Thursday, February 9, 2012

40 Days

I was playing badminton at school a few months ago, and a funeral procession was coming through to the cemetery next door. Encouraged by my student, I followed her over to take a closer look. As men were still digging the grave, I was surprised to find that what I thought was a green sheet covering a coffin being carried, was actually a green cover attached to a wire frame and a wooden slab. When the cover was removed from the slab there was just a body wrapped in white cloth. There was no coffin. No wooden box. The friends and family actually had to handle the body to place it in the ground.

This struck me. 

There was something more intimate and touching about these men digging the grave and handling the actual dead body of their family/friend/neighbor as they lowered him/her into the earth. And, here I was, watching. And holding a badminton racket, no less.

Bad photo of the stretcher in its holding place in a cemetery I saw on a recent run.
Culturally, we Americans seem to always have a middle man in things, or a way to distract ourselves from what is really happening. We expect our meat to be de-fatted, de-boned, de-whatevered prior to it reaching our plates. Here, you can be greeted with a fully intact chicken staring at you, holding the same pre-mortem position almost as if it's waiting for you to give him a name. At my house, it's the eater, rather than the cook, that is expected to do all the work. In America, we have also forgotten how to work to arrive at the price of things. Here, a basic mastery of quick, simple math and bargaining skills are a given - a reminder of true market operations without the glitz of things like credit swaps and ticker tapes.

So many things here are more hands-on or in your face - like physically burying the body of a family member or friend - or the tradition of commemorating the death periodically afterward with a selamatan or tahlil. It varies across Java, and certain Muslims do not follow this tradition since it harkens back to Java’s animist history, but family, friends, and neighbors gather various days following a death to remember and pray for the person who has passed on. The time frames vary from village to village, but, in mine, everyone gathers roughly 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, 100 days, 1 year, 2 years and 1000 days after burial. 

This seems healthier to me. This built-in schedule of grieving. I mean, doesn’t it sometimes sort of seem like people get brushed aside once they’re gone in our culture? Like the pace of life keeps going and no matter how long you try to linger in that stillness of memory, you eventually get swept back into the whirlpool that never stopped swirling around you.  Even if you try to break it, to reach back from time to time to remember, it always feels like you’re abandoning someone. Leaving them behind.   

Thinking once again about mortality and reflecting this week on favorite moments to share in honor of my big brother's 40th birthday (You did it, Bri!), I find myself worrying about forgetting the small things of daily life here. 

  • How my host niece came home one day and told me, “I have 3 marbles,” when we had never discussed how to say that in English. She had put the words together on her own. 
  • How Friday morning aerobics with teachers remains one of my favorite parts of the week, even though, after 7 months, I still cannot remember the routine (it’s pretty complicated). 
  • How my students will respond, “Yes, yes,” when I ask what they did on their holiday. 
  • How I love hearing the squeaking shoes approaching my house because it means one of the completely adorable 1-year-olds in my desa is on her way. 

  • How annoyed I am the moment my host sister’s cat climbs through my screenless window and falls, shrieking on my bed in the middle of the night. 

  • How the morning after these cat falls, it never seems quite as bad as it gives me and the fam something to laugh about (until, of course, it happens again the next night and I'm violently chucking a cat out into the kitchen. Think cat juggling from "The Jerk").
  • Or how catching myself laughing hard with fellow teachers in school brings me back to the first time I laughed out loud at a new high school way back when - that feeling of realizing I was comfortable (kerasan) - the feeling that I had finally made real friends.
We tend to focus so much on big events, but it’s these small moments strung together that truly make up our lives. 

It’s my Irish Granny commenting, “Oh, Lord,” in her brogue when she couldn’t believe something or Aunt Bea always spelling my name Eirn in her shaky script. It's Aunt Pat telling me stories about Japan or Johnny Boles hanging out by the fish tank with me. It's Sister Kathy letting me run amuck in her school’s supply closet or Granny Nguyen wearing a wool sweater when it’s 80 degrees out. 

It’s my uncle Johnny teaching me the joy of peanut butter on toast, saving comics for me from his Sunday newspaper until I was well into my twenties, or always slipping us cash on visits. 

And it’s my Granny always wearing those jean skirts, letting me do loops of the living room in her wheelchair, wanting to hold my hand when she was confused, and eating ice cream in her Long Island living room as I skype with her from my school in Indonesia. 

Not to cheapen this with a Ferris Bueller quote, but life really does move pretty fast. If we don’t stop and look around once in awhile, we really could miss it.

Here’s to never missing it…and to hoping we always remember.

In Loving Memory of: 
Margaret V. Blessinger, May 12, 1917 - December 31, 2011
John J Fitzgerald, August 4, 1942 - October 29, 2010

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