I started this Blog after being diagnosed with Prostate Cancer in 2010. It was a way of keeping family and friends informed. It then became a campaigning tool helping to make improvements in hospitals nationally. In 2013 we moved to Johannesburg, setting up our own e-education company. Now we have moved to Bangkok, a great base to explore SE Asia. After surgery 7 years ago my PSA remains at zero, the cancer is still undetectable, and I remain thankful.
It’s late afternoon and I’ve just finished a haphazard first meal of the day and am sitting in front of my computer screen crying to Eric Clapton’s, “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?” His heartfelt lyrics make me wonder if anything would ever be the same again. If we would know each other over “there” and if it or we would finally be better when our tears were wiped away?
Today, however, my tears have not yet been wiped away and they flow freely from a deep well of groaning and grief that has no other way to express itself. I participated in the cremation of younger brother Nong Dton, our palliative care team’s 27-year-old sole male nurse. He was the same age as my daughter and the only child of parents similarly aged to me. He was cheekily playful, musical to the core, and an ethical hard worker when it came to caring for those in end of life. He tragically died last week in a midnight motorbike accident.
Hearing the news, the hospital staff collapsed on the floor, wept, and was unable to eat for a great while. “I’ll find my way through night and day…” Then bravely reaching outside of their loss, they rallied to ensure his religious ceremonies and cremation would be a success. They wanted to lift the family’s burden and show that their child was loved and appreciated. They worked tirelessly for many days with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces. They tended to a myriad of details with the greatest dedication in order to send our brother off well.
“I must be strong and carry on…” Thais are experts at facing death. They have been actively involved in religious rites and sitting with the bodies of their dead relatives before they can even walk. They do so gracefully, tenderly, and kindly. They also contain an inherited sense of resolute acceptance that if you are born then you must suffer, and finally die. Today, I was deeply impressed by the number of attendees whose considerable difference in social standing meant little in contrast to the shared sense of love and loyalty. Yet no matter how used to dying any of us may have been, we all had to be very brave as we cried, sang, prayed, hugged each other, and sat for long stretches in painful silence. No matter how long you have worked in palliative care, imbibed a healthy death culture, practiced religious beliefs and forms of paying last respects, or given grieving processes there seems to be a timeless thread throughout our shared humanity. We all hurt deeply over our losses. We try to make sense of tragedy, even when there may none to be found. We often search out eternity from our narrow, earth-bound perspectives. We vehemently resist believing that birth, suffering, and death is all there is to our existence. We also come together in grief and prove that we are more alike than different!
The master of ceremonies, much like any traditional religious leader, instructed us that there was no death, just a change of apparel, or body and residence as she put it. She said we would miss Nong Dton, we would hurt and feel empty, yet he was not lost to us. She then cleared his karmic slate by asking for his forgiveness for any intentional or unintentional hurts or mistakes we’d made towards him and assured him that we’d forgiven him for any of his misdeeds. Older sisters P’ Dtuck and P’ Jim, the heads of palliative care reviewed his life and sang a Thai song of eternal love for him. P’Jim crooned just as soulfully as Eric Clapton had over the loss of his young son. She declared we’d never forget our younger brother, and asked him not to forget us. “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?…”
As we placed fragrant incense and sandalwood flowers and his nurse’s uniform and motorcycle gear under his coffin, we prayed we’d all know each other forever in a better place. A place where tears are wiped away and sorrow has been forgotten in the light of the joy and love we share. I knocked on his coffin and announced that it was Susan, his older sister visiting him, as Thais have taught me to do. I thanked him for being him in such a beautiful manner and wished him safe, good travels. P’Jim added as his coffin was being shuffled into the furnace, “Go well young brother. I love you. Do not forget us. We’ll follow you when it’s our time to go!”
“Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure and I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven…” In the meanwhile brother Dton, “Would you hold my hand, would you help me stand…” so our sense of shared fragility and oneness would lift us from our knees in order to better navigate this messy thing called life, loss, and death.