“Selfish, he’s just selfish and always wants to be the center of attention,” my younger sister Leila said the day Dad left for Indonesia with the assistance of his nephew Ahmad, who had flown from Indonesia to accompany him on the flight.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Lina, my older sister, answered. “You didn’t have to live with him. He never did anything for himself. Not when mom was alive, not after she died.”
My feelings were not as clear-cut as my sisters’. My husband and I lived 700 miles away. We enjoyed nature, wide-open spaces, no traffic, and small-town living. I visited Southern California twice a year. Dad lived in Lina’s guesthouse, where he and Mom had lived for over thirty years. Leila did Dad’s bookkeeping, visiting with him every Sunday. My sisters were in a better position to understand our father and his needs.
But I did wonder what drove an eighty-nine-year-old man to leave his daughters and return to the country he left as a young adult. How could he go with just one small suitcase and leave everything else behind? Did our father even love us?
The collective memory of us sisters is not so much of good times with our father, but of a person who always provided the basics for us, and sometimes for family in Indonesia. Once we staged a mutiny. Dad was in the habit of taking extended vacations – alone. When we were old enough to question, we asked him why he didn’t take Mom on vacation with him. He answered that he couldn’t afford a trip for two and also a baby sitter for us.
That was not the right answer for three young girls who had become very American.
“It’s not OK, Dad,” we told him. “If you are going on vacation you have to take Mom with you. We are old enough to take care of each other for a week or so.”
Dad seemed amused.
“We’re serious, Dad. You can afford a trip for two if you go for a shorter time.”
“I’m not leaving you home alone!” he answered, appearing to think the conversation over and the subject closed.
“Then you can’t go.” Leila said. As the youngest she got away with more and could tell him that.
He stared at us, first in amused disbelief, and then with a mixture of disappointment and pride. He learned that day that emigrating from one country to another carried certain risks. It meant taking on new ways and letting go of some old.
That year we all went to Yellowstone.
When dad boarded the plane in Los Angeles I’d worried about him making the long flight. He looked frail and had moments of incontinence and confusion. Would he even be able to survive the twenty-hour-plus flight to Indonesia? But Ahmad said they were flying first class and he would be comfortable and looked after.
My sisters had rolled their eyes. We were skeptical. For as long as we could remember we had nothing good to say about Indonesia or the family there. The culture was too male-dominated, the women were too subservient, the children had no guidelines, and the people and the government paid little attention to environmental issues. We didn’t really want a connection with our third-world roots. We wanted to be American and nothing else. But that was not always easy. I wasn’t allowed to date in high school, at least not until my senior year, and then my mom or dad had to meet the young man first. My dad brought me to parties and picked me up, early, just as the fun was starting. Mini-skirts were not quite mini; bikini bathing suits were out. I could have friends over, but not in my bedroom. Balancing two cultures was frustrating to navigate.
Our home was decorated with shadow puppets, masks, and magic daggers from Indonesia. We ate mostly rice and more rice with various fragrant vegetable curries. Tofu was more of a staple than meat. (Sometimes we got lucky and Mom made hamburgers or spaghetti.) Our home was filled with classical music, Mother liking Chopin, Dad enjoying everything except our modern music.
I took the challenges my parents faced for granted. WWII had robbed them of high school diplomas and that, coupled with needing to learn English, made getting a job no easy task. After working in a Chinese laundry, and as a door-to-door Fuller Brush Man, my dad finally found suitable work in a Hollywood camera store. He worked there until he retired at seventy-five. Mom had an equally steep learning curve. She took adult English classes offered at the local elementary school. She learned how to drive and she got a job at the May Company. Still, she was a freedom fighter, a reader of Voltaire and Kant. She believed traditions were made to be broken, and religions were nothing more than a reason for war. It was she who instilled in us a sense of strength and at times rebellion.
We feared mom’s strictness, but embraced her new American strength. We couldn’t wait to go to college, get a job, and have our own apartments. Dad had more traditional beliefs. As we matured, he brought home “suitors” for us from the mosque. We were respectfully polite, while we simmered with disgust. After, Dad usually got an earful from us.
