It was nineteen ninety-six, late autumn, raining. The first day she joined our team at an adolescent residential treatment center, it was as if a wisp of a sweet breeze had entered the building. Channay was composed, a bit subdued but soft around the edges, as though she moved in a dream. Her Chinese (we speculated) beauty was startling but she seemed unaware of it, and dressed unobtrusively. Thick ebony hair swayed against her back. Her delicate hands with long tapered fingers and impeccable nails were like birds wafting through the air.
There was a modesty and simplicity about her that vividly contrasted with the raucous, rough teenagers (male and female, different floors) we aided, as well as our toughened team. Many worried she would not be strong enough for the work, that the clients would manipulate and bulldoze her within a week. We needn’t have been concerned; she watched and learned rapidly. She held firm but never raised her voice in response to their heckling of her slight accent or pushing of program limits.
She and I connected easily. Neither of us fit the profile of someone who would work with often violent, abused and abusing, drug addicted, homeless or gang-affiliated kids. Channay was in her late twenties–not so far from my oldest daughter’s age–and not so much older than some of our clients. She had no experience with substance abuse and was finishing her Bachelors degree. She lived with an aunt, uncle and cousins.
At forty-four, I was older than most of our teammates, and remnants of Midwestern suburbia clung to me despite my best efforts. I was working hard to adapt to the environment while deepening my compassion. I had become well defended emotionally and physically. In other words, I was on my way to being more seasoned and had decided to devote myself to counseling. Many people left before after a year. I wondered how long Channay would last.
The months passed. She and I worked together efficiently, updating each other during shift change, and when working together addressing charting, filing and crisis-management (among many more duties). In my groups or alternative school classes, she was a steady counter balance, and always dedicated to the goals shared. The youth came to respect her presence. I saw her self-possession and knew she was much older than her birth age. And wondered why.
Channay was mysterious but it was partly because she valued her privacy as well as others’, I believed. It was a relief. Well-established boundaries and a calm manner meant no high drama, no excuses or infighting with other staff. We had enough of that every moment with the kids. She noted she had worked with youth at a homeless shelter and that was reflected in her skills. Her quick intelligence was a balm. She showed a small smile when I joked a bit, the sort of black humor one adopts when working with daily trauma in others. In time, as things solidified in her job, she relaxed.
We soon worked several grave yard shifts together. There was time to chat as the building turned inward by midnight. For fifteen female clients we were the only two staff so stayed attuned to the dormitory.
“You have children, yes?” she asked me one night.
“Yes, five. My youngest, twelve, is at home. An older son lives here but is more or less on his own.”
“Oh, my, how lucky! Big families make life more, better. I have some cousins here, aunts, uncles.”
“My other three are back east but I hope to see them all together soon.”
“Ah, you miss them.”
Her eyes, dark and large, seemed reminiscent of a wild creature’s: alert, clear. But then they unfocused, closed suddenly.
I finished the last bit of filing, then studied her. The energy had shifted, as though something invisible had entered the room. She was staring at her hands, hair falling over her face, shoulders drooping.
“Channay?” I sat across from her.
She turned to me, lifted her head so that her hair parted a little, eyes searching somewhere else. “My own family–gone long ago.”
The sharpness of her voice stopped me.
She nodded. “They died Cambodia, under terror regime of Pol Pot. You know about him?”
I sat down across from her, my breath caught in my throat. The dreaded name flashed in my mind and I nodded.
“They were murdered, nineteen seventy-seven. And my brothers and sisters. The Khmer Rouge stormed our house. My father was a doctor. They didn’t leave professionals like my father alive. They were branded capitalists. This was Pol Pot’s communism. So his men killed them all. Families, too.”
Her face was defined by stillness, her eyes by the sort of agony that cannot be named. I felt myself caving inside. I wanted to touch her limp hands but did not.
“I am so terribly sad for your family, for you,” I mumbled, and begged my tears to recede. Out of respect, I prayed for calmness.
