Jul/Aug 2012 Travel


by Anna Spencer

San taught me how to make Khmer fish patties and rice cakes.

Whenever there was a celebration in her family's province, all the villagers would come and we would dance in dusty circles beside an old, massive, booming sound system. San would appear in her traditional Khmer outfit, wonderfully mismatched with her "dancing hat": a fake diamond encrusted baseball cap.

When it had rained during a Khmer New Year festival and the mud path was a river, we linked arms and waded through it back to their wooden family house, giggling when we slipped.

The next year she stayed at our home in Phnom Penh, as we tried to get her properly diagnosed. For two weeks she happily ate the Khmer dishes I nervously prepared for lunch. Cooking Khmer food for the head of a family of 11 was a daunting prospect for me. But when I went out later, I would find her by the pans in the kitchen devouring the leftovers of my meal and I would cycle back to work shining with pride.

The family was living in shifts at Calmette hospital for nearly two months. Her decline was fast, but her life in the hospital was steady. What kind of life though? was the focus of the debate amongst the family. In Khmer culture, the importance of dying at home amongst the chants of monks was huge.

When I visited her, I swallowed fear at the normality of death that surrounded us. Her eyes and hands knew me, but later her eyes were closed.

One night she was in agony.

Makara pressed cold towels on every part of her body that she pointed to. Her eyes were wide, and they looked around, but I wasn't sure if she could see anything. Makara spoke softly and calmly to her. She held her hands in prayer. I felt such guilty terror of her dying and such amazement at Makara and his steady kindness. Later I pressed my hand to his triangular face. Every day he would work a bar shift from five until 11 and go to the hospital for the rest of the night. San improved after that night and needed less oxygen for a few days.

But one morning Makara texted me as I was teaching a grade three class.

"Me and my siblings decide to take my mum home now. I so sorry."

I knew what this meant. It was a Friday. They would make sure she would have enough oxygen to cross the flooded river back to their province.

My mobile rang that lunch time as I stood in our house, buttoning my shirt to go back to work for the afternoon. The words travelled from his province to the city, the line crackling, his voice faltering. My heart clenched. The sentence came.

"The oxygen finished. Slab hauy, she gone now."

San, the petite but strong, betel nut-chewing head of the family of nine boys and two girls who had embraced me with such a huge force from such frail arms every time I had seen her over the past two years, was gone. Makara's mother was gone.

Makara and his brothers returned on the Sunday. We all sat together on the balcony. Bona, one of the younger brothers, asked if I wanted to see them burn his mum in their slashed banana trees. He had it recorded on his phone. I thought No... please, but Makara said no for me. I am such a coward.

The worst thing was that because of the terrible flooding, not many monks had been able to reach their home to chant prayers for the passing on of her life.

Two weeks later when the water had subsided a little, I was there with the family, listening to the snap of playing cards on their bamboo porch. We had finished our fish and rice and left some in a little bowel next to a picture of San. Makara's father lit incense and put it there, with the food.

Makara's eyes were fixed on his neighbor's house opposite as he quietly spoke his anger.

"The neighbors gossip behind my family's back. I asked them the price of the boat, and they said 'Up to you.' I gave them 5,000 riel, and now they are gossiping because they think she died in their boat so I should pay extra to cover for the bad luck of the person dying on their boat. But there was oxygen still enough till she came here, and it finished here, and she died here, in our home."

As he and his family played cards and spoke quickly, I lay alongside them in a hammock. My mind outstretched to the hammock breeze as I tried to weave their quick Khmer words into complete understanding, missing stitches as always.

The next morning we waded in hot mud and fished in flood water amongst giant dragon flies. Then we covered our heads and necks with t-shirts to keep cool as the small wooden boat crossed the fattened river under the midday sun. Makara's eyes shone and expanded. For the past two weeks I had watched him while he had tried to sleep or vomit, neither of which he had done with much success.

After we crossed the river we picked up his motorbike from a family that lived on the side of the road.

Heading back to the city, we stopped halfway and drank iced sugar cane juice at the road side. I watched the metal wheel turn to smash the cane. Makara slipped behind a tree to pee, and I heard him wretch. My heart became a knot in my throat, and I tried to swallow it down with gulps of the sweet iced sugar cane.

Then we travelled back to our cold tiles and ceiling fan, leaving behind the flood water on its apologetic but defiant retreat. I wondered how long the mud would cake Makara's family's slashed banana trees.


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