Mom was always on our side. She was raised Catholic with a Dutch grandfather and a native grandmother who believed in animism but also carried a rosary and Islamic prayer beads. To our great-grandmother belief was belief. Poor Dad. None of us dated or married a Muslim. We married, respectively, a German, a Lebanese, and an Italian; a Protestant, an Episcopalian, and a Catholic.
Mother died in September 2005, two months after surgery for abdominal cancer. She was eighty-one. We thought Dad would be lost without her but he surprised us. He joined the YMCA and made new friends. Dad liked people, and people liked him. When poor vision caused him to lose his driver’s license, his YMCA friends came and picked him up for a “workout” and then took him to lunch. If not for the YMCA he would have been alone all day, every day. Lina worked long hours.
Then, according to Lina, Dad’s mind started to go soggy, although through phone conversations with him I could not detect it. He repeated himself a couple of times, but, well, I could forgive him that. He was eighty-nine.
“You don’t understand,” Lina told me. “He won’t put his medication on his legs. No matter how many times I remind him. And the other day he came in the house wearing his shoes but no socks and then told me to turn up the heat because he was cold. He can’t remember to put out his laundry for me, so it doesn’t get done and then he complains. He has stacks of papers, books, and CDs all over his living room floor. And with the way he shuffles around, he’s going to trip over them.”
“Lina, he needs help,” I said. “He can’t reach his feet to put on socks or medication.” Before I could say any more she stopped me to say that’s why she and Leila were looking into some retirement homes and senior care facilities.
When Dad arrived in Indonesia, the family emailed pictures of him, of family visiting him, and even of his bedroom, a charming airy room with a private bath. Dad looked tired in the pictures, and on phone calls he sounded a bit slow, but happy to hear from me.
I needed to make the trip to Indonesia. I needed to know he was okay, that he was happy with the decision he’d made. I needed to know how the family felt, and I needed to know what would be done when he died. None of this could be done through phone calls or emails. I had to see my cousins face to face. And, I had to know if they thought we’d dumped our aging father on them.
Leila suggested I just bring Dad back home to the States. She was convinced that he was too American to stay in Indonesia. Dad had always been proud to be an American. He was the only one of his five siblings to leave Indonesia to make a new and different life. He believed in the American dream, and he felt we lived that dream. But I knew the American dream let him down when it came to aging. He didn’t want to go into a nursing home. He didn’t want to be with old people waiting to die, playing games he’d never played, watching TV that didn’t interest him and eating food he never cared for. He wanted to be with family, with young people excitedly talking about their businesses, and with babies playing loudly. It was a communal life that didn’t exist in the U.S.
The plane landed gently on the tarmac. I stepped out into heavy hot humidity. Thankfully, I moved easily and quickly through obtaining my visa, getting my luggage, and customs. Then it was merely walking into the throng of people waiting for arriving passengers. My cousin’s son was picking me up, but I had no idea what he looked like. Oh how I wished I had paid more attention to the family pictures Dad always showed us. As the crowd thinned I spied my name printed in gold letters on a piece of cardboard held by a beautiful young woman wearing a light brown hijab. My mother would have cringed, as would my sisters. To my mother the hijab was a symbol of female subjugation. At the moment, I thought how handy a hijab would be on a bad hair day like the one I was having after traveling for nearly twenty-two hours.
I walked up to the young woman and introduced myself, worrying she might not understand me, but my worries quickly melted. Her name was Kati, she said, as she pulled out her smartphone to call her husband, my cousin’s son, Razzi. How did we ever survive without cell phones?
Within minutes I was sitting in the back seat of Razzi’s shiny black BMW with its tan leather interior. The seats were cool and comfortable and a bottle of chilled water waited for me in the cup holder. Razzi pulled into bumper-to-bumper traffic as Kati put the word out on WhatsApp that I had arrived. All the family’s smartphones would be pinging with the message that their American cousin was on her way to visit with her father.
Dad sat at the outdoor dining table with a cup of coffee. He didn’t get up but spread his arms wide to receive me and I fell to my knees to hug him. He hugged me harder than I can remember, and tears filled his cloudy eyes. In that moment I knew how difficult a decision it had been for him to leave his daughters.
