My Grandfather's Untimely Passing | A Photo Journal

Note: Photography Credit goes to Snap Pilots (Snap Pilot #17 & JaKa) with the help of Eranetik and Sourita. Click on our names for links. Distribution of the Photos and Blog content without permission is strictly prohibited. Photos may be graphic to certain audiences so please be advised to view this post with such awareness.

It's been a year since my Grandfather passed away. I've taken this long to write something about it. Needed to release what I held inside. Nothing dramatic, but I had the urge to write about my experiences. It helps me cope in the ways that I can. Writing will forever be a vulnerable process for me. I hope my story can relate to those who lived through experiences in parallel fashion, or that you, the reader, can get an insight on this journey. I call my Grandpa Oo Pa. So that's what will follow through this account.

I woke up like any other day; slapping my phone to shut up finding the snooze button. It was a workday and one that I usually never get too excited waking up for. I simply got up, got ready, and got the car going on music mode. 

Mid-way into the freeway, I get a phone from my aunt. My aunt never calls me unless there was something wrong. Either I had to call up my cousin to check up on him again or something far more serious. 

The universe chose the latter.

I answer the phone with the lowest of enthusiasm, only to hear my aunt crying. "What's wrong?" I asked. I felt the weight on my chest gripping my lungs. I felt a terrible whiff of bad air as I exhaled and thought the worst. It was very true, and I didn't know how I even thought about it. My aunt cried, "Binly, Oo Pa died...he passed away. Do you hear me? He's gone now!" She wept hysterically and all I could respond with was, "Holy fuck. Where is he? Where are you?" They were at his house down on Craigie Street. I didn't pass by that exit in Market Street yet so I sped to his place.

I got out of the car and hasted myself towards the house. The air felt too clean, too thin, and no particles of the atmosphere came in or out within the vicinity of the house. I walked in to many tears. As I approached the room, there was a Golden Bowl filled with water and flowers. Everyone was asked to grab flowers and dab water around Oo Pa's face, feet, and hands. I did this all in silence, no thoughts on my mind. I looked over what was in front of me and let the visuals slowly reach the shores of my consciousness.

Relatives trickled in by the minutes. We gave Oo Pa hugs, prayed for him. Phone calls and more crying went on. My aunts were already at work calling all the relatives, family friends, community folks, everything that had some connection to Oo Pa. He was a huge leader for the Lao American Community. His presence not only stood firm with his contributions to San Diego, but all around the United States. He had an impact in Canada as well. The phone calls were made to inform people from North America and Laos to fly to America for his funeral which would then be scheduled on Saturday; less than a week away. Too many emotions running, mixing, colliding with each other. This was where I began feeling numb. I wrapped myself in an ether of neutrality in feeling and noise. Tried my best to appear normal, everyone was on the edge. The Greenwood Cemetery folks came in took Oo Pa away. They transported him to the cemetery to prepare him for the funeral. This was when I felt the need to capture everything around me.

Thank You to these Gentlemen, it must be a tough job.

The thing about my Grandpa is that he was such a powerful, loving, and uniting figure for our family. He was the same for the community he's been around. Him passing away was a shock to everyone. The only way I could keep myself intact was to photograph everything that was happening. It kept me busy, it kept me focused.

When someone passes away, Lao folks have a gathering at the deceased person's home. It's called "Huen Dee", meaning "Good Home" as a literal translation. People come to the house to pay their respects. Monks stop by everyday to do prayers and ceremonies. This happens everyday leading up to the funeral because so many people fly in on different days. My Mother and Step-Dad didn't make it until later in the afternoon, so she wasn't able to see her father before the funeral folks took him away. Every day leading up to the funeral was busy, disordered, and truly a conglomeration of feelings. It was a reunion that many were happy to have, but not for the reason presented. 

The house turned into a huge gathering space. The neighbors were aware of the situation and they were fine with the noise going on from dusk to dawn. There were plenty of people who stayed up all night to console people or just be in each other's presence. The amount of love was beautiful to see, although quite sad to see it happen due to a huge loss.

