Friday, November 18, 2011

Thanksgiving and Loss

The world, my world, was diminished this week.  Tuesday morning in Kediri, East Java, my father-in-law died.  He had been sick for many months, weakened and ravaged by the cancer that first blossomed on his tongue six years ago.  He had had half his tongue removed, been reduced to a diet of liquid and pap, yet he was unbowed by the disease.  Oh, he complained about what the cancer had cost him, complained that he had lost his sense of taste while also complaining that the bubur, soto or whatever else he happened to be eating didn't taste good, but he had many of the same complaints even before the cancer.  The eldest male in his family, when Pa spoke, everyone did as he said without argument.  It was hard to see him this summer, months after the cancer had reappeared, struggling to speak, his voice stolen by the disease. 

I first met Pa a little over 18 years ago.  I had asked Tjing to marry me and she had, with great trepidation, gone back to Kediri to ask her father for his permission.  Had he said no, that would have been the end of it.  Never mind that we were both adults living independent lives, if Pa had told Tjing to end it, that would have been that.  Tjing knew (as did I) there was also a very good chance that would happen.  Although she had known me for almost six years by then, my existence had never been broached to either her mother, who died a few years earlier, or her father.  Knowing all this, it's rather remarkable that I wasn't more nervous when I went to the train station that morning to meet him.

In fact, Pa and I got along very well together right from the start.  We were oddly similar in many ways,  both probably more feared by our families than by the community at large.  Like me, he accepted there are idiots loose in the world, but wouldn't suffer fools gladly.  He was also comfortable with silences and had little use for idle gossip.  Unlike his daughter, he believed in getting to the airport or train station in plenty of time.  Tjing and I both had to laugh when we said our final farewell this summer and he was enraged because he thought we would be late for our train although the station was less than ten minutes away and he had us leaving with almost 45 minutes to spare.  He shook his fist and bellowed with rage at our failure to have becaks lined up in advance to take us to the station.  When we had finally managed to get our bags and ourselves into the becaks, he relaxed and dismissed us with a wave.

What a lot of people didn't realize is what a great sense of humor Pa had.  He came to the US a couple years after we had moved into our house.  Because Tjing didn't feel able to deal with him in the classroom, he came to study in the school where I taught.  As I was teaching a Beginning Low class, Pa was a student in my class.  In the class there was a Russian student who had a very prominent, very long nose.  He was also not particularly bright, one of those students who is always a page or two behind the rest of the class, so when he was asked a question he would give a nonsensical answer.  Pa nicknamed him "Petruk," one of the clown-servants in Indonesian wayang plays. To this day, when I have a student who is a little bit lost, I think of Pa and Petruk and smile.

One time in Bandung, where one of Tjing's brothers lives and where Pa often stayed, he noticed a worker seemed  to be upset.  When he asked him what was wrong, the worker explained he had had a bad dream.  In his dream the worker was reading the book of his life and he had come to the last page when he woke up.  He was sure the dream meant he would die soon.  Pa told the worker not to worry.  Maybe, Pa said, it was just book one in a series. They both laughed and the worker was visibly more relaxed, able to look forward to a long life.

I could never express how thankful I am that Pa allowed me to marry his daughter, to take her so far from him, and to allow me into his family and his home.  He always treated me with more respect, more kindness, and more love than I am sure I deserved.  He was a good man, one who taught me much in the brief time I knew him, one I am proud to have loved and been loved by, who I will sorely miss now that he is gone.  So I give thanks for the time I had with him, for the gifts he bestowed upon me, for his grace.  May he rest in peace.


  1. D,
    What a lovely tribute you wrote. Your story really touched my heart. My deep condolences to Tjing and to you too.

  2. Tuty,
    Thanks. He was really a remarkable man who I was lucky to have known.

  3. This is a little late, but very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing those stories.

  4. What a lovely tribute to your father-in-law. I'm so sorry for your loss.


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