He Was the Embodiment of Freedom
The wooden house in the middle of nowhere, the one that was so out of reach that an entire weekend needed to be spared to visit it. And yet the man to whom this isolated house belonged was the least isolated soul I have ever known. His mind knew no boundaries and he always made it a point that every human being is merdeka, which is Indonesian for independent.
And yet it was his decision—though it seemed more like a natural inclination—to live a life without boundaries that, years later, sent him to his grave. Gone was his dream to live a long, free life. Though perhaps Death is the one thing that could promise him true freedom. Bapak sekarang benar-benar merdeka. “Dad is now truly free (independent),” said his young son following the funeral that I was unfortunately unable to attend. What a beautiful way to say goodbye.
My memory of him is incomplete, and yet he is more whole to me than any of my own uncles – which is probably an unfilial thing to say. Unlike the voice of my father’s, his was always loud and bursting with energy. Every syllable reflected enthusiasm, and each pause carried an inexplicable significance. Unable to understand the weight of the conversation he and my father often engaged in, I tried to pick up details from how each word was said. Sitting on one of the little wooden stools in his garden that was filled with more junk than live plants (including a red telephone box imported from the U.K.), I pretended that I was a part of something grand, something other kids my age would not be able to comprehend, or even be interested in.
What would usually happen when we visited his house: the three of us—him, my father, and I—would sit outside while his wife and my mother would chat while having tea inside. Cigarettes had always been part of the conversation. Looking back, I don’t know how my father managed to endure so many conversations with him (and there were many indeed, considering the admirable length of their friendship) since he wasn’t a smoker, but I guess it was his friend’s intelligence and genuineness that always made him want to listen.
“Here, read this,” he said as he handed me an old book filled with yellowed pages. “It’s a collection of short stories. I like short stories because you can read it over and over again without having to spend too much time.” I can’t remember the title, but I remember that it was the anthology that made me want to explore the world of short fiction.
I was 18 when he passed away. I cried in a friend’s unlit room, where I went to answer my father’s unexpected phone call. He was calling me from the wooden house that sat in a country far from the one I was living in at the time. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he said in his tender voice. I wailed. I could not control my grief. I was struck by a wave of memories, of emotions, of the realization that I would no longer learn from him. I remembered the book. I remembered the telephone box. I remembered him, the man whose life was governed by nobody but himself. He was the embodiment of freedom, but it was time for him to leave.
During the course of his life, he did whatever he wanted. He woke up whenever he thought he should begin the day, and slept whenever he thought it was time to end it. He smoked more than he should have. He ate food that basically poisoned him. His freedom knew nothing, nor did it want to know anything of health. Being healthy meant that he had to limit his freedom. And he had to pay the price of this voluntary ignorance with his own life.
He was a cautionary figure, but he was also an inspirational one. What a privilege it must’ve been to be both. It was an existence that could not, and still cannot be labeled as either good or bad. I will never come across another man as free as the one who used to live in that wooden house in the middle of nowhere.
Nothing in life is worth,
turning your back on,
if you love it.
— Albert Camus
We all have morning rituals that give us the comfort of familiarity even if our days are unknowns.
— Stephanie Congdon Barnes, A Year of Mornings: 3191 Miles Apart