I wonder what David is eating today.
I was reminded this morning that today is World AIDS Day, and I immediately thought of David in the clutch of his grandmother’s skinny brown arms. Four years have passed since we last saw the little boy in a hot, cramped neighborhood on the edge of Phnom Penh, just off the road leading to the Killing Fields.
David (pronounced Dah-VEED) would be 7 now, but when we saw him he was just a little boy with a teddy bear. Missing from the scene was David’s mother, Phala, whom Jerry had met the previous year while assigned to shoot a story to coincide with World AIDS Day. I never met Phala. She had AIDS, and she was undergoing the pre-treatment rigmarole before receiving antiretroviral drugs. I remember the European editor who called Jerry at 3 a.m., forgetting the time difference; she wanted to make sure he would shoot uplifting pictures reflecting a positive side to the story of AIDS in Cambodia.
But this was not a happy story. Phala died a few months later, and David was left with his grandmother, Yiey, a kind woman with lots of love but no money. David’s father—whom everyone assumes had infected Phala—left long before she died. The good news was that David showed no signs of sickness. “Yes, he is very healthy,” said Vaneth, a friend and neighbor who looked after the family.
I asked David if he remembered his mother.
“Yes,” he said.
“Where is your mother?” I asked.
“In Pet Longson…. She died in Pet Longson,” Kossamak Hospital, where she was taken at the end.
Vaneth told us that David’s father, Narith, was living nearby. “He went to sing karaoke today,” Vaneth said. “He does not go to work.” We went up the dirt road to meet the 26-year-old man at his house—plywood ceiling, broken tiles and bricks. He was skinny, and all grins, with wine on his breath at 11 a.m. “He drinks and smokes so much,” Vaneth said. “Now his health is going down…. I want him to go and test his blood but he says no.”
Narith looked toward Jerry and said, “If you take care of me, I can go to test my blood.” Then he announced: “I never touch the women.”
I asked Narith if he helped take care of his son. “No,” he said. “Only Yiey, because she is loving. She has compassion. She wants to take care of David until she dies. Then we can pick up and take him to an orphanage.”
This is life, this is reality. Most of the world’s orphans have at least one living parent.
Later that day, Jerry and I accompanied Vaneth, Yiey and David to the nearby temple where Phala’s ashes were kept. We searched through so many shelves and glass cases of urns stacked among little statues of Buddha. There sat the remains of all those who had passed away without family, money or the means for a proper burial.
Tacked to the wall was a UNAIDS poster showing a global map of HIV infection at the end of 2003: 38 million people worldwide. Cambodia was colored orange, meaning somewhere between 1 percent and 5 percent of the population was infected.
After a few more minutes of searching, finally Phala’s ashes were found. Hers was a 10-inch golden urn with a string tied around it, her name written in marker on the inside. Yiey handed the urn to David, who grasped it silently, then hid behind his grandmother. “He knows this is his mother,” she said.
“When we have big ceremonies, we come to pray here,” Yiey said. “I always miss her very much, but I don’t have money as a gift for the monks, so the monks can pray for those who died.” If she had money, she said she would offer food to the monks and come to the temple every week so they could pray for her daughter’s soul. She returned the urn to a cabinet, then lit a handful of incense. She swooped her arms around David and together they placed the incense in a pot.
The Venerable Luy Bora entered the room, and Vaneth and Yiey bowed. This was the monk who had taken care of Phala’s bones. He managed an AIDS project in the Stung Meanchey commune, where 127 orphans needed care. “I saw my community is very poor and sick.” Some of the kids stayed at the temple, others lived with relatives. The numbers were growing, he said. When he started the project three years earlier, he worked with 47 kids. “Every month, I find more.” But AIDS remained a sensitive issue among older monks, and Luy Bora had a hard time working with them. “They don’t understand,” he said.
I asked him how many people in his commune had died of AIDS. He didn’t know. “I never count,” he said. “But many.”
Now, four years later, I’m ashamed to admit so much time has passed since Jerry and I visited David. I wonder where he is and what has become of his family. On that hot, sticky day when we all met in Phnom Penh, Vaneth asked us if we would follow this story through to Narith’s death, whenever that might be.
Jerry’s photo assignment ended when the lifeblood still pumped through Phala’s thin body. But her story outlived her, in the form of a little boy. Every AIDS death leaves a trail of life in its wake.