In Memory Of Sum Namg - September 1st 2010
At 2 a.m. Friday morning, after a day filled with kisses, playing and being grouchy over eating his lunch, and hours after I kissed him goodbye after tucking him into his crib, my beloved, precious 4 year old Sum Namg spiked a fever, suffered a grand mal seizure and died en route to the hospital.
My Cambodian son, the inspiration for the Safe Haven School, the boy who stole my heart a year and a half ago when I first wandered into the Sisters Of Charity Orphanage – it does not seem possible that I have just placed Jasmine and incense over his white draped shroud and watched them cremate him.
We sat together first, in the tiny chapel of the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, where they had lovingly wrapped him in white linen, covered him with yellow flowers and surrounded him with candles. His sweet little face was peaceful. The nuns, the Cambodian staff, Virginia, Pierre, Chitra, my friend Lauren, (daughter of Hasan, the man who first introduced me to Sum Namg) and I sat in vigil around him while we waited for a local monk to agree to escort him to the place of cremation.
For three hours we sat in silence, in stunned disbelief. Only yesterday Lauren and I had talked about the possibilities for Sum Namg to really make progress once Safe Haven had opened and he could have therapy and care full time. Yesterday, I held in my arms while we played a Khmer version of “ring around the rosy”. Yesterday I coaxed him to finish his bananas even though he was giving me his grumpy face about eating. Yesterday I kissed him good night and told him “See you tomorrow.”
By God’s grace I was here when Sum Namg died. Not just in Cambodia, but in Siem Reap. I was supposed to travel 3 hours out to the village of Smatch this morning, where I would have been unreachable by phone.
But last night I had caught a bit of a stomach bug, likely from some bad water, and had canceled the trip. I think now if I hadn’t, I would not have been here to participate in lovingly saying goodbye to this extraordinary little boy.
When the monk arrived, we all stood and gathered around Sum Namg while the nuns’ kissed his head and then tightly wrapped the white linens around his body. He was lifted and brought to a waiting jeep and laid across the laps of 3 of the nuns. The rest of us followed the jeep to the W’aht where the cremation took place. We lay out Sum Namg on a mat and uncovered his face, placing Jasmine, incense and candles around his body. The sisters led everyone in prayer and we each planted incense in the sand filled vessel at his head while offering up our own prayer. Then they carefully recovered his face, picked him up and carried him to the cremation chamber. We left to go to the market to buy an urn and fresh coconuts. The milk from the coconuts was to be used to purify his bones. After an hour, we stood in solemn silence while workers pulled his cremated body from the pyre. The nuns came forward to carefully pick out the fragments of his bones and place them in a bowl. I stepped forward with the coconut and poured the sweet liquid into the bowl and we carefully washed the bones. My shirt is a mess of sweat, tears and coconut milk.
A monk lines a pan with a large piece of cheesecloth and Sum Namg’s bones are gently laid out to dry in the sun. We stand in silence in the heat of the sun on the steps of the Pagoda for 2 hours watching them dry. Then Virginia, myself and two of the nuns gently lift the corners of the cheesecloth and raise it up out of the pan. We fan the bones and the grief pours through me because all I can think about are how knobby his little knees were.
The fragments of the bone are carefully placed in the urn while we sit together in reverent silence. The urn is then tied shut with a braided rope and wrapped in a thin white linen cloth. The sisters lead us in the Lord’s Prayer both in Khmer and English. We silently leave the pagoda.
Sum Nag was four years old and had an identical twin brother who was adopted by an Australian woman. They were to due to visit in 2 weeks so the brothers could spend some time together. Although his twin was born healthy, Sum Namg suffered from Cerebral Palsy and his low muscle tone kept him from being able to move on his own. He was unable to talk but loved to communicate. He loved to be outside and after lunch, I would often walk around the orphanage yard with him and sing to him while he grew sleepy in the sun. He laughed with his whole body and hated orange juice and mangos. Although he was trapped in his body, the intelligence in his eyes could not be hidden. The first time I set eyes on him and he locked his big brown gaze with mine, I fell in love. Each time I would have to leave Cambodia I would whisper in his ear and promise him I would see him soon. In two days I will leave Cambodia and be unable to whisper in my beloved Sum Namg’s ear that I will see him soon.
From now on, I will see him everywhere.
-Heather Connell, Founder of Safe Haven