What follows is the second in a four part true account of life and death in Thailand. To recap briefly. On Saturday, March 25 I received a call from a Thai ex girlfriend whose mother is dying. I spent that day with her at the hospital. Part 2 covers the period March 26-29.
The Death: March 25-29 2006
Sunday I get a couple of messages from Neung. Her mom is still unconscious and opinions vary as to her chances of survival. To me it seems we may be in for a long wait. That evening Neung tells me she has to pay the nurses 500 baht a day to take care of her mom. I have already delayed my flight back to Europe for 24 hours so I tell her to come round here on Monday and I will pay for the nurses.
Monday is marginally uneventful. I am actually able to focus on work. At 8.00pm I get a call from American Express. They have me waitlisted for a Tuesday flight also. Do I want to fly Monday or Tuesday? Maybe it is fate. I don’t know. But a sixth sense tells me to take the Tuesday flight. So I delay another 24 hours. Neung arrives with her stepdad and his other wife (I am vaguely losing the plot now!! Seem to be a lot of wives and husbands in this tale). He is a taxi driver and he is driving her to and fro her mom. They are all fighting and screaming so I tell them to “mai pen rai”, shutup and focus on Neung’s mom.
Tuesday comes and everything is peaceful. I run in the gym, I manage a few errands, my bags are packed. Sunday night I had decided to buy a new business, so I am trying to organize the logistics which isn’t easy. My friendly lawyer responds to my requests by offering to sell me the very business I have already agreed to buy! Well, it’s Thailand! Mai pen rai…again!
3pm I get a message from Neung. It simply says, “mom gonna die. In a taxi.” I call American Express, beg and plead with them and manage to cancel the Tuesday night flight. The best they can do is to put me on a flight next Monday. I say ok, let’s do it and sort the details out later. That done I call Neung and say I will see her at the hospital. She is on the expressway and crying because she just got a call from her sister, Ying, that her mom is dead. Not much I can say now except, “see you there”.
I manage to find a taxi that will take me to Pratumthani. He rapes me for 400 baht. The meter cost is about 280, but I say ok. No time to argue. We get to the hospital and just as I am paying him Neung calls again. My briefcase is in a mess, with my phone, wallet, and a lot of other stuff all out on the seat of the car. I tell Neung to meet me in front of the hospital, pay the driver and get out of the car.
As I walk to the hospital I suddenly think – my wallet. I have left it in the taxi. I run back but the car is pulling off and the driver doesn’t see me. Well, I guess he will find himself 6000 baht and 2 credit cards richer. I am fairly relaxed. My fault. Mai pen rai. Again! (For anyone wanting to understand the concept of “mai pen rai”, please read the blog entry, “Doing business in Thailand: part one”)
I find Neung, tell her about the wallet and she looks at me like, “my mom is dead and you managed to lose your wallet”. Her aunt is less generous. Is the farang trying to avoid paying she asks Neung? Oh well, never mind. I can live with the abuse!
I know that I need to urgently cancel my credit cards but we go to the morgue first. Really it is nothing more than a funeral shop. Various relatives and friends have collected there. It is one hour since Neung’s mom died and already they have bought the coffin or, rather, I have bought the box with the nursing money that if course is no longer needed for the nurses. I go to check out the box and am, well, a little surprised to find Neung’s mom already lying there. It is a funny moment, a very Thai moment I think to myself. Surreal, macabre, weird and yet very practical.
This is not your European funeral parlor. No black suits and sombre expressions from the men at the morgue. More, a collection of young Thai men, dressed like bike riders, watching TV, eating food and smoking. Oh well!
I tell Neung I need to cancel the cards. And then my phone dies. And then her phone dies! Ok I guess it is not our day! So we play “hunt the electricity outlet”. I have a small argument with a lady who is protecting the hot water container but eventually get to plug my phone in. I call Bangkok Bank and eventually manage to cancel my card. I would stress that word, “eventually”.
I don’t have a telephone number for my Swiss credit card and I am not sure 100% which card has gone. So I get one of the girls who works for me to go to my apartment, to find my other cards. I call a friend in Switzerland who finds a bank number for me. And then I call the bank. Press “4” for English the autovoice call says. I do as I am told. I get through to the German desk. She speaks no English but transfers me to the English desk. Wrong number they say. Ok. I dial the right number. Press “4” for English. I press “4” and, no surprise, end up at the German desk again. I do eventually find an English speaker and we cancel the card with minimum fuss. I now realize I have exactly 40 baht (about US$1). So Neung lends me 500 baht. I feel almost rich!
