I noticed the scar again yesterday. The one on my left arm, sperm-shaped, bracketing my bicep. I looked at it and remembered how I got it and turned the page in my book and forgot about it. That's what we do with scars, right? Forget about them. They're there if we need them, after all.
I watched the sky and worried about the possibility of rain. About getting back before dusk. (I do not relish the idea of being on Cambodian roads after night falls.) In the car with me were Filipino friends of mine, all of us headed out to an orphanage in Kandal province, a few hours from Phnom Penh. Traveling with us was a middle-aged Cambodian Christian woman, who helps fund the orphanage. The trunk held two gigantic bags full of used clothes for the kids. I, being neither a Christian nor a contributor to the aforementioned sack of clothing, felt more than a little bit superflous. That's fine. In a foreign country, one is supposed to feel superflous; that's why you're there.
A typical Cambodian trek it turned out to be. The mandatory breaking-down-of-the-car on the side of the road in the middle of the countryside. The wait for the replacement car. I've been there, done that, so I wasn't too worried. My motto in Cambodia has come to be: If it can go wrong, it probably will go wrong. So I read my book. Pissed in the brush. Watched the faces of the Cambodian locals as they watched mine. A Cambodia day.
From my vantage point riding shotgun I heard the elder Cambodian woman in the backseat narrate the events of her life: the priviledged upbringing in a wealthy family; the daily life lived during the catastrophic Khmer Rouge era, when the work was fierce and the food was scarce; her struggle to serve God and help the children who needed help most. She had intended to visit the orphanage the week before, but it rained, rained hard. She prayed to God for no rain this weekend, and no rain there was. The sky was wide and blue and clear. I listened to her speak some more. It was, indeed, a life.
By the time we finally arrived, the children were already gathered inside of the small, red-brick building that passed as a church. A handful of blue plastic chairs sat facing the hundred or more kids who were sitting on tiny chairs of their own. We were the special guests, so we got the special chairs.
They clapped and we sat and the children began to sing Christian songs in Khmer. They clapped some more. We clapped. They smiled. We smiled. They stared. We stared. A Cambodia day.
Out behind the church, eating a lunch of chicken and rice, water and tea, on the banks of the Mekong River. All of us, the guests. Two little boys stripped off their shirts and dived into the river, racing to see who was fastest. Every so often various women and children would wander down to the water to gawk and say hello. I saw my first set of Khmer twins. (Cambodians can have twins, too! I thought.) A few stray, dark clouds hinted at possible rain to come -- and, to me, at the journey home. The night to come.
Before leaving, we handed out the clothes in small plastic bags, one bag per child. It had been a long time, since last Christmas, that anyone had given them anything. They clutched their bags like life rafts. (There are few things in life I've seen as sad and wondrous as a Cambodian orphan.)
As we left, pictures were taken, poses were struck. I chatted with a few of the older boys who worked for the church -- teachers, teenagers. "Can I give you a hug?" one of them asked. The children surrounded the car, holding tightly their treasure of second-hand clothes, laughing and waving and smiling as the car drove down the dusty road ahead.
Heading home, I noticed again the scar on my left arm; I notice it all the time. I thought about the scars on my body: the one on my chin, from a childhood fall down a bunkbed ladder in our trailer home at Big Valley campsite; the small jagged one on the back of my head where hair now stubbornly refuses to grow, inflicted by the metal edge of my friend Mariano's stairs as I fell while shuffling the cards to an Italian game the name of which I can no longer recall; the off-white equal sign on the inside of my right thigh, remnants of my own skate blade that somehow pierced my skin as I fell during a hockey practice in my early teens; and that scar on my bicep, the result of a collision between myself and the spokes of a bicycle wheel on a spring day in my sixteenth (seventeenth?) year, when myself and James Spiece headed back on the road to look for our fellow running partner Ryan Kent, who we had worried had fallen victim to heatstroke and was laying somewhere on the pavement along Lakeshore Road. (There have been a lot of falls in my life, I'm realizing.)
The strange thing is, those were good days, the days I got those scars. Hanging out on bunkbeds with my brother. Playing cards with my best friend. Playing hockey. Running with other runners. My flesh now has permanent records of those particular moments in time I would otherwise have forgotten. After all, how many days of our lives do we forget? More than half, I'd say. At least. Yet those days, my scar days, I've held on to. They've become a ledger of my life.
As the car drove through the roadside villages of Cambodia, past the endless flow of fields and cows and highway snack shacks, I thought about those kids. About what they would remember. Most of them would probably have no physical scars from this day. It was a good day, a Sunday, a church day. There was no pain, physical or otherwise.
But will they remember it at all, in one or two or three years time? They will have long outgrown their present of clothes; their series of songs, so proudly performed, will be but a memory's melody.
I had a sudden impulse: better that they be scarred. Better that a cut, a slice, a falling brick maim their soft brown skin, because then they would remember this day, remember their own goodness and civility and brightness and innocence, remember their own pure, unsullied energy. There's a Cambodian world, a wide world, waiting to snatch it all from them. Soon. The afternoon sunlight can only last so long, and I fear that the day is already fading to dusk for many of them.
The car sped faster as we raced towards Phnom Penh. I grew impatient as the car stopped two, three times, the other passengers looking for fruit. I stayed in the car, so as not to arouse the expectations of the merchants. (White men are always welcome in Cambodian markets, bleeding green as they do.) We eventually made our way closer and closer to the city, inching our way against the inevitable darkness of night, as I wondered if we would beat the blackness that was spreading its dark-blue inkspots across the crouching sky.
We just made it.