Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bookends: Belatedly, the end of an adventure

Where are the bookends of this great adventure? Where is the summing-up? Months have passed since the boxing-up and hugging, and airport schlepping, and giddy-kissing Daddy at Dulles. Hundred of new tasks and plans and routines have come in between. The old sticky notes and last impressions got stuffed into the back of a folder behind the 2012 school directory and just made their way out today.
So reader, I guess you deserve an ending to this story, even a belated one. School had ended in Phnom Penh, the slow, dreary days of summer had overtaken the kids and Atey made daily trips to the Himawari Hotel pool, the historical museum, the bakery, and any other shady place that got them out of the apartment. The days were counting down, and new excitement—at least for our family—was on the horizon.
Atey was anxious about her future, but confident in my ability to string together her next job. Each day I came home with more printed emails and forwarded text messages seeking nanny or housekeeper. Each interview I coordinated for her, marked the location on our big Phnom Penh city map spread out on the kitchen table, and coached her on selling herself. A bit of a stretch for the shy college girl who so often shrunk below her shoulders at the suggestion of a new task and said, “I don’t know—I so scared!”. Atey’s last day was bittersweet, with a lot of tears and hugs, and strapping onto her new motorbike all the household goods we had bought that we would leave behind. Our last hour was spent in a three-way skype call with a State Department lady and her kids who were boxing-up in Eastern Europe, meeting Atey, meeting our kids, and setting up work plans and a bridge-payment to lock-in Atey as their future nanny. A funny meeting and departure. Atey was thrilled at the magic I could work with laptop, camera, and a bit of online networking.
Tika wanted more than anything to see her kindergarten buddy, Joy, one last time. The two had been BFFs on the playground, allies on the swings staking their claim against the boys who rushed around to push them off. She needed some kind of goodbye, but we had no address directory, only a crayoned telephone number I could barely read. We made a few attempts, and finally got a friendly voice on the other end. Tika held the phone to her ear, and Joy said hello. She smiled and breathed heavily into the phone. ‘Tika—she’s not going to know it’s you.’ …’Hi’, she finally managed to say. I coached the goodbye out of Tika. It was an awkward goodbye.
Yoshi and Puck live in the moment. They had been canon-balling into the pool, hanging their arms and legs out of tuk-tuks, and mimicking the singsong call of the egg vendor outside the apartment. Each day in Phnom Penh offered something to touch, something to laugh about. Our last evening, I took them all out to the big city playground by the Ministry of Religion to burn off steam before the long flights. Yoshi and Puck flew around the equipment, racing past smaller kids up ropes and through tubes, panting and chasing and drinking the last drop out of our fun. Playgrounds in Phnom Penh are best after sundown, when all the working families come out to play, the equipment doesn’t burn your bottom anymore, and—to an American—it feels mysterious and wonderful. The kids were pink steamy dumplings packed back into the tuk-tuk going home.
Ernest helps me fold each shirt self-consciously moving toward departure. He has finally finished his first grown-up book, Survival in the Killing Fields, and eyes each tree and cobblestone in the city with long, penetrating glances. He understands things like they really are, he doesn’t need the kiddie version of facts anymore. Now he is looking out around him from the tuk-tuk heading back to the apartment for the last time. He wants to absorb every moment in his mental catalogue.
I was in the same frame of mind this morning, walking the now-familiar route to the office for the last time. Two buildings away from ours a mid-rise apartment building has just been completed, and workers are putting in the last paving tiles in the ground floor parking area. As I walked past the open gates, a well-dressed older man sat on a plastic chair halfway into the sidewalk, surrounded by small bowls of fruit and burning incense. With motos buzzing past, stray dogs scampering around, the persistent smell of garbage, and the familiar mother-baby team of trash-pickers walking by, he sat, focused on his task. Before him was a large pot with low flames inside. Into his pot he was slowly dropping sheets of gold paper. Undeterred by noise and stink and everyday hustle, he kept to his task. I’ve learned enough about Asian sensibilities to figure out that he was blessing this new building and putting the new apartment business into spiritual order. And I mulled it over the whole way to work.
It’s an idea that’s crossed my mind once in a while after a really trying night with the kids, feeling worn down, feeling like the house is only clean after everyone has gone to sleep, and wrecked the moment they get up. My impressions and notes about this little adventure are equally disjointed, little bits put down from time to time in between our daily chaos.
But I keep the image of the purposeful man in my mind. The world keeps right on driving, pedaling, begging, honking and wailing around him. But he picked the time and positioned his chair where he thought God would be listening. He arranged the bowls in a makeshift altar where he sat, and started right there on the sidewalk a conversation with God.

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