FIRST SIGNS OF ILLNESS
Theo Meier wanted everything from life that life could offer. He loved life and found pleasures in most everything, food, drink, making love, painting. When he became ill, he refused to accept it. When he did go to see the Chinese doctor in Chiang Mai, and learned he had cancer, he told no one. When he began to suffer greatly from pain, he still kept it to himself The Chinese doctor gave him herb medicine and assured him he would be all right. But the pain persisted. The doctors then give him pain pills but he refused to take them for he wanted to keep his mind alive.
When Theo knew his end was near he began to feel pangs of remorse, but not as one might imagine. He had led a full live. He had no regrets about that, and if he had to do it all over again, he would have done the same. But as he lay on his cot on the verandah, looking out over then Ping River, he worried about Yattlie. He was over seventy now; he was fifty-six years old when he had taken Yattlie to live with him. She was sixteen, and he was forty years her senior. He had been warned by everyone not to marry her. Some insisted that he could have done better. But he found in Yattlie the very things he admired in a woman. Mainly, she was not pretentious. He saw the good in her that others failed to see. She had stuck with him. She remained at his side when he had no home, no bankroll and as a painter had no prospects of a bright future. Yet, when friends and family criticized her, she stood by her man; she cheered him on when he needed it; she encouraged him when his painting wasn’t going well. She took over the running of the house giving him time to paint.
Theo had spared Yattlie by not telling her that he was ill. “Everyone knew but me,” she said when she learned much later about the state of his health. “When I did ask the doctor he wouldn’t tell me.” Yattlie did not know the extent of his illness until she and Theo went on a trip to Normandy.
Theo had the idea that if he traveled he might forget his pain. He planned a trip in which he would take Yattlie to Normandy on the French coast and retrace his steps that he took in his youth. It had been his first endeavor at adventure when he had boarded a fishing boat en route to Finland. He didn’t last long. When he became violently seasick the fishermen put him off on the coast. That was such a long time ago; it would be different now. It did not have to be an old smelly fishing boat like before. He had a friend who had a motorboat in Normandy and his friend offered to take Theo and Yattlie on a cruise up the coast. Theo liked the idea and accepted.
“Theo knew he was sick but still he wouldn’t tell me,” Yattlie said. “But I felt that something was wrong. He had been acting strangely for a long time. I didn’t know it at the time, he managed to keep it to himself, but he was suffering with cancer, prostate cancer, and the cancer had spread.”
Theo wrote in his journal that he wanted to show Yattlie the place where he had traveled when he was so young. The voyage started off on a happy note. Everyone was excited.
They were hardly out of sight of land when Theo’s friend turned the wheel over to him. Theo was beaming with pride. Then catastrophe struck.
“None of us noticed the rocks ahead,” Yattlie said. They struck the rocks with a terrific jolt throwing Theo to the deck. No damage had been done to the vessel to cause her to sink but Theo was in bad shape. He had lost control of both of his legs. He was in terrible pain and could not stand.
A passing boat came to their aid and they managed to get Theo ashore and to a hospital as quickly as they could. He was then air evacuated back to Switzerland. Yattlie had not known the severity of the cancer. No one did. “It had spread throughout his body,” she said. At the hospital in Switzerland Theo immediately went on cobalt treatment. It helped somewhat but they were uncertain of the final results. The cancer went into remission and they permitted Theo to return to Thailand.
Once back at his Thai house in Chiang Mai, Theo began to spend more time sitting idly on the verandah staring out at the river below. He liked it especially late in the afternoon and early evening when the light began to fade and he could no longer paint. He took the time to think, to reflect upon his past. With the sun hanging low across the river, it was a bewitching hour. It was at this time that the women came down to the water’s edge to bathe, carrying on their hips their young toddlers. They all bathed in silence and it was then that a sense of penetrating sadness would fall upon Theo. He thought about poor Yattlie, What was to become of her?
Theo was seeing pictures across the river but it was his thoughts that prevailed.
