It’s mum on the phone.
“Steph, we have to go to Jakarta."
My stomach churns.
This visit doesn’t feel the same as the others. I’m not bubbling with excitement at the thought of reuniting with my extended family. I’m not salivating over the giddy, delicious flavours Indonesia’s food has to offer. My shoulders are heavy with sadness, numbness, apprehension and guilt.
We arrive in Jakarta and the atmosphere overwhelms me. I hear the traffic, feel the chaos and breathe in the aromas of street food and smog. This is how Jakarta has always smelled to me. Each time I arrive, it’s strangely comforting and nostalgic.
Despite only living in Jakarta until the age of 8, I feel a deeply rooted connection which grounds me to the local soil when I visit. It’s hard to explain, but I believe it might be the sense of family which is woven into Indonesian culture. I feel this inclusion and closeness when I return and how glorious it is to be embraced by it. You have multiple parents in your aunts and uncles, masses of brothers and sisters in your cousins and at the heart of it, are your grandparents. In my case, Embah my grandma, was the center of our spinning, family universe.
During my visits, I would wake to the sound of rustling outside my room - a gentle indication that Embah was up and about, quietly busying herself around the house. I would delightedly rush out to join her, watching as she patiently cross-stitched. She enjoyed the outdoors (we would constantly find her meandering serenely through the garden) and preferred eating raw vegetables (she wisely disclosed that this was her secret to living to an old age). Her soft features matched her reserved and gentle temperament, which only ever lost it's harmony for a laugh or two (I loved watching this happen). And she would never boast, so it was a surprise to me when I learned she could speak fluent Dutch!
With each passing year, our visits to Jakarta decreased. Life abroad seemed to get in the way, with increasing guilt in tow. The guilt of not being able to be there to share the good times, guilt for not being able to support the bad, guilt for not visiting often and guilt for drifting away from the Indonesian way of life. Most of the time I was able to overcome this (or at least push it to the back of my mind) as I reacquainted myself with the language and local habits, briefly slipping back into Jakartan life during quick visits.
It’s different this time though. The heart of our family is unwell. And for the first time, I land in Indonesia feeling like an imposter.
How could I arrive after so long and then proceed to take up her precious time? Being overseas meant I wasn’t as close to Embah as my cousins were. I had not looked after her over the years as they had done. I did not know her as well as my cousins did. But I cherish what I do know.
But I wish I knew her better.
Our last day in Jakarta sees us visiting the hospital again on the way to the airport. My cousins are seated on every empty surface, taking turns saying prayers as my grandma lays in bed, awake, aware and tired. Although she still has jet black hair with only a few stands of white, the gentle folds on her face give her age away. No one on her side of the family has lived this long.
“Steph, you have to say goodbye now.”
I will never forget the sadness in her eyes as we separate and are escorted out of the hospital room to catch our flight, and the quiet desperation I see in her. My heart breaks a million times.
It’s mum on the phone.
“Steph, Embah passed away.”
While we traversed the airport barriers, out of phone contact, my beautiful Embah moved on. We found out after our flight, on our way home in a taxi in Perth, as our mobiles beeped awake.
As heartbreaking as it was, I am thankful we were able to say goodbye. Being late hurts, but it’s still better late, than never.