“Mum, I now start writing!” I said to my mum one evening.
She didn’t look surprised but a tiny smile flickered across her face. She continued cooking on the floor of our small kitchen space. I know she has a lot of stories to tell but she has not given the chance. She had tried to tell me some many times before but I was not interested or busy then. This time I decided to put my computer, my mobile, and Facebook aside. I sat beside her. And again I asked her if she had stories to tell me, which I can record and convey to others.
This time, she looked up at me. She continued her cooking while I started helping her with the vegetables. We paused for about ten minutes in companionable silence before she continued. I somehow found this a little strange, because we almost never pause during our conversations.
On her chopping block, as round as a car’s wheel, she chopped garlic to make a fried morning glory with oyster sauce, one of my favorite dishes. She was still and quiet, as if I had just told her a bad story. Somehow, I felt uneasy because I was not sure what her response would be. I was thinking of what to say next. At the time, I wondered if she felt disappointed that I wanted to keep writing.
In Cambodia, though literature was prevalent on the land a hundred years ago, being a writer now is not cool. Many writers are heartbroken due to their struggle for survival from their craft. When finally published, the very next morning we find our books are available at bookstores we have never made contact with before. It is really a heartbreaking atmosphere as widespread piracy takes away our pride as Khmer literature preservers, the words we sometimes use to describe ourselves. Her sadness was perhaps the thought that I will waste my time writing books which will just again end up being illegally copied and sold on my behalf, books from which I would gain no benefit. It was perhaps because of this that she did not want me to spend so much of my time and energy doing something many Cambodians do not value.
I was still sitting next to mum when she finished her fry. It smelled so good that I didn’t want to wait until 7pm to have the family dinner as we usually have. To my relief, mum started to talk to me without looking at me.
“I want you to write about the night I hugged your grandfather, thirty-seven years ago”, she finally said.
“Yes. Why not, mum? Tell me more about it.”
At that moment, I felt selfish. She used to mention how she missed her father a few time before but I hadn’t paid much attention or listened to her, or ask her questions, or even try to understand her. I felt as if I wanted to stop the conversation again but was determined to listen attentively this time.
“It happened in 1978.”
She told the story slowly, in short brief words, and step by step as if she wanted to draw the whole vivid picture of her story. I tried to draw the picture according the way she explained it. As I minus 1978 from her date of birth, I figured she must have been probably in her teenage years. The year 1978 was the third year of the Khmer Rouge. I didn’t take notes of what she told me as I thought that I would remember it all. I considered this time, when she was talking and I was listening, to be a special moment between a daughter who was born soon after the genocide and a mother, who had been through the regime.
Since this story was going to be about the Khmer Rouge, I suddenly remembered my friend telling how she has overdosed on the Khmer Rouge story. She did not discourage me from writing stories about it, but what she suggested was there are so many stories which have been written about this grim period already. I thought to myself that I had to write each as she was telling me, because if I do not write my mother’s memories I feel she still has to keep them inside, buried in sadness and guilt, and carried silently for the rest of her life. So, I must.
Since I used to visit my birth village when I was young, it was not difficult to paint a picture in my mind through her telling. “Your grandfather divorced your grandma before the KR” was how she started the story. She sometimes switched between ‘your grandfather’, then refer to herself as ‘me’, and sometimes just only “father”.
“During the regime, the two families lived just about 100 meters away from a local Buddhist pagoda called Sbov Reak. I had seen my father about three times between 1975 till the night I saw him in 1978.
She told me how she secretly escaped from her strict working site to secretly watch him repair ox carts with his co-laborers. I was also told that he was broadly built, tall and quite handsome, with light skin. He had curly hair, big eyes, and thick eyebrows. He used to study at the pagoda school and even got some certificates proving his attendance.
It was three kilometers from her working camp to Sbov Reak village where he worked and lived with his second wife and two daughters. She remembered there were coconut and palm trees nearby the pagoda, and she had to cross a huge rice field and villages before getting there.
“It took me about an hour each time to walk, just to watch him silently” she continued.
It was exceptionally difficult for me to understand how she must have felt at that time when I heard how she watched him without his knowing. How difficult it must have been, I could not breath I had to admit at some moments in the telling. I could not help but ask why she didn’t let him know. She continued.
“I was confused about whether to hate him or love him, as he’d left my mother to live with another woman during the most difficult times. It was also to save our lives.” She said this quite firmly before carrying on with her story.
“As I watched him in silence, I learnt to appreciate him and love him, just like all children love their fathers.
