I’m taking a break and now to write this and getting completely out of order with this story. However, I need to get this out of my system. I just found out this past week that a good friend, here in Laos, just died Monday afternoon. His name was Gom, he was 21 years old (actually just would have turned 22, his birthday was this Saturday), and probably one of the most industrious people I’ve ever met. He was like everyone else and yet at the same time there was something inside of him shining as brightly as I’ve ever seen shine in someone. I’m not sure what’s worse, that the people who loved him so much won’t ever get to see him again, or that the future of the Lao people won’t be blessed by him.
I want to start back a little bit and talk a bit about what I got to know about him. He was the first person I met here in Laos after my bosses dropped me off at the guesthouse. He happened to be the guesthouse receptionist at Sakura, where I’ve been staying for the past 6 months plus. But he was so much more than a receptionist, he was important to the lives and inner workings of everything that went on at Sakura and everyone who passed through. I remember when we had our first heart to heart, when he told me about his up brining. He started his life off in a village with no hope of attaining any kind of education and therefore no future. His family sent him off to become a novice monk in Luang Prabang, the city where I am, the second biggest city here in Laos. He studied for 7 years and only saw his family on the rare occasion. He joined university to become an English teacher. That’s impressive in itself because most of the English teachers I’ve run into are too intimidated to talk to me because their English skills are so poor. Gom was the opposite of that and I was proud to know that I could help him hone his skills and really make a difference with the Lao students who would come through his class. After he told me this story, he then told me that he hadn’t seen his family for about 6 years. He said they didn’t support him at all and he was on his own financially and morally. It was like at a tender age someone pushing a young boy in a river down a boat and then sending some messages along after him as support. He was left to determine his own destiny.
The owner of Sakura guesthouse is a woman named Ing. She was the closest thing that Gom had to family. She really took good care of him and he too helped her a lot with the guesthouse. When she divorced her husband, back in about November, I think, it was detrimental to her. I could tell by the way she changed her habits and things she talked about with me. I think the one rock she had to hold onto before sliding off the face of reality, was Gom. Pavath and I would have many discussions about the situation and about how Gom and Ing related to each other. Pavath was staying at Sakura for a year before I got here, so he often told me of stories before my time. It was funny to hear about the stories that Pavath would tell of Gom, when he drank his first beer after stopping his stay at the monastery. That flipped completely around when Ing would bring him to drink with her. I saw Gom more drunk in a two week period then I had the whole time I had known him before. After so many days in a row I would joke with him and ask why he was drunk AGAIN? I could see the distain on his face, but he kept doing it because he could feel the pain in Ing and knew he was the only one who could comfort her. He had such a good instinct with people, just another wonderful skill that would have lead to him being a legendary teacher here in Laos.
The next few months after that he got an iPhone from a bet with Ing and he drifted in and out of what I loved about the attention that Gom had all the time. Before he got the phone, when I would come home from work he always had questions for me about English, on the level that were hard to answer. He was always learning. Even when he was distracted by the phone, he was still coming up with things I didn’t know how he figured out. He would show me how he found ways to do things on the computer I wouldn’t even dream of investing time into. He would ask me to help him with something and when I didn’t know, he would have the solution and have figured out the entire system by the end of the week. There are highly educated Lao people at my office, who are struggling to learn how to use Google Drive and Gom, in his first year at University, was hacking into things on the internet and creating his own solutions to things that I thought were otherwise impossible.
Then a few weeks ago I heard he was in a car accident. I immediately thought that he had been drinking and driving and done something stupid. I saw him fall right outside of the guesthouse after drinking a bit and when Martin was here we saw another small wound on his leg from falling. That’s nothing out of the ordinary here though, people drink and drive in Laos all the time. It’s a bit scary to recognize that, but I think most of the time it’s driving while tipsy, but that still doesn’t make it okay in the least. Instead, I found out that he was sitting idly on his motorbike with his girlfriend on the side of the road. A truck when to pass another car and veered off the road, colliding into them both. The girlfriend was only partially injured and all I heard was that Gom broke his femur bone. I heard he was being transferred from Luang Prabang hospital to Vientiane, when they found out he broke his neck as well. Now I got really worried. Even through all this though, never was the possibility of his death in my head. Gom was too strong for that. All I could think of was the depression and life challenges he would face and the hope I had for his wonderful conquering of those challenges, like he did with so many other things in his life. I talked with him on the phone soon after the accident and in a weak voice he asked me “Matt, who’s going to get you the toilet paper?” Even at a time like this, with such a gloomy future ahead, he was able to still retain his humor. That was a great relief to me and took the anxiety out of my thought for the situation. I just had hope and patience. Then, I found out last week that he was moved out of the Vientiane hospital back to his hometown to rest and recover because there was nothing else they could have done for him in Vientiane. Ing is so busy around this time because Gom was such a huge support, so I didn’t see her as much as I used to. But, I kept meaning to ask her for Gom