Friday, September 17, 2010

And Then He Died

I've been uncharacteristically silent this summer, both in my blog life and my personal life. I went to Southeast Asia for a month between May and June and it was such a deep, life-changing experience that, since then, I've had a hard time finding a voice to articulate this new space in which I have found myself. I wasn't expecting it to change me much. I was expecting an awesome, new experience where I would have the opportunity to see different countries and help some folks. I was expecting to try new food, be challenged in new ways, learn some languages and see exotic plants and animals. I was expecting to become maybe a little more compassionate and less afraid in the world, more comfortable in my own skin, but not much more. I wasn't expecting to have my heart wrenched open to feel so much so fast. I didn't know I could love and trust strangers implicitly. I didn't know I could cry with a grieving mother, with whom I shared no spoken language. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me first introduce you to Kien.

I am not generally a hugger. The reason for this is two-fold. On a superficial level, I am a bit of a germaphobe. I am extremely clean, and when I get too involved with myself, I avoid touching people, because I am afraid of their germs. How silly! On a deeper level though, I avoid physical closeness, because it suggests an intimacy I'm uncomfortable with. With intimacy comes attachment, and that attachment brings inevitable loss.

Before my trip to Southeast Asia, I recognized that my self-imposed isolation hurts myself and deprives the world of love that I do have the power to give. I felt like I was shaken out of a long slumber in February when someone I did not know well hugged me out of the pure joy of living. His heart is so overwhelmed by love of humanity that he hugged me upon meeting me, and it was infectious. Such an unexpected, genuine display of love felt really good and it surprised me. Very simply, it was so good to feel that way, I wanted to make other people feel like that, too. I also knew that much of my travels would be visiting sick and/or orphaned children who desperately need and deserve love. I made a decision the night before I left that during my travels I would hug any person who wanted it, no matter what their state. Jesus was on to something with that whole hugging the lepers business. That decision to reach outside myself and hug turned out to be one of the most transformational, sweet and painful things I've ever done.

My first real taste of touch and compassion came early in my trip while in Vietnam. There, the 100 Friends Project works with a few very impressive organizations and together, we do many great things, not the least of which is sponsoring medical care for children of impoverished families. My boss, our friends and I loaded a taxi van with five giant trash bags worth of stuffed animals, toy cars, and bean cakes and headed down to the children's hospital in Hanoi to visit the children we were sponsoring in the orthopedic surgery ward. It was happy a scene. These kids were all getting their desperately needed surgeries, so there were lots of happy families, lots of smiles, a joyful environment, because these kids they have a really good chance of being totally fine.

My boss meeting a happy dad in the orthopedic surgery ward

Then we went to the pediatric oncology ward, not such a happy place. Every kid was so sweet and every parent was happy to see us and happy to see their kids get toys. Some of them had good prognosises, but most of the cases were not so optimistic. I tried to remain detached, smiling at the babies, fluttering around at a distance with my camera. But then there was one little boy, Kien, who I really connected with and who stole and broke my heart. He was 2 years old with advanced brain cancer. He was a sweet, curious, active and an otherwise normal little kid, good natured and bright. He was in no obvious pain and completely oblivious to his plight. He sat on my lap for at least a half an hour, intensely interested in my camera, and he was tickled to push the big silver button and seeing the pictures appear on the back. That same day, his parents were told that there was nothing more the doctors could do for his cancer, and he was going to die within the month. We all took turns holding him and playing with him, indulging his every whim, kissing his downy hair and crying, because this sweet baby was not going to have many more chances to take pictures or play. It seemed like he could tell everyone was sad and he was actively trying to cheer us up with his silly toddler antics. As he sat on my lap, giggling and babbling away as toddlers do the world over, he entwined his soft little fingers around my hands, fearlessly exploring his world, fully accepting my existence as an entertaining stranger. His poor mother was the same age as me, possibly younger, and I sat with her for a long time, holding her and crying with her. She spoke no English and I speak no Vietnamese, but she held onto me and sobbed. In that moment, there was nothing anyone in the world could do for her but hug her and be kind to her son. I was blessed to be there for her in that moment and be taught the healing power of touch, in territory where language was superfluous.

Kien and his mother

A month or so later, soon after I arrived back in the Bay Area, I received an e-mail from our friends in Hanoi and they told us that yes, Kien had died. There were pictures of him attached to the e-mail documenting how bad the cancer was at the end, but I could never bring myself to look, because I want to always remember the happy little oblivious boy who played with my camera. I still cry every time I think of him, of the unfairness of life, our helplessness in the situation, and how the world is now missing the light of that sweet little boy. But I also cry from comfort in that my life was so blessed by that little guy, even for the extremely brief time I knew him. He changed me. I showered him with what love and affection I could in that moment, even knowing it was going to hurt to leave him. It was the right decision.

Kien and me

I am a quieter person now, a kinder, more understanding person. Part of that was from the experience with Kien (and other experiences on that trip I'll tell you about later). It's very hard, nee impossible, to close my heart again now that it's open. I joke with my husband that, to quote "Anchorman," "I'M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION!" but it's true. I have all these feelings now, these warm feelings for my fellow humans (especially little humans), and I am often struck mute while dealing with them. As I work things out, I will share more of my heart with you, because I like you, and I hope my experiences are interesting to you, too.


  1. My dad sent me this today for my own sadness:
    A gift passed on for you ! <3

    When the mountain touches the valley
    All the clouds are taught to fly
    As our souls will leave this land most peacefully
    Though our minds be filled with questions
    In our hearts we'll understand
    When the river meets the sea

    Like a flower that has blossomed
    In the dry & barren sand
    We are born & born again most gracefully
    Thus the winds of time will take us
    With a sure and steady hand
    When the river meets the sea

    Patience, my brother and patience, my son
    In that sweet and final hour
    Truth and justice will be done

    Like a baby when it is sleeping
    In its loving mother's arms
    What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery
    But his life will find a purpose
    And in time he'll understand
    When the river meets the sea
    When the river meets the almighty sea!!
    These have soothed me in times of sorrow.

  2. What a post. Am I a dork for crying while reading it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I'm with Melissa. Very powerful and moving post Grace. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Lisa: I've always loved that song, thank you for sharing the comfort.

    Melissa: If you're a dork for crying, then so am I. ;)

    Mark: Thanks for stopping by and leaving kind words.



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