There’s that nagging feeling you get sometimes when you look out into the dark. That feeling that something is there, hidden, around a corner, behind a tree, something you need to see or know, or hear or meet, but you can’t see it. And you don’t even know if it is really there.
Of course, the more you ignore the feeling the stronger it gets. The only way to make it go away is to take a deep breath and walk outside.
For me, for almost twenty-eight years, since a cold November night when I flew home to Boston from Duke, I have had that feeling that there is something out there, something in Asia. It could be on the streets of Hong Kong, in the corridors of Mt. Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, on Inle Lake in Burma, in the hustle and bustle of Rangoon’s markets, but it’s there somewhere. I don’t actually know where it is exactly, or how to find it.
But I am taking a deep breath and I am going to go.
In November 1984, my father, as he did twice a year, headed east on business. Boston, to New York, to Hong Kong, to Singapore, to Burma, to Indonesia and back to Singapore, where his journey, and his life ended, with my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Frank by his side. It was November 13, 1984 and I was nineteen years old on the other side of the world.
That last trip was different for two reasons, one plainly obvious and one not. He didn’t come back and for the first time since the late 1950s, he was allowed back into Burma, a country he deeply loved and lived in as an Eisenhower political appointee in the 1950s. My dad was the only American I have ever met, or heard of, who could speak, read and write Burmese.
Losing a parent is always traumatic, losing a parent who was always gone and traveling problematic in a different way. My father was always gone when I was growing up so him not being there was not strange. And I went to boarding school and then college, there was always distance but not matter where he was, I knew he was there, somewhere.
Saudi Arabia, South America and always, always Asia. He went to China before Nixon. Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo, Borneo, Malaysia, and Singapore, that’s where the letters came from. He was always heading East. He was drawn there. He fought there in World War II for years on a destroyer and then he died there.
28 years later, my mother died in quite the opposite way, literally in my arms. That started me thinking of what my father’s last breath was like and where and how, we don’t actually know what he died of. Then, in my family’s summer house I found an old briefcase, with my father’s last itinerary, the pictures of his last trip, stubs for paying for a camera to be taken into a temple, his last postcard to my mother. She had kept everything. Even her notes from the night he died.
My Aunt Carolyn had called first that night, I can still hear the shuffling of the tarot cards.
“He’s floating,” she said. I hear her voice to this moment. “He’s between here and there. He could float away or he could float back to us.”
My Aunt Shirley then called with the answer. She and my Uncle Frank had just watched him float away.
So now, it’s my turn, to go to Hong Kong and down to Singapore. To go to Indonesia and then to Burma, where somewhere, somehow, there is a piece of him. A picture or someone he knew. I get to stand where he stood, say goodbye where he said goodbye.
I want to go, but even if I didn’t, I really don’t have any choice in the matter to be honest.