Once again I have neglected my duties to provide up to date posts on what has been happening over here. It is a pity that this current post is not an upbeat topic, but so goes life, as I have learned recently. Last night a terrible thing happened. Dealing with it has been rough, but as I was about to walk up my stairs right now, I felt the sudden urge to express my current thoughts in a permanent way with the hope of honoring the dead, but also to help with my current mental state.
What is happening?
How did this happen?
Why is this happening?
Why did this happen?
Those four questions have been shooting around my head for the past twelve hours. Here is an account of what happened. Keep in mind that I have had only a few hours of sleep followed by a few beers.
A couple of days ago, my good friend Juan found out that his mother had only a short time to live. Juan dealt with this news in Juan’s way, by heading out to the bar and getting plastered. Unfortunately he chose to drive his motorcycle. The next morning he woke up in the local hospital (a grim place from many accounts) with significant abrasions on his legs, a concussion, and a possible broken rib. He was discharged from the hospital and went back to his bar, the Lazy Gecko, and numbed his pain with Dicoden.
Juan and Pooja’s brother are best friends, so Juan is ore or less a big brother to Pooja, and the two have known each other for years. Pooja went in and saw that he was a mess, but due to Juan’s stubbornness and a lack of forcefulness on our part, he did not go to a ospital or clinic. Last night at around 11 pm, Omry (who has been taking care of him) told us that he wanted to get Juan evacuated to Bangkok in the morning. Pooja and I went home and had an ominous discussion about past experiences involving Juan.
My life I would say has been pretty easy compared with a lot of people. I grew up in a middle-class household, attended a top-notch university, and haven’t experienced significant anguish in my days. When I look around at the local population here in Phnom Penh, this notion resonates even more. I am not an Atjai person (someone who digs in trash piles looking for recyclables) or a landmine-maimed amputee begging on the street. I have also not had to see my spouse and 13 of my family members die because of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, as one of my students has. I have also never gone hungry, as millions do every day around the globe. No my life has been relatively drama-free, and I consider myself to be fortunate. But life is life, and so is death.
I went to bed because I was planning on waking up early. Pooja woke me up a few hours later urging me to get up and to go to the Gecko now. I eventually realized what was happening and hopped on a moto. I knew in the back of my mind what had already happened.
My moto stopped in front of the Gecko, occupied by a dozen police officers and the local staff. I walked past everyone up the stairs. James approached me and said “Juan is dead”. I saw him laying there in his bed, with Omry above him trying to check for a pulse. Things turned surreal. I went into shock and sat down on the floor next to Pooja. All she kept saying was that Juan hadn’t played her song yet, so he couldn’t leave her yet. Omry continued to do what he could do, I moved in to try and help.
We tried to perform CPR (though none of us were too knowledgeable in this) and manipulate him so that the liquid in his throat would drain. Manipulating him on the bed was unexplainable. This thing I was manipulating looked like Juan, it felt like Juan, but somehow it wasn’t. I kept expecting him to wake up, to smile, to do something. Before I got there, a Khmer doctor had already declared him dead. But we didn’t give up hope, so we carried his body downstairs (to the strong objections of the local police) and hailed a car to take him to the SOS clinic (western run evacuation clinic). From my basic wilderness first-aid course I took before senior year of college, I remembered my instructor telling us that rarely can people be revived after 30 minutes. At this point he must have been without pulse for nearly two hours. But there is no harm in trying, right? Maybe I have seen a few too many movies and TV shows where once they shock the patient with a deliberator and give them a shot of adrenaline, they come back to life.
I think that is the first time that I have been in shock. Something I have never experienced before. I didn’t like it. Its almost like a dream you expect to end, then doesn’t. I sat on the steps outside the clinic, underneath a cool December full moon and stared at the side of the SOS van. The SOS logo looks a lot like the AT&T logo I thought.
But carrying his lifeless body down the stairs… man that was weird. I almost thought he was just passed out after a heavy night of boozing. We are not sure of the exact cause of death. The embassy is contacting Juan’s sister (next of kin) who can authorize an autopsy. We suspect that he had significant internal bleeding and/or suffered from a brain hemorrhage. We will see, but any knowledge is of little use now. Calmette Hospital, where he was initially taken, obviously didn’t do a thorough enough exam. This just reinforces the perception of the local hospitals. If you are seriously injured in a place like Cambodia, fuck it and go straight to Bangkok where hospitals of international standards exist.
What to do now? Well the business of sorting out everything will most likely be dramatic, confusing, and painful. Hopefully the ideal situation of the Gecko resuming business with a portion or all of the profits going to the JCA orphanage will happen.
I don’t want to get to deep into the discussion of possibilities and what ifs. The point is that he is gone. This is the first time that I have had to deal with death in such a manner. My grandmother died about 5 years ago, but she died of cancer. My second cousin Jimmy died about two years ago. He was the same age as me, though I had only seen him at a couple family reunions over my lifetime. His departure was sudden and tragic, but I wouldn’t say that I was close to him or really knew him. At that time, I remember my grandfather saying something along the lines of “this really sucks”. Well this really sucks too. I am not sure how else to put it.
I have known Juan since I arrived in Cambodia. Though the two of us never became close, we were friends and saw each other on an almost daily basis. At only 30 years old, he was still in the prime of his life. Again I still can’t believe that this all just happened.
By writing this, I am not looking for sympathy. It is just something that I needed to do. I apologize for the depressing story. On Tuesday I will meet my sister in Bangkok. It will be the first time that I have seen her in 1 1/2 years. I am really looking forward to it.
Merry Christmas everyone, and I hope your holiday season is filled with joy. Best wishes for the New Year. Hope to see you all soon.
PS. Whenever we hung out at the Rock and Roll bar, Juan would always request “Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young. I think he liked it because he was originally from El Salvador. Or maybe he just liked the song. Here are the lyrics for those of you unfamiliar with the tune.
“Cortez The Killer”
He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun.
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
With the secrets of the worlds.
And his subjects
gathered ’round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see.
And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood
straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.
Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.
They carried them
to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up
with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.
And I know she’s living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can’t remember when
Or how I lost my way.
He came dancing across the water
What a killer.