Rounds of the sun: Commemoration in a time of pandemic
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!”