ONE HUNDRED DAYS LATER
When the news of Theo’s death reached me, I was far off sailing my schooner in the South Pacific. From a phone call in Pago Pago in Samoa, I learned he had died in a hospital in Switzerland where he had gone for that one last treatment with the hope that he might beat his illness. I had been aware that Theo was ill and I was expecting the worse, but his death still came as a shock. There are some things in life you prepare for but when they happen you are still not prepared. When I reached Singapore and secured my schooner I took a flight to Bangkok and then boarded a train to Chiang Mai. I wanted to relive the past and fill my mind with all kinds of happy thoughts. I remembered how excited I always was to arrive in Chiang Mai and take the baht bus to Theo’s house. We would have lunch and then while away much of the afternoon, sitting in his grand house, drinking Mekong-and-soda with fresh limes-there had to be plenty of fresh lime-talking about the “good old days” in the islands. Maybe if Theo had started a new painting, he’d talk about that. He would usually excuse himself and take a nap while I would read or doze in the front room surrounded by dangling tiny bells that tinkled with the slightest breeze. Hanging from the eaves and beams were carvings from Bali-winged frogs, garudas, old Chinese coins on silk banners.
And then as evening fell, pretty little servant girls moved about as silently as shadows lighting a myriad of candles. There might even be the sound of a flute coming from the garden somewhere below. Dinner would be a prolonged affair with interesting talk and wonderful food. When I was with Theo at his house in Chiang Mai I could feel the soul of Asia right down to every pore in my body.
But those days were gone.
When I arrived at Theo’s house this time it was one hundred days after his death, and according to the Buddhist custom, everyone had gathered to pay their last respects. I got out of the taxi, entered the gate to his compound and there tacked on the door was a message:
GONE TO EUROPE. BE BACK SOON. THEO
Many had gathered by the time I arrived, both Europeans and Thais, all friends of his, from diplomats to tuktuk drivers. Standing on top of the stairs leading up to the house was Yattlie, now Theo’s widow. She motioned for me to join her. She saw my anguish and took hold of my hand as she led me past people sitting on chairs and on the floor. Hanging on the walls were Theo’s paintings, many I hadn’t seen before. It was all so strange, like the action on a movie screen had frozen and I was the only moving thing. Faces looked up at me, unsmiling. Yattlie pushed open the door to the studio and stepped aside to let me enter. The room was a private sanctuary. Prince Sandith was there.
I was aware of a double bed in the very center of the room. Gone was Theo’s workbench and easel. More of his paintings hung on the walls. What caught my attention was a framed photograph of Theo, taken many years ago. It was in the middle of the bed, propped up by a worn Balinese sarong rolled into a kind of ball. Yattlie said something. Her English was not good. I didn’t react, and this time when she spoke she pointed to the sarong. “There is Theo,” she repeated. She pulled the sarong partly open revealing a wooden box. Theo’s ashes were inside.
I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears. I wanted to flee from that very room but I couldn’t. I wanted to call out to Theo, but no words came, only more tears. No more pictures to paint, no more tales to tell. All the beauty he had found, all the joy he had known, all were gone. A hand touched me on the shoulder. Prince Sandith stood there. “He is gone,” he whispered, “and with him has gone something from our lives that can never be replaced.”
He was so right.