The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper ~ WB Yeats
The day I met Paula and her family 16 months ago, they were resigned to a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Tears were common at that time and I remember not believing our initial reassurances to her, that there was still hope she could be cured despite what she had been told. You might wonder why doctors and nurses would give a patient false hope. Without any first world resources of even the most basic capacity, her diagnosis was made purely on the basis of medical guesswork. She had since been diagnosed with a second illness (Tuberculosis), which potentially explained her “terminal cancer” of the lining around the intestine, called the mesentery. I have seen mesenteric TB before, in a young man in Australia, who was also diagnosed initially and incorrectly as having terminal, intestinal cancer. In Australia’s robust health system, diagnostic tests eventually gave an accurate diagnosis without any unnecessary interventions and he was treated successfully with anti-TB drugs. Not before he too, had grieved his imminent death for a few weeks until the conclusive test results brought good news. There has been no confirmed good news for Paula, just an evolution of realisation that she appears, despite her chronic state of ill health, not to have terminal cancer. It was memory of the Australian man’s experience which urged me, despite not knowing, to give her as much hope as I could muster from my ambiguous thoughts.
There are tears now too, but today’s tears come from a different place altogether and now they flow as far away as America, where a dozen or more people who have never met Paula are already involved in getting her into the hands of those with the skill to cure her. Until today I’d managed to remain stoic in the face of all Paula-related tears, be it last year’s mourning or this year’s rejoicing. Today however, Paula’s grandfather ambushed me with some dignified and humbling words. A group of her siblings and other extended family were with me in a semi-circle facing Paula on her camp bed. Another translator friend (not Chom, whose long-overdue son finally entered the world late last night) was sitting with us. Tall, quiet and elegant, her grandfather entered the room of their elevated wooden home and sat beside me on a mat on the bamboo slat floor. He lives over the road from Paula, beside the big colourful community mosque, and obviously saw us arrive. After sitting for a few moments he spoke to me serenely as he allowed an occasional tear to swell before blinking it away. He waited for translation at the end of each sentence before continuing on and his words included the following. We have nothing to give you to say thank you. But we give you our hearts. You are not from our country and we do not have the same religion but you help us anyway. We don’t know why you do this for us and we never met anyone like this before. My reply to this was that I have a lucky life and I want to share it with others who don’t have my luck. Nodding recognition of this, he continued. Everyday I go to the mosque five times and five times everyday I talk about you and I ask Allah to give you a long life, good health and good luck. You should have everything you wish for because you are taking my grandaughter to America. The only dry eyes in the room belonged to raucous children. So I finally capitulated to the infectious Paula tears!
After time with The Eye Sisters on Monday, I made a mad overnight dash to Phnom Penh on Tuesday to farewell friends holidaying from Australia. Wednesday was a return mad dash home, on a bus that broke down about halfway up the highway. Hanging around on the roadside, passengers chatted and formed friendships. A young guy who I’d noticed in his seat diagonally across from mine, hoisted himself off the bus with a walking crutch. His left foot hangs loosely at around knee level on a shortened, deformed leg. He works for a company, traveling the country to repair machinery. Keen to speak English with me, we had a friendly chat and swapped numbers so that “when I have spare time I can call you”. Looking for shade, I then joined a mother with her three small daughters under a tree and we had a conversation of sorts, in Khmer. In desperate need of the toilet, I then walked to a nearby restaurant where a lot of fellow passengers were hanging out. Asking in Khmer for the toilet, the server instructed her small daughter to escort me. She led me across a large dust bowl behind the restaurant and into the yard of an elevated wooden house. Near the stairs leading up to the front door, a crowd of men appeared to be playing cards together. They turned in unison to look at me, we chum-reap-suored each other and I was led behind them to the toilet. A typical brick outhouse with squat platform and makeshift bathtub filled with mud-brown river water for “flushing” things away with a plastic pot floating in the water. On my way out, the owner stopped playing cards and escorted me back to his restaurant, speaking in English to ask where I was from, where I was going, apologise for the mud-brown flushwater, etc.
About two hours later I finally arrived home and Paula was already here, lying on her hotel bed, with Mum, 5yo son and 15yo brother. Too embarrassed to be seen in public and too incapacitated to walk far unassisted, she did not leave her room for 48 hours. But she was thrilled to be here. The family had already eaten lunch and announced that the western hotel food was delicious, much to my surprise! Mum did ask if there was any dried fish, which there is not, so the next morning I headed early to Central Market and got the Islamic restaurant to make up five takeaway breakfasts of rice and dried fish which I shared with the family in their room. But they were keen to revert to the hotel food thereafter, much to my amusement, including a hamburger order! We managed to apply online to the US Embassy – a massive rigmarole which took up about ten hours of my time including time with a translator going through a myriad questions relating to intent of travel, then paying the fees and organising all relevant documents, making the appointment, then requesting an expedited appointment for medical emergency, all via required and exacting processes. We took 5yo son for a couple of tuk tuk rides, to organise the fee payments at the bank and get his grandmother’s visa photograph taken, which helped keep a bored child semi-happy, assisted by the acquisition of a new truck at Central Market.
Forty eight hours later it was time to drop them at the morning minivan for the journey home. Paula never eats prior to travel, in order to avoid digestion problems during the journey. This causes her blood sugar to plummet and she becomes very faint. We went by tuk tuk via the photograph shop to have her visa photograph taken. On an empty stomach and weighing 30kg, her mother half-carried her into the shop, a distance of around 15 metres. She sat down, suddenly looked very pale and then glided gracefully to the floor with Mum’s very calm assistance, unconscious. About 20 seconds later she woke in Mum’s arms beaming a smile, eliciting guffaws from everyone looking down anxiously at her! She soon sat up for her photograph and we dropped them at the minivan under assurances she would be fine. My heart sank later in the day when a new website page instructed me that the passport sized visa photograph had to show the ears of the person – both women had their hijabs in place and ears out of sight. This week we have to go through the process again, although this time I’ll arrange it at a time when she has been able to eat.
Two of Paula’s brothers are reportedly very clever and through my time with the family I’ve learned that English school costs $4 per month which the family cannot afford. This week I agreed to sponsor the two to attend private English classes and today’s trip to the community was in order to put this in place for them. Chom was insistent I pay the fees directly so that I can see the school and know the fees have not been redirected. We arrived at their home this morning and the boys changed out of their Islamic long dresses and headgear, into shorts and shirts. We then drove the 8km to the nearest town and found the private English school. Five months of fees for two set me back US$40. What a worthwhile expense, especially for 16yo who keenly speaks to me in single words to show me his enthusiasm to learn my language. Each afternoon 11yo brother will go on the carrier of his older brother’s bike and they will travel the 8km to school for an hour, then make the return trip home. It might require a second bicycle but I will wait til Chom is free to advise me on this. Such small amounts of western money can make such big differences in the lives of people in the poor world. My experience here over the past two years has taught me that sharing the magic magnifies the magic, for myself as much as anyone else. All of us from the wealthy world can enrich our own lives by sharing some of our magic with those less fortunate than ourselves.