I was able to capture what was going on for the first two days. It all became a blur. My attention span only lasted a few minutes before I went off and did other things for people. I wanted to help out as much as I can. A lot of prayers in the living room, a load of people hanging around, I kept my pace even though time slowed down.

We visited the Cemetery to pray and do the initial viewing. 

In our Theravada Buddhist tradition, several men and women ordain. Men turn into monks if they choose to and women turn into Nuns. There's a whole process to that. My Brother, a few cousins, my uncles, and I all decided this would be the time to do this. I ordained as a junior monk when I was a child for my late Grandmother, Oo Ma. It was only right that I did this for Oo Pa. We rallied up all the boys and pulled them to the front of the house. We then prepared for a shaving session where we shaved each other's hair and eyebrows off. 

Excuse us for having a little fun while doing so.

The morning after I shaved off a lot of other people's hair, it was my turn to do so. I decided to have my Brother do it for me. We then headed to the temple to have the head monk go through the process of ordaining us. When we shave our hair, the idea in the Buddhist sense is to rid ourselves of vain. We shave our facial hair to leave attachments of beauty behind. Ordaining into monk-hood is a sacrifice of what is comfortable, what is pleasurable, and what is desirable. We ordained to send off "Boon", good Karma and good spiritual fortune, to Oo Pa as he makes his way out of this world.  There are many rules when you ordain into monk-hood. I will list the things we were not allowed to do, although it does not cover everything:

- The Five Precepts is HEAVILY enforced as a monk. No Drinking / other Substance Abuses, No Stealing, No Killing, No Sexual Misconduct, No Lying
- No Physical contact with the opposite sex of any kind (Monks can't touch women, Nuns can't touch Men)
- No Eating after 12 pm (The idea is to fast from 12pm to 11:59pm, but pretty much a morning and early noon meal was only allowed)
- No Singing
- No Dancing
- No Listening to Music
- No Running
- For myself and the others boys that chose - No Social Media. I didn't post on any social media outlets during my time as monk. 

There are many more rules. The idea is to mentally stay strong and meditate through all desires. This sacrifice was minuscule in relation to the work he's done, and it was a way for us to give off good karma to him as he goes off into another place. We were allowed to eat from 12am to 12pm and fasted through out the day. Me being such a hungry wolf all the time, I had to focus on other things besides hunger for the next few days. The feeling of ridding myself of worldly desires was a great way to refresh my mind. I never wake up early unless I had to. We woke up at 4am to pray. We prayed before the Sun came up. One of my fondest memories was sitting outside on the bench, having a coffee in a brisk morning after sweeping leaves off the temple grounds. It makes me want to wake up early all the time. To keep myself in a neutral state, I read a book on Buddha's Life Story and Lessons, swept the floor, and prayed.

The morning of the funeral arrived. The Men and Boys who agreed to ordain on funeral day all proceeded through the ceremony. This is a more expedited process in prayer and ritual due to the fact that it is only a one-day ordeal. We all helped each other through the process.

The funeral day was when I let my partner take over the photo snapping. It was an entirely drawn out process only due to the amount of people that were present at the funeral. It was truly appreciated on the family's part. Long prayers ensued, speeches from the monks, speeches from family members, and the dropping of flowers were some of the actions that took place. 

My Cousin was chosen to be the "Guide" of the Funeral March which meant that he would stand in front of the casket and lead the way. It is also his duty to ward off bad spirits and protect the person passing so that their journey into the afterlife is smooth and without bad karma. Guides usually go to the oldest son in the family, but in this case, my cousin was chosen as he was the closest to Oo Pa. My Uncle decided to ordain for a couple of days to fully send off "Boon" to his father.

A few family members and I took turns to read our eulogies. Many family members and members in the community spoke our pieces. A man in Military Fatigue walked with a group of men around the age of my Grandpa. He saluted in the direction of the casket. I can tell he took part in the events of the Second Southeast Asian War, aka "Vietnam War" as it was popularly known. I am sure that his history tied to the Secret War. It occurred in Laos during the Cold War. My Grandpa shared the same history. We are threads to that fabric. It is deeply embedded in our lives; dictating the very reason why we immigrated to America in the first place. I won't go too deep into detail, but just know that the diaspora of Lao-Americans is quite complicated in nature. The motivations for migration are far from a simple motivation of wanting a "better life".