He was pleased with what life had brought him, but yet he was not completely satisfied. Perhaps puzzled was the word. He wondered had he not, as a young man, read the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “noble savage” idea what might have become of him. Or what might have become of him had he not read Pierre Lori’s The Marriage of Loti nor seen filmmaker Victor van Plessey’s “Island of Demons.” Would he have been content had he stayed in Basel and married Helga? Would he have become a baker like her father, or a business machine salesman and taken over his father’s business. The farmer who has never left the farm cannot ponder another life that he has never experienced. Had he not known the difference might he be contended with Helga and half a dozen kids? Theo’s thoughts wandered. They turned once again to Yattlie.
True, in the beginning of their relationship, Theo did not love Yattlie. Circumstances had simply brought them together. Then when they moved to Chiang Mai and the subject of marriage was brought up, Yattlie did not want to get married. She finally conceded at the insistence of her mother and father. But once they were married and life moved on they both grew attached to one another, and the attachment turned into love. Theo continued looking at the river, but like a blind man it was in thought only. How unfair it had been to Yattlie, that he had forced himself upon her. His taking up with her, really, had been a selfish desire on his part? Yes, Yattlie did have a comfortable life with him. She lived in a grand house, had servants to attend to her every whim, she never hungered, they traveled, and Theo bought her anything she wanted. He had taught her life, he reasoned, but then was it not life as he knew it and not as she would have lived it without him. In doing so, in teaching her his ways, he had sapped her youth. He was old enough to be her father; no, to be her grandfather. He dwelled on the thought. He had deprived her of her youthful womanhood. Could she have been happy living on a farm up country, planting rice along with a young, robust and carefree husband? He remembered how opposed Prince Sandith was to his marrying her. Yet poor Yattlie had never complained. She accepted Theo for what he was.
But now what was to become of Yattlie? Theo’s heart was heavy, a heavy burden in which he suffered the pangs of distress. But then, as luck would have it, he then heard that visiting in Chiang Mai was a Balian from Bali. Maybe he had an answer. After all, Balians were Bali’s cure-alls. Sorcerers of sort, they can do about anything and that includes interpret dreams, cure sickness, go into trances, and solve love matters. Without telling anyone, Theo went to seek the advice of the Balian living in Chiang Mai. The advice he gave to Theo was straight forward. He advised Theo to let Yattlie have a lover.
One thought led to another. The Balian might be right. Yattlie was still young, he reasoned. Why deprive her of her youth? Was he not to blame? Did he not think that this might happen at one time? Running through her veins still flowed the emotions, the spirited blood of a woman of passion. Yes, that was it. She was still young. Yattlie had always been a compassionate person. She was in her mid-thirties and she still had strong desires. He wanted her to be happy and then he asked himself what did it matter if she did take a lover. It might be risky but it depended upon her: could she separate the emotional part of such a relationship from the physical act. If the two of them, Yattlie and her lover, could handle it, it might work out. The idea was a bit distasteful to his thinking but he had to think of Yattlie.
The next time he and Yattlie sat at dinner together, he suggested to her, ever so casually, that she should find a lover. She laughed, said it was silly of him even to mention it, and Theo felt relieved. He was only testing himself. Try as he did he could not bear the thought of Yattlie taking someone else to bed,
But the thought began to linger in Yattlie’s mind. Theo planted it there. If he didn’t mind her taking a lover, why not? After all, she was Asian and her concept of love was not the same as they harbored in Europe and America. All Asian men, married men included, have lovers. Asian women were no different. A few weeks later she mentioned to Theo that a young German she met in town had taken an interest her. A few days later she went to dinner with him. She then invited him to the house
“You can have a boyfriend, a lover,” Theo said when she told him she had found someone, “but please don’t ever leave me alone.”
What had once seemed like a magnanimous idea on Theo’s part now turned to sadness and remorse. The very thought of Yattlie sleeping with another cast a pall, a kind of dark cloud, over him. That Yattlie had actually accepted to take a lover cut deep into his psyche. But now it was too late, The German became her lover. The next man was a young English man and I heard she moved him into the house. How Theo felt, I’m afraid we shall never know.
Among Theo’s papers and letters that I found after his death was a note, hand written that he had scribbled to Yattlie. It read: “Please come to me and hold me for a while before you go to sleep.” I could only imagine the torment and pain that he suffered. Was his past catching up with him?