Dressed in a gray T-shirt and lightweight blue pants, Dad looked remarkably well. On his feet were comfortable sandals. His toenails were neatly trimmed and his feet and legs were smooth and soft. His arms were smooth as well, and showed no signs of the bloody capillary ruptures he had when in L.A. He took my hand and held it for a long time.
The housegirl brought coffee and afternoon treats. We all sat and talked in a mixture of English and Indonesian.
When it was time for Dad to rest I walked with him to his room. He moved with the aid of his walker but he shuffled less than he had. His room was large and cooled with a remote-controlled air conditioner. Furniture was sparse: a queen size bed, a bedside table with a clock and a light, a chair, a set of drawers with a picture of him and Mom, a television, and a couch that folded out into a bed to accommodate Jajong, his male attendant.
Jajong stayed with Dad 24-7. He slept in the room with him, helped him to the bathroom, gave him his bath, shaved him, and massaged his legs and arms with lotions. He brought him to and from the table for meals and made sure he got his medications. If Dad met the family for lunch at a restaurant, Jajong went along in the car, brought him in and out of the restaurant in his wheelchair and was never far if he should need anything.
There was nothing I had to do except visit with my dad, enjoy the company of my cousins, and learn what love and respect look like in the old traditions.
In the morning I heard the house staff up as early as 5 a.m. They were sweeping floors and opening doors and windows to let in what cool morning air there was. By 6:30 I was sitting by myself at the outdoor dining table. One of the kitchen girls brought me coffee while I checked my email. By 6:45 Jajong helped Dad to the table and got him seated safely before he went off to get his pills and tell the kitchen staff Dad was ready for coffee. Then my cousin Suzy arrived, then her husband, Ahmad, and by 7, the children and grandchildren slowly emerged. One by one, as the family members came to the table, they greeted my dad by taking his hand, kissing it, and bringing it to their forehead.
“Selamat pagi, Ami Mus. Good morning, Uncle,” they said, the little ones more shyly. The young children, four, five, nine, and fourteen, greeted me in the same manner, the kissed hand brought to their foreheads. Those nearer my age greeted me with kisses on both cheeks much as the French do. Instead of an air-kiss it is a short inhale, as if to take in the essence of the other person. And this custom is done between husband and wife, mother and child, father and child, and between siblings.
It left me speechless.
In a quiet moment with Suzy I asked about setting up a bank account. Leila had made repeated attempts to contact Suzy about doing this, but with no response.
“They are rude,” Leila said when she and I talked about it. I had no answer for her at the time, but that day at the breakfast table Suzy said an account had already been set up.
“The whole family helps pay for your daddy. Family members in Jakarta, Bandung, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia give. It is their duty. Your daddy is the patriarch of our family. It is an honor to have him in our house,” Suzy said to me, concerned that I might doubt that honor.
I could already see my sisters rolling their eyes. They’d say something like, “Easy for them to say. They have boat loads of help.”
They would be missing the point.
“Thank you, Suzy. Can I give you money to put in the account?”
“Of course.” And she took the American dollars I gave her. It would be the first of annual installments.
Word of my arrival reached cousins I’d never met who lived in Kuala Lumpur. They arrived a few days later to meet me. Cousins and their children came and went, paid their respects, first and always to my dad, then to me. I felt a little ashamed that I had not always been there to greet them on their visits to the U.S. I had not understood.
My visit continued uncomplicated. I was not judged by how I lived in the States, or by the fact that Dad chose to come back and live with Suzy and Ahmad. I spent all Dad’s waking hours visiting with him. And when he slept I could see he slept in peace because he knew Jajong was there to watch over him. He didn’t have to be afraid of being alone. Not only was there Jajong, but also all my cousins’ children and their children. There was constant movement within the house, and the extended houses that created a family compound.
Dad had made the right decision to go back. I could only be happy for him. He was loved and cared for in a way we sisters, in our American single-family homes, could never have done. I understood now how my dad could leave with just a small suitcase. Preparing for the final journey, things are nothing. He needed the hustle and bustle of family to give him life, but to be there in death.
I had made the right decision to reconnect. I would now be a better American, one who had a broader and deeper understanding of the world and the people in it, one who understood respect, honoring, and dignity, and for that I had my immigrant parents to thank.