I was still confused. I had no words to describe what must have been going on in her mind. It was a quiet evening. That allowed us to sit and talk freely. My mother took a long breath before her next story.
“I had a weird dream. An old clergyman in white attire appeared to me. He told me that there was the only one who could save your grandfather’s life. Since the dream, I lost all of my appetite. Despite having had very little to eat before that, I could not eat for many days. I decided to tell my younger sister. We made a plan to visit him openly. I really did not know what I was going do, but just thought I would go and just be there with him.”
“While we were waiting for him, we saw him walking home. He looked calm. Very calm.
She went on to tell how they managed to have some food with her sister, two half- sisters, step mother, then her father in the middle of their dining mat. Usually, whenever she and her sister came, the step-mother and the two half-sisters had to leave and stay at somebody else’s hut to leave the space for them both to spend the night with their father, as their cottage could not accommodate two more people.
“I slept on the right side with your aunt on his left. We, who were 17 and 15 at the time, both hugged him as if there was no tomorrow. I didn’t want tomorrow to come.
His chest, as she recalled, smelled and felt the best though she knew that they hadn’t had soap or clean water for bathing for a long time. She hugged him as if she was a four year old who never wanted to let her daddy go. At some time, my grandfather talked some of his very few words to them. “Hug me, girls! I do not know when I will meet you again.”
She could remember the rain dropping from their poor little cottage. Besides this story, she even told me about how she had to sleep with only a ‘personal’ plate on her face to cover herself from the rain. The sound it made ‘Toak, toak…” was very bittersweet and yet she still slept very deeply due to the fatigue of working a whole day unrestes and eating little. She still remembered how she and her young sister slept on each side of him, taking turns hugging him. If he turned to her sister, she would hug him from behind. It was an ominous feeling for them to be there sharing such a wonderful and unexpected time together.
A few month later, she was told that her father was taken away by Khmer rouge soldiers. Neighbors told her how they walked him away tying his hands to the back, to about two kilometers away, no intervention, no reasons, no trial, nothing. Whenever the soldiers arrested someone, people in the village knew. Then news started to secretly circulate from one to another. That was the only way they could communicate news.
She came afterwards from to one person and another to ask them if they knew any traces of him. What she was told was that he had already died. She could not eat or sleep for three days wondering what if and how she could have saved his life. How could she have done it? She used to ask herself this a lot. What if she had found him and risked her life to run away with him? Would the soldiers have shot them from behind? Could she have saved his life?
Though I decided to write this story, I still could not understand how deeply she still feels regret about not being able to save him from the Khmer Rouge. I decided it was time to reassure her. I must.
“Mum, that was not your fault” My tears almost poured out with my words because I felt a deep guilt until my heart ached for not be able to understand what she had felt. I could not, even though I had tried a thousand times. She was still calm all the time but I did not know what was felt behind the mask. She continued to tell her story.
“I did not know what to do that time since they told me that he had already died. If you ask where he died, I can’t answer; I do not know. If you ask me how he died, I do not know. I have no answers. There was someone who told me that they saw the soldiers shoot him in the head just in front of a shallow pond. That person was in a palm tree from where he could secretly see the murder. He later told me this, maybe months afterwards. What could I do?”
“You could do nothing, mum!” I said, feeling completely helpless.
“You are very brave raising us, despite your challenges and the childhood and young experiences you had been through”.
Before we could continue talking together at this precious time, it was time for dinner. We stopped the story here, but for sure we will continue to just sit and talk again. The moment dinner was finished, I felt truly inspired to get up and write an English poem, which I called “The Last Hug”.
We hugged him, my younger sister and I,
We knew something was going to happen.
We hugged him so tight that he couldn’t move,
We guessed life wasn’t that smooth.
We didn’t talk but we communicated –
My voice cried “Don’t go, Daddy – please stay!”
He said nothing but our hearts prayed.
His inner voice said, “Hug me as much as you can”.
We didn’t cry as we saw him walk
away, that was the last day that we talked.
We said nothing but cried hard inside.
Lives, life, don’t leave him.
We still smell his chest,
warm, with his own smell, the best,
something we never want to lose.
Khmer Rouge, Khmer Rouge, we know you took him.
And nothing could bring our father back.
And I still haven’t given myself a break
To talk about him – and his smell –
Though he left far away IT remains with me.
The following day, I heard about a program run by the Transcultural Psycho-social Organization (TPO) called “Truth Telling Ceremony” to assist Khmer Rouge survivors to heal, reconcile, and seek justice. Immediately after I introduced her to this interesting and convincing program, she smiled, indicating a big “Yes”.