I have yet to meet a person more enthusiastic about life than my Grandma Arlene. She was one of those women who said, “things work out” or “this too shall pass” in a way that made me actually believe it. Her mantra was “fun,” and I credit her thirst for adventure for my inherited wanderlust. Some of my best childhood memories were thanks to her—random arts and crafts, hosting cousin sleepover parties, long road trips on a whim, or organizing monthly family get-togethers that actually felt like parties.
When I started my yearlong trip around the world, I knew she was sick, but we always think there is more time. I was in Thailand in November when I got the email about her passing. The tranquil paradise I’d discovered in Thailand shifted into a jarring backdrop to how I now felt. I tried to price out last minute plane tickets home for the funeral without much luck. “She would have wanted you to stay in Thailand,” my mom said.
My grandmother’s death also overlapped with Yi Peng, the iconic floating lanterns festival held on the first full moon of the second month according to the Lanna lunar calendar. Tourists flock from around the world to gaze up at the masses of Lanna-style khom loi lanterns, each carrying a wish, a plea for good luck, or a farewell to old habits or some lingering sorrow. Days earlier I was among the masses finding space to release my own burning lantern bearing words from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As I let go, I marveled as the lantern leaped from my hands to follow the others in a fiery river meandering through the sky.
Once it was clear I would not be going home for my grandmother’s funeral, I decided to give her my own to celebrate her legacy. I set out with my husband, Austin, to find a private location for a lantern send-off. Somewhere away from the tourist-packed streets of Chiang Mai’s Old City, the crowds now felt overbearing and the night sky seemed empty and ominous.
“What about here?” Austin said.
“I’m not saying goodbye in this dark alley.”
We walked back toward the bustling street and the open-air restaurants blaring western pop songs.
“Did you bring the lighter?” I said, sharper than intended. My misplaced anger and tears were right below the surface.
I watched Austin’s silhouette pull out a lighter without a word. I sighed, felt the thin tissue of the khom loi lantern between my fingers, and followed him back to the main road.
For a traveler, I’ve always been terrible at goodbyes. I avoid goodbye parties (especially for myself) because I end up seeing the same person three times later in the bathroom, at the gas station, or when I return to their house after I realize I left my phone on their kitchen table. By this time, we have already performed the awkward side hug and see-you-probably-never exchange. I guess I don’t know how to deal with closure when it doesn’t feel like clear closure, kind of like I do like with death.
“Let’s try this Buddhist temple,” I said to Austin as we approached a black structure roofed in gold tiles with swirling dragons hanging off the corners. “Seems private enough.”
We walked through the gate and scanned the temple grounds. A single lamppost stood guard in the silence. “We are alone,” Austin concluded. I nodded in acknowledgment and pulled out the khom loi, spreading out the corners and unfolding the creases while Austin broke up the yellow wick so it would light.
The lantern was prepped a minute later. Austin reached into his pocket for the lighter.
“Wait,” I said, scrambling for the marker in my backpack, “we have to write on it first.”
During the Yi Peng celebration in Thailand, people release lanterns into the sky for many reasons. A mere week earlier, the mass of lanterns seemed so majestic—ripe with beauty, happiness, and human possibility; now I wondered how many of those lanterns carried the name of the beloved.
I found the marker and asked Austin to hold up the sides of the khom loi.
As I felt the marker in my hand I suddenly didn’t know what to say. “I suck at this.”
Austin put a comforting arm around my shoulder while I stared at my feet. He believed in an afterlife, but I wasn’t so sure it existed.
“Well, what do you want to say to her?”
I thought for a minute. I wish I could apologize for not giving you a better farewell—for not attending your funeral, for not being around while you suffered, and for not being able to say, “I know I’ll see you again someday.” I wish I had the strength you had when you were forced to bury two of your own babies and then your two grandchildren. I wish I could ask if you got my postcard from Machu Picchu before you slipped away. I wish I could ask if you still believe this life was wonderful, an adjective you sprinkled in every sentence for as long as I can remember. You were always there, an optimistic smile ever present on your face, for as long as I can remember…
I took the lid off the marker and pressed the tip against the thin paper: “For my grandma, who was always so full of wonder. You will be loved and missed.”
Austin said a few words I never heard. I felt my throat constrict. My eyes burned.
“Ready?” Austin said, getting the lighter ready.
“Okay,” I said.
The wick ignited in a perfect circle. We held the bottom of the lantern as the heat rose and pushed against the walls of the khom loi, the orange light illuminating the words scrawled in my bad handwriting. Soon the lantern tugged against our hands, ready to escape. I felt the heat of the lantern on my palms.
“It’s time to let go,” Austin said in my ear.
So I let go.
We watched the khom loi follow the wind into the western part of the sky and pass over the roof of the temple. The Thai consider it good luck to watch a lantern until it disappears, but I grew restless as we stood in silence and watched the lone flame grow smaller and smaller against the indigo sky. I gestured to Austin to follow me as I walked out the gate and back onto the busy sidewalks, glancing up at the sky every so often as I walked.