Playing-with-elephants day had arrived.
We had secured a trip to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary that cares for wounded, sick, and previously abused animals. Unlike many organizations in Thailand and across the world, the park treats elephants with compassion. For those of you who might not know, terrible things are done to the elephants who perform in shows or take tourists on rides. I wouldn’t know this if it wasn’t for HBO’s An Apology to Elephants or my always well-informed friend, Katelyn, who visited Thailand recently.
A few minutes before I hopped in the shower, we received an incoming call. It was the kind of call we all dread receiving – the kind that hurts your heart, because you know you are losing someone special.
My grandfather had been in the hospital for several days after breaking his femur. While he never showed the amount of pain he was in, according to his doctors, this was the most painful break you can have.
He celebrated his 81st birthday two days prior, and I’m sure he appreciated all of the visitors, cards, phone calls, and messages. He was doing well that day.
From the conversation with my dad, it became clear that grandpa might not recover. The doctors said it didn’t look promising, but knowing grandpa and his perseverance, we still had hope he might just pull through.
Being far away from my dad and the rest of my family made it more difficult to receive the news — both from a technical and emotional perspective.
I ended the phone call with the understanding that we may soon be receiving another update.
The elephant park van pulled up outside our current “home,” a residential building in Chiang Mai, and I climbed in with a heavy heart. The van drove us halfway to our destination and stopped for a coffee and toilet break.
After trying to “hold it together” in the van filled with the 9 people we’d be spending our entire day with, I burst into tears upon entering the women’s bathroom.
A petite girl with wide-set eyes, probably in her early twenties, stepped out of a stall. Her tangly grey and bleached dreadlocks came down to where her jean shorts ended.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
In a half-choked up sentence I shared with her that my grandpa was passing away, and in one big motion, she opened her arms and held me close. It wasn’t a drive-by hug. She wasn’t shy about it. She held me long enough to feel other people in that hug: my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Through some cosmic-human connection, a random girl in a bathroom linked me to the love and support everyone was sending from back home.
She stepped back from the hug and looked into my eyes, “Even though I don’t know you, I feel for you.”
I could genuinely sense her compassion at a time I truly needed it. Her hug may seem a simple gesture, but it was a seismic Samaritan-like one to me. Her face and dreadlocks are a permanent image in my mind, and the warmth that reverberated from her hug can still be felt in my heart.
Somehow, in that particular spot in the universe, I felt connected to a stranger — and in a deeper sense, humanity at large.
We spent lovely, warm (104 degrees) weather playing with the elephants, learning about their individual histories, and feeding and bathing them. As gentle creatures, the elephants made perfect company on a difficult day.
Throughout the day, Joe and I reminisced about my grandfather. I told stories about Thayer Christmas traditions, the innovative games my grandpa created, the fresh bread he would bake, and the joy embedded in every TACO (Thayer Annual Camp Out) craft activity.
I shared with Joe that my grandparents both made Hole-In-Ones in golf one summer and had a community of friends down in Florida whom they neighbored in the winter.
But perhaps my most prized memory is just sitting with grandpa around the campfire. He’d lean over and make snide comments or deliver a one-liner that was spot-on — and I’d join in with him best I could. It felt like we were in cahoots, all while admiring the orange fire flames and listening to conversations about NASA, 4-wheeling, and the day’s water ski successes. My grandpa had a great sense of humor, even into his final years.
The day at the nature park came to a close and we rode the van back wondering what news awaited us when we returned “home.”
We talked with my parents for over an hour. Sharing memories of grandpa filled those grieving moments —
where an ocean was separating us, love could not.
Both my mom and dad exuded confidence to us about our journey. They conveyed a clear and encouraging message that it was OK to stay where we were, and celebrate grandpa’s life in Asia. Their supportive words were just what I needed in the emotional mental-debate of whether to fly home or not – it was like they could read my mind from halfway around the world.
I received a lot of loving and supportive messages from my aunts, siblings, cousins, and friends. They comforted me in my decision to stay. And the family that recently welcomed me into theirs, the Jonaitises and Steuwes, touched my heart by sending their condolences and love through phone, text, and email.
Missing the funeral and grieving time with my family caused a heaviness on my heart that resonated the mighty power of family – especially a close family like ours.
We were still intertwined while being so far apart.
Thinking about the members of my family helped me cherish each person a little more, realizing that although they’ve always been around, there may be a time when they’re not — even grandpa, who I thought might live another ten years. It’s in that realization of life and death that we can savor the moments we have with our families.
The priests at Sacred Heart in Mandalay, Myanmar made an exception to allow a Sunday mass intention for James V. Thayer at the 5pm English service.
Fr. Mark made a special mention of grandpa at the beginning and introduced us to the congregation. He talked about my grandpa during the homily and stopped to give us his condolences on his exit from church. He acutely understood what it was like to experience a family loss while being away.
Reflecting on all of the love exchanged over the past week, I think of various moments — like the time a random girl hugged me in the bathroom — or the messages from family and friends and the priests who said a mass for my grandpa. I can’t help but see how connected we all are as a human race. We are intertwined and interwoven with each other.
While the world may be considered small or big, depending on who you ask, humanity is such a bond that crosses oceans and cultures.
Sometimes all we can do is gaze in awesome wonder, like the song, “How Great Thou Art” so eloquently puts. This verse is an excerpt from the end of my grandpa’s funeral program:
“O Lord, my God! When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed.”