I wander along to the hospital shop to buy some water. Two boys are trying to make a phone call. They can’t reach the phone, they can dial the number, but they can’t reach the slot for the money. So they are jumping up and down to try and get the money in. I put the money in for them, go buy the water and return to the coffin area (can’t think of a better way to describe it).
We decide to go to Rangsit, where Neung’s mother lived, to get various documents. In the car, Neung and her stepdad start arguing again. Apparently he is being very stupid and very difficult. Well, ok but he is also helping and I tell Neung this. And I say to her, whatever he asks, whatever he says, just say mai pen rai! That does kind of get everyone laughing a bit. I am beginning to understand that “mai pen rai” is much more than words. It is an attitude that defines a lot about Thai culture.
We reach Rangsit. The neighbor comes out to meet us. She doesn’t know that Neung’s mom is dead so there is lots of screaming and crying. We go into the house and it’s a little sad because you see a person’s life laid out before you. Neung’s mom had left the house on Friday morning expecting to return as normal. She never did and so her daily life is exposed to us all. I feel that we are intruding on something very private.
Neung goes to find the documents upstairs while Ying sits on the sofa looking at her mom’s photo albums, and then she starts crying. It’s difficult for me to say much. Ying has not lived with her mom since she was a very small girl and she is not in the photos. I can feel her sadness, for her mother’s death of course but also for the fact that she does not appear in her mother’s memories.
I look at the photos myself and I see a life, from young woman to death. She was beautiful when she was young and had the look of a woman at peace with the world. As the years pass you see that peace disappear, along with her hopes. Eventually you see all her hopes expressed in her daughter Neung. The young woman disappears, the person disappears. All the pictures of the last ten or so years are of Neung. It is touching, but sad.
We get ready to leave. I am the only one there apart from the stepdad. He is looking at all sorts of things. I start to wonder whether he is going to take any money that is there. Then I see him with Neung’s mom’s glasses. He picks them up and he traces them with his fingers. He looks through the lenses. He even puts the glasses on. And I begin to understand that, in his own, way, he is very sad too. He is trying to find something, anything that will give him memories of this woman who it would seem he loved.
I only met Neung’s mom once I think. It was 2 years ago when Neung and I were together. We were going to Hua Hin for a few days and Neung’s mom suggested we get her stepdad to take us in his taxi. Ok, it was a way to get money. I didn’t mind so we agreed. He turns up at my hotel 2 hours late and Neung’s mom goes crazy. Screaming at him, beating the taxi! It was a very funny moment. All the way to Hua Hin she was screaming at her “husband”.
Does it mean I have bad memories? No, just memories. From what Neung told me over time her mother was not easy, and maybe not the most generous of people, perhaps even greedy. But I saw the photos and I know where she started. Life may have been harsh to her, life may have made her greedy, life may have made her difficult but she was still a person, with feelings and emotions. Her husband abandoned her. She was forced to give up her younger daughter to her sister because she could not take care of two children. She brought up Neung alone. She fought hard in her life.
We get back to BKK and they drop me off at Saphan Kwai. The funeral will be at a temple nearby. I tell Neung to call me tomorrow and that I will get a new bank card so that I can pay for the service. Both she and Ying are pretty upset by now and feeling all the normal emotions. The neighbor at Rangsit has helpfully told Neung that she didn’t visit her mom enough! Clever thing to say at such a time. So Neung is feeling guilty, saying she was a bad daughter, and so on. Ying is just crying quietly. I say what I can but there really is not much I can do except speak words. We part and I go home.
Wednesday. Time to head off to the Bangkok Bank. Neung calls. The funeral will cost 30,000 baht. Well I have my doubts about this but I will worry about that later. I get to the bank and they tell me it takes one week to get a new card. I am beginning to think the world has turned against me until the teller suggests that if I pay 300 baht I can have a card immediately. I get a new card. I even get a present, probably worth 301 baht! I transfer money to Neung and say I will see her at 6.30pm at the temple.
And there we are. Now I need to go and buy some black clothes! All in all it has been an interesting few days. There has been sadness for sure. There has been humor, strangely enough. There have been some good moments and some bad ones too. Death in Thailand is very Thai! That is not a bad thing. Neung’s mom died with dignity and she will be remembered with dignity too. My part in this is small. To be there. I don’t have to carry any of the grief and sense of loss. That is for Neung and Ying to bear.
Part 3 follows.