By now, I’m sure people are sick of hearing and reading about my mom’s death. I would like to preface this by acknowledging that losing a loved one is something that will affect you for every moment that follows your last moment together, for the rest of your life. It will change the way you see yourself, it will influence the choices you make, and you will never be the same person you were before what will always be that final goodbye that came too soon. I am 26 years old, and my mother’s voice is already a memory I grasp at with the bitter, ever-present understanding that the sound of her laugh is a viscous jingle slipping through my fingers like water, evaporating a bit more each year; that is to say, I am afraid that in another 7 years there will be no memory left of the half-apologetic shout of amusement escaping her lips, and if knowing you will someday be unable to remember what your mother’s happiest sound sounded like doesn’t change you…
The narrative of her illness, while it was the final chapter of her life, was by no means the end of her story. My mother was a dynamic woman who moved with the careful continuity of a steady-crawling river; her calculated motions navigating life with seemingly effortless precision, shifting around each mountain of circumstance presented in her path. She curved with grace to carve a place for herself that will someday pass, forgotten in the pages of history no one reads. She was not a woman to enumerate her own – numerous – successes. On her deathbed, she offered comfort to all who sought her company. If such grace, such empathy doesn’t change you…
As a girl, my mother handed me books, handed me tales of women—strong women—courageous and dedicated to purpose: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart. She handed me countless opportunities to sample all the beauty the world had to offer: sports and music and language. When I was old enough, she handed me the world: the opportunity to travel.
My mother was not done living when death came for her. She went out in a blaze, the light of life still burning hot inside her. My mother didn’t want to die. I’m not sure there is anything that will change you so much as watching someone handed a prognosis so bleak who refuses to accept it as imminent. She was determined to live. When she died, I took up that mantle for her.
There were years people scoffed, tried to persuade me that my dreams were just that—dreams. My family asked me why I pursued the hobbies I pursued; why I chose to escape into the desolate corners of the desert, travel lost alleys of coastal towns on the other side of the world—alone. And when I first said I was going to join the Peace Corps, I was warned of the danger, cautioned of the isolation, told it was, simply, a bad idea.
It took my family a few years to get on board with the fact that, regardless of their opinions, I was going to continue to wander. The more I explored the world, the more supportive of my adventures they became.
When I finally left for Peace Corps, I left behind the most loving, supportive community I’ve ever known. To this day, that hasn’t changed.
I left for Peace Corps seeking purpose. I came here because I believe there’s more to living than staying in the zip code I was raised in. I believe the only way to know myself is to know as much of the world as I can. Every step I’ve taken into the unknown has always, inevitably, led to another. I have wandered corners of the world I never knew were there to see. I have come to love people I had no idea were alive, in parts of the world I’d never heard of. I have embarrassed myself on multiple continents, in multiple languages, and I have learned to laugh about it.
I came here with two suitcases, a heart full of enthusiasm, and incomplete knowledge of a vague job description that would become the mission outlining my next few years. When I moved to my site, the details of that job were still fuzzy, the needs of my community were unclear, the place I belonged here was yet to reveal itself. I was sent here to introduce new means of teaching English. I was sent here to study, to learn, to integrate into this culture, that is so vastly different from my own, so I could better serve the people whose community I was plopped into.
Most of the people I have met here have never left Thailand. Most of them have never left our province. Many of them have never left our community. They have never felt the icy bite of the crisp fall air just before the first snowfall. They have never tasted the oil leeched from olives grown on the nearest mountainside. Happiness here comes from a good conversation with your neighbor. Excitement is driving an hour and a half to the nearest park and sliding down a waterfall.
Many of the people in my community cannot read, they cannot write, but they can always tell you when it’s going to rain. They can tease life from the caked, red earth. They can plug a leaky ceiling in under an hour. They can weave ornaments of bamboo leaves and flower petals fit to decorate a king’s hall. They can speak multiple languages. They can erect a 3-story building without any sort of machinery—using nothing but their bare hands—in 6 months. And boy, can they dance.
One of the things I love most about the people here is their laughter. There’s something almost shy about it – a timid sound, not quite fully emerging from behind the teeth. It reminds me of the way my mother would often laugh, usually at a joke my dad had made at her expense.
It took my students two months to begin laughing at my jokes. When they did, the laughter emerged slowly, hermit crab chuckles peaking from the shell of their lips. The hugs started about four months in. The high-fives followed shortly after. We are now a full 6 months into the semester, and last week a handful of my students saw a playground for the first time. It was a battered thing, an entire row missing from the giant tic-tac-toe, worn from years of enthusiastic use. There were 100 students their age at that school, and none of the kids were playing. They were sitting, talking in their school groups, riap-roi and proper. My kids – so timid when I met them, so polite and shy – marched onto that playground, swung their bodies from the monkey bars, chased one-another across the bridge and down the slide, climbed up the pole, and pushed one another on the zip line. And they carry themselves with such confidence now. They are emerging in their entrance to their teenage years with energy and unapologetic zeal I’ve never seen before in my rural Thai community.
I know that sometimes I’m improper. I know teachers probably shouldn’t be doing handstands, throwing their students over their shoulder, kicking around a soccer ball in a dress, or swinging upside down by the knees from the monkey bars. But the greatest lesson my mother taught me was, it’s okay to pursue the things that bring you joy, no matter how great or how small those things may be, they’re the things that make life worth living. And the joy I saw in those kids as they frolicked—there has never been a more appropriate time to use that word—on the playground, is one of the most humbling and grounding experiences I have had since coming here.
If in my years here in Thailand, unapologetic enthusiasm for life – to live with joy and laughter, to never be ashamed to feel, to cry, to ask why – if this is all I teach my students, I will consider my time here a great success. I believe passion is one of life’s greatest blessings. I believe this should drive everything we do, from the way we make our peanut butter sandwich in the morning, to the moment we decide to move to the other side of the world; if you live for nothing else, live for the small moments of freedom, where the sound of your laughter rings, unencumbered from the boom box of your chest, when everything else drifts away, and – if only for a moment – happiness is the only thing that’s real. Never stop playing. It is in our own complacency that our journey ends.
For more from Natalie Garro check out her blog, In My Own Words