Feels Like Rain-Remembering Rohemon

It’s a gray, drizzly, looks like it should be cold out, steamy shower room sort of day in Port O Spain. It’s right that it should that kind of day. Rohemon is dead. Rohemon, our gardener/jaga for the past seven years, all the time we lived in Jakarta, died today, Friday May 11, 2012, sometime in the afternoon.

The news came to us via email. And because it was already late night in Indonesia when we read it, we have not called Rusnati to give our love, or find out more. Laura Evans, their current employer, sent this note:

“Roheman passed away today.  Don't know any of the details. Rusnati got a call on the hand phone and started crying, really loud and hard. She rushed out the door forgetting her helmet and keys. Roheman hasn't been into work this week as he slipped and hurt his ankle on Monday. So she got a lift home from one of our gate security guards. Sugiman [the relief driver] called Rusnati's hand phone and her daughter told him about Roheman. I'm so sorry to be delivering such sad news, but thought you might like to know.”

Rohemon, at most was in his early 50s. A husband to Rusnati, our housekeeper; only child of his diseased parents; father to 3 daughters: Andrea, his baby, the one most like him in temperament and looks; Lia, the middle daughter, a teacher and student; and Linda, married and 4 months pregnate with Rohemon and Rusnati’s first grandbaby. Linda and I emailed just yesterday. I asked if she was getting a fat "mommy" tummy yet. She said she'd say hi to her folks for me.

What a difference a day makes...

Today, I was supposed to attend a “Chari-Tea” benefiting a boy’s orphanage. I set out on foot to find it. It was mostly an excuse to get out of the house and stop thinking about Rohemon and Rusnati and their family. The urge to pick up the phone and talk to Rusnati was so strong, it was all I could think about.

Muslims traditionally bury their loved ones on the day they die. They hang a yellow flag in front of the house as a means of notifying everyone a person died there, and to let them know which house to stop at to offer sympathy, to pray and to make offerings of food or money to help with the funeral.

Rohemon’s family, like Rusnati’s are from a village near Cirebon. Rohemon’s mother and father are buried there. When Suharti, Rusnati’s sister died, the family took her body to Cirebon that day. As I walked purposefully down the road in the direction of where I thought the Chari-Tea was being held, I wondered if Rusnati and her girls  were in route to Cirebon? Had Rohemon’s body already been interred? Were they all piled together sleeping in the safety and comfort of Rusnati’s parent’s home? Many people, when separted from love ones, make note of the moon: “The same moon that lights your nighttime sky, shines down on me,” they say. It started drizzling as I walked the streets of Westmoorings, fruitlessly seeking Number 7 Sunset Drive, and I found myself wondering if it was raining there, on the other side of the world. Feels like Rain…

When I returned home, I decided to stop pretending and give the day up to remembering Rohemon. It seems fitting, especially after all the days he gave to tending me, my family, my garden, my fish—rather, our garden and our fish (as time went by they became more his, really.)

So, I went back through my Jakarta News postings, spanning March 2005-March 2012. I was looking for one specific day, a day that sticks in my mind as particularly Rohemon-ish. That day, I’d gone outside in the yard to think about an essay I was writing. I’d been pacing when some round black rocks caught my eye, they were scattered here and there midst the plants and red dirt, but they didn’t belong, so I began collecting them in a plastic pot. Picking up rocks wasn’t the point; it was simply the vehicle to get my mind moving, so I wasn’t really there, there.  Sometime while I was collecting, Rohemon silently joined me. Not wanting to offend him by leaving, although I was more than ready to be finished with rock collecting and go back inside, I pushed on. And so we worked, silently, side by side, collecting round rocks until they had all been gathered. Then he smiled and took the pot from me. Later, Rusnati gave me the rocks back, all clean and washed and asked what I planned to do with them. After all that work, I didn’t dare tell her the truth, “throw them back.” So I kept those black stones in a bag in the pantry and we used them many times after to anchor down orchids, “bulan angrek.” Rohemon was a master orchid grower.

So many of those Jakarta stories focus on Rohemon, the gardener, keeper of the fish, guard, father, husband, friend.  I’ve reposted a few here as a way of remembering:

 March 12, 2005: (2 weeks after we moved into our Jakarta home.)

