This story starts a few weeks ago, when Saury, one of our team members I have worked with for the past few months, rushed to the hospital with her mom.
A lot gets lost in translation, but I was told Saury’s mother had “blood in her brain”. An aneurysm? A stroke? I’m not sure, but bottom line is the hospital sent her mother home to die. Nothing else could be done, they said.
Last Monday we went to Saury’s house to see her and her mom. Her mother appeared comatose. They had moved her bed frame outside into the shade with a few fans blowing on her. There was no mattress, just the wooden frame and a few pillows. Her mother couldn’t eat, drink, talk, blink, move. Nothing. All that moved was her chest and stomach as she seemed to be gasping for air. An oxygen tank was propped against the side of the house in the dirt, with a plastic hose running to her nostrils. An IV in her arm ran up to a bag of liquid hanging from the rafters above her head. Neighbors had gathered and were sitting around in plastic chairs, clucking and softly talking. Saury’s aunt sat on the bed, adjusting the pillows every few moments and swatting away mosquitoes or the scrawny chickens that were running around in the dirt and would sometimes hop onto the bed frame.
We had come to pray. The team looked at me to lead. I wish I could accurately describe what it felt like to look at this dying woman and then be expected to lead in prayer. For what? A miracle? A peaceful departure? What could one possibly say under these circumstances? As horrible as it sounds, I was thinking- why me? Why was I the one here, the one they were looking to? Why couldn’t it have been some giant of the faith, a spiritual leader, a guru, or at least a trained chaplain? What could I possibly say as we watched this woman’s chest heaving for air while her sister waved the scrawny chickens off the bed and back into the dirt?
I prayed. I felt guilty. I felt incompetent. Prayer was the only thing I could offer, and to be perfectly honest, it felt weak.
A week later, and we got the call that Saury’s mother had passed away.
We were invited to her cremation this morning. I spent last night heart broken for Saury and googling what is appropriate for Cambodian funerals. If praying for a dying woman made me feel out of my element, going to a rural Cambodian cremation ceremony made me feel even more so.
We drove up to the dirt road leading to Saury’s house this morning. It had rained heavily the night before, and the mud was still drying. Hundreds of people were already there, the majority wearing some kind of white clothes. High school children were there, with black pants and skirts and white button ups. They were part of the procession.
We walked through the crowd of white shirts and white scarves to the house. The bed frame was still outside, but empty and pushed against the wall. A tent had been erected next to the house, circus rainbow colors on top and mats in a myriad of colors underneath for the family to kneel and pray on. There was the wooden coffin, flowers, and Buddhist priests chanting. The crowd milled about. All the children held sticks of incense in their hands, not yet lit. The sticks were bound together with a small bill of money and even two or three pieces of candy. Older people sat in chairs, little children played with their incense sticks.
I saw Saury. She was dressed all in white, with a white veil over her head, a bit like what you see in the painting of the Virgin Mary. Her mother was dead. You could feel the sadness radiating off of her. She seemed dazed, and never took her eyes off the coffin.
There were prayers, and flowers were passed around to the crowd as they lifted the coffin onto a pavilion of sorts. The procession began, with the students in front, then the pavilion being rolled down the road, and the crowd behind. Flowers and fake money were dropped along the road as the procession made its way down the main road to the Buddhist temple one kilometer away. We walked slowly. Mostly quietly, but there was still chatter from the large crowd as we made our way down the road.
We walked through an ornate gate into the courtyard of the Buddhist temple. The temple had a small cremation oven next to the main temple, with a tall smoke tower reaching into the sky. The family circled the crematorium several times, and then they opened the coffin for the family and the crowd to say their last goodbyes.
I stood with my other team members and watched. Almost everyone on the team had grown up together since childhood. They had tears in their eyes as they watched the final goodbyes.
I stood next to one of the other girls on the team. Her own mother had passed away just a few years ago when she was a senior in high school. As she watched her friend’s mother’s body be placed in the crematorium, all of her own memories came flooding back. All I could do was hug her.
As the body was put in, Saury walked a few paces away from the building. She was shaking but crying silently. She had taken off the white skirt and white veil from the ceremony, and was now just a girl who had lost her mom. Two of the other girls from the team went to comfort her.
I’m not writing this story for the sensation of it, or even just as a look into culture. I’m writing it because sometimes you just have to write things down when you don’t know what else to do or say.
I don’t know when, or if, Saury will come back to be a part of the team. I don’t know what comes next in the grieving process here, or what expectations from the culture or the family will be on her shoulders.
Whatever happens, if you’re reading this, send up a prayer for Saury. She could use it.