The people we carry

First birthday in Nakhon Phanom with Mom, Xang Noy, and his mother

I’m convinced that people who come into your life never truly leave, good or bad.   They become part of your history but, more importantly, you carry them with you.  At the very least, they shape your memories; few of them will shape your opinions and world views.  Fewer still will lead you to the places you are meant to go.  Some of them weigh heavier on your heart than others and stay closer to the forefront of your thoughts.  But they all become part of you.  

Lately I have been feeling a paradigm shift that is difficult to describe.  I don’t know if it’s Mercury approaching retrograde or if the long hours at the office for 12 months straight have gotten to me at last.  With this shift comes gentle reminders from my past.  Don’t forget about us, the voices say.  We haven’t forgotten you.  We have been looking for you.  We love you.

So far, at least, the voices have been friendly.  They finally manifested in the form of my Third Grade teacher and a mother we knew in Nakhon Phanom.  If these things happen in threes, I am still waiting on the third ghost.

Ms. W was not long out of school when she became my third grade teacher.  I don’t remember a whole lot about my life at that point – I honestly don’t even remember much about her.  But I have carried with me her kindness; her joy in teaching; the memory of crab stuffed cherry tomatoes that she shared with our class (it was the first time I had ever tasted anything so refined).  I stapled notebook paper together and wrote her a book about a little girl’s travels around the world.  There were illustrations.  She kept it for a time but I forgot to ask if she still has it.  She tells me I was one of her favorite students and asks if I remember her.  What she doesn’t know is how often I have thought about her and prayed she was well.  I carried her with me through college and grad school and to the other side of the world.  I have often wondered if she would be proud of how I turned out.  If she had been asked to guess, would she picture me where I am now?

The second manifestation called me repeatedly one morning via Facebook.  I was hurrying to get ready for work, irritated that someone would disturb me so early.  She had a name similar to my mother’s so I assumed it was one of those long-lost family members who finally joined social media.  I texted Mom and asked, Do you know this random lady who keeps calling me on Facebook?  She left a phone number for me to call back.  Here – tell her I’m busy.  

In the meantime, this lady sent me pictures of myself.  Pictures she could only have because my mother sent them to her: in particular, my Fifth Grade portrait in which I am wearing a T-shirt with an animal printed on the front and a striped vest.  Who wears that?  It is the type of photo you don’t share on social media (or anywhere) but that your mother is proud of purely because you are her daughter.

The lady also has a photo of my first birthday in Nakhon Phanom.  I am stealing a piece of cake while everyone is posing or singing “Happy Birthday.”

I guess Mom spoke to this lady and while they were talking, she sent a text telling me it is Xang Noy’s (“Little Elephant’s”) mom.  Immediately, I recall a photo of a little boy wearing shorts and a white tank top, belly protruding slightly.  He is smiling but looking at something on the ground.  I have not seem him since refugee camp and I don’t remember him at all but I grew up with his name in my ear.

Xang Noy’s mom was my wet nurse when Mom was too ill to breastfeed me.  That’s how it went with all the mothers of the children born in camp.  They helped each other raise the babies unfortunate enough to fight their way into that unimaginable place.

And then Mom told me Xang Noy is dead.  He was sick since birth (“too many white blood,” according to Mom).  He was my age.  The child of this mother who held me to her breast, sharing life with me, is gone.

I wept.  I sat at my office desk, grateful that my assistant had the day off so that I would not be disturbed, and I wept for Xang Noy’s mother.  I will call her soon so that I can thank her for my life and tell her I am sorry for her loss.  No words can describe how it feels, knowing she is happy to see that I am well but that her own child is gone.  I carry that with me now too.

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