 Ruswanti and her husband Roheman, brought plants from their house to plant in front of our house. She said they had lots and yesterday morning they dug some up to dress up our home. What a treat--and the way to my heart!

            Roheman loves his new lawn mower--his toy! I think he mowed the back lawn 3 times. He tinkered with the engine and stuff until he had it working perfectly. He and I don't talk much. I would talk with him. I write down phrases to tell him about how nice the yard is, etc. But I don't think he wants me to talk with him, he prefers his wife to do the communicating. I don't know if that is an Indonesian thing, or specific to him.

            They have 3 girls, Leah, Andrea and Linda. The oldest just finished school, one in middle school and one in elementary school. Ruswanti brought me a picture of her family and I showed her mine

March 30, 2005:

First, some background. The patch of garden Roheman has been restoring with foundlings from the jungle beyond has been in peril. Something is wrong with the rain gutters. The roof, made of red tile, curves up at the edges so the water is guided to holes in the roof through which chains drop to the ground and disappear into concrete drainage holes. When they work well, the water runs down the chain to the ground and into the hole. Runoff problem solved--except for the corner of the roof directly over Rohemon's garden recovery project--there the water runs right off the edge and straight down, hammering anything below it. Sunday night it had washed 3 of Rohemon's seedling away. Sunday morning I'd rescued the seedlings and gingerly placed them on a scrap of cardboard along with some fern I dug up. I'd carefully placed the cardboard in a sheltered patch by the patio, but in a spot Roheman was sure to find. Thinking that my gardener's heart and his were connected, I knew he'd find these and know just what to do with them.  Fast forward to Monday morning. I'm busy e-mailing and trying to work with one eye trained on the back yard so I can catch Roheman and explain about my solution for the water problem. I know the word for plant is "tanaman" and the word for child is "anak" (while children is anak-anak) so I'm set.


I spot Roheman, race outside calling good morning, "Salamat Pagi" he answers with a big smile that quickly fades and is replaced by a frown as I try to ask about the "tanaman anak-anak" that had somehow disappeared, along with the cardboard. With him watching, puzzled and now a little scared that maybe he's done something really wrong, or I'm accusing him of stealing, I tear inside, open my language books and start flipping for words that might help.

I string a few together: yesterday, plants, water, broken, where? and head back outside. Ruswanti, worried now, too, and wanting to help me get my point across and save her husband, is on my heels. Using over exaggerated hand signals and embarrassingly slow, loud words, I reenact my plant rescue and finish with where tanaman? Roheman repeats words he's said a few times already, but this time Ruswanti translates. She points to the row of plants "he put them right there," she tells me. I can't even begin to ask what happened to the baby fern, casualties of the language barrier.  We all laugh--humor the lunatic woman. Roheman and I, with Ruswanti hovering protectively, then proceed to handle our water problem. Using extra red border bricks and a big, red clay pot directly below where the worst of the runoff flows we defuse the problem. No, the bricks don't get laid where I think they should go, and rather than being placed on it's side so it won't fill with water, the red pot sits bolt upright--a mosquito breeding ground in the making, but it works. Anyhow it won't be for long. Tomorrow morning I plan to sneak out and tip the pot over the way I want it. Maybe, if I'm very careful, and wash all the red clay muck from my feet and hands afterwards, Roheman will never know. More likely, he'll notice it's tipped and right the pot again.

More to come. 

Oct 10, 2005:

Here's the formal announcement. We have a new addition to our pond family!

Ruswanti came running in Saturday to ask me if I'd bought some new fish for the pond. I said no of course, and I hadn't. Because now that everything seems to be going so well with the pond, I didn't want to stir up trouble. Other than ripping out handfuls of creepy crawling water hyacinth every Sunday--when no one but Curtis is here to watch--I haven't been messing with the pond. Anyway, Ruswanti pulled me out to show me our new baby fish.

Goldfish start life black-colored, probably a survival tactic, and as they get older, they change. Well, we squatted beside the pond and spied at least two babies. One a mottled black-orange-white, and one still black. Our babies! We are calling Rohemon, Kakek Ikan, "Grandfather fish", and he seems to enjoy his new name!

