Po Nyendak woke up at the break of dawn on Sunday morning to offer prayers in his Choekhang, just as he had done every morning of living in this house in the last forty years. But today would be the last.
Three black American Touristers, of varying sizes, were lined up neatly against the wall of the Choekhang, the most sacred room of any Tibetan home. Atop the smallest of the three was a thick brown envelope, which he knew contained his yellow Identity Certificate, his British Airways tickets, a phonebook which only had the addresses and phone number of his only son and three daughters, and an envelope with a wad of U.S. dollars that he had saved from his children’s visits over the years.
The Gods and deities of Tibet had been kind to him and his family, as if rewarding him for all the things he had done right. It was just as well, he thought. He prayed religiously every day, served as the patron of a local monastery, offered generous donations to other monasteries, and held seasonal and annual prayer ceremonies at his home. His father, his father’s father, and their ancestors had been famed for their piety, and he knew how to follow a tradition, even if it had to be maintained in a foreign land.
With all his children settled in the West, Po Nyendak led a relatively comfortable life in a settlement full of farmers. At every community meeting, Po Nyendak could tell the others were talking about him, as they sat in groups and whispered among themselves, turning every now and then to glance at his direction. “Sotey rey / How lucky,” he knew they were saying. “What more can the old man ask for? His children are all well settled and have good jobs abroad. He has nothing to worry about.”
Once in a while, one of them would sit next to him and ask a million questions. When was his eldest daughter, Yangkyi, coming to visit him next? How were the children of his other daughters, Dekyong and Desal? Could the old man speak to his son, Lhagyab, about finding a sponsor for so-and-so’s children? Is Po Nyendak going abroad to visit his children or would he move permanently? He answered all these questions as if he were being asked them for the first time. He spoke in wonder about this magical world his children lived in, the land of a million opportunities and of easy living. He knew this was what they wanted to hear. They would have none of the truth, none of the stories of long hours at work, of days without seeing a family member despite living in the same house, of sudden job cuts, of identity crisis… and yet, he remembered all these stories from when his children first moved abroad two decades ago.
At the time, they had called to complain to his wife, Sichoe, about the pain of starting anew in a foreign land. The children had never told him any of their problems, telling him only about the clean air, the beautiful malls, the money they were sending home, but his wife told him everything. The two had lived through too much together and never known how to hide anything from each other.
His wife, Sichoe, was fortunate to have died early, he thought, as he stared at the pejas before him on the table, while reciting prayers from memory. His mind continued to wander around the endless stream of memories from long ago, stopping only to marvel at the way the impending future seemed to mirror the past. Sichoe would never have been able to survive, yet again, the feelings of utter helplessness one suffers from having to start all over again. He felt it now, just as he had felt it over forty years ago, when his wife and him had trudged across the mountains from Tibet, in search of a place to freely nurture this dream of a free Tibet.
“How many places must we live in to finally feel at home?” he pondered, as he removed an incense stick from the stand. With ease, he found the matchstick at the side of the altar, beside the incense stand, where he had always kept it. It had taken him and his wife several years to feel like they could get around this place they had chosen as home, several more years to let go of the fear of the unknown after their escape into India, and yet more years to feel like they belonged to it in some way.
And yet, this feeling could be taken away all too easily, he had learned.
He recalled the phone call he received immediately after his wife’s death a year ago. His eldest daughter Yangkyi had been adamant that he move abroad. “Now that Amala is no longer with us, you must not stay alone,” she had said, as if Sichoe’s absence had been long anticipated, and the plans of what to do with Po Nyendak, the remaining parent, had been chalked out years ago. The others agreed with Yangkyi.
He wasn’t hurt, only a tad annoyed that his children could so easily think of the future and let go of the past, when his and Sichoe’s whole life had revolved around preserving the past.
A decade or maybe even two years earlier, Po Nyendak would have been only too happy to do anything his children bid him to do. If they had asked him then to move abroad with Sichoe, he would have agreed without putting up a fight. His wife and he had lived through the darkness and confusion that accompanies moving to unfamiliar grounds, and he would have made the attempt to do it again, if only for the comfort of knowing he wasn’t the only one trying.
