10 May, 2012

Isn't Life just Peachy!

I feel like I’m on a permanent emotional roller coaster ride, one that takes me up and down, left and right.  This ride tugs at my heart; makes it feel like one moment it’s breaking then the next moment it’s growing larger than life.

Sometimes I want to just get off.  I want to stop the ride and walk away…but that’s for sissies, right?  Someone who just can’t take the turmoil; can’t handle the ride.  “That’s not me.” That’s what I tell myself.  Life isn’t supposed to pass you by; you’re supposed to be 100% part of it.  The good with the bad, the happy with the sad, right?

At this moment, my head is pounding; a major headache is trying to come on, a headache from holding in emotions…being emotionally strong. 

Today I took 10 boys to the market so they could use the money they saved to buy clothes.  Such pure excitement in their faces, Angry Birds t-shirts, a new pair of shorts.  Our little miser, Socheat only bought a pair of shorts, the t-shirts were too expensive for his taste - he would rather let his saving grow.   After the clothes-shopping extravaganza, we went on to buy meditation snacks for the week. 

Normally I bring one or two of the high school kids with me to the market when we need supplies.  When I showed up at the ‘snack shop’ with 10 boys in tow, we soon drew a crowd.  There were ladies pinching cheeks, rustling heads, laughing at the boy’s excitement upon seeing so many choices.  I never see our boys act shy; but at this time most were a little overwhelmed.  I heard “Wat Opot” amongst the adults talking, but didn’t see a change in their attitude.  A sign that maybe, just maybe the past “oh no – AIDS-Wat-Opot kids” is becoming just that - a thing of the past.

One moment I was at Wat Opot feeling sad at the loss of Lan Krome and the absence of Wey (who for the first time, had been with his father for over a week) and the next moment, I was at the market laughing and feeling like my life couldn’t get any better. 

When I came back at Wat Opot and put the snacks away, Wey’s father had brought him back.  His father is trying to be a good man; trying to stay away from drugs; trying to be a good father, or did he find out that Wey is just not old enough to be put to work and earn money for the family… Wey had the normal disoriented look about him, the typical adjustment going from one home to another.  He shyly walked into the cafĂ© and showed me that his father had given him money and he wanted to check out the snacks he could buy.

I wanted to scream with joy and grab him and hug him; but I couldn’t.  I had to let him get used to being back at his Wat Opot home again.  He bought snacks for himself, then for his friends.  He asked me for more of his money, left and came back with a sweet treat for me.  Wey loves his food; especially snacks and is not usually one to share, so I considered his gesture of giving food to all of us his version of a hug and I for one, accepted it whole-heartedly.

01 May, 2012

Lan Krome - 2002 - 2012

Little Lan Krome no longer has a physical presence at Wat Opot; although his spirit and memory will always be here.  His photo will soon take its place on the wall of the Family Room next to Mr. Sabon's. Lan Krome is currently the last in a long line of lives which were taken too soon; taken from the large extended Wat Opot family because of AIDS.

Lan Krome is not his given name, instead a 'nick name' of sorts that stuck.  When he first came to Wat Opot as a small child in 2006, he did not want to be here.  A bus had brought him, his mother, brother, and sister to this strange new place and when his mother left for a spell, he cried all the time to go back.  He cried out over and over for the bus to bring him back to the home he knew.  The name bus in Khmer is lan krome, so little Jon Sochea became known to all as Lan Krome and his little brother, Jon Socheat soon became known at Lan Touri - the Khmer word for a mini bus (or van).

As children do in a foreign situation, Lan Krome eventually settled into the routine at WOCC with the added advantage of having his siblings and mother always close by.  HIs mother is employed by Wat Opot as a cook and feeds over 75 children, resident adults, staff and volunteers daily.  Lan Krome was a sickly infant and then child but he always bounced back.  In early 2011, he developed TB  and nearly died, but recovered and was back to being one of the top students in his 4th grade class as well as resuming his status as a mischievous little guy.  He was pretty thin and seemingly frail, so it was always with disbelief when someone would cry out "Melinda, Lan Krome 'boxing' me".  I would glance at the slyly grinning Krome and have to grin back; he knew he always had the upper hand because not many would 'box' back.   The teddy bear photo was taken only a few short months ago on New Years Eve, 2011.

When he wasn't well, Lan Krome could be found laying in a bed in the kitchen where his mother could keep an eye on him.  He would move from the bed to the cool tile when it was hot.  In early February this year, he started getting sick again and had very bad stomach problems.  He was taken to the hospital where they assumed there was scarring in his intestines due to the TB last year.  That problem was supposedly taken care of, but then they found another problem which no one seemed to be able to translate to English, but we were told it was with his brain and that they had given him 'brain medicine'.  Cambodian hospitals are not the most equipped nor are they the necessarily the best place to go when you are sick.

