I don’t believe it was accidental that when I wrote an email to Cambodia, the woman who answered it described herself as a fellow Kansan. I learned of the Wat Opat Children’s Community when I read the book In a Rocket Made of Ice by Gail Gutradt. I was drawn to this place on the other side of the globe and it seemed like another case of serendipity that a Kansan women serving there read my email.
I’d like to introduce you to her and to Wat Opat by featuring her writing as a guest post. Melinda Lies grew up in Colwich, Kansas and has been serving as an unpaid caretaker and administrator to a community of mostly children in Cambodia who have been affected by HIV/AIDS. She blogs regularly about her experiences and I hope you’ll read her moving post about the loss of young Lan Krome below.
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 come”
This 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.