Tika greeted me at the apartment door last evening with pursed lips and a serene expression. ‘Mom—I have some good news and some bad news for you, and we need to talk about it in private.’ She indicated the bedroom, and giving Atey and Puck a little wave, we went off to have our talk. ‘The bad news, Mom, is that there is a boy in our school, Avec, I think he is in the second grade, and, um, he has a sister who was riding on a motorbike without a helmet and she fell off and she died, and I think she was four years old. The good news is my teacher says now she is in heaven with God.’ Tika was eyeing me closely to read my response, as I was watching her to try to discern whether she was nervous or sad or what. My heart fell, because here is my six-year-old telling me what must have been horrifying news circulating through an elementary school this morning. ‘Oh Tika!’ I gave her a hug. ‘I’m so sorry that it happened.’
After a while the boys came home from swim practice on the late bus, and more nervous hinting, then more bits of information surfaced. Avec, an eight-year-old Pakistani from a Christian missionary family had come to live in Phnom Penh with his little sister and parents. He apparently had been the subject of combined sympathy and frightened ostracism at school today while trying to digest bit by bit the total loss of his little sister. And here were my children trying in their own way through secret whispering and detail-mongering, to grasp the death of another child. It occurred to me that, whether his parents had intended or not, Avec is the French word for “with”, and that in my own family, no one child thinks of himself without the poking, tickling, jabbing and comforting presence of his brothers and sister.
Having sent the kids off on the van to school this morning, I sat down with my coffee and laptop to catch up on the news. I scrolled through pictures of the Japanese tsunami damage in Minamisanriku and Rikuzentakata, strewn detritus, plastic bags, plywood and car parts. Whole villages swept up and sucked out to sea, and all the anchored fixtures of families and lives tossed like dry leaves.
I thought of how easily a four-year-old on a motorbike would sail up into the air and fly too like a leaf or a bit of flotsam in a tidal wave. Tika said her class was praying for Avec’s sister, and we should say a prayer too. A small gesture from a shell-shocked kindergarten teacher, no doubt, to try to make sense for the kids out of disturbing news. Walking to work along my usual path today, I passed many more precarious families on motorbikes, toddlers dangling their feet under father’s arm, mothers riding side-saddle with baby, or whole pyramids of eggs and produce balanced from behind. It’s too easy to see all these people as flotsam, as many precariously-balanced lives that the next flood or conflict will toss headfirst into the air, swirl around and scatter in another great helicopter-image of human strife.
But I found myself saying a Hail Mary anyway, because I remembered that Tika had told me that I should, and because it seemed like the least I could do to anchor Avec’s sister—we don’t even know what her name is—to some fixture in our hearts.I realized too that I was flippant in my remarks about my sister last week. She deserves to have a redeeming value, no matter what she does to herself. She is our million-dollar-baby, and when she is tossed into the air, she is brought down gently and tenderly anchored and resuscitated. It’s not fair that other people are yanked up, thrown loose and come down hard, but that’s not anybody’s fault. Maybe a little prayer doesn’t fix the wrong, but it gives somebody gravity who is not, after all, a piece of flotsam.