There were 24 steps up to the house. Going from the bright harsh sunlight to the dark shade of the room it was hard to see for a moment and then quietly I saw the shape on the floor. There she was lying on a brightly colored sleeping mat surrounded by friends and family but forever alone.
She lay there in what appeared to be a quiet slumber like a fairy princess under a spell. Here face expressionless, her eyes gently closed, her long dark hair pulled back to reveal her lovely young face.
She was in a simple T-shirt, her wrists wrapped with the red yarn that the monks gently tie on visitors to Angkor Wat. Her hands across her chest and her fingers, still painted with the sparkly blue nail polish from the New Year holiday, were carefully intertwined.
A bright orange blanked covered her legs and feet.
She was beautiful and she was dead. 16 years old, a gentle hardworking student, one of three sisters to a single mother who lived a poor and quiet life in a provincial village and made sure that her daughters went to school. Not just any school, but to Cambodian Children’s Fund.
So she was family, our family and with her untimely passing students rallied, facility managers changed schedules, donations were taken up and buses filled with dear friends, bags of rice, gallons of water and sad hearts to make the 5 hour trip to say farewell.
Her lovely mother grieved and cried like only a mother could do. The tragedy of a young life lost, a daughter gone could not be undone.
Death is more personal here in Cambodia no strangers taking the body away, no funeral parlor, no embalming, no big church.
Just the young girl laid out in the living room of her family home. The monks chanting in the background and a small altar at her feet where friends could place a prayer and a burning piece of incense.
Occasionally her sister would brush the flies away and carefully wipe her face as if she was still sweating in the heat of the afternoon. The family cat filled with curiosity was kept in another room, his painful meow adding to the muffled sobs and tears of loss. Little ones – from the neighborhood wandering in and out.
The kindness of Cambodians never ceases to surprise me in a gentle way. And at one point the mother who seemed inconsolable remembers she has guests and rushes to bring us all water and make sure we are taken care of.
Downstairs a shade tarp is strung across the yard, borrowed plastic tables arranged and the simplest of rice soups served to this extended family and friends. And in the midst a humble wooden casket painted yellow and waiting for tomorrow.
And the students, they are clear that they have lost a sister. They are clear that we are family. Staff and senior students had worked the last two weeks to make sure she got to the best hospital, got the best care and was never alone. Despite all that medical science could do she passed away and again staff and students worked through the night to make sure her body was brought home to her mother by morning. And within hours over 70 adopted sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles on their way to be with their family.
More than 30 students stayed the night with her mother and sisters sleeping in hammocks or on the ground so they would be there to help with the burial and support the mom and sisters the next day.
And in the heat of a bright Cambodian day they followed a borrowed tractor decorated with balloons, blaring the farewell chants of the monks, placed her body in the ground and said good bye.