A couple of weeks ago, Lan Krome was brought home with his sister (who was in the same hospital because of a broken arm).  We were told there was nothing the hospital could do for him and that they didn't know what was wrong.  He had wasted away to practically nothing; but he had done this before and came back to his former self.  This time, though he didn't seem to be recovering, he could barely make it to the kitchen to rest while his mother worked.  Lan Krome was 10 years old, but was now as light as a toddler.  He had lost his toothy smile, he didn't respond much either.  You could see he was still there in his head, but his body just was not fit to move and sometimes his eyes just looked dark.  Still, he had come 'back from near death' before…no reason to believe he wouldn't this time as well. 

This photo was taken of him as he rested on the cool tile floor, three days before he died.

At 3:00 in the morning on April 26th, Wayne knocked on my door and said that Lan Krome was dying.  I jumped up and quickly dressed and then thought "Do I want to go?"  My first response to that question directed at myself was "No, I do not" but then I had to ask myself why.  I was able to be in Kansas a year ago when my 95 year old grandmother died peacefully in her home.  I know life gives you challenges and you either learn from them or you don't...so I prepared to find out how I would emotionally deal with this child's death.  I knew a little what to expect from the natural death process.  How the breathing changes, how the body reacts.

When I walked into Lan Krome's home, Wayne was sitting on the hard floor holding one of his tiny hands, while his mother held the other.  His siblings were sleeping in the bed next to them.  I sat down and just watched and waited.  I saw Wayne as others before me have seen him; gently rubbing the hand of a person while gazing into their dying eyes.  Patiently waiting for that last breath.  Wayne commented on the Watopotian, Brang Chhang's death saying  "We sat there quietly waiting for what none of us wanted...but all of us knew would comeThis is how it was for Lan Krome as well.  As he laid on the floor surrounded by his toy cars and other personal belongings, the residents of Wat Opot stopped in. The children sat and watched for a bit before they were chased off to school; for all this was not their first experience - I was the exception.

At 7:00am Lan Krome took his final breath - even though I knew it was going to happen, nothing can prepare you for the finality of that.  The waiting to see if another would come, the thought that he would start to breath normal and would get better.  The next breath didn't come and as his mother quietly sobbed and said her last goodbye's, Wayne began to prepare the body for the cremation service which would happen later that morning.

The crematorium on the Wat Opot property is made up of 3 rooms, the first is a place to hold the body for viewing, the middle houses the crematory and the third is the family room where Wayne holds nightly prayer for those who have left this world.  The children feel comfortable in the room and can name most of the deceased.  They are happy to show you their parent(s) photo, or the parent of one of their friends, or one of the babies' photos.

Some staff prepared the bamboo mat which would hold the body in the crematory as Wayne carried Lan Crong to the viewing room, as always, surrounded by the children in his care.

As in other ceremonies, the addition of flowers seem to beautify the occasion.  The little ones who were not yet in school were anxious to help me and one of our child care staff, pick them.  We have been trying to grow lotus flowers for awhile and once they finally started to bloom, strict instructions - DO NOT PICK THE BEAUTIFUL LOTUS were put into place.  For Lan Crong we made an exception and the little ones happily waded in and plucked the biggest one.

Lan Touri helped pick some beautiful white ones for his brother, Lan Krome, who was soon decorated.

The Monks from the adjacent Buddhist temple came and prayed over the body and while we waited for "the old man" to come (some kind of elder that's higher than the monks) the children watched over the body.  Srey Po and Heang, who had lost their father a few months before were more comfortable this time as they joined the others in looking, touching and rearranging the flowers or feeling the toy car under the sheet that was wrapped around his small body.

There was good natured chatting and joking about that toy car, but also mental processing what was happening.

Finally "the old man" arrived and started the service by pinning a emblem on cloth.  On the emblem was written Lan Krome's name along with other family members who have passed before him.  A first-class ticket to his next life so to speak, so he will know who to call upon when he arrives.  He then administered blessings and Lan Krome's body was placed on the bamboo mat and then into the crematory.

Some people harden their hearts when tragedy strikes; Wayne's heart only grows larger, which has to make the pain all the worse.  

Some family members and I had just discussed about how having a compassionate heart is a blessing and also a curse.  As Wayne gently slides yet one more body into the crematory, his signature black Wat Opot shirt says it all.

Dear Lan Krome, you little goofball,

You have joined all the others who are forever in my heart.

Love always,  Melinda

Please click HERE to view a video made by Wayne for Mr. Lan Krome.