The Casket Moat was waiting outside. We brought the casket out. From there, a march to the cremation chamber commenced. 

Cremation is the traditional way of sending someone off. I stood there looking at the physical embodiment of Oo Pa go through the furnace. 

When it all finally finished, a large part of me flew off to a different dimension. I still felt numb. But I prayed and gave thanks to my grandfather and was happy he left the way he did. A man so bold. His laughter and smiles transcended through all pain. I enjoyed every sip of Whiskey we had sitting in the same space. Thinking about all of this right now makes me miss him dearly.

We rented a boat the following Monday with about 40 passengers to drop his ashes off into the Ocean. We had to register the whole procedure with the City of San Diego for them to approve it on approved areas beyond the bayside. That day represented closure. Faces were more hopeful and light. The pain of loss submerged temporarily as the Sun warmed everyone's hearts. We were dropping off Oo Pa's ashes to the sea. His dust will be with Earth, back into the waters. We wanted to send him off with a touch of joy, as we moved on with our lives. The memories of him woven through all of us.

One moment, I'm gazing at him as my young self; a boy looking at an elephant of a man. He was full of toughness in his smiles and his belly. One moment, I'm climbing on him and mimicking his dance mixed with Tai Lue Martial Arts. The next moment, I'm standing at the edge of a Boat, peering over the Pacific Ocean that now holds Oo Pa's ashes. The window of time between these memories feel like a split second. A year into the aftermath of his death, it feels like his passing was just a phone call moments ago. Time doesn't do anything on its own, yet it does so much. 

The one feeling that will never rip from my psyche is the feeling of urgency. I never let it go since it all happened. I realize what little time I have left in this world, and I must never waste it. The feeling of losing myself and dying compels me to create with all the art forms I know. It pushes me to look out and care for all my loved ones; to let them know they're not alone. It makes me appreciate and share goodness of heart to others, because I felt how quickly it can disappear. I write this photo journal as a means to do that. 

Losing my Grandfather meant losing a significant amount of history my family had. As immigrants and refugees from a country we once called home, to a land we fought so hard to make life work, he connected that all. I once sat him down and recorded him for 10 minutes, telling him to say whatever he wanted to say about his history in Laos. He went through the whole regime change and the wars that occurred in Southeast Asia from the late 60's to 1975 onward. Many folks believe it was only the Vietnam War, but it was multifaceted in the countries involved, the operations, and the people affected. I can no longer capture more information than I have now with him. I can no longer laugh with him. I'll make the effort to look for him when it's my time to fly.

The least I can do was capture his passing and all that went with it. I do this because I know many folks with a shared history may be able to relate. We all miss him. I hope he is dancing somewhere, where the rent is free, the Whiskey is unlimited, and he can wait for me to climb on his shoulders again.

In Memory of Bounchanh Phanousith (April 15th, 1935 - August 18th, 2014)

I'll leave you all with a poem I wrote for him.

Nimble

I wonder if
as a child,
our play fights would be the same
without your fat
relaxing under your skin

If each pound
a piece of jolliness
drips off in sweat
a 1973
Re-education camp kind
of sweat
muddy from the
rice fields kind of sweat
away from a family bed
for years kind of sweat
a thinness you never showed me
memories hidden in your wrinkles

Canโ€™t imagine you
    skinny,
needed your belly sides
plump
so I could climb your back
arms wrapped
feet desperate to
perch on your shoulders
youโ€™d dodge my kicks
waltz your weight
on your tip toes
one stride to another
laugh and roar
like you had a trunk and tusks 

I mimic your moves

keep them on Earth
while you dance with Oo Ma
off this world,
each step
a piece of jolliness
you left with me

~Snap Pilot 17