Nathan is the second son of my only daughter. Fourteen years and two days after he was born, we said good -bye to him in the emergency room of a hospital. He had shot himself with his father’s unlocked, loaded gun. They landed a helicopter in his father’s suburban yard and flew him to the city.
At the hospital, everyone is crying and screaming. My daughter cannot stand. Somehow we must get from the room where we are waiting to where he is lying. She says, ‘It is like the war all over again.”
He had already died. They were just keeping him warm and breathing so we could say good-bye or perhaps in the hope we would donate his eyes or organs. I am sorry we could not have thought more clearly about this. I am sorry he is not out there some where, even if it’s a liver in another body I will never see. In Cambodia, they would have a party to honor him but we have just gone to the mountain for three days together and do not do anything. I spend the days between his birthday and his death day suspended in a quiet desperation.
In Cambodia, no one told his cousins he had died. They say, “Where is Nathan?” I say, “Nathan is dead.” The cousin sits with me for many hours trying to understand why he killed himself and why no one told him. They say suicide brings shame to the family so no one can talk about it there. It is a secret.
I tell the cousin that hatred, pride, war and greed kill people everyday; that Nathan’s death was caused by these things. I explain that the effects of war never really end and that we feel the suffering for many generations; even if we cannot name it. There is not much evidence of the war in Cambodia. There is the Killing Field Monument and a museum of the prison but really not much for the younger generation to hold on to. They all seem to blame the Vietnamese. I say that won’t do anyone any good. Its just creating more hate and that gets us nowhere at all.
In the United States, Nathan’s Dad beat his very young wife and teased Nathan. Nathan’s father was the spoiled youngest child in a large Cambodian family that prided themselves on being Chinese. Even after all they went through with Phal Pot, they cling to illusions of class. He tells me he beat my daughter because he was beaten under Phal Pot. I say many people came out of the war and did not beat their wives. When she finally left him and married a loving, healthy man, Nathan was already torn apart, tossed around, used as a negotiating chip and sinking fast.
He came into the world peacefully and then grabbed on to it with all his tiny might. He laughed easily and was enraged at small injustices. He was a bolt of fire across the sky. This exuberance turned into depression as he became a teenager.
The end of my marriage, Nathan’s death, the unraveling of the school begin to grow into one aching beat within my heart. I did not trust myself to keep things alive.
In Cambodia, I look for little boys with curious minds and a twinkle in their eye. I watch them with so much longing and joy. My daughter and I see such a boy and smile and say, “Ah there goes a child like Nathan” and feel some happiness in this.
In my country, in my school system, he was one more second -generation child of a refugee. He told me, “ No one has ever heard of Cambodia. They thought he was Mexican or they called him ‘China Boy.” He was teased at home, at school and in the community. In his school district, many second- generation refugee children from Vietnam and Cambodia killed themselves. The post traumatic stress, the expectations, the abuse were too much.
I was Nathan’s midwife and his grandmother.
After he died, people donated money to buy a well in Cambodia. The monks said we had to do something like this because he committed suicide. My daughter suggested I use this money to buy medical equipment for the rural health centers of Cambodia; places where midwives worked and babies were born; places of spirit houses.
Once there were elephants all over Cambodia but now they are almost all gone. I ask, “When did you see the last wild elephant?” The old people consider this and say, “Sometime before the war. They ran away to Thailand during the war and never came back.”
Nathan ran away and never came back. Perhaps he is with the elephants.