I grew up in Yonkers, New York and now live in Brooklyn. I am self-employed. I spend every winter in Asia: China to find pearls for my business, and Indonesia to relax, see friends, and read.
On weekends, from St. Patty’s Day through Christmas, I sell my pearl jewelry on 39 Prince Street in Manhattan at the NoLita Outdoor Artisan Market.
Learn more at kevinlee-writer.com
When I think of Bumi, I think of a smooth-faced young man strumming a broken guitar, his bony shoulder propping up a ripped T-shirt, a metallic blue Sumatran sky at his back, and I hear his voice with all the passion of Bob Marley’s poetry being sung in sync with midnight waves beating the shore. I hear the pain in his voice: These Songs of Freedom—it could easily have been written from that corner of Indonesia; Stir Me Up—“Come on and cool me down, baby, when I’m hot,” he sings in my mind, giggling like a schoolboy as if referring to himself as “hot” is a dirty joke that’s eternally funny.
My favorite cover of Bumi’s was Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt (sakit, in Indonesian, which is the same word for pain). “I hurt myself today,” he would sing. “To see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real. The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away, but I remember everything.”
I no longer live in Indonesia, and Bumi is no longer alive.
We became friends, and he became someoneI would eventually trust and love as much as any friend I have ever had.
Time has passed, and all the memories swirl together in my mind: Bumi teaching me how to ride a motorbike; Bumi teaching me Indonesian curses and laughing because the translations don’t make sense in English; Bumi refusing to eat eggs on his deathbed; and Bumi playing guitar and singing while the other artists we hung out with strummed violins, beat drums, shook maracas, and tapped knives against empty beer bottles.
We met on Padang Beach, West Sumatra. I was working at a university that paid less than one-tenth the salary I’d made at my previous job. I was in my twenties and was trying to enjoy life the way people dream of doing in their retirement. I wasn’t ready for a real job, a mortgage, a savings account, or a family. I didn’t want to throw away the majority of my youth working to make money for someone else and preparing to live comfortably in my later years. I wanted to live life fully—to live it in the moment—and the place I chose to do that was Indonesia, where Bumi was born and where Bumi lived and where Bumi passed away too young.
I no longer live in Indonesia,and Bumi is no longer alive.
He had a strong look to him, I remember, when we first met—a look I didn’t trust. Years of heroin abuse had stolen the light from his eyes, and though he’d been clean for more than half a decade when I met him, that look lingered, and the drug still found ways to punish him.
Within five years of kicking heroin, two-thirds of Bumi’s friends were dead. “We knew it wasn’t good for us,” he told me, “but we had no idea how bad it was either.”
We became friends, and he became someone I would eventually trust and love as much as any friend I have ever had.
“Saya sakit,” he wrote to me after I’d returned to New York in an attempt to take the lessons I’d learned overseas and apply them to “real life.” He was sick. He felt a severe pain in his chest and stomach. I told him to go see a doctor, and I offered help, but the sakit didn’t go away, and Bumi didn’t go to the doctor.
A few months later, he wrote and said he hadn’t eaten in two weeks. I flew into Padang on a Tuesday morning and found him lying on the floor of his home, his upper back leaning against a concrete wall, his eyes—those eyes I hadn’t trusted at first—sunken into his skull and staring up at me in kindness.
We laughed on the way to the rumah sakit (literally: pain room), and we talked about weird one-liners strangers had muttered to us during our time together on the road. I thought about the time we’d spent on his motorbike driving to the local rumah makan (literally: food room) and eating rendang and talking about his country’s past presidents and past revolutions.
When I had errands to run, Bumi would drive me, and when I wanted to know more about a local uprising that was supported in the 1950s by the United States, Bumi took me to the house of an old man who’d fought in the war, and we spent the afternoon watching the man sway back and forth as he told stories about CIA planes dropping weapons and food into the jungle to keep his crew of friends alive.
