My Version of Casablanca – Part Two

We made it to Chang Mai in the northern part of Thailand in the morning. Neither of us spoke a word of what had happened, but we both knew for the next two weeks, we were insulated within a cocoon of each other, a foreign country and saying goodbye to one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, honoring him in a Buddhist ceremony, which was as close to any religious rite he would have wanted. I was doing this for my husband, for me, for Joshua. I did not feel guilt over what was occurring between the two of us. I did not feel shame. He may have been the first married man I had slept with, and perhaps I should have felt a glimmer of culpability over what we were doing. But I also knew he had had other dalliances during his marriage (my husband knew this man very well) and I, myself, was not new to having affairs – when I was in the volatile relationship with the man in the desert, I strayed several times.

What I understood, or at least believed, was that we needed one another – not just because we were in a foreign land, or because we desired each other. We needed one another because the grief of losing my husband was too great for both of us to shoulder and being with another person who had known him intimately was the only thing that kept us going at that moment in time. Damn everything else.

We checked into our beautiful hotel with adjoining rooms. He slid a note under my door – “Coffee?” it read. We had coffee on his balcony in the humid Thai air, overlooking the city that spread like a carpet before us. We were both exhausted, having slept little the night before. I went for a swim, expecting him to nap while I was gone. When I returned to my room, there was a knock on my door that led to his, and when I opened it, he pulled me into his arms. “I couldn’t stop watching you swim in that red bikini”, he whispered. I don’t think I spent a night after that sleeping in my own room.

The ceremony was held at the monastery that was dear to my husband. It had been a refuge for him and a place where he had begun to become the man he eventually was. The monks built a stupa, which is a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine where the ashes I had carried over 8,000 miles would be interred. On the front of the stupa was a plaque holding a glorious picture of him, with a rainbow over his head, from a trip he and Joshua had taken years before. It encapsulated who he was. There was also his favorite quote. The ceremony took hours. I was unsure of my role in all of it and relied on Joshua and his Thai friends to tell me when it was time to approach the monks (not looking at them, as I am female), light incense, offer the flowers and gifts we had brought. I listened to their alien chants and felt the rhythms echo in my chest. Tears streamed down my face and I wanted the sounds to take me away from the reality I was living in. I was so happy I could honor my husband in the way he would have wanted, but this was also the knife being plunged deeper into my chest, reminding me that he was gone.

We took the wooden box to the stupa. It was placed inside and sealed, as the monks continued their chants. His ashes were to remain on top of a hill overlooking the vibrant nature of the rugged hills and vegetation. We decorated it with jasmine blossoms – his favorite – and left a few treasures at the base of it. Were they for him or for us? I don’t know who it was more important for. We sat on the ground in front of it, Joshua, Sawai – their best Thai friend – and me, smoking the cigarettes we had brought for him. We each lit one as well as one for my husband and we silently watched as it turn to ash.

After the ceremony we sat outside the temple in a circle being served the numerous dishes the nuns had prepared while the rituals were taking place. I don’t even know what most of what was placed in front of me was – not that I have any aversion to trying exotic, unfamiliar foods. I was in deep grief and nothing could warm me – not the humid air or sun beating down on us, not the food so carefully prepared but I could not taste, not the friends who had come from all corners of the country to celebrate the life of a man we all missed.

We returned to the hotel, and sat around drinking in the bar with these people I had never met, but who had loved him as much as I did, who had embraced me in their warmth and kindness instantly. They told me stories of his adventures over the years and the afternoon grew long. They eventually had to leave for their own cities, their own homes and families, but the gratitude I had for their participation, assistance and most importantly love for this man made some of the ache dissipate, if only momentarily.

I do not know what Joshua and I did that night. We probably got very drunk. It had been a long and very difficult day for both of us. I just wanted to forget. And in his arms I could, if only momentarily.

to be continued

© Sorrow & Kindness

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