AN EXTRAORDINARY COINCIDENCE by RJ Furth
Sandy and I first met Bill in 1981 when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur as newlyweds. Bill was married with two kids in middle school. I taught with Bill’s wife Merrily in the high school (Bill was an outstanding, gentle kindergarten teacher) but it was Bill with whom I became friends. We played tennis and softball together, and often bumped into each other in the library as we checked for baseball scores. (This was pre-internet. The International Herald Tribune arrived one day late from Paris, yet it was news to us and we were always happy on the rare occasions when our Chicago Cubs won.) Sandy and I returned to the States two years later, while Bill remained with his family. When his children graduated high school, Merrily decided it was time to return to the States. Bill did not agree. As a result, Merrily moved back with their kids while Bill remained in Malaysia. Apparently, and perhaps not surprisingly, his two children resented Bill’s decision. I do not know the family dynamics, don’t know if the marriage had been sound, and it’s not my business. Merrily eventually divorced Bill. He stayed in Malaysia for a while, then taught in Singapore, at an international school in Bangkok, and eventually in a local Thai school. While teaching at the Thai school Bill met Puk, a young Thai businesswoman, and they got married.
I visited Bill and Puk in Bangkok a few times after moving back to Colorado in 2002. (Sandy and I visited this year in late March on our way to Cambodia and Malaysia.) They lived on the outskirts of Bangkok in a quiet neighborhood on street where many of Puk’s relatives also lived. Except for Puk, who is fluent in English, none of her relatives spoke much English. Bill studied Thai for years, yet he never became fluent, possibly because of his advanced years. (He is fifteen years older than me.) As Bill aged his vision got worse and he became more dependent on Puk. I don’t know the details of the past few years, but I do know that Puk had some legal difficulties and there were questions about Bill’s finances. I also know that Puk’s family thought she had married a rich American, and Bill told me they were very disappointed when they learned that he was a retired teacher with limited financial resources. Last year a mutual friend in Bangkok contacted Sandy and me to inform us that he was worried about Bill. Although not unhealthy, his deteriorating vision and loss of teeth have made him seem old for his age. (He is anti-doctor and will not seek medical help, has not been examined in years, refuses to wear glasses or get new teeth.) With serious questions regarding Bill’s limited savings and who had access to those savings, our mutual friend strongly believed that Bill could not remain in Bangkok, especially in a community where his ability to communicate was severely limited. This friend called Bill’s daughter, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her two young children, and told her that she needed to care for her father. In May of this year Bill moved to an assisted living facility in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. He had lived continuously in Asia for nearly 40 years.
It has not been an easy adjusted, even though Bill accepted his new situation with a positive attitude. Having been acclimated for many years to a tropical climate, Bill now lives in a place that averages nearly 100 days per year well above 100º. Combined with his vision issues that cause him to shuffle when he walks, he has become a captive in the assisted living home, only going out when the van takes him to the mall to shop. (He refers to other residents as fellow inmates.) His daughter, although reluctant to accept responsibility for the father who chose to remain in Southeast Asia, has been supportive. She set up Bill’s room with furniture and a TV, and helped him to get an I.D. and settle in. She brings his grandchildren to visit and has taken Bill to the zoo with the grandkids, among other outings. He dines with friendly ‘inmates’ of the facility and Skypes with a few friends, but for the most part Bill is alone. I call Bill every so often and promised to visit and get him out for a bit. Last week I flew to Phoenix, one week after his 80th birthday. That is where the extraordinary coincidence mentioned in this essay’s title occurred. (I briefly flirted with a title It’s A Small World, but found myself humming the annoyingly saccharine Disney song of the same name.)
I helped Bill set up a new printer that his daughter had bought him and we had a fantastic visit to the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum and a Mexican lunch, and we sat in his room and chatted for a few hours over the two days I was there. Bill also asked me to take him to Bank of America because he was having trouble with his ATM card’s pin number. (Who doesn’t struggle with pin numbers and passwords?) I checked online for a local branch and found one about ten minutes away. As we parked Bill mentioned that he’d never been to that particular branch and he seemed a bit hesitant. We went to the ATM machine and his pin number was rejected again, so we sat and waited fifteen minutes until the bank manager was free to meet with us. When the manager’s door opened I was surprised to see an Asian woman emerge and ask us into her office. As might be expected in Arizona, the sight of Latinos is common; not so with Asians. We sat and I explained Bill’s situation, that he had just moved from Thailand and needed help with his ATM pin.
“How did you like living in Thailand?” she asked Bill.
“I loved it.”
“What did you love about it?”
“The people,” Bill answered. “The Thais are among the kindest people in the world.”
The bank manager smiled. “I am from Thailand.”
Saowanit Healey explained that she had moved to Phoenix thirty years ago. (We didn’t ask what brought her to the States.) She asked where Bill had lived and it turned out that both lived on the outskirts of Bangkok, though in different areas. Bill smiled and greeted her in Thai and she responded in kind. They chatted for a few minutes, and she asked Bill about his experience teaching at a Thai school. He said that the children were well behaved and respectful toward their teachers. The manager smiled, then proceeded to tell us that she had raised her only child, a son, to also be respectful, regardless of how American kids treat their teachers. She puffed with pride when she told us that her son―a straight-A student―had just been accepted to West Point, the US military academy. Bill nodded, seeming comfortable with this familiar story of a Thai parent who demanded nothing short of the best effort from their child.
After chatting, Saowanit gently helped Bill through the process of changing his pin number. She then led us to the ATM, patiently explained the steps to Bill, then watched as he successfully used his new pin number. Bill commented a few time that day on the extraordinary coincidence of having met a Thai at a Bank of America branch in Peoria, Arizona. I think he felt just a little closer to Thailand, the place he loved and missed horribly. Saowanit’s kindness meant a great deal to a man who now lived among strangers in a strange land. It wasn’t much, just a chance meeting, yet I think it meant a lot to Bill. It is a small world after all, and that’s a good thing.