“To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures to people the tree of your life and give it new branches.” – Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Through the years, I’ve noticed that my birthdays have become increasingly more reflective – what it means for another year to have passed, where I was on my last birthday and the birthday before that, with whom I am spending this birthday and where I am spending it. And so, in the days leading up to my first birthday I would spend without receiving a phone call from Swayze, I felt a strange bucketful of emotions, a mixture of sadness and excitement and pride and grief and, in short, confusion.
At times, grief can feel like a nagging nuisance – can I just press pause for this day? Swayze never missed a birthday of mine. Even if he couldn’t be there physically, he’d call me and insist on singing happy birthday. Last year, he texted me first thing in the morning to say, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I have a work meeting this morning so I can’t call until later, but don’t you dare think you won’t be hearing me sing today!” On the morning of June 13, 2018 I resolved to remember the love and the smiles when these memories joined me.
I started the day thinking it would be mostly uneventful. After all, I live transportation-less in little Lomkao. How lucky I am to be so wrong.
Upon hearing that it was my birthday, almost all of my classes sang happy birthday to me. I promise you, there are few things cuter than a room full of smiling Thai students happily choral singing happy birthday. I even had a few spirit fingers and drum rolls toward the end.
When I came back from my first period, one of my closest Thai friends, a female student teacher named Time, was waiting at the door, almost as if she were on watch. “Where is Teacher Jenn?” she asked me while blocking my entrance. Confused, I said, “I’m not sure.” She huffed and walked inside, exclaiming something in Thai to the rest of the teachers. As soon as I followed, I came upon another happy birthday chorus, except this one was accompanied by cake and candles and clapping and all of my Thai coworkers happily surrounding me.
My coworkers know I am vegetarian and that I do not eat milk products, and Jenn told them my favorite dessert is mango sticky rice (khao niaow ma muang). My coworkers made me a heart-shaped and vegan mango sticky rice cake with coconut milk instead of the traditional condensed milk. Actually, they made one heart-shaped and one round with candles and little flags that stuck out of the cakes saying “Happy birthday Sam!” with extra flags to tape on your shirt. We sang and smiled and took photos, and when Jenn got back from her class and found that they had surprised me without her, we reenacted the whole thing!
Pee Som made a feast worth of pad thai with plenty of vegetables to go around. As we ate, Pee Nit told us that the next day would be Wan Wai Khru Day, or Teacher Appreciation Day. This day is celebrated very seriously in Thai schools – the contrast to American culture is shocking. The entire morning of Teacher Appreciation Day is dedicated to the teachers and administration. Students are responsible for all preparations and decorations – so much so that the afternoon classes on the day of my birthday were cancelled to allow the students time to get ready.
I could hardly believe my ears. “Wait, so you’re telling me I don’t have to teach the rest of the day? On my birthday?” Gotta love those “coincidences.”
My last morning class was my most advanced class – Mattayhom 5 Level 1. I absolutely adore these dedicated students, and, unlike the majority of my classes, their English proficiency is enough that we can communicate fairly well. When I walked in, the students were already knee-deep in Wan Wai Khru Day arrangements. Banana leaves coated the floor as they crafted intricate flowers and adornments. It was very clear that we would not be having class, but I decided to hang around for a few minutes anyway.
I checked in with them on the status of their homework, and after being pleasantly surprised, I sat down next to a few of my talkative students. I pointed at the birthday flag on my shirt and said, “What does this say?” I watched her eyes light up as she read it. She exclaimed, “That’s today?!” I thought she was surprised. By her reaction, I would have bet on it.
Not even thirty seconds later, the classroom doors opened and two of my favorite students, who I didn’t even realize were missing, walked in holding little cakes with sparkling candles. In unison, the class began singing happy birthday as the girls brought the cakes to me, prompting me to blow them out and giggling as I realized they were trick candles.
Those of you who know how much of a sap I am must know that I cried. There was no avoiding it, just as there was no hiding my enormous grin.
It is often easier for my students to read English than to interpret through listening, so I walked over to the board and wrote, “I love being your teacher.” I asked them to tell me what it said. Altogether, they read it out loud, and immediately after, “We love being your students.”
An outpouring of love.
We spent the afternoon playing card games and the “Movie Game,” a game that John introduced us to that tests your knowledge of actors/actresses and the movies they have starred in.
Important side bar: John, Jenn and I learned a new card game called Cucumber. Cucumber is a great balance of strategy and luck – it can be fun, challenging and infuriating. Each player is dealt 7 cards. The person to the left of the dealer lays their highest card. The next player must play a card that is either equal to or higher than the value of the first card that was played OR they can choose to play the lowest card in their hand. The third player must play a card equal to or higher than the value of the highest of the first two cards laid, or their lowest card. Whoever laid the highest card wins the round and gets to lead the next.
