That day was like any normal sunny day in Bangkok. I was in Pratunam, where most tourists eat, shop, and do massage till their wallets are empty. I received a call from my sister. “Dad has passed away; come back now.” She was crying when she told me. Immediately, I packed my bags and took the next flight back to Singapore. On the journey, I was crying so hard that I ignored how people looked at me. The more I tried to control it, the more I wanted to cry.
Like any typical father, my father was a man of few words, never really demonstrating his love affectionately. He did things his way, silently out of love for me, never really feeling the need to further explain his way of love. I found out too late when his friend told me at the funeral how proud he was of me.
The grief was impossible and felt endless, but it wouldn’t be permanent. I knew that even if I wanted it to last forever, it would change. Nothing can stop people from dying. The year before he passed away, I had cancer. Due to my low immune system from my cancer treatments, I was not speaking much to my father. We kept our distance from each other, especially when he was diagnosed with pneumonia at the same time.
Death is always a surprise. No one expects it. We are never ready. It is never the right time. If there was a right time, we would be prepared. The end always comes as a surprise. It was no different with my father. In fact, his death was even more unexpected. He was not terminally ill. He passed away during an x-ray. I had so many questions about how the hospital handled my father’s treatments, but nothing was more overwhelming than the guilt that tormented me.
Sometimes the guilt still sneaks into my thoughts, catching me unaware of how much I’ve let that emotion take over me. Yes, I lost my father when I was in Bangkok. I wasn’t with him and yes, I wasn’t by his side to say goodbye.
Grief settles in and it takes over — we have all been there. It seems like it will never stop, but nothing is permanent, as the Buddha pointed out. The illusion of permanence may be revealed, but grief can suddenly feel like a new permanence. It is hard to think logically about how to soothe the pain of grief.
I discovered that impermanence in Buddhism is an inescapable truth of existence. It’s one of the three main characteristics of Buddha’s teaching. In the world we live in, where we strive for permanence, Buddha pointed out that impermanence is fundamental to everything. From life to health to joy to sorrow to material objects to our very identity, nothing is permanent, no matter how much we want it to be. Everything is always changing; existence is always in flux. Birth and death are like lovers; they will meet each other one day. Let’s get one thing straight — it didn’t change the pain I felt in the moment, but it did change my perspective.
A friend of mine who was born in the same year as I passed away one year after I had my cancer treatments. He didn’t make it to his 34th birthday, but someone like me, who was battling cancer, did make it. His death was so sudden and tragic that I took a break from my tea-room for a trip to northern Thailand, where I always find peace. Northern Thailand is my sanctuary.
I was climbing the long flight of stairs (781 steps to be exact) to a temple in Mae Salong, northern Thailand. Instead of anticipating the beautiful views awaiting me atop the mountain, I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other… one step at a time… breath by breath… mindfully aware of my surroundings. I couldn’t help but notice a small, black, hairy caterpillar climbing along with me. Maybe I was curious – karma knows I might have killed a lot of cats (not literally) taking the idiom from curiosity kills the cat.
It appeared to be crawling the same way as me, towards the temple. Perhaps the caterpillar was heading for the same much-anticipated view as me? I stopped and was mesmerized by this little wonder, crawling its way, slowly, one tiny step at a time. It made me think since I had been dealing with grief lately.
While the little caterpillar was still climbing, it made me think that we should stop concentrating on what we had lost and instead acknowledge what we had achieved from life. This friend of mine had lived his life to the fullest. Doesn’t it make sense that life is not subjected or defined by how long we live, but by how much of an impact we made on our surroundings, family, and friends? I’m sure that, like me, his friends have a lot to say about how he touched our lives.
Also, part of me selfishly focused on my grieving and on what I had lost, failing to understand that this person didn’t belong to me and his presence was not existential. I realized that everyone, not just me, had experienced grief before and we must understand that everyone was born to die.
Death/birth. Ending/beginning. Alone/together. Strength/weakness. Powerless/empowered. Active/passive.
Tears/laughter. Anger/acceptance. Blindness/insight. Sweet/sour. Or what if I’m suspended in threeness? Black, white, and gray? Or fourness? Denial, acceptance, avoidance, ascent?
I echo Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass. “I can’t believe that,” she said to the Queen. In a pitying tone, the Queen replied, “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,”
Alice replied. “One can scarcely believe impossible things.” “I daresay, you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. I daresay I haven’t had much practice at any of this as well!
When a caterpillar metamorphoses, it doesn’t want the other caterpillars to feel sad for him. Instead, every caterpillar knows they will get through this process naturally. There is no pain, no sorrow, and no guilt. It is merely how nature works. No one can stop the metamorphosis. Death is just a temporary end to a temporary phenomenon.
We cannot stop the caterpillar from metamorphosing, transforming into something beautiful and flying to a better place. When my loved ones pass away, I see them as caterpillars, metamorphosing into butterflies.
They are not dead or deceased… they merely transform or evolve into other realms. In my heart, without saying goodbye, I know my father has never really left me. He is always by my side and my grief will turn into wisdom. I can keep living my life knowing death is always around the corner.
It teaches me that I’m not alone in facing the loss of a loved one. This experience perhaps, accepting death and realizing that it’s coming, could help me deal with my life and others better. I might stop taking others for granted and appreciate their presence more.
Most importantly, I might stop taking my life for granted, knowing that death could come anytime. And like the caterpillar who climbed towards the temple, it is not the view that attracted the caterpillar, perhaps it’s the enlightenment towards the temple that it might be seeking.