In the elephant’s dream: A personal grief

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Yudha Kartohadiproho and his daughter Ayana walking in the garden of our house in the mountains. Photo credit: Senisa Soenardjo.

IO – During this time of pandemic so many are grieving for people dear to them that they have lost. Today I would like to write about grieving, my own personal loss and trying to come to terms with grief in our lives.

I never had any children and my nephew Yudha Kartohadiprodjo was the closest I came to having a son. I remember together with his mother teaching him to swim. We had read that little babies know naturally how to swim so he was only a few months old when my sister first came over and we took him into the pool. I can still see his long, skinny little legs and his excitement. He loved the water and later in life he was most comfortable with aquatic sports: kayaking, water-skiing, scuba diving and surfing.

I introduced Yudha to the animals in my garden: my sheep, my cats, the dog, the frogs, the butterflies. In the bamboo grove in our house in the mountains there lives a family of 6 orange-coloured, extremely playful Javan mongooses. When we arrive they come out to cavort on the grass and seem to find watching us as fascinating as we find watching them. From our house in the mountains the Gunung Gede-Pangrango volcanoes are in the shape of an elephant’s head and broad back. I used to tell Yudha the story my father told me, “The elephant is sleeping, Yudha and we are all just part of the elephant’s dream. So, don’t fight because if the elephant wakes up it will be the end of the world…”

There were so many sunny afternoons with red, blue, green or yellow dragonflies hovering over the grass and of course, the two lily ponds. One a deep pond beside the house with water hyacinths floating on its surface and dozens of yellow and black, white and golden carp. I remember holding Yudha’s hand as a little three-year old and teaching him to throw bits of bread to them and how delighted he was when the carp came rushing towards us for the bread. The other pond, lower down in the garden is far more organic. It is sandy and shallow with little snails and water spiders and tiny fresh water crabs and clams. My father had planted red and pink water-lilies in it, I added blue irises and my mother planted calla lilies. Years later when he was a young man he asked me to bring down some of the calla lilies for a friend on her birthday as her name was Lily. Around the pond I planted azaleas, a rose bush and tiny blue violets under the bushes. Yudha appreciated beauty. It moved him and I think he absorbed the beauty of nature in the gardens. He inherited that from his mother who loves gardens and plants. On the first day of Yudha’s wake his younger brother asked me to give the first eulogy on behalf of the Alisjahbanas, after his wife had spoken. He texted me, “Make it romantic, Tante.”
“Of course. I always do. You know that.”
“Yah, Yudha loves romance…”

The night is such a beautiful time and as a little child I wanted him to like the night so I would take him in my arms to walk around the garden. We would look at the moon, the stars, the bats flitting among the fruit trees, the glowing eyes of cats and the big civet cat slinking across the lawn to the pond… but most important I introduced him to his shadow. I would stand in a part of the garden where there was light, stretch out my arms and say, “Look Yudha: shadow! Come play with your shadow,” and I would hold his little boy’s hand as we stretched out our arms and danced with our shadows.

I have wondered at times why I have always felt it so important to teach very small children not to fear the night but to see the beauty in this converse world of light. Now that I am older and understand a little more about the world I wonder if it is not because on some psychological level I sense that it is important for a child to learn in some symbolic way not to fear the dark journey of the soul that each of us is made to face at some point in our lives and not to fear our shadows but rather to be able to look directly at them and even dance with them in the night. For that dark frightening night also brings gifts with it: the luminescent moon, the twinkling stars and as Pope John once said, “If God created shadows it was in order to emphasize the light.”

Yudha loved the starlight but Jakarta’s smog prevents its inhabitants from seeing them much. So, he brought his girl-friend to the planetarium and there under a canopy of stars he asked her to marry him… He was my favourite type of romantic: a practical romantic…

After his death I realized so many things about Yudha that I had never taken the time to think about. Like myself, Yudha was a romantic. Something even more important that I realized for the first time was that Yudha was also an empath. He was not only very sensitive to the feelings of others, he genuinely cared about them. Long ago, my nephew was once a very loving child who liked people and animals and had great empathy especially for those he perceived as vulnerable or unfairly treated. I remember when he was little there were two puppies and an old dog and each child was allowed to choose one. Yudha chose the old dog because he worried no one would choose it and he did not want the old dog to be left unwanted. As a little boy he also could not watch violent scenes on the television. When people started punching or shooting each he would cover his eyes and run from the room. But his great joy and empathy for people was truly brought home to me during the wake on the second day when nine of his best friends spoke about him. They call themselves the dragons and consider each other brothers and in voices breaking with tears each of them recounted how Yudha had helped and supported them. They said that Yudha was the glue that made things happen and each one of them pledged to Yudha’s wife the support and help of a brother should she ever find herself in need. Then Yudha’s eight-year old daughter, Ayana stood beside her father’s coffin and told us, “My father taught me that it is important to be kind to people.”