I was willing to do anything for Bumi, as was a shared friend of ours, whom we called that night on Skype. She was in California. She said she couldn’t sleep; she felt sakit. We told her about the observations collected by the Indonesian doctors, and she promised to pass them along to doctors in the Bay Area. She asked where she could send money to help pay for Bumi’s treatments. And that night I slept at the hospital. I slept there the following night, too, and we fought about his not eating eggs.
Bumi was stick thin, IVs pumping fluidinto his tiny body, and all I could do was try to humor him.
“You need protein,” the doctors said. “You must eat eggs.”
Bumi said he didn’t like eggs. And I said that didn’t matter. He was dying. The doctors were prescribing something simple—eggs—and he should stop whining and eat them.
Then we fought about what to do next, and even though we were in one of the few buildings in the province with air conditioning, he kept the thermostat set at 90 degrees, but I let that go. I had to. Bumi was stick thin, IVs pumping fluid into his tiny body, and all I could do was try to humor him.
“Which of the nurses do you think I have a chance with?” I asked.
The nurses were all orthodox Muslim women in headscarves.
We laughed, until the news came.
A doctor came and asked to speak to Bumi and his wife privately, and another doctor took me to sit on a couch in the hallway. “Bumi has tuberculosis,” he said, “hepatitis B, and a stomach infection. He is HIV positive. He may already have AIDS. We believe he does already have AIDS.”
I asked questions, but I couldn’t hear the answers. I kept asking until reality began to sink in. Then I tried to ask another question, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried to stand up to go outside. The doctor put his arm around me, and I wept.
He made peace with his past. He played music. He taught his son to play music.
A half-hour later, I was alone with Bumi, sitting next to his bed and staring at the man who had taught me an appreciation for life that went deeper than any gratitude I had previously known.
“You know, Kevin?” he asked.
“I know, Bumi.”
“I’m sorry, Kev,” he said.
“You have nothing to be sorry about.”
There was a long, screaming silence.
“Kevin,” he eventually said. “I think the water jug needs to be refilled.”
And now all I can think about is that song, Bumi’s voice ringing loud and true: ‘What have I become, my sweetest friend. Everyone I know goes away in the end.’
That night I drove Bumi’s motorbike back to Bumi’s house with Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt running through my head. I cried the whole way. I thought about the stories Bumi had told me—how he had kicked heroin by going to West Sumatra to live with his aunt; how he had fought and cried and prayed to Allah every night in a back alley; how he had eventually kicked the habit and married a beautiful woman, a painter and a musician; and how they had had a child, a brave and talented boy who had inherited all of his parents’ creativity and charisma. How his wonder for the world had returned. How he had resumed reading and seeking out scholars and striving to quench his thirst for truth.
Like so many of his countrymen, Bumi never found steady work, but he worked when he could. He made peace with his past. He played music. He taught his son to play music. He thought he’d left all the sakit a million miles away.
The doctors warned that the likelihood of Bumi’s surviving five years given his condition was extremely low, but, being an eternal optimist, I thought Bumi would get the five years. Too many people loved him for him to go so soon. He needed to see his son grow up a bit longer. His son needed to build more memories of his father.
I went home to New York, and we messaged each other a few times a week. I tried to keep up with what the doctors were telling him. And a little before noon on New Year’s Eve, a few minutes before midnight in Sumatra, I called him on Skype, and we talked. It was the clearest connection I ever had to Indonesia, and we brought in the new year together and swore it would be a better year for both of us.
By February, Bumi had gained twenty-six pounds. He was walking with a cane. He was playing music and singing and playing music with his son.
I called to tell my friend in California, the one who had helped pay for the medical expenses, that Bumi was doing well. I planned to get back to Indonesia as soon as possible.
But in late April, Bumi’s body started to ache, and the severe sakit was back. I missed a call from him on May 7, and I couldn’t get back in touch with him.
On May 16, I woke up to a Facebook post from his wife. The last two lines said, Selemat Jalan, Abi (farewell, safe travels). RIP. Bumi. And now all I can think about is that song, Bumi’s voice ringing loud and true: “What have I become, my sweetest friend. Everyone I know goes away in the end.”
Bumi, I miss you.