zondag 6 oktober 2019

Waving Mother Goodbye

[translated from Dutch]

In Aircrash Investigation on National Geographic this afternoon, the crash of a Garuda plane near Medan on September 26, 1997. I've seen this episode before. All 152 passengers were killed, the biggest plane crash in Indonesia's history. That day I cried uncontrollably. My mother was on a plane from Garuda to Medan at the time.

My mother went to visit her brother in Australia. Her brother, my omke Symen, emigrated with his family in the early 1950s. None of the family in the Netherlands had ever visited there afterwards. My mother was now over 70 and her brother 82, she thought it was time to visit him. But she had never flown and had barely crossed the border.

At the same time, my brother's wife wanted to visit her aunt and uncle in Australia. This is how the plan came about to fly via Indonesia together, so that my mother had company and guidance on the first flight of her life. They booked a Garuda flight via Medan to Jakarta. From there my sister-in-law would fly to Brisbane in the East and my mother to Perth in the West of Australia.

But at Schiphol airport the flight turned out to be cancelled. Forest fires in Indonesia had been in the news for days. Farmers set fire to their fields and patches of forest to create new fields. As often, the fires had gotten out of hand and a great fog hung over large parts of the country and beyond. Flying had become unsafe.

Great tension at Schiphol, it remained unclear for a long time how things would proceed. My sister-in-law was the first to be transferred to another flight connecting to Brisbane. My mother was to be taken by bus to a hotel in Leiden and spend the night there at Garuda's expense, while waiting for a suitable flight. My father now doubted whether he should have let his wife go alone. My mother was also hesitant. "But if I don't go, Ytzen, then who will?" I suddenly realized that she saw it as her sacred duty to visit her brother. She was always loyal to her family no matter what. But now she dreaded the flight, I saw a moment of fear in the eyes of my sober, always unemotional mother. "Are you coming with me?", she asked.

While my mother was brought to Leiden by bus, I travelled as fast as I could to the Australian consulate in Amsterdam. Within two hours I had a visa for Australia in my passport. I didn't say yes or no to my mom's request, but 'yes' wasn't an option without a visa. I then travelled by train from Amsterdam to Leiden, where my mother had just been served a rich Indonesian buffet. If there’s anything my mother would never eat, it's spicy food, so at least I could take that task upon me. I asked her if she still wanted me to come with her. She had now calmed down and felt strong enough to undertake the big journey on her own. She was able to leave early the next morning.

My father and I were early again at Schiphol airport to say goodbye to her. After we said goodbye we stood on the roof terrace to watch the plane take off. We could see it depart and get smaller and smaller for minutes until it disappeared like a tiny dot in the clouds. We stared at the sky for a while, depressed. With all the hassle around the flight, our relaxed optimism had disappeared, I realized that something could happen that would make me never see her again. But that wasn’t likely, after all, flying is safe. But then I realized that she would one day disappear from my life, like a diminishing point in the sky and that this parting would be inevitable.

When I came back home in Utrecht I cried. Completely empty and exhausted from getting up early and all the tension I then fell asleep on the couch. I woke up around noon and turned on the television. The news opened with the news of a Garuda plane that had crashed through the forest fires near Medan. The plane had made a wrong turn in the thick fog and had hit the mountains. The news hadn’t finished yet when my father called, with cracking voice. We told each other that she couldn't be on this plane, she wasn't even half way there. But we couldn't hide our emotions.

My mother in the meantime was doing very well, as it turned out when she came home with her stories. Her plane had been diverted from Medan to Jakarta and would then continue to Medan. She decided to wait in Jakarta for her flight to Perth and, with only primary school but a good brain and an open mind, she was able to get by in English and by gesturing with hands and feet. I had put aviation terms like check in, gate and departure on a piece of paper for her.

So that day I cried for saying goodbye to my mother and I wondered if one can cry in stock. Yes, that's possible. Years before, I had thought about this question when writing a story about my mother's goodbye to her mother, who passed away when she was thirteen.

I wrote (in summary):

<< "It seems that I cried a lot then". The father does not understand. "The day of my birth". The father nods and smiles mildly ahead. "I don't cry less now. I just spread my tears better over the years." >>

Exactly fifteen years after I said goodbye to my mother, we buried her (9/27/2012). I didn't cry that day. I had already done that.

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