So much has happened in the past few weeks. I have experienced a range of emotions, life-changing events, and milestones. On November 24th my host father, Sub-Lieutenant Kusol Kongsri, passed away at the age of 74. The experience of his death, the grief, and the funeral were the hardest part of my Peace Corps experience to date. In all honesty it has been one of the hardest experiences of my life.
It is hard to explain all of this through writing but I believe that it is important to share. My host father had been suffering from diabetes for quite some time, but he was extremely active, smart and engaged during my time here. In the past couple of months his health took a downturn as he began to suffer from what eventually would become kidney failure. The last time we chatted was when I arrived home from a friend’s wedding and he was heading out to a check-up at the hospital in Ubon. He seemed weak but in good spirits so I simply told him good luck and that I would see him later that day. He did not end up returning that afternoon and spent the following week in the hospital until he was finally admitted to the ICU. My co-workers and I couldn’t gauge the situation from our small village so we went to visit. I did not recognize the man I saw lying in the hospital bed. He was on oxygen, couldn’t talk or really open his eyes and he seemed thinner than a person ever should be. I fought back tears as we left to return to the village.
The following afternoon, I was biking to meet some Thai friends to explain the situation and see what I should do, how I should be acting, etc. when the neighbors arrived and started clearing out our house; I knew then that they were preparing the home for a funeral. Some other neighbors and a bunch of old ladies and I headed to the hospital that night to visit and pay our respects. I knew I would be saying goodbye to my host dad that evening.
When we arrived, my host sister, rushed into my arms sobbing. It caught me off guard. We had never embraced before, and I had certainly never seen her cry. Thai people do not share their emotions as Americans do and rarely “hug” like we do. As I went into the hospital room, I fought the urge to cry. My friend told me that if my host dad saw, heard, or felt my tears then his spirit would not leave peacefully since he would be worried about me. Though my host dad was not breathing on his own or lucid, I respected this belief and slowly approached to say goodbye. I began my goodbye in Thai but told him I would switch to English as we often spoke English together. I thanked him for giving me a home and a family. I thanked him for teaching me about Thailand, dragging me to community events, for explaining agriculture to me. Lastly I thanked him for being my Thai father. I hope he heard me.
That night at about 10:30 pm the neighbors got the call that my host dad had passed. He was only off the machines for about two hours, so I truly believe that it was his time to go. I know that he would have hated to live on machines. He was such a strong-spirited man and had so much pride. In fact he had probably been feeling ill or down for quite some time but never would have admitted it. By midnight relatives began to arrive, the house was cleared, and the body was placed in the living room in an ornate casket. By noon the next day the whole place was covered with candles, wreaths and flowers.
The funeral lasted five days. The outpouring of community support was phenomenal. I could never see anything like that happening in America. Neighbors set up a makeshift kitchen. Family members slept in tents throughout the yard. My office donated dishes, tables, chairs and big tents. The girls from my youth group came to help serve food and wash dishes. For every meal there were at least 40 people at the house. The body remained in the living room of our house this whole time. At first I was uncomfortable about this. I never got fully used to the idea, but it’s the Thai belief that they body needs to be in its home and near loved ones so the spirit can safely pass. A large photograph of my host father was placed next to the casket and we burned incense and prayed daily next to it. All of this is done on the floor, on the knees and by bowing the head to the floor. The monks from the local temple came every night for more praying and chanting. During these nights there were usually close to 80 people at our house.
I wore black for five days and did my part to help with all the work. It was during this time that I realized that I was considered part of the family. In the funeral announcement I was listed as a daughter. I was expected to fulfill the same roles as my host sister during ceremonies. This realization caused an array of emotions that I’m not sure I can express.
In the afternoon of the fifth days, the casket was loaded into a pick-up truck. My sister’s husband shaved his head and eyebrows and donned the orange robes of a monk and ordained for the day. I put on my $50 polyester black suit jacket that I had bought for the occasion. The monks led the procession, with the pick-up at the rear, to the watt or temple. The family and community members filled the space between all hanging on to a single rope connecting the front with the back. I assume that this represents all of us carrying the body to the temple. It’s a lovely idea. The speakers on top of the truck played the most eerie, dramatic, dirge I have ever heard. It was hard not to appear upset.
At the temple, the “VIP” monk as he was called, delivered a sermon on treating your parents with respect. I guess he was taking advantage of speaking to such a large group of people. Then there was a eulogy given by another important layperson. It detailed my host father’s life, family, and his illness leading to his death. It was interesting; the man shared every medical detail during that speech. Again, something you would never see or hear in America.
After making merit, giving the monks dishes, pillows and fans it was time for the cremation. Each person in attendance walked up the casket and placed a white paper flower on top and bowed in the Thai fashion of the “wai”. The people included a large number of the servicemen that my host father had served with in the Thai military. Their solidarity was quite moving. It seemed that my host mom was the most emotional when talking with these men. The service was extremely important to my host father and his legacy. When it was time for the cremation, the top of the casket was removed and the family members could have one last look at the body as they poured coconut water over the face and hands. I did not participate. I was too emotional and the cultural differences at this point were too much to handle. I wanted to remember my host father as the strong, plucky man that I had gotten to know over the past 20 or so months. All of my host father’s belongings except for his military jacket, hat and sword were burned as well. The photograph that was carried along now hangs in a prominent spot in our living room.
During all this, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers were gathering in Bangkok for a Mexican Thanksgiving dinner and preparing for our Close of Service Conference. After the ceremony at the temple, I boarded an eight-hour bus to join them. I arrived in the early morning just in time to take my final language exam. I got the level of advanced low speaker. Following a career panel and lovely dinner at the embassy we all boarded a bus to the nearby beach town of Cha-am for our two-day conference.
Those days are a blur. I tried to fully engage with my friends, well my family, the other volunteers, as it would be the last time we would all be together as a group in country. It was hard to concentrate on learning about flying back to America, bank accounts closing etc. My mind was truly in two different worlds, one with my Thai family in the village and the other with my Peace Corps family as we prepare to end our service. Again emotions abound. The time away from my village was the first time that I truly missed everyone there. It is clear that this village in Sisaket really is my home away from home.
Life in that village will be very different now. I have no idea if and how the family dynamics will change. I know that I am closer to the neighbors, my co-workers and my host mom and sister as a result of going through the death of my host father. I know that he is and will be missed. He was a unique, strong, prideful man. He was a teacher, a solider, an elected official, and gave all he could to the community. He was a father and grandfather as of six months ago. And he was a man that transcended cultural and national boundaries. He gave me, a silly, young American girl, a home in Thailand, and made this experience more than I could have ever hoped for. His spirit will definitely live on.