The first Sunday in September, I ran the Bromo Marathon. It’s something I’d considered since the previous October, and which I’d officially started training for in May. The race was founded by a past Peace Corps Volunteer, and the local government has since adopted it. Previous volunteers had run the half-marathon, and I signed up for the full—there was a discount, anyhow. One of last year’s participants said something along the lines of, “It was really hard and I’ll never do it again.” I thought, meeeeh, I might do it too. I’d already changed so much about my lifestyle at that point that throwing in a marathon didn’t seem unrealistic.
Around the time I’d started seriously training, on the second Sunday of May, I came home from a long day trip to Malang. It was late, and Bu Emi opened the door. Every light in the house was on, and the rest of the family slept side-by-side on the floor. Bu Emi looked at me with tired red eyes and a wild smile. Sudah meningal, she said. I was caught off guard. “Who died?”
R—. Sudah meningal.
Tadi pagi. She said it like she was telling me what she’d cooked for dinner. My family’s youngest boy died in the early morning hours, after I’d left for Malang. No one called to tell me. Monggo, tidur, she said, walking me to my room and sending me to bed
I glanced at the aunts sleeping in the other room and remembered that it was Mother’s Day back in the US. I took a cue from my Indonesian family, parked myself in front of my upright fan, and suppressed any emotions. Indonesians will save face even in the midst of tragedy; it’s largely unacceptable to express anger or sadness. I called my real-life mom back in Maryland, wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, and confirmed that everything was so great.
There’s nothing quite like a losing a seven-year-old to remind you that you’re still alive. Isn’t it a privilege? Simply breathing the air on this incredible Earth. Although from the outside, it appears they moved on instantly, I have a feeling my host family is still grieving silently, in their own way. I thought about R on many of my training runs in Madiun. When you’re running for several hours, the mind will go to all sorts of places.
Mount Bromo is an active volcano in Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. Bromo is the most-visited tourist site in East Java, and I travelled to it last December on a trip with all the teachers from my school. My host family has never been.
Peace Corps staff explained R’s passing like this: A death during Ramadan is considered a beautiful death. It’s believed that the person’s soul will pass on to heaven more smoothly during the fasting month. And any sadness, mourning, or crying, only slows the process. Indonesians hold back their emotions to better support the deceased on their way to the afterlife. Which, if you believe it, does sound quite etherial. But if you’re like me and think the life we’re living is the life we’ve got, the suppressed grief is unsettling at best and suffocating at worst.
The next morning, one of the tantes in the house was scrolling through her phone. I sat down next to her. “How are you feeling?” I asked. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Why?”
I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. Do I need to explain that her nephew just died?
Ooooh, she said. Ya, dia sudah di makam. He’s already in the grave. That was that.
In Islam, people will bury a person the same day they die. R died around 5am in the hospital, a few hours before he was set to be discharged. They lowered him into the cemetery by afternoon. For Muslims, this would’ve made sense to me—would’ve been something I’d have rushed back to town for, had I known. But my host family is Christian, not Muslim, so I didn’t grasp the point in rushing it at all. I made a mental note: Here was yet another thing I probably wouldn’t understand, but was going to try to accept. This is where our cultures truly clash. Sometimes I feel like everyone around me is preparing for their next life, while I’m only focused on this one.
During Pre-Service Training last fall, Peace Corps Staff reiterated the importance of coping mechanisms: How to develop habits to, you know, keep calm and what not. A lot of the coping mechanisms from home simply aren’t available at site. When I said goodbye to my family, I also said goodbye to dancing, drinking, dogs, and dark chocolate. Goodbye to driving. Goodbye to cooking dinner with a glass of red wine in hand; to bar-hopping in Brooklyn with my best friend; to thrift shopping, and sweaty sessions at yoga studios. Goodbye to running as I knew it, where passersby let a girl be, and men didn’t shout and chase me down the street. We’d have to find other ways to de-stress, apparently.
When R died of dengue in May, I worried that he was alone. Was anyone staying with him in the hospital? Why were the doctors going to discharge him? Did anyone check his platelets? Or bring him his favorite foods? Or read him a book? It was a particularly bad year for dengue; everyone knew someone who was hospitalized that rainy season. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask a single question. I felt that demanding an explanation would shatter the thin shield of composure that my host family had so carefully built around themselves.
