Hold me so I can kiss mum
Written by Fr. Joe Maier, CSsR
“To our neighbors and friends: How arrogant we are to dare tell your stories. But humbly we ask your pardon and forgiveness if we have goofed and not told the story properly or showed any disrespect in any way.”— FR. JOE MAIER, CSSR
Editor’s note: Decades-long service under abominable conditions by a Redemptorist priest embodies Liguorian’s February theme, the Whole of Humanity. Fr. Joe Maier, CSsR, has administered to Bangkok’s poorest families for more than forty years through Mercy Centre in the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok, Thailand. The center’s people offer hospice, shelter, education, love, and hope to the poor and suffering. Fr. Maier has published numerous articles and two books to give a voice to the afflictions of his brothers and sisters in Christ. What follows is an excerpt from his article in the Bangkok Post relaying how a four-year-old girl coped with her grief following the death of her young mother. To learn more about the human condition, read Fr. Maier’s books recounting the stories of those he’s encountered: The Open Gate of Mercy: Stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey Slum (2012), and The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok (2008).
The sorrow is intense. Maybe it’s the time of day. Maybe it’s the weather. But I don’t think these things matter much. She’s four years and a few weeks old, and we just brought her “home”—in tears. Even at four, she knows her mum won’t ever pick her up from school again like she promised. We’d all gathered at the temple for the cremation. Miss Aye was playing outside with her kindergarten chums when the loudspeaker announced, “Time to begin the ceremonies.” She left her friends and walked over and sat by herself on the bottom of the steps going up to the platform of the crematorium. Everyone told her that she couldn’t go up the twelve stairs to where the body of her dead mother was. At four years old, she couldn’t understand all the fuss and bother nor possibly digest what had happened to Mum. So as the platter of mai jan being offered to everyone passed by her, she reached up and picked one off the platter. Mai jan is a small lotus flower made of rice paper with a tiny joss stick (similar to incense) and a candle attached. The holder places the symbolically sacred symbol on the funeral pyre, partaking ceremoniously in the cremation. Miss Aye threw her mai jan on the ground and just stared at it, breaking all protocol. Everyone was aghast because you don’t do that. No one ever shows insolence toward mai jan. It’s like showing no respect for the dead; that you’re not docile; that you don’t follow the rules. Then, even more ghastly to tradition, she picked up the mai jan, ran up the stairs and placed it on her mother’s picture. She hugged the picture and cried and cried. You could hear her sobbing: “Mummy, don’t go away. You will be all alone. I won’t be able to hug you and tell you that I love you.” Her mum, only thirty-eight and pretty even in death, died of tuberculosis and AIDS. Suddenly Miss Aye stopped sobbing. In the breach of silence, our best house mum and I climbed the stairs together. She was lying there, motionless but in tears, holding the picture of her mum. Our best house mum motioned to a dozen children, her school peers. They all ran up and hugged her, collapsing into a gaggle of four-year-olds, consoling her as only four-year-olds can do.
After a bit, we asked the other children to return down the stairs. Our best house mum held Miss Aye while the ceremony continued. Sometimes, the reality of the moment counts more than all the protocol on the planet. Still holding Miss Aye, best house mum asked if she wanted to see her mum one last time. I piped in. “Aye, child, your mum was most beautiful when she was alive and smiling and hugging you, her youngest daughter.” She gave an imperceptible yes nod like little kids do, so I shooed everyone back a bit from the open casket, and together we held her up so she could see her mum. Earlier we’d placed coins over her eyes so the rigor mortis kept them closed. The child whispered: “Hold me so I can kiss Mum.” I said: “Little girl, she’s cold and she’s no longer ‘here’ with us.” And she whispered back: “I know, but she wanted me to kiss her before she went to heaven.”