Yesterday, August 17th, was Indonesian Independence Day. It’s celebrated much the same way as 4th of July is celebrated in the USA, with picnics, games and fireworks. The streets are festooned with red and white flags and buntings. The stage was set for a rousing good time—then it rained. I’m glad it rained.
Suharti, my maid Rusnati’s youngest sister, about 35, a single mother of 2 children, a girl about 7, and boy about 4, died yesterday morning, August 17th at 2:30 am. She died of either a heart attack or stroke, we will never know which. Suharti was a runner, a strong, smart woman, with a shy demeanor, determination, and quick wit.
We first met Suharti 4 years ago, when our friends: Joy, Michael and their son, Alexander, relocated to Jakarta. As we do for some new families, we helped them find household staff. When Rusnati learned that I was looking for a maid, she mentioned her sister, Suharti. At that time, Suharti was living in the village with their parents and her 2 young children. A shy, skittish, cowed woman, Suharti would barely look you in the eye.
She’d started with a bright future. Educated in Catholic school, like her siblings, Suharti was working, doing well when she met and married a “bad” man. From what I have been able to piece together, “bad” means her husband was a womanizer, drinker, maybe gambler—or any combination of bad. At some point in their marriage, either before their 2nd child, Kiki, was born or after, he took her to live with his family in Sumatra and dumped her there.
The part of Sumatra where Suharti’s husband is from is matriarchal, meaning the woman own everything, and is advised by her oldest brother. The men must leave the area, make their fortune elsewhere and return with enough to pay the bride price if they want to marry well. Returning home with a strange wife (and daughter) would not sit well with mama, to begin with. However be dumped there when you husband leaves is really bad. A woman without a husband is nothing in this society. A woman left by her husband is even lower. A woman who can't keep her husband is trash. So, Suharti, who had by all accounts been abused by her husband, after he left was then abused by his family—physically and mentally.
Rusnati wasn’t sure what all went on at this time. After Suharti married and her husband took her away, they had very little contact with her. Then, one day, shortly after the birth of Suharti’s son, the family got word—either Suharti called, or a friend called…somehow, someone got word to the family that Suharti’s situation was bad. Rusnati, oldest child and bossy-boss took the ferry to Sumatra, made her way to the mother-in-law’s home, bundled up Suharti and the children and took them home to the family village near Cirebon. (The boy baby was either too tiny for the mother-in-law to care about, yet, or else Rusnati snuck them out without her knowing, because in Muslim families a boy child never would have been allowed to leave.)
Although Suharti was safe there, life was still not good. She had failed—miserably. It didn’t matter what her family thought, and how happy they were to have her and her babies, to everyone in the village, she was a disgrace. Not enough woman to hold her man, she was shunned, gossiped about, laughed at…Suharti couldn’t wait to get away.
When she first arrived in Jakarta, Suharti rarely spoke, often didn’t seem to respond to what was said. She cowered when a man, any man, walked in the room. And she was terrified of Joy and Michael’s dog, Callie, a Dalmatian who growled and snarled at everyone—us included. (He scared me, too.) Many Muslim’s are scared of dogs. Many won’t touch them and won’t work in a home with a dog, because dog’s are unclean animals. Devout Muslims who touch or are touched by a dog must go through a complicated cleansing ritual to be purified.
Suharti was definitely not a quitter. She stuck with it, stuck with the job, stuck with the family. She watched and listened and learned—and even learned to manage Callie. She could have lived-in as Joy and Michael had servant’s quarters. But she chose not to. She craved independence. At first she stayed with Rusnati’s family. Then she got her own tiny space—a room with a shared bath. She started running, made some friends, cut her hair in a swishy shoulder-length bob. Began dressing well, wearing lipstick, and smiling. She blossomed. We watched the flower unfold, marveled at the changes, rejoiced in Suharti's rebirth.
Joy encouraged Suharti to be more, to take English classes and cooking classes—American, Thai, Indian. She and Xan (who is an inspired, creative chef) taught Suharti to cook Mexican food, BBQ and other family favorites. “Why are you so nice to me?” Suharti would ask. When we had parties, Suharti and Rusnati worked them together, earning some extra money, enjoying the excitement, the preparations, the festive foods.
Joy suggested Suharti take computer lessons so she could get a better job, but Suharti didn’t want to. She could make more money as a maid, she told us, “besides, I am too old.” (Indonesians have mandatory retirement at 50, so it’s difficult to get a good job, or start up the ladder at the ripe old age of 35 or so.) Suharti religiously sent money back to the village to pay for her children’s school, clothing, etc. and returned to Cirebon to see her kids occasionally, but it was clear that she didn’t enjoy being there. When their father became ill, she joined the family in chipping in to pay for the cost of his medicine, too.
Their father, Bapak, a retired wood-carver, is the primary caretaker for Suharti’s children. (Men here commonly tend the children while the women work. It’s usual to see a group of men gathered on a bench, chattering and smoking while holding babies and tending toddlers.) Rusnati loved to tell me how Bapak would take them with him to the garden and they’d follow behind like ducks in a line.
After Joy, Michael and Xan left Jakarta, Suharti went to work for Mrs. Terri as a cook, upon their recommendation. Being a “cook” is the highest job in the household help chain. It is testament to Suharti’s commitment to learning that she made the huge leap from maid to cook, got the job and kept it. When I saw Mrs. Teri at the hospital on Monday, as she was leaning over Suharti’s bedside, all Teri could talk about was how much they loved Suharti’s mashed potatoes and chicken enchiladas, how much the boys were missing her being there, making all their favorites. How anxious they were to have her back… Although Suharti was on a respirator, with unfocused eyes and an erratic heartbeat, she responded to Teri’s words, even smiled a little from one the unencumbered side of her mouth. She deserved to smile.