“I escaped. I cannot say how. Ran away so fast…” She took a breath that originated from the deepest regions of her being. “I was later brought here by aunt and uncle.” She picked up a pencil, smoothed it gnawed edges. “I wanted you to know. I trust you with this.”
There was nothing I could offer. “Thank you.”
She nodded, her mournfulness a thing I could nearly hold in my hands like tears, like blood. Instead, I let my palm graze her shoulder when leaving the room to attend to a railing youth. Another soul with other kinds of nightmares.
One morning Channay came in earlier than usual. Her hair was still damp. I was surprised as she was always readied for work, and told her so.
“Oh, I usually take baths every morning, but usually have time to dry my hair. I slept in a little! Luxury but basic, my bath. I don’t think I could go into this world without a twenty minute bath. It calms me, makes me ready.” She smiled. “I burn candles. Sometimes there are flower petals in the water and I watch them float, smell their sweetness. Such peace. You must try it, Cynthia!”
I appreciated her quiet whimsical side as well as how she valued such simple things. How she smiled from a place of shyness. Her adeptness at handling angry, forlorn youths. We were now friends; the confession of such tragedy cemented our bond. We never spoke of it again but after that night she shared readily about her extended family, the American culture she couldn’t get fully accept but enjoyed after ten years, the traditions she and her family still practiced. Her loneliness and hopes. She did not have the freedom she wanted. She was bound by duty to do as her elders required. She gave much of her money to aunt and uncle. I listened and tried to understand, to accept her lifestyle and encourage her.
Soon after the bath conversation she told me she would be leaving her job. I knew she had been under pressure to marry a man in Seattle, an arranged marriage that her aunt and uncle felt was excellent. She had met him twice. Now the wedding had been arranged. She would marry and go to his home–“a lovely house, he has a great job; I am old to wed, Cynthia”–and there she would be his wife and care for his aging parents, who lived with him. It was a successful match for her family. It was the least she could do.
“It is our tradition. I must go.” Her eyes moistened. “But it will not be easy. Hard work lies ahead. I can do it.”
What about her education? What about her dream of being a youth counselor? I asked her. But she shook her head.
“Maybe one day,” she smiled, then turned back to her work.
I felt her unease in every breath, but her shoulders were squared, strong. I knew she would go, would smile, would do well.
The day Channay left I dreaded the end of her shift. We went outdoors for a few minutes. The sunshine was silky, warm on our faces; spring was ready to envelop our city. We spoke of the time we had spent getting to know one another. Our futures. We promised to write one another. I gave her a card with a poem I had written, which she read, then held close to her heart.
“I have a very small gift for you,” she said.
I opened the box. There were two small mugs with flowers on them. They were designated for the months of May and June, as noted on the bottoms. They were different than what I owned, graced with such delicate designs.
Moved, I murmured my thanks. How could she leave her dreams behind, take from us her generous spirit? But she had more to give elsewhere.
“Now you will remember me,” she said. “You have been a mother and friend to me. I have many good memories to keep with me. Thank you.”
We embraced a long moment and our tears, oh, how they came.
Channay left for Seattle and I stayed on at the treatment center for almost three more years. But I didn’t hear from her. Without her new address I couldn’t contact her. I searched for her name online but didn’t locate her. I wondered if in that other life–beyond what I could share–she had a far different name, something musical on the tongue. Complex. But I also wasn’t surprised she vanished. She went where I couldn’t follow: the way of the traditional Cambodian wife.
One of the mugs sadly was lost long ago but I treasure this remainder, keeping it safe at the back of the shelf. It has pink and white peonies and columbine and is framed in a vivid berry tone. It fits in my hands. It speaks to me of a woman’s courage, her love of others so less fortunate, her unrelenting respect for life. Her haunted soul was a symphony of grief and longing that imprinted my own. Her heart, a deep and shining bowl that held so much with room for more. Her good mind a beacon for others who admired its strength. I was honored, happy to be invited in.
It is almost twenty years since we said farewell. My dearest Channay: wherever you are, I will not ever forget.
For more information on Pol Pot and the genocide in Cambodia, please see http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~amamendo/KhmerRouge.html