It's always dicey to come 6,000 miles without calling ahead.
First the back story: Thailand is 98% Buddhist. Though the Thais love the sparkle of Christmas, it's because it's sparkly and not because it's Christmas. They don't celebrate the season as the Church does in the West. For this reason, there was much less time to get home and back again than would be allotted stateside. Schools in Thailand don't end on December 24th and begin anew on January 2nd. At least many of them don't. Many go right through the Christmas season.
However, in grand Thai fashion, Christmas festivities begin long before the actual holiday, and continue long after it's over. Again, not because it's Christmas, but because sparkly things can be added to otherwise normal surfaces, transforming classrooms with origami paper stars, paper chain swag, bits of plastic cut into shapes, festooned with garland and hung from every doorway, window and blackboard. This is also true of Thai businesses that have no affiliation with the holiday as a philosophical reality. Sparkly Christmas trees and the sparkly Buddhist shrines co-exist, side-by-side.
As I said, in the days before I left for home, my students were engaged in decorating every square inch of their classrooms, the hallways, and all surfaces available on every tree, pillar and post in the school yard. Not much schoolwork was attempted or gained during this time. I stopped trying to teach. My students were far too busy hunched over their respective piles of glitter, paper, scissors and glue. Decorating here takes precedence over all other activities. This is a culture with a strong arts and crafts tradition. They weave, braid and glue the way the rest of us breathe in and out.
I picked up my suitcases, heaved them back onto the cart and wheeled them toward security. Inside, we gathered for the prerequisite group picture(s). The Thais love ceremonial picture taking. Snap, snap, snap, smile, shift, smile, shift, smile, hugs, tears, waving, waving, waving, and finally the long good-bye.
I hadn't slept much the night before. When all else fails, I can count on my insomnia. I went to look for coffee. Over a steaming Americano, while waiting for my flight to Bangkok, I reflected on my time in Thailand.
In all truthfulness, I have been leaving this place since the day I arrived. In July, for instance, I left for Laos; in October, I left for London; now, in December, I was returning to the States, albeit for the short run. In March, I'll leave again for good.
Honestly? I'm used to leaving. I don't feel it much anymore. Which doesn't mean I won't miss my Thai friends. But I've left so many times over the years that I can only afford so much grief. My heart refuses to break any more. It couldn't take the repeated hit without becoming calloused. I see this as a strength. Saying goodbye is inevitable. Not falling apart is my response to inevitability.
That said, my family has become increasingly precious to me. There's no distance I won't go, no trouble I won't shoulder, no inconvenience I won't endure in order to be close to them, whenever and wherever I can.
In fact one reason (among many) that I came to Thailand was because my youngest was going to Afghanistan. I was much closer to her in Thailand than remaining in my home in Washington State. I know, I know. That's not rational. I'd have never been able to get into Afghanistan to look for her if something had gone awry, but I would have tried. Proximity, in my mind, is half the battle.
So is safety. I could let go of my eldest child, trusting her to the care of my capable son-in-law. The same goes for my middle child, who's happily in love with a great guy, and who's safely tucked in to his family. I could relax my hold.
But the youngest? She was at risk. No question. If I had to get to her, the distance was a fraction of what it would have been if I'd remained pacing stateside.
So while I find the Thai people endearing, they don't belong to me in that same way that my family does, and I don't plan to keep them. We are therefore destined for goodbye. By definition, that limits how close we will become.
I questioned her nonchalantly, trying not to give myself away. She was leaving the same day that I would arrive?!! Holy Shmoly, Batman! What to do, what to do? I paced. This is what insomniacs do. We're good at it.
"What time are you going?" I messaged.
"Noon," she typed back.
"When will you be back?"
"Late, on the 25th. We check out at 11:00am."
In a flash of genius, I said I wanted to skype with all three daughters at the same time. I put her to the task of setting up a coffee date with her sisters at some coffee shop so we could chat (Diabolical and brilliant, no?).
We would make it work. I didn't want to take away from her holiday plans. Leavenworth is a gorgeous place, and Destry's family are dear people.
When I landed in Spokane on the morning of the 22nd, Jiorgia was at the airport to meet her husband. Very quickly, she became an accomplice in a little something I had begun to call Christmas Ambush, 2012. It was she who set up the next part: every Christmas the girls receive Florida oranges from their father. This year the crates went to Leigh's house, awaiting the arrival of her sisters.
Jiorgia dialed her sister, awakening her.
"I'm at the airport picking up Paul. We're coming by to get my box of oranges."
"Uhm, okay -- Right now? It's only 8:30."
"We won't stay long."
Leigh muttered under her breath and curled back under the blankets.
"What does she think? We're going to eat her share of the citrus?"
She was asleep again in under five minutes.
Back at the airport: We waited for my sizable suitcase, jam packed with Christmas goodies. Eloise helped pull it to the truck. She glanced at me shyly and grinned. She's four. She's original. She's mine.
At Leigh's house: we knocked on the door. No answer. We knocked again. No answer.
"Hide over there," Jiorgia ordered, pointing to the corner next to the backdoor. I slipped behind her, and flattened myself against the wall.
She knocked again.
Finally Leigh opened the door a crack. She was in her pjs. She was not smiling.
"I had to get pants on."
I leaped from my hiding place, and though she was barefoot, she threw herself off the back porch and into my arms. We stood hugging in the cold for a long, long time. I began to worry about her feet.
Inside the house, she wiped the tears from her face and made tea. The cats, Lola and Clementine hissed at us and pranced off in a huff. Destry ambled into the kitchen and gave me a hug.
We didn't stay long. Those two had a trip to a winter wonderland ahead.
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!
I love the grand gesture.