Suharti took excellent care of herself, was thin and strong, exercised, ate well (shunning traditional mostly fried Indonesian food, she preferred steamed fish and vegetables). How had this happened? On Friday, Suharti wasn’t feeling well. At the end of her work day, she retired to the servant’s quarters and was taking a shower when she collapsed. She called for help, and one of the maids helped her up and to bed. (Suharti decided to live in at Terri’s house as they have lots of staff and Suharti enjoyed the company.) Saturday was Suharti’s regular day off, so Terri didn’t expect to see her and so had no idea Suharti wasn’t well. However, at around 10:00 am, Teri noticed a strange woman going into the servant’s quarters. She asked the houseboy who it was. He told her they had called a traditional healer to massage Suharti because she was ill. Terri went back to see what was happening. Suharti was in bed, speaking gibberish, clearly out of it. Terri ordered her driver to take Suharti to the hospital. She then called Suharti’s mother in Cirebon who called Rusnati. Rusnati and Rohemon rushed to the hospital.
Hospitals in Jakarta do not treat charity cases. When the driver brought Suharti in, they would not do anything without money. The driver returned to Teri’s house, got a few million Rupiah (a couple of hundred dollars), and headed back to the hospital. Whether before or after he returned, Suharti’s heart stopped, she was resuscitated and a nurse was keeping her breathing by pumping a hand-held respirator. Suharti lapsed into a coma. Her eyes were open but, as Aan, our driver, and Sani, our helper and Suharti’s friend, told me: “there was no person inside.”
The hospital took x-rays, did blood work and determined that nothing body-wise was wrong. The problem was either her heart or her head. They wouldn’t know until they scanned her head and that small, ill-equipped hospital didn’t have the scanning machine. Besides, the heart doctor doesn’t work on Saturdays.
Slow, long, agonizing, worrisome wait to early Monday morning. Suharti regains consciousness. She responds correctly to questions asked her by the nurses and by Rusnati. She knows she has 2 children, she knows she works for Mrs. Terri. She knows her sister. But no one knows what will happen next. And no one knows when the doctor is going to come or when the scan will be done.
There is a distinct class system in Jakarta (maybe all over Indonesian, but I can only speak for here.) Unless you are a rich Indonesian, or an Ex-patriot you are nobody. The rich Indonesians make sure everyone knows they are somebody by speaking out—loudly—to be sure they are heard and they get what they want. They also push and shove their way to the front of lines and into elevators, toilets, etc. usually leading with their giant purses. Expats command attention by similarly being loud, but it’s not necessary as our very “caucasian-ness” commands attention. Indonesians, Javenese, however, soft-spoken, round-eyed, unassuming Indonesians, taught to stoop with one hand beside their backs when passing superiors, taught not to draw attention, not to make a fuss, are invisible.
When I arrived at the hospital Monday morning, Rusnati, her sister Ruskeni, and cousin, Yani, were there. So was Mrs. Terri, who had arrived shortly before me. Having never seen Ruskeni or Yani before, I had no idea who they were and they sat quietly, hands folded, waiting… Rusnati hadn’t left the hospital. She alternated between checking on Suharti in ICU, going to the mosque to pray, and sitting, waiting. Still no doctor had spoken with them, any o fthem. They didn't even know which of the busy looking people was a doctor. And they had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t that they hadn’t asked. Rusnati is a lion, never shy about speaking up, ferocious in defense of her family. But the nurse couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them anything except that the doctor was coming later…maybe at 3?...maybe this evening?
Finally, bossy me, muscled my way in. I asked the nurse questions, everyone Aan, Rusnati, Ruskeni, translated my pigeon Indonesian and together we learned that the heart doctor would be in until he was finished with everything else, after 8:00 pm. Suharti was supposed to be taken to Pondok Indah hospital (the larger hospital) for the scan, but when??? In the end, I got the doctor’s phone number from the nurse, gave it to Terri, who sent an SMS to her doctor, an ex-pat doctor who is Indonesian, Dr. Isabel, and Dr. Isabel called the heart doctor who immediately returned her call. Suharti was too unstable to move. “Frankly, at this stage, it doesn’t matter which hospital she is in,” Dr. Isabel said. “Until they can wean her from the respirator, they can’t do the scan or move her to a better hospital.”
Suharti’s heart failed early Tuesday morning, August 17th at 2:30 am. It is Muslim tradition that a person be buried before sundown on the day they die. So, while no one at the hospital could rush to help her until the payment was secured, they sure could bundle her up and ship her out post haste. By 4:30 that morning, 2 short hours later, she was in the ambulance with her sisters on her way home, to the village near Cirebon. Two other cars full of Jakarta family drove with them. By 4:00 that afternoon Suharti had been buried.
Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting started last week. During this month, it is Islamic tradition for believers to ask forgiveness of family and friends for any harm they have done in the past. “Mohon and maaf,” they say, “forgive me and I am sorry.” The practice of asking forgiveness is familiar. In Christian religions believers also ask for forgiveness. Rather than asking forgiveness from those they have wronged directly. Forgiveness is asked from higher powers. “Forgive us our sins,” goes the prayer. “Forgive for our trespasses and forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
After the funeral Rusnati called me. She told me about the funeral. I told her that I had called Joy, Michael and Xan to tell them about Suharti and other platitudes one says when one doesn't know what to say. In closing, Rusnati apologized to all of us. At first I thought she, Rusnati, was apologizing for any trouble she was causing for inconveniencing us. I shushed her. She repeated what she had said, naming each of us in turn. And then I realized, Rusnati wasn't apologizing for herself, she was apologizing on behalf of her sister. “Maaf Suharti,” she said. “Forgive Suharti.”
Forgive me, Suharti. Mahon and Maaf. I am sorry.