Recently my wife got a call from a cousin of hers in Kratie province alerting her of the impending death of one of her aunts – she is 91 years old. The aunt had asked to see my wife in her final days or even hours. My wife is very close to this aunt as she was one of the major figures in my wife’s early life. My wife is a victim of the Pol Pot era and its aftermath. Her mother left her father for another man – a Khmer Rouge fighter. In those days many people did believe that the Khmer Rouge regime would be better for Cambodia and her mother fell for it. This was shortly before they overthrew the Lon Nol regime; plus this was in the countryside where people by and large are more gullible anyway. My wife’s father got killed by an American bomb that was mistakenly dropped on a Lon Nol army convoy believing it was Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong or even North Vietnamese; her father served as a medic in the army at that time. This aunt along with the grandmother, gone a long time now, then raised my wife until the age of 12 or so. Memories are a little blurry about the exact time.
So naturally she wanted to go and say good-bye to her. We made our way all the way up to Kratie province which is, after all, about 600 km - on Cambodia’s roads at that, although most of them are quite passable now.
When we got there we could observe closely how Cambodians deal with their elderly, which is a stark contrast to how many Western people treat their old parents or grandparents. The aunt lay motionless on a mat; she hadn’t eaten in days and had barely drunk the minimum to keep her alive. She was really frail and emaciated. Her closest relatives kept a constant watch over her. A lay priest came by in the evenings and spoke to her about general Buddhist teachings and old stories from their lives in the village, all the time being ready to call a monk from the nearby pagoda to give her what Catholics would call the last rites. They massaged her with Eucalyptus oil and tried to make as comfortable as possible.
Initially she hardly moved when her daughter told her that we had arrived. But she slowly turned and looked at us with what seemed like unseeing eyes. She appeared really dazed. Her relatives propped her up into a sitting position and we talked to her. When I entered that family almost 20 years ago and visited her from the U. S. at that time, she had taken a real liking to me, kept saying hallo, and good-bye, and started saying ok, and so on - real nice for an old lady. She especially liked hugging which I did from the first time I met her. Cambodians are not in the habit of doing this. So I hugged and held her close and finally, she recognized me and touched my arm feeling whether I was healthy, not just skin and bones like her. We had brought fruit and shredded dried pork, a real favorite of hers. After a while my wife started feeding her and she began to eat to everybody’s surprise. We took pictures of us with our phone and showed it to her which elicited a real smile from her. She appeared to have gotten back a will to live. We reminded her that when we had told her way back of our decision to make our home in Cambodia in a year’s time she said, ‘But I will be dead by then.’ That was 7 or 8 years ago. So we told her the same thing will happen now. She will live to be 100, don’t worry. Just think of the last time you said something like this. She smiled again. We spend a good 3 hours with her that evening and came back the next morning to say good-bye. She was very coherent and it seems she had shaken off that resignation to impending death. In fact, she was quite cheerful when she said bye, bye to us and waved just like she had all the years before when we visited her.
In the meantime a month has passed and she is still alive today. If we don’t see her again, at least we had given her a few happy moments.
|Ohm Im and myself|
|Ohm Im and her daughter Sehm|
|She is eating.|
|The Wat in Sombok|