January 2006:

 Last Thursday I returned to Jakarta. I finally arrived home about midnight--a good thing. It was too dark and too late for me to go exploring in the back yard. One day in December, after having had guests over the night before and as one does, seeing my garden through new eyes, I'd instructed Roheman to yank out an overgrown clump of ginger and prune the bushes around the pond. As is his way, Roheman made a through job of it, Roheman didn't just prune, he PRUNED. What I hadn't considered in my mad haste to have the offensive scrubs banished is the broad expanse of bare dirt and scrawny leafless stick-scrubs left afterwards. With less than a week to go before leaving for the States, I was in a dilemma: if I left the dirt bare, it wouldn't be bare when I returned, Roheman would see to that.

Images of what the area would look like scrolled through my mind: a forest of sproutlets scrounged from who knows where; or knee-high weeds, if Roheman left the area bare thinking I wanted it that way; kitchen herbs that looked like weeds; or best scenario, vegetables. Any way I looked at it, if I didn't take control of the bare patch now, I'd have to deal with it when I returned--and worst, I risked hurting Rohemon's feelings if he did plant the area and I didn't like it. Why couldn't I have ignored the overgrown mess for a few more days?

            So, my last Sunday in town, two days before leaving, Aan and I went on a plant buying spree. We returned home after dark with a car stuffed with new plants. Aan shook his head and laughed when I said Roheman would be surprised. He was. And happy. (He loves to dig.) The planting went like this: I talked and he nodded--without understanding. Roheman watched while I placed each plant where I wanted it. Afterwards we had a long pantomime-bahasa Indonesian-bahasa English discussion about "poo poos" and "composti" which I took to mean that he would add some fertilizer to the area. The discussion ended with a chat about the pond--specifically the lack of fish in the pond.

 March 13, 2007

Now, three months later, everything is spruced up and the new pool deck in place. I decided I should do our part of maintenance, too. Curtis sent the patio furniture out to be refinished, I ordered covers for loungers and a new mattress cover for the Bali bed. The deck was edged by 6 large planters each planted with bogunvillas. The planters were moldy and dirty looking. I asked Rohemon to repaint these pots. He told me, "tidak ada cat", we don't have any paint. I said I'd buy some. We smiled, conversation over. But, before it was over, I made the mistake of saying that after the planters were finished, I wanted them to be arranged differently. I even went so far as to decribe how I wanted them to be rearranged. I though my explanation was perfectly clear. From the way Rohemon nodded and smile, I thought he thought so, too.

So, yesterday, I went to Ace Hardware--yep! Ace is in Indonesia, and it is the Expat's friend since we can find products there imported from America.

It's more expensive, but at least it's familiar. And, some products, like Tilex and KILZ, aren't available in Jakarta. They have a slang term here: "lembiru" which means "throw away and buy new." And that is exactly what those who have money do--the rest live with whatever.

Well, yesterday Rohemon painted the planters around the patio. He didn't put down paper when he painted,I noticed this, but didn't say anything. Today, we have lovely white planters, and lovely white splatters on the pool deck.

We also seem to have more white planters. In fact, I hadn't noticed just how many white pots of plants we had before. Rohmeon's gone crazy with the dollie I borrowed from a friend, I surmised, and moved all the white planters to the pool area. I figured wrong, sort of...  He had gone crazy with the dollie. He has also gone crazy with the KILZ! Just now, I was out on the patio, eating lunch and reading a book, when Rohemon came around the back corner with the paint and a rag in hand. Hmmmm, must be adding a second coat of paint to the planters, I thought, praising him in my head for doing a thorough job. Thorough he is. Turns out he wasn't adding a second coat to a white pot--he's added first coats to lots of formerly terra cotta pots. In fact, he's busy right now covering a lovely, burnt orange pot with KILZ. How many of the pots is he planning to paint? How many is he going to move to the pool area? Will we even be able to get into the pool when he's finished? Should I stop him before the KILZ craze spreads to the leaves and branches?

Choosing the path of least insistance, I picked up my book and lunch things and came inside to write this.

If the next note you get from me is just a blank, WHITE page, you'll know it's no mistake—it's Rohemon!


Ah Rohemon. Peace be with you. You will be missed.