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.
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.