Parting with dear friends is never easy
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 2:07 AM
It was close: we almost didn't use the funeral clothes that we had brought along on our trip to Thailand. We knew that our friend Ohn-on would likely not make it much longer, having had pancreatic cancer surgery in November. In fact, she was failing so quickly that in January I made a fast trip, just in case, so that I could visit her while she would know that I was there.
I have known her by Pi Aew. Pi because she is like my older sister and Aew is her short name. We first met in July of either 1979 or 1980 when Pi Aew and a colleague came to the big airline in Chicago, where I worked, to participate in a training course that was offered every year to staff of smaller carriers. She worked for Thailand's national carrier. I had already developed an interest in learning more about Thailand and had even secured an interline pass to travel on holiday to Bangkok just two months later in September.
Because I love to entertain - and lived in an apartment in the building where they were staying and attending classes - I invited the whole group for dinner one evening.
Pi Aew and I talked and besides being airline employees we had something else in common immediately: I was studying Theravada Buddhism at the Thai temple in downtown Chicago, and the monk with whom I was studying had been in New York at the same time she lived there. So, she and I drove down to see him the day before she left.
She also told me to let her know when I was arriving in Thailand, so I did. She and her spouse met me and a friend at the airport, and for our entire trip we were treated to Thai-style hospitality. When she couldn't do it herself, she arranged for someone else to pick us up every day to take us to another destination each day; our introduction to Thailand was simply wonderful.
The next year, Pi Aew invited me to come back and teach a seminar for her department at Thai International and the rest, as "they" say, is history. And what a fun history it has been.
Pi Aew has been my mentor for all things Thai. The first time she came to my home in Minnesota, I was going to be a good host and had plans for all the restaurants we would try while she was there. After a couple of days of that, she announced she was tired of restaurant food and we would cook at home. That started more than three decades of me, every chance I had, standing with a notebook and pen to write down recipes and tips as she cooked. It became the usual drill that whenever she was at my place, we would invite friends and neighbors for good home-cooked Thai food. Partly through food, she developed another big circle of friends in Minnesota.
Because I visited Thailand at the very least one time each year for business, I found a very good dressmaker and had all of my work clothes made there. One time I was particularly proud of a dark green silk suit that I had just picked up. Pi Aew asked me to go along to a wedding of a work colleague and I asked her if the new silk suit would be proper attire for the occasion. She vetoed that idea, saying it was too dark; it is not appropriate to wear dark colors to a wedding.
Awhile later during that same visit, we were going to attend a colleague's funeral and I said I didn't think I could go because I didn't have anything along in the required black. She told me, "Wear that suit. It is dark enough." She really didn't like that suit.
Over the years, her extended family and I developed a special relationship, and they became my Thai family. I am the Minnesota auntie, known as Pi Jan or Auntie Jan. Her two sons came to Minnesota to go to school, the oldest staying with me all the way through college, and the younger for senior high school and college. He stayed on to work in Minnesota for 14 years before returning to Thailand due to his father's health. Other family members and neighbors have also come to stay while studying here.
Having the two sons here, though never both at the same time, meant that the parents came at least once a year. Those visits here and mine to Thailand have provided so many memories. We even had three Minnesota graduations, and sometimes other members of my extended Thai "family" came along to join in the festivities.
Because of this family, I have enjoyed participating in house blessings when a new home is being constructed, many weddings and funerals, and everything in between. I have learned about a whole spectrum of cultural phenomena that I would never have had access to without my friend and my Thai family. I could talk about our friendship for hours, but space would run out.
Pi Aew died just a few days before we arrived; I was so glad that I had made the effort to see her two weeks before that. So we did need the funeral clothes, but the two bags in which they were packed had not arrived. We had already gone to Plan B for black clothes for the ceremonies the night before and that morning, but we really needed the more formal attire for the cremation rites at 5 o'clock that afternoon. Again we had Plan B ready, but fortunately the bags arrived at 4:10! And the wat, or temple, was close to the house where we are staying. We made it, appropriately attired. Even if we hadn't been, I know Pi Aew would have just been glad that we ourselves made it.