I leave on Thursday, overnight flight to Paris, onto Bahrain, and then to Bangkok. I leave on September 27, 2012 on what have been my father’s 90th birthday, but he only celebrated sixty two of them before he went away.
As my departure gets closer and I say good-bye to my friends, my children, everyone, it has become clear that people are worried that I won’t find what I am looking for, that I will be disappointed, if somehow I don’t find my father’s past out there, in Bangkok, Saigon, Burma, Singapore.
They are worried that whatever small trace of my father I seek has long been bulldozed over, reclaimed by the jungle, torn down and renovated, even the memories gone.
I understand and appreciate their concern, but then again, it’s not really my father I am looking for out there, he’s not the reason I am packing up, taking a hiatus from work, folding the clothes, taking the malaria pills, getting on the plane.
Yes, my father lives on in those places as does my mother, between them I figure they spent more than twenty years of their lives over there. My aunt and uncle also are there, part of them will always be in Singapore and Indonesia where they spent decades, just as part of my grandfather is in Indonesia as well.
But what I am seeking in all those cities and countries is me. The little boy who got postcards and presents from far away places, stamps piled on top of each other. The boy read and re-read the letters from Pekanbaru, and Phnom Penh. The boy who could speak a little Burmese, learned a little Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese. The boy who grew up among Buddhas and teak and stories of pythons in toilets, and golf in Rangoon.
I am missing the younger me, who met my father in Hawaii for family vacations before he returned to the streets and the small towns, the back alleys and the jungle of Southeast Asia. I am missing the younger me who never learned properly to miss my father as he was always gone, always on a plane, always there in Southeast Asia somewhere.
Most importantly, I am missing the young man who flew in the dark back to Boston from the Duke and took the call from my Aunt.
“He’s floating,” she said as I heard the tarot cards shuffling, “he’s floating and he could float back to us,” shuffle, snap, cards hit the table over the line from Seattle, “Hmm, I don’t know Jamie, he could float back to us, but he could float away, we’ll just have to see.” No more cards shuffled, no more cards hitting the table.
I am missing the me that cried alone in his bathroom when he didn’t float back. I want to see again the nineteen year old man who wrote his father’s obituary on boarding school stationery and then carried it to his Dad’s friend who owned the Boston Globe.
I never got to say good-bye or ask why. I never got to see him one more time. I never knew what he died from, or why. My mother died in my arms, my father died over there, far away, it was morning for him, night for us.
Years, years later I carried his ashes to Ann Arbor so he could be next to his parents because I didn’t know what else to do. I remember handing them to the man at gate as he agreed to squeeze my dad into my grandparents’s plot. I was twenty five or six at the time. I’ve been back once, they are still all there.
Before I could ask my Uncle who was with my father in Singapore when he died what happened, my Uncle died himself, two years and two days later after my father.
Then time took my mother’s memory and my Aunt Shirley as well. And so it’s just me, with photos, letters, words whispered, things told me, things said unsaid or better left undone. Pieces to a puzzle I don’t think I can put back together again.
The journey is for my father and my son. It’s for my daughter and for my mother.
My mother, as the Alzheimers and dementia stole her mind, once asked me, ‘Do you know what happened to your father? It was the strangest thing, he went over and didn’t come home, do you know what happened to him?’
She looked at me with this pleading, this ache, the question unanswered for years, the love of her life, gone and now decades later you can see, her wound is as open as yours. No Mom, I don’t know what happened. But I will go see what I can find out Mom. I’ll let you know okay?
In the end, this journey is for me. The boy in me, the young in me, the me in me now, the man who looks at his son and wonders what it would like to leave him so early.
So I will find what I seek, I already partially have. Now, it’s my turn to fly and fly through a night and a day, to the other side of the world, to stand where my father stood, to see what I can see, to try and maybe just a little figure out happened to him all those years ago, to see if I can learn a little more about him, and me.