I’ll see her like this?”

As we hugged at the same spot where Papa dropped me off almost two years before, I focused on not sinking into grief, into apprehension, into tears. But I gazed at her face, trying to communicate how much I loved her, before I turned and walked away.

*

I had never made it priority to be home for Papa’s birthday. And March just happened to be a busy time most years, when research and workshops abroad were a greater pull on me than celebrating the anniversary of his birth.

But even when I was home for it, I often did not relish the celebration. Our family had been through tough times, which had not brought out the best in Papa; indeed, the tough times were exacerbated by his own failings. We had a strained relationship for much of my young adulthood. Part of me — a very unforgiving, Puritan-like part of me — felt for many years that he deserved no jubilant celebration, no gifts, for what he had put us through.

Thankfully, both of us mellowed out with age, especially as I learned to have more empathy for the challenges he had faced. Behind his past toxicity was pain and disappointment, which could not be helped through disdain and resentment and the pettiness of not wanting to celebrate his birthday. Only patience and kindness would help. With more understanding on my part, what became clear with time was his very strong love for us and how much it meant to him to just have time with us.

Why had I been so mean as to begrudge him my company on so many of his birthdays?

*

A few days after driving to the airport with Papa, I started feeling sluggish. Then came the fever and coughing. Then aches, all over. Around the same time, my mother and brother, too, were in the throes of the worst flu any of us had ever had. Papa fared worst of all, ending up in the hospital.

Weeks later, he was discharged, only to return within days.

Weeks later, he was intubated, put on a ventilator. Pneumonia.

I rushed home, traveling 40 hours in a daze — a rainy, rough taxi ride to the Myanmar-Thai border, a quick jog across the border bridge, a motorbike taxi ride to the airport, and then three flights.

When he saw me by his hospital bed, his green eyes opened wide in unbelieving surprise. Then he squeezed them shut. When he opened them again, I saw the tears. I’d never seen Papa cry before. He squeezed my hand. He tried to pull out the tube so he could talk, forgetting — with all of the drugs coursing through his system — that he needed it to live. He tried writing something down, but could not hold the pen.

Before I left the hospital that day, I said, “I love you, Papa.” He squeezed my hand three times.

That was our last exchange, the last day he showed obvious responsiveness. He died 10 days later.

Less than 2 weeks after this immense heartbreak, this loss without parallel, I made the mind-boggling decision to return to Myanmar. I had good, rational reasons, but I’ve recently started to wonder if a hidden part of my psyche preferred me to go far, far away instead of facing reality at home.

I wonder if I lost something by not being with my family during those achingly difficult months.

*

Last week, after a listless day in the apartment — giving a training by Skype to my young Myanmar mentees, tending to emails, gazing out at the people and the occasional dog strolling under the mango trees below — I walked with Mark down to the main road in the cooling, pastel evening air. The streets were still busy, but we kept our distance from others and carefully stepped around the many small puddles of betel nut spit. We’d noticed a man selling sunflowers on the road the evening before, to the ragtag collection of Toyota Probox taxis, Hijet mini-trucks, and sleek SUVs waiting for the traffic light to change.

I bought one bunch for Papa.

Time zones away, the rest of the family celebrated with his favorite dinner and cake. They brought out his sunflower portrait and decorated it with the bright green tie and the bright green top hat.

Seeing the photos of them celebrating without me was just another example of me being gone. Yet another of Papa’s birthdays that I chose to not join.

Since I’d arrived in Myanmar, I’d felt lost in a whirl of obligations and ties and uncertainties as the coronavirus pandemic intensified. I struggled to sleep through the nights. It wasn’t just jetlag. There was a weight, an anxiety. There were bizarre, agitating dreams which left only an aura of unease in the mornings. I felt incompetent for not clearly knowing what I should do. I felt foolish and guilty for having made the trip at all, but since I was in Myanmar already, what was the best course of action?

Two nights later, after many restless hours in bed — I felt as if my mind were unraveling — it became clear: as long as I was away from my family during this pandemic, I would be consumed by anxiety. I could not risk being a 40-hour journey away, or possibly stranded, if one of them were to fall seriously ill.

The next day, new travel restrictions were announced; if I did not leave very soon, it would become increasingly complicated to leave at all. Following a swirling rush of stress and changed plans and complications, Mark keeping me steady through it all, I made it onto a flight to Bangkok — the last one. Then onto the flights from Bangkok to Tokyo to San Diego. Surreal, having little sense of where I was coming from and where I was going or how I was feeling, just passively letting the planes carry me to my destination.

Now I am again self-isolating, this time in my sister’s apartment while she stays with the others 40 minutes away. She and my brother picked me up from the airport. I wore a mask and sat in the back seat with the windows rolled down for the short drive to her place. When we arrived, I was able to greet my mother, from behind a mask, from 6 feet away. She looked small. She looked worried. But she also looked relieved to have me back.

In the apartment fridge, they had left me several pre-cooked meals… and leftover birthday cake. In 11 days, I’ll join them.

“This is wonderful! My little family, together again!”