Robert was an American in Thailand, he had been there a few years before I arrived. He came from Allen Town, immortalised in song by someone famous whom I fail to recall. I met him when he was 72, tall and patrician. We met outside the Chiangmai Museum, on a late afternoon.
I was walking out with a friend. Robert arrived on a bicylce. He had thin grey hair, specatacles, a loose shirt and baggy trousers. It was an ex pat uniform that I was soon to adopt. He threw his bike on the ground outside the entrance. He asked “Is it open?” I said, ‘No it is about to close’ I could see the disappointment in his face. After some adjustments we found ourselves sitting on the grass outside the Museum. We chatted, Robert, myself and my travelling companion at the time. I think it was my first time in Chiangmai, Thailand. It was 1999.
I visited the city another time, in late 1999, and the next time was to be with two suitcases under my arms to retire in this wonderful city, The Rose Of The North, Chiangmai,Thailand. I had lost contact with Robert sadly. I was taken my his wisdom, his age and his kindness. It was serendipity. I was standing in a bank opening a bank account in Chiangmai when I saw him across the room. We reconnected and told him I had now moved to the city, which was to become my home for 4 years.
He affectionately called me “Lolly” which was how he addressed me until the day he died. He had been a medical masseur in New York before a series of retirement refuges. He first went to Puerto Rico, then to Miami, then to Paris and finally to Chiangmai. His clients in New York included Robert De Niro and Jackie Onassis, or Kennedy as she was then. He said, ‘Lolly, I used go to her home, she would not come to my studio. I can remember her screaming out at her son” It was rather exciting to hear his stories even though I had reached my mid fifties. He had wonderful stories of his life in The Village, New York as a gay man before the onset of H.I.V/A.I.D.S..
He had found himself, an only child, in Pennsylvania, the sole inheritor of his father’s shoe factory. It did not interest him at all. He knew his great love was dance. Not an acceptable path for a young man in the late 40’s in middle America. A friend of his, a woman, told him that there were jobs going in the Foreign Service. He applied and was posted, as a stenographer, firstly to Korea, and later to Japan.
During this time he had accumulated a large number of paintings which eventually I was to inherit on his death. He had many stories which he shared as we spent many an hour together in Chiangmai. He had emphasyma. He had smoked three packets a day until he gave up nearly 40 years before his death. He used issue me with stern warnings about the evils of tobacco and I knew he was correct. I was struggling with my own tobacco demons at the time so kept it from him.
I had always been attracted to older gay men, not sexually, but in so many other ways. Robert was no exception to this.
He was living with a lover in a house not far from me. Sadly the lover, a thai man, some 30 years his junior died from alcoholism. I was there for him in a way that one is in friendship.
He then met another man, a thai, married with adult children, whom he was never to live with. This man had a large block of land and he invited Robert to build a house of his own on the land. Robert leapt at the chance.
I remember visiting while the house was being built. It seemed so grand to me. I was living in a large, one bedroom, condominium closer to the city of Chiangmai. Robert was building this beautiful two story house outside of the city. It was finally completed with a sizable garden and abutted the family home of his lover who was living with his wife. A web of intrigue to me.
Sadly, his second lover, fell from the roof and was to die two days later. Here was this American ex pat, who, at age 78, had outlived two Thai lovers.
Eventually Robert came to live in the same complex where I was living with my lover in a place called Hua Hin, on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand. It was a beautiful old home, with several bungalows and we became neighbors.
The old bungalow that he rented was now splendid with the artwork and other asian objets that he had collected since 1950. Each morning I would see him, with his dog on a leash, striding across the beautiful sweep of sand at the bottom of the community garden. He took a plastic bag with him so he could do his own clean up of the beach.
