I do not have a papa is what I said to 9 year old Srey Po. Her eyes lit up and she looked at me and said “You no papa?” I replied “Melinda, no papa, Melinda ot mien (don't have).” She then said “You have mama?” With thoughts of my mother so far away, I kept up the Khmerlish conversation with “Yes, mien mama, but she sleeps in America”. Srey Po gave me one of her extra large hugs and then thought for a moment and said “Kñom ot mien mama, ot mien papa” (I don't have a mom, don't have a dad) and then turned to face all the other little girls who joined us and remarked, “Melinda ot mien papa, mien mama.” Exchanges of who had a mother (one of them besides me) and who had a father (none of us) were discussed matter-of-factly. Most did not remember (or know) their father and many only have vague memories of a mother.
On the 3rd anniversary of my father’s death, I was surrounded by fatherless children. The day before, Miss Srey Po and I did not share this commonality, you see, her father, her only surviving parent, had died that morning. We had just come from the crematorium where the death ceremony had been performed a mere 7 hours after his body had been transported from the hospital to Wat Opot.
Srey Po, along with her older brother and sister lived at Wat Opot with their father. Mr. Sabon had been up and down for years. A super-thin man who walked around slowly but deliberately feeding the fish in our ponds every morning. He always had a good morning smile for me (with hands up in prayer position) when I would pass him while going to the kitchen for breakfast. Sabon had throat problems and spoke in a gruff whisper. He seemed as though he was carrying a large burden on his small frame…and in a sense he was. Because of his promiscuity, he was the one who brought HIV home to his wife and it had killed her years earlier.
This was my first death experience at Wat Opot and it was painful to watch. The beautiful aspect was that the children took part in the ceremony from beginning to end. From lighting the fire under their father’s body to cleaning the few bone fragments after his ashes had cooled. Everyone there (children and adults alike) had been through this process many times before, but for me it was new. My heart broke as I watched his children. I remembered the experience at my father’s funeral. How life seemed to stop and you go through the motions as if you are not really a part of all of it. During those days It was as if I was watching myself on a television, It was me but not really me…a remote controlled version of me.
Srey Po, Srey Hong and Heang seemed like that to me. They lit the incense, they bowed, they took their place in front of the ashes. They picked through the ash and found bones, they washed them etc, etc. It was sad to watch, but so healthy for them to experience. There is no uncertainty about death here. It’s final. Unlike a casket burial where the person is made up to look their best; during a cremation, there can be no mistake about what is to happen to the body. There can be no misunderstandings for the little ones about the body looking like it’s asleep and will wake up. Cremation is ‘in your face’ final.
Srey Hong the oldest of the three living at Wat Opot (there are 3 more children older than her who do not live here) was visibly upset. She was with her father in the hospital when he died. Usually Heang, her younger brother went with Sabon to care for him in the hospital when he was sick. (note: in Cambodia there is no nursing care in the hospital, a patient must have a family member join them (or hire someone else) to get them food and take care of them during their stay). To my knowledge Srey Hong has never gone. Maybe it was an unsaid thought that he would not make it back this time, or maybe he asked her to come as not to put the possibility of his death on his young son who was the closest to him?
Wat Opot is a little quieter today and Wayne says it usually is after a death. Srey Po gives longer harder hugs, Heang’s smile is absent for the moment, and Srey Hong is even quieter than normal. They are now ‘true orphans’. It will hit them time and again as two of them will now wake up in a dorm room instead of in their father’s house; they will be reminded of their loss as time slowly moves on. Their father will be with them as thoughts of him diminish our time...until one day they wake up and 3 years will have passed.
Wayne wrote a short poem using a photo taken at the cremation which can be viewed by clicking here.