But with Sichoe gone, even his children felt like strangers to him. They had lived almost their entire lives away from their parents, in search of education, jobs, love and family, and yet, even after they had found all these ingredients that represented a better life, they had never called their parents to live with them. Over the years, his wife and he had waited in silence, never once complaining of the loneliness they felt or of their desire to see their little grandchildren every day.
And so in the waiting, the children had lost their father.
A mother was different, the bonds were deeper, he thought. That’s why Sichoe could be on the phone with the children for the entire hour that the $2.50 calling cards allowed them time to speak, while Po Nyendak could only mutter a few pleasantries and talk about the weather. But now, his children seemed to act like their mother was just another link to their past, one they weren’t too sure existed, just like the stories of Tibet that he and Sichoe had taken turns to tell them when they were younger, dirtier, happier kids.
At first, Sichoe and he had been lonely after their children left home, one after another. They had missed the sound of the children’s laughter, and the endless fighting amongst the four. Slowly, they grew accustomed to the silence that hung over their home, and over the years, as they waited for the invitation to live with their children, they took to the faith of their fathers with a vengeance that Buddhist lamas would have frowned upon. They replaced the silence and the loneliness in their hearts with the sounds of Buddhist chants through regular visits to the local monasteries, or of their own voices in prayer.
Prayer had helped Po Nyendak survive Sichoe’s death too. He had made sure grand prayers and offerings were made for Sichoe’s quick rebirth. He wondered what would be his fate in the new place? Would his children seek the help of elders in carrying out his final rites when he died there? Would anyone know the traditions that must be followed? Would his body be kept in a state of complete rest and quiet for at least the first five hours after his passing? Or would loud sirens and the sounds of weeping by people he’d have hardly known wreck his journey into the next life? He shuddered as all these questions plagued his mind, just as they had when Yangkyi had first proposed he move abroad. At least in India, the people of the community had seen too many deaths and knew all too well the traditional Tibetan Buddhist rites and rituals due to the dead person. Po Nyendak knew the community was only too aware of the results of not taking care of the dead. They would never want his soul to be lost forever in Bardo, a fate he feared might be the case if he traveled to the United States, only to die there.
The flames from the butter lamps flickered in the corner of the altar, breaking Po Nyendak from his reverie. He looked down at the table where his peja, or prayer text, was turned to the same page he was on earlier this morning. He peered out of the window, and could see the sun coming up. Bhu Tsering, the local taxi driver, would be here anytime now to take him to the airport. He looked at his watch. Only an hour more.
He felt the dread return and that familiar pain in his chest. He ignored the pain and began to prostrate before the images of the Gods that had accompanied him across the border, from one home in Tibet to this current one in India and all the in-between ones on the way.
As he prostrated, he repeated over and over again the prayer, “I bow in reverence to the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha.”
He felt another stab of pain in his chest, but continued to prostrate, and in even greater fervor. “Lama la kyab so cheyo, sangay la kyab so chey-o, choe la kyab so chey-o,” he recited over and over again, his voice hoarse and shaking.
Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead, his hands shook each time he brought them together to fold in prayer, his legs wobbled when he bend down to prostrate, and the sharp pain in his chest only seemed to increase. And still, he persevered. “Sunday is not an auspicious day for travelling anywhere, and I must ask the Gods and Deities to watch over me,” he told himself as he continued to throw his face and body down flat on the ground, with complete submission.
A shooting pain pierced through his chest then, and he cried out in great pain. The room started to spin, and suddenly, everything before him was a blur of dancing images of Gods, Goddesses and wrathful deities. The flames from the butter lamps seemed to dance in rhythm with the Gods, as if welcoming him to a dream destination. His fought for air and tried to stabilize his vision, but nothing stood still.
The Gods danced, the flames danced, and then there it was again, that pain.
This time, he felt the ground beneath him open, and he tried to keep from falling. He knew he had to hold on the nearest table, but his hands missed and he started to fall. Po Nyendak clutched his chest as he fell flat on his face, gasping for breath one final time.
Sunday is not an auspicious day for travelling anywhere, but Po Nyendak would, now, never be too far from home.