The catch? Your goal is to lose the last round. The player who wins the last round has points added to their game score equal to the value of the card they last laid. You want to keep your score as low as possible – once your points add up to 21, you “cucumber” for the first time. When you cucumber twice, you are officially out of the game. However, after you cucumber for the first time, or “cuke” as we call it, you automatically have a score equal to the highest score of the player who still has not cuked. So if Jenn has not yet cuked but she has a score of 15, and I cuke, my score will be 1 cuke + 15, which means I only have a buffer zone of 6 points.
Very long side bar short: In the farm-town of Lomkao, playing cards is a very entertaining hobby. We plan to keep track of our game scores (number of cukes) throughout the semester and declare a winner at the end.
Recently, we also started working out after school with other Thai teachers and students. After playing cards on my birthday, John and Jenn and I went for a run – all the way to 7/11, actually.
Almost every day, we eat dinner across the street from school at Ben’s restaurant Nom Mattayhom. Her cooking is great, she has vegetarian options, and the convenience of proximity and affordable price can’t be beat. On my birthday, though, I really wanted to figure out a way to do something more special.
Without a motorbike, without a bus, a songthaew, a car or a tuk-tuk, would you guess how Jenn made this happen for my birthday? She stuck out her thumb as we walked in the direction of Lomsak. Alongside the road at 8:30pm on a Wednesday evening, wearing dresses and holding out our thumbs, we looked determined and most likely a little crazy. In the United States, this sounds like a dangerous and ridiculous idea. I would be scared to trust a soul.
In Thailand, 15 minutes into our walk, we were picked up by a nice man in a silver pick-up truck who pulled over to ask, “Khru farang?” (“Foreign Teachers?”), though our white skin had practically already answered his question. Communicating other than this was extremely difficult – Thank goodness for Google Translate and Maps. He was already on his way in to Lomsak and offered us a ride. When he dropped us off, he wouldn’t let me pay him. What everyone told me is completely true – teachers are held in very high regard in this country, a bit of a shock to someone from the United States. It feels like everyone in this town celebrates our presence here so much that they collectively take care of us without hesitation or expectation.
With its laidback, relaxed and positively celebratory atmosphere, Thailand breeds disorganization and can require patience and flexibility. As often happens, the bar we found on Google Maps was closed though it was marked as open online. As well as the next one. But after walking around Lomsak without luck, we found our luck in the form of a friendly group of locals playing cards outside their homes who offered to give us a lift to the bar that was actually open in town.
Unfortunately, french fries were the only vegetarian menu item for the night, so my dinner consisted of french fries and more french fries with some Chang and Hong Tong mixed in. We had an amazing time – Jenn even sang and played happy birthday on the guitar to the whole bar for me! And don’t worry, we rode a tuk-tuk home.
That Saturday, Jenn, John and I had planned to go to Phetchabun for two reasons: to visit Khao Noi and to celebrate my birthday with Time, our student-teacher friend. Though the first did not happen, and despite how difficult it was to learn the news of Khao Noi, I tried my best to enjoy my weekend. Time is an undergraduate student studying education at Phetchabun University. With her boyfriend, Benz, she introduced us to Phetchabun, including Club Z.
We went to Club Z Saturday night with Benz, Time and a friend of theirs from Phetchabun University. A Thai rock band split stage time, switching throughout the night, with a DJ. Jenn and I were elated to have a night out to dance and everyone had a blast. We left the club hungry, but Time said the only place open to eat at that hour was a street cart selling boiled rice bowls. We ate the strangest late-night drunk snack you could imagine – a soupy bowl of boiled rice and eggs with the consistency of grits.
Before heading back to Lomkao the next day by bus, Benz and Time took us to see the Big Buddha temple in Phetchabun. Standing next to this magnificent, huge Buddha was humbling and beautiful. It was a perfectly peaceful day weather-wise – Walking around the upper floor of the temple, overlooking water and a park with leisurely and laughing families, hearing the temple’s bells and loving where the distant mountain peaks kiss the sky. What a feeling it was to breathe in this serenity, kneel in front of this tremendous Buddha, and wai to the Buddha with my palms met, thumbs between my eyebrows, fingertips meeting at the top of my forehead, a soft smile on my lips.
There’s no word for the pain of losing a sibling. You can be an orphan or a widower, but there’s no word for losing your lifelong best friend, the only other person who lived your childhood with you, who knows you in a way that no one but a sibling could know. I started my 22nd year with messages from my brother. I started my 23rd year as an only child by technicality.
To hell with technicalities, because I have a brother. His memories are with me, his presence is with me, and his love is always with me. Just as the love I was surrounded by on my birthday, and every day since I have been in Thailand, will always be with me.