Several days later, Bu Emi broke out the baking pans. In Indonesia, the seventh day following a death is cause for celebration, whether it feels that way or not. Bu Emi would prepare cakes for more than 200 people who would recognize R’s passing. I sat beside her on the floor and we formed an assembly line. After frosting hundreds of small square-shaped chocolate cakes and topping them with sprinkles, there seemed to be nothing left to do. That was that. I so badly needed a way out of the house. Well, I thought, at least I’ve got these two legs.
The Bromo marathon is mostly an up-hill climb. The route begins on a downhill and then turns to an incline for more than 20 kilometers straight. I trained at a flat site, running back and forth on my town’s one steep hill so often that the locals surely thought, There goes the lunatic again. I’m not sure that any route will prep a runner for Bromo. Runners climb from 1840 meters to 2476. It’s a gain in altitude of more than a mile, which means breathing is harder. All of it, really, is hard. We ran level with the clouds.
Running isn’t only a coping strategy; it’s something that I sincerely enjoy. It’s fun, you see—something we so love to do as children, but grow up and think, “That’s too hard.” R would run through our house, but he didn’t live with us. The family is a little split up, and an uncle was raising him. I only learned part of the story through whispers. Motherhood is complicated in Indonesia when a father isn’t present, and the shame can be too much for a woman to carry; children are exchanged throughout the family to save face. R would visit a few nights a week for an hour or so. He’d zip around the house, bored with all the adults that crowded his play space. He’d raid the toko for candy and run, refusing to be stopped when his aunts urged him to salim. “Respect your elders!” they’d tell him, and he’d roll his eyes until everyone laughed.
Running has been the best release. On Saturdays, I’d wake up at 3:30 am to begin a long training run at 4, when Muslims were praying Fajr, and reach home again by 7. I could slip back in the house before anyone noticed I’d left. I’d run after school in the early evening. I’d pop in my headphones, blast reggaeton, and imagine that I was elsewhere entirely.
On race day, runners walked many of the steep inclines. Race organizers call it an “Adventure run,” but it’s more like a marathon sprinkled with impossible hikes under the late-morning sun. A few kilometers in, I’d found my place between two male runners, both dressed in blue. I pledged to pace myself between the two of them, not letting the leader get too far ahead. Then, somewhere around kilometer 20, we came up on a water station. I watched my blue-shirt leader race straight past the water table for the ambulance parked beside it. He climbed right in. Jesus, I thought. That’s not a good sign. The rest of the race was a little lonely.
By kilometer 28, the altitude was clearly getting to my brain. Surely, I thought, I’ve lost my mind. Why did I think I could do this? The race course can be summed up in one word: sadistic. Who designed this course?! I needed to know. But there wasn’t another runner nearby to ask. By the time I reached the peak of the course and looked down on Bromo, I snapped a bunch of unfocused, 100% crap photos, like those of a deeply intoxicated person Snapchatting at the club. Finally, from that point on it would all be downhill.
The past summer, alongside many cross-training sessions and yoga workouts on my bedroom floor, my host family ticked off days on the calendar. We recognized R’s important dates by baking cakes: 40 days after death, and later, 100 days after death. It’s hard to categorize traditions by what is exclusively Muslim, as opposed to Javanese, let alone Indonesian. Death, especially of a child, seems to blur the lines; everyone does what they’re capable of, while others, understandably, can’t manage much at all. We prepare the food for the ceremonies, but we don’t attend.
By August, Bu Emi managed the spirit to hang two framed photos of R in the house. They were the first appearance of her youngest grandchild in months, slipped onto walls while no one was watching.
On race day, I was running for what felt like forever, and then it ended, just like that. I was lucky to have four incredible ladies waiting at the finish line after they’d completed their own races. And suddenly, after so much anticipation of September 1, and so many hours alone on that course, it was over. We did it. What an incredible release. We snapped a photo and then turned around, making our way back home to our different sites. Bussing back to Madiun, moving forward.
*I have to give a serious shout out to Leigh, who kicked me in the butt and got me to run, really run, just a couple of winters ago with BRRC. Wish I could’ve trained with you, Shane and Sadie for this one. I miss our four-legged body guards! ❤