It has been about a year since my friend Fulya passed away. I mentioned her passing briefly in this blog post, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Today I want to take a moment to honor her and to discuss what I have learned about death in Turkey.
Fulya cam from a more prestigious family in Turkey. One would never know this unless you got to know her well. She was calm, level-headed, down-to earth. She did not brag. She was not a snob. I can’t actually say I knew her well, we did not have time for that. But we did have a conversation where she told me quite a bit about her parents and her upbringing. She opened the door for me allowing me into that piece of her private life. I was impressed that she was technically “somebody” in Turkey, but she didn’t wear that on her sleeve. She was a Turkish rarity.
With Turks, it is common to call someone your friend on the very day you first meet them. As an American, it makes me uncomfortable. I know better; relationships take time to grow. However, my friendship with Fulya was just that – love at first sight. Fulya was wordly, smart, and beautiful. She had that certain grace about her. She was elegant, calm, cool, collected. She had a thirst for knowledge. She was open yet reserved. She did not tell others her opinion unless she was asked, not pushy, in some ways (as viewed by a foreigner), not Turkish. But, oh, she was so very Turkish.
Her sudden death occurred about 6 months after my sister’s slow death. It came as a complete shock. We had not seen each other in way too many months as I had taken on a full-time job and took a long time to adjust to that. After my sister died and the job ended, I went through another transition period. I just wasn’t up to seeing friends. Luckily, a very dear mutual friend had let me know Fulya had entered the hospital. I gave her a call and we spoke longer than I expected. I was so excited to hear her voice. She wasn’t accepting visitors at the time, but in my head, I knew I would see her again soon.
Days later, my husband and I had set out on a road trip for our summer vacation. A week at Kaş on the Mediterranean. We were three hours on the road when I got the call. Fulya had passed. It was completely unexpected. We pulled over. I cried and cried. I had no idea. . .
I called a few mutual friends. I had no idea what to do. In my mind, my husband really needed this vacation, although he insisted that he would do whatever I wanted. He was very supportive, but couldn’t tell me what to do. I also called my mother-in-law for her advice. She and most of my friends said the same thing: “I can’t tell you what to do, but you should go on your trip.” Can’t tell me, but tell me! So conflicting. Then I started to ask, “what would you do?” Each said they would come home.
It took a full hour before I decided that Fulya was telling me to go. So that’s what I did. I went on vacation. In those first couple of days, I can’t lie, I enjoyed the scenery and what we were doing. But I also took time to honor Fulya, to talk about her, to toast her life, and to cry. I cried a lot.
As the year passed I learned some things related to death and friendships here in Turkey. I learned that your Turkish friends, like everywhere, may or may not tell you what to do. You have to remind them that as a foreigner, you do not know the Turkish ways. No one likes a funeral. In the U.S., most try to be understanding when someone doesn’t attend. “He had to work.” “There was no one to watch the children.” “They were on vacation.” “He just couldn’t handle it.” Now I know this is not the case in Turkey. You have to go to funerals. I should have turned back. I may be paranoid, but I believe I was judged by some friends for not being at the service. I know they love me, but I think I disappointed some.
I also now know that there are other traditions that follow. For example, some Turks join for prayer one week after the death, some at 40 days. I was back in town, or could have been for that, but no one told me. Perhaps it was because I was not Muslim, but Fulya didn’t care about that. My instinct tells me that it was because I did not come to the service. Now I know to ask about these things.
After my father-in-law’s passing in January, I learned that visiting the family is also a must. Sadly, I did not do that. Although I have at least tried to keep in touch with one of her English-speaking family members.
Finally, I learned that while I feel close to some of the ladies in our group, and really love all of them, I also know that once in a while, I am first and foremost just the foreigner who joined to assist with the English language. I can’t share how I know this, but I do for a fact. Perhaps this sentiment came from the fact that I didn’t go to the funeral, but I doubt it. I believe it is just the nasty side of people that sometimes rears its ugly head. Now I know. Sometimes, I wish I didn’t.
I continue to mourn, to cry out loud every time I think of Fulya. I miss her. She was one of my few true friends here. She taught me so much in such a little time. I need to remember, I was not just a foreigner to her, not someone to use, but someone she loved too. Rest in peace, Ablacığım.
Interesting, I suppose as we in the west often do not have similar traditions to some of those you mentioned when folk we know die, it is easy to overlook how important they are to Turkish people. Is there a web site or blog which deals with such cultural issues and differences? As they clearly play an important part in smoothing the rough edges of daily life.
Thanks Mick. I don’t know if there are websites on this. Probably there is some info out there. I should write a post on what I know…go to the funeral…don’t get dressed up…go visit the family, a lot…don’t send flowers or bring food after the funeral…you may bring food later, but food is usually pide bought by the family for the guests…expect prayer at the home after the funeral…expect men and women to be in separate rooms especially during the prayer…….
Fulya was my mother-in-law and I wish to thank you for writing so touchingly about her and your relationship with her. I can assure you that Fulya liked you a lot. She spoke of you often and it was always warm and positive. Those Friday meetings with you and the other members of the English conversation group were something she really looked forward to and they were an outlet for her passions. In fact, they were probably the only thing she did for herself, yet even here she was going somewhere to help others as her English was so incredibly natural. She was so gifted at not just learning languages but absorbing their essence.
I would also add that you clearly know her character because if you were able to ask her advice about attending her funeral then she would indeed have insisted that you not change your plans.
Fulya loved to talk and be among people, so family gatherings used to be very lively. It was at those times of togetherness that Fulya was at her happiest.
I feel her loss deeply. I am English and married her beautiful daughter Nil in 2004. I was of course nervous about being accepted into the family. I need not have worried. Fulya always accepted people into her life on equal terms. She really made my life easy in Turkey: always there to deal with the bureaucracy and cover for my inability to speak Turkish, and always there to treat me to some of her delicious food and involve me in conversations that were happening in Turkish.
In our cultures, there are disparaging jokes aplenty about mothers-in-law and perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay is saying that none of them could be applied to Fulya: a beautiful woman of class yet with her two feet firmly on the ground.
I am so glad she was a part of my life. She will be forever loved and missed.
Dear Gary, so kind of you to read this post and respond so dearly. I hope we can meet one day soon.
Fulya was obviously a very special lady.
She really was. Thanks.