A four-year-old breaks with tradition at her mother's cremation, but for a change no one really minds.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
(PLEASE NOTE: We are trying something different this time. You can read the complete text of the story as it appears in Bangkok Post below. Or listen to Fr. Joe tell the story in his own words without a typewriter here. Please enjoy both versions, thank you!)
The sorrow is intense. Maybe it’s the time of day. Maybe it’s the weather — but I don’t think these things matter much. She’s four and a few weeks and we just brought her “home”. In tears.
Even at four, she knows her mum won’t ever pick her up from school again like mum promised. We’d all gathered at the temple for the cremation. Miss Aye was playing outside the sala with her kindergarten chums, when the loud speaker guy announced, “time to begin the ceremonies."
All by herself, she left her friends and walked over and sat down on the bottom step of “the main” — the steps going up to the platform of the crematorium. She’d been told: you cannot join the actively in the cremation of your mum.
Even at four years of age plus some weeks, Miss Aye knew that. Everyone told her that she couldn’t go up the 12 stairs to where the body of her dead mother was. But she couldn’t understand all the fuss and bother, she didn’t quite digest what had happened to mum.
So she reached up and picked a mai jan off the platter being offered to everyone. A symbolically sacred symbol, the mai jan is a small lotus flower, made of rice paper with a tiny match stick-size joss stick and candle attached, to place on the funeral pyre and participate in the cremation, at least ceremoniously.
She then threw her mai jan on the ground and just stared at it, breaking all protocol. Everyone was aghast: “You don’t do that.” No one ever mistreats a mai jan. It’s like showing no respect to the dead, that you’re not docile, don’t follow the rules.
Then, even more ghastly and unladylike, she picked it up, ran up the stairs and put the mai jan on the beautiful picture of her mother and hugged the picture and cried and cried. You could hear her tears, her sobs: “Mummy, don’t go away. You will be all alone. I won’t be able to hug you and tell you that I love you.”
Then she stopped her sobs. In the silence, our best house mum nudged me, asking me to go with her, for courage. So we climbed the stairs together. Miss Aye was lying there, now silent but in tears, holding the picture of her mum. So our best house mum motioned to a dozen children, her school peers, and they ran up and all hugged her, collapsing into a gaggle of four-year-olds, consoling her as only four-year-olds can do to other four-year-olds.
After a bit, we asked the other children to return down the stairs. Best house mum held Miss Aye while the ceremony continued.
Our best house mum, standing beside me, asked Miss Aye if she wanted to look at her mum in the casket. Her mum, 38, was pretty even in death. She’d died of tuberculosis and Aids. She could have been saved, but she refused to take the medication.
Sometimes, the reality of the moment counts more than all the protocol on the planet. Still holding Miss Aye, best house mum asked her again if she wanted to see her mum one last time. I piped in. “Aye, child, your mum — she was still pretty in death, but nothing like when she was alive and smiling and hugging you, her youngest daughter.”
She gave one of the almost imperceptible yes nods which little kids do, so I shooed everyone back a bit from the open casket and together with best house mum, we held her up so she could see her mum. We’d managed earlier to put coins over her eyes so the rigor mortis kept them closed.
She whispered: “Hold me so I can kiss mum.” I said: “Little girl, she’s cold and she’s no longer ‘here’ with us.” And she whispered back: “I know, but she wanted me to kiss her before she went to heaven.”
She bent down and kissed her mum, and said: “Mummy’s cold. Can we get her a blanket?” There was a bed cloth covering her feet, so we pulled that up over her. I looked at the good monk next to me holding the bottle of lustral water which is used for blessings in such ceremonies. He nodded, then following ritual, he sprinkled the body and handed the bottle to me and I sprinkled, blessed mum and gave the bottle to Miss Aye.
Holding it together, lest she drop it, together we blessed her mum. Then best house mum told Miss Aye we had to go now, but she could keep her mum’s picture.
The monk said, in all of his years, he had only seen this happen once before. He said this girl is special — her mum must have been a woman of great merit, even though she died in such a way.
We all sat in the back of the Klong Toey red taxi baht bus — belching smoke all the way, stopping along the 10 minute ride back to Mercy Centre. Miss Aye sat on the lap of best house mum as she came “home” with us, with a dozen of our other four-year-olds consoling her: “Don’t worry. We will go to school with you and come home with you. You won’t be alone.” Four-year-olds understand these things.
I was sitting in the back and asked if it would be proper if we stopped at the local mom and pop store for ice-cream. The four-year-olds nodded, but I was quite serious and asked Miss Aye if she would be the sponsor to thank her friends for coming to the cremation. She thought that would be a good idea — naturally, I paid.
She has a half brother who is 20 years older, they say, finishing university somewhere. After the birth of their son, the father entered a monastery and had been a monk ever since. He had never returned and did not attend the cremation. We don’t even know if he knew. The son lives with his sister, who put him through university.
Mum had married again and her second man — a “rotter” is the kindest epithet you could call him — gave her two children, plus plus. He gave her TB, a drug habit and Aids, then died from a drug overdose topped with TB.
Their oldest daughter together is now 14, with a steady boyfriend, also not in school and interested only in the moment. The old people in Klong Toey talk of bad blood when a child goes bad. And as they say, the bad blood came from her second husband — the rotter.
The bad blood seems to have settled in the eldest daughter, 14, with neatly braided hair, and her steady boyfriend, who of course really doesn’t want her to study, nor go to school. Nor does he have a real job.
She was supposed to take care of her dying mum and baby sister Miss Aye, but didn’t. She’d stopped in, turned on the TV, watched a few minutes, then left. She came every couple of days. Granny (mum’s mum) looked after them the best she could. A good lady, but old and constantly out of money.
However, she did have enough sense to dump her husband, so that helped. One less mouth to feed. But recently Granny was in a card game. She didn’t drink, but had an occasional puff “to relax”. The police came and checked everyone’s urine. Granny’s was purple, and the result is Granny’s in the slammer for three months.
So who now looks after Miss Aye? As of last week, she was given to a loopy uncle and is not safe at all. A friendly policeman saw all of this going down. He is a man who really cares about the community and was really worried about Miss Aye.
After the arrest, he took her to his own home for his wonderful wife and mum to look after. But they said “we can’t keep her”, for all sorts of political reasons. So Miss Aye came to us. She has friends at the centre from her kindergarten class.
And so turns the wheel. Mum is dead. Dad is dead. He gave his wife, Miss Aye’s mum, two children, a drug habit, fatal TB and Aids.
A couple of days before the cremation, we quietly took Miss Aye for testing. By the luck of the draw she is as healthy as any little girl can be — no TB and no Aids.
Even though she’s with her four-year-old peers, she needs someone to hold her during the night, especially these first few nights. So crippled Auntie Gung (also, best, but older, best house mum) is here all the time, night and day. She asked each of the four-year-olds for one baht of their candy money and they all went to the local store and bought some joss sticks — one each for Miss Aye’s school friends, all living at the Mercy Centre.
Then they said their night prayer to the Buddha and three Hail Marys to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and all lit joss sticks for Miss Aye’s mum.
Then Auntie Gung gathered them and told them this was their lucky night: they didn’t have to sleep in their beds.
They could sleep like they used to on the streets. They could put their mattress on the floor and all sleep together with Miss Aye. Also under a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary — whom they know protects them.
That was almost good enough. Almost. Miss Aye asked that Auntie Gung sleep with them also and that they leave one of the lights on. Auntie Gung makes sure they all go to the bathroom before sleeping, but Miss Aye says she doesn’t wet the bed any more. She’d promised her mum she wouldn’t. But only sometimes.
And what of tomorrow and the day after? We have gathered the legal documents: birth certificate and house registration etc. Granny, who is her legal guardian, has signed the child to our care and Granny has promised to come and visit once she gets out of prison.
As for the greatest of all fears — that mum will not be there to greet Miss Aye after school — the crippled Miss Gung tells her: “It’s really hard for me to walk up and down the stairs, but I’ll be waiting for you every afternoon. I promise.”