After finishing 2-week volunteer stint building houses in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it was time to relax a bit with my fellow volunteers and by myself. First stop: Bangkok. Second stop: an elephant sanctuary. Third stop: Cambodia. Fourth stop: islands in the south of Thailand. Final stop: the jungles.
But as I started the vacation part of my 4-week vacation, I couldn’t relax. It was late August 2001, and I hadn’t predicted how this trip would impact me. Yes, I would be in Thailand when the world changed forever as the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by planes flown by terrorists. But that isn’t the only sea-change I would experience in Southeast Asia. The first happened right away, when I was least expecting it.
If Bangkok stirs the senses, Chatuchak Weekend Market purees them into froth. The market covers several square miles in central Bangkok. One of the largest markets in all of Asia, the place is a cacophony of sound and smell and texture – chirping parakeets, the sssssss of stir-frying vegetables, the pungent smell of boiled eel, rows of silk tapestries in magenta and gold fluttering from stall ceilings, 200-pound granite Buddhas blocking passageways.
But here, in this dizzying place, my ability to soak in my surroundings (something years of wanderlust had fine-tuned) was stunted. I hadn’t even remembered my notebook; as a writer, this was not right. All I could think about was Dad.
Several phone calls home that I’d made from my hotel room the day before went unanswered. Today’s phone calls got the same result — endless ringing. Nothing could have sounded so awful.
Four months earlier, doctors gave my father less than a year to live. He’d driven himself to the hospital because he felt really tired and worn down, a kind of tired that was so unusual for him that it was alarming. It only took a day of tests to determine his diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia. He’d just turned 68.
Like all cancers, there is no known cure. For AML in particular, no treatment has been found to prolong the lives of those suffering from it. The disease is an invisible killer, only taking the patient when the diseased blood goes from bad to worse. The destabilization, the doctors say, can happen at any time, and usually kills the patient in a few weeks. It’s like a huge bomb with a hidden timer. It may happen tomorrow, or not for a few weeks, or not for a year. Prayer and positive thinking were the only things my mother and I had been able to do to help him. For the first month after the diagnosis, I could barely work, barely think. The emotional blow made writing feel pointless, parties and small-talk chores. For months I’d wake up in the morning and find my eyes filling with tears.
But after the first two months since the diagnosis (and three visits home), I was learning that my writing still gave me purpose, and that seeing friends made me feel good. I realized that sitting home waiting for Dad to possibly die would be the worst possible thing I could do, the worst message I could send him. On one of my visits home, I brought up my previously-planned trip to work as a volunteer in Thailand. I was nervous about bringing it up, telling Mom first, then Dad. Without hesitating, Dad said I should go. He knew I needed it. He knew getting up and going was who I I always had been, as the a little girl in the back of the Golden Goose, and who I was now.
I told my parents I wouldn’t feel comfortable being so far away if I didn’t call in at least once a week. If anything happened, I told them, I could be on an airplane home in a day. With the International Dateline working in my favor, I assured my parents I could be home quickly. I got on the Internet and printed out a map of where I’d be volunteering and where I thought I’d be traveling afterwards. I was doing anything I could to make it seem that I wouldn’t be so far away. I knew better than to try and fool them, but I tried anyway. They weren’t buying it, but I think they appreciated my efforts.
Deep down, I felt an urgency to volunteer, to help someone else in a tangible way that I couldn’t help Dad. Both my parents had wanted, in their retirement, to build houses for the poor. Now my father couldn’t do that, much less get on an airplane to reach the project sites (doctors say air travel is dangerous for leukemia patients). The whole volunteer project — making cement from scratch, building brick walls, and ultimately giving three families homes – took on new purpose. Houses were something I could see. Thailand I could see, new places and cultures I could see. I couldn’t see leukemia. And now, in Bangkok, in the middle of this labyrinth packed full of silk and stir-fried grasshoppers and exotic birds, I couldn’t see anything else but leukemia.
I felt unsteady as I walked, not looking at anything, not really seeing anyone. The technicolor of Chatuchak Market disappeared behind my colorless, worried pupils. Why hadn’t they been home when I’d called? They were always home. They’re retired. With the time difference, I’d called them at different times of the day – midday, afternoon, late evening. What could two 68-year-olds be doing out at 10 pm? They must be at the hospital. Dad must be in the hospital.
I couldn’t think, and now I was turned around in the market. The noise of merchants and customers bargaining with each other mixed with the squawking of birds and the boom-boom of the bass from the athletic shoe stalls. All of it had become an unbearable din. The Chatuchak Market has thousands of stalls and hundreds of corridors. People flowed in and out from every direction, seemingly all at once, like batter settling in to the grooves of a waffle iron. I had lost the small group of volunteers I’d come with. I was alone, and even though I’d traveled by myself through several parts of the world, I’d never felt as alone as I did here in the middle of Bangkok’s market.
Should I be headed to the airport? Was this it for Dad?
I crossed a corridor and stepped into one of the few open spaces I’d seen all day. I felt helpless, wanting to be able at that moment to be fixing Dad. Here was a man who could fix anything, yet no one could fix him. Not Dad, not the doctors, not Mom, not me. The invisible disease was racing through his body, forwards and backwards, or maybe just settling in somewhere, perhaps in some natural resting place. Whatever was going on, it was scary and unexpected, with no comfortable corner to retreat to.
Headed nowhere in particular, I stepped into the flow of people in a corridor on my left. I looked up. Suddenly, without warning, my Thai friend Benjawan, a member of the volunteer group, stood right in front of me and smiled. By sheer luck, she and a few others had stopped at a shoe stall nearby. I had told her about my Dad. She took one look at me and pulled out her cell phone. We went into the shoe store.
“Do you want to try home again?” she asked.
It was past midnight in Seattle. The phone rang, rang again, then my father’s voice came through on the other end: “Hello?” I was suddenly aware of where I was, smashed in a corner of a vendor’s stall, surrounded by shoes and glass cases and tee shirts and noise, trying to avoid the bustle. The scene was silly, and I soon learned how much I had overreacted.
Each time I had called over the past two days, my parents had been out shopping or at a neighbor’s or at the Post Office. I told my father how worried I had been, and he assured me things were fine. Barely able to talk over the din of the market, I assured him I’d call back in a few days from a quieter location.
After hanging up, I vowed to find a quieter place within as well.
THE NEW MODE
After my panic in Bangkok, I began praying for Dad at Buddhist temples wherever I went. I even kneeled before the Emerald Buddha, considered the most sacred in all of Siam, in the Royal Palace. I prayed on buses and boats, even as I rode on the back of a motorcycle in Cambodia, a few days after the panic in the market. Thousands of miles from home, I began coming to terms with the fact that sometimes things just can’t be fixed, even for my father — the man that could fix almost anything. Sometimes you just have to hold on for the ride.
As rice paddies blurred on either side of the speeding motorcycle, I lifted my arms to the sky, letting the warm wind sift through my fingers. I closed my eyes, and prayed.