He was important for me at this time. He was rigourously intellectual and read a lot of books on Science and was an avowed atheist. We had many happy time together and I learnt a lot from him. I had few western friends in the small village we lived in. He was almost 20 years older and from a different time and place. However we shared many commonalities. As he became older I worried as he was alone in his bungalow with the dog. There were a few medical scares but he seemed to have a great life force.
After he had come down to live in Hua Hin it was myself who had a medical scare, Angina. The town of Hua Hin, once a sleepy fishing village, was now being developed at a rapid rate. There was a private hospital as well as a government one, both rather small in scale. Hua Hin is also the home to His Majesty, The King of Thailand. He was spending more time at his seaside Palace as his health was deteriorating also.
I had to make a decision to leave our beautiful home on the coast and move to Bangkok where medical attention was accessible. I could no longer live three hours by road from the captial, Bangkok. I needed to be closer to medical treatment, so my partner and I found a Condo in Sathorn, Bangkok.
It was sad leaving such a beautiful beachside home and Robert, my dearest and closest friend in Thailand. Oddly enough it was he, some years earlier, who encouraged me to leave Chiangmai and relocate in Hua Hin. He used to say to me in that American drawl, ‘Lolly, whenever you return from your holidays in Hua Hin you seem so happy and healthy”. ‘I think you should move down there” I was reluctant as I had a job in Chiangmai which provided me with a Work Permit and a Visa, two important documents for any Westerner wanting to live or retire permantly in Thailand.
I did not take much convincing and soon left Robert in Chiangmai and was ensconced in a seaside bungalow. Within a few months of moving there I had met my partner with whom I now live in Melbourne. And within a year Robert had joined us in the same family complex, Baan Napapan, Koh Takeab, Hua Hin, Thailand.
After the move to Bangkok I kept in touch with Robert regularly. It was only a short time when he rang to tell me things were not good. He was in hospital in Hua Hin. I was keen to get down and see him so we travelled by taxi, yes a three hour taxi drive, to Hua Hin. It was at that time around 70 AUD, and we could afford it.
We went to the hospital where he had been for some days. Medical tests were being carried out.
He said to me , ‘Lolly it is not like cancer, there is no pain, I just cant breath” He was almost 80 years of age. He was still convinced that he could return home to his bungalow with a special oxygen tank he had bought, it did not need refilling. I knew he would not return to his home but did not voice it.
I thanked him for his friendship. And the words he said to me remain to this day, ‘Lolly, I hope I have been able to teach you how to die”
We returned to Bangkok and it was the day after I received a call from him from his hospital bed, ‘Lolly, there is a fucking priest in my room” I silently chuckled and said to him, ‘Have him removed”
I was later to find out that he died a short time after that phone call.
My life has been enriched by Robert, and I think of him often. We had a very moving ceremony at the local Wat for his cremation. I remember carrying his ashes on a large metal plate, tied up in a white cotton sheet, on to a local fishing boat.
He had a thai woman friend who was his executor who had arranged all of this. Myself, my partner, the thai woman and the boat driver. We headed out into the Gulf of Thailand in the early afternoon sunshine. The waves washing over us as we went out far enough legally to slide the ashes into the sea. My partner said a Buddhist prayer and we had incense and flowers. Robert was now at rest in the sea that he walked along each day for several years.
I composed a short ‘memento mori’ to be read at a memorial service in New York that had been arranged by his friends. They were grateful for my gesture I think.
I am grateful to have known such a decent man.

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About dyoll09

Baby Boomer ex pat in azia for 10 years. Male. Now in Melbourne for chemotherapy.

2 responses »

  1. Dear Lloyd, what a beautiful tribute to your dear friend. Some people come into our lives and never leave. Their presence is such that they become an absent presence when death takes them. It’s not always length of time that creates these special relationships, for me it’s the quality of the time we share.
    With love and gratitude for your presence in my life.
    Tricia xx

  2. dyoll09 says:

    He was the first western friend I made, a long friendship right up till two days before he died, he taught me a lot for which I am ever grateful but think I have said all that in my tribute

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