In marriage Yudha was that very special breed of man: an Alisjahbana man. They are men that are attracted to and do not feel threatened by strong, intelligent, well-educated women with serious careers. His wife is all those things – and a beauty to boot. She also brought him much happiness. The marriage was not easy in the beginning as he married a woman from a different ethnic group as well as a different religion. Both families were not thrilled at first with the match but they loved their children and we are nationalists. We believe in Indonesia’s state motto: Unity in Diversity. So, they married with everyone’s blessings. My sister went to great effort to extend herself. For their engagement she had a pendant made for Yudha’s fiancé of old ivory set with small diamonds. It was carved in the shape of a dragon and a phoenix symbolizing the male and female elements and she told his fiance’s family, “I believe that in the best marriages the wife is in charge and so you will note that with her beak the phoenix holds the dragon by the tail.”

For Yudha’s parents, his wife and children as well as his siblings, Yudha’s death has left the most heart-aching loss. For me the most terrible sound was perhaps the sad wailing of his little 5-year old son who kept saying, “But I don’t want Papa to die. I want to go with him. I want to die too” and his 8-year old sister’s thin, stoic, little plea, “Please stop, Hary. Papa has to go and if we keep crying it makes it so hard for him to go.”

The pain-wracked keening of his wife and the stoic silence of his parents whose faces all had the exhausted look of people coming out of a disaster, shall remain sad burdens in my heart until the end of time. So many in Indonesia have had to face the death of a loved one during this pandemic. Each family and each person has their own way in doing so. How does one deal with such sorrow?

With Yudha’s death it was his father, Haryono Kartohadiprodjo who led the family in facing our loss. He led us in accepting all that had happened and in expressing gratitude that God had entrusted Yudha’s precious spirit to live amongst us for 46 years. I telephoned my trusted friend and brother Emerald and he told me the same, “Your brother-in-law is so strong and he is so right. Yudha never belonged to you. He belongs to God and for both Yudha’s sake and your own you must release his spirit into God’s great love so that he can continue his journey to his highest good and then dear sister, thank God for the 46 years that He allowed that precious, golden spirit to live amongst you.”

So many people loved Yudha. The funeral home was filled not only with condolence boards and floral tributes on the ground floor in triple rows but all of the third floor and fifth floor as well. Yudha never attained any great political power and never accumulated great wealth but he was sent as many floral tributes as a cabinet minister for he had accomplished something perhaps just as valuable: he was a good person, a kind person and he knew how to love people. He helped so many. He used to say that being with people was what gave him energy.

In our house in the mountains we have a tiny family cemetery. It is a place where Protestant, Catholic and Muslim may be buried and rest together side by side. The graves are in a beautiful spot at the edge of a ravine surrounded by enormous old bamboos that my father planted so long ago, green, black, yellow and the giant bamboo. There are rolling lawns and great African tulip trees with flaming orange blossoms. Here we brought Yudha to rest in the heart of the Alisjahbana family. My sister Mirta, Yudha’s mother said the last words for her son, “I brought you into this world, I brought you to school, I took you to America to go to boarding school, I brought you to your wedding but I never thought that I would also have to bring you to your final resting place. My son, I just want to tell you that your father and I are proud of you. So, many people love you. You have helped and been a friend to so many. You taught your children to be kind. We are glad that we brought you up this way. You served your community and your fellow man. We are proud of you, my son.”

After the burial we returned to Jakarta with heavy hearts. I remembered how my friend Aristides Katoppo had lost two sons and how he dealt with his pain by praying to God to comfort him. He told me that God sent him a vision of two dolphins leaping from the ocean and playing together and that he understood that his sons were together and that they were happy. He was able to find peace again after this. So, that night I also prayed to God and asked Him to bring some comfort to Yudha’s children, his wife, his parents, siblings and the many friends and relatives who were grieving for him.

The following Saturday I accompanied my sister, Mirta to his grave. She had brought 150 phalaenopsis orchid plants that were among the many floral tributes sent to him and she was instructing the gardeners to tie them to the trees around his grave so that they might grow there. His wife and children, his mother-in-law and various relatives had come. It was a beautiful day and the garden which is like a botanical garden with its large trees and many plants, was in bloom. I looked down from a higher terrace at my sister and Yudha’s mother in-law sitting beside his grave discussing the design for a tombstone and at his wife quietly praying when a little hand slipped into mine and pulled at me. It was Yudha’s little son whom I did not know very well. “Come and play, Tante Tam.”
“All right, but first I want to show you a surprise, a secret.”
“Really,” he said excitedly and I walked further up the terraces with him and then made him close his eyes as I led him to a spot where I had long ago planted pink zephyranthus.
“Open your eyes! Tah-rah!”
He squealed with delight as he gazed upon a carpet of pink flowers hidden away. “They’re so beautiful!”

And it turned out to be a most beautiful day. His sister joined us and we played with the rabbits and with little crabs and snails in the pond, we fed the carp. A Javan hawk eagle delighted us by swooping down low over the garden, I showed them pine flowers and we blew pollen dust into the air and sucked nectar from hibiscus blossoms. In the house the two families spoke to each other from the bottom of their hearts about the things that really matter in life and we grew closer as families than we had ever been before.

At the end of the day as we were preparing to return to Jakarta, Yudha’s little boy took my hand and said to me in what was to be a precious parting gift, “I love this place, Tante Tam.”

I realized then that I had come full circle from birth through life to death and now the cycle was beginning again as I introduced Yudha’s children to the secrets of the garden, to the animals and to the old volcanoes which are a dreaming elephant fast asleep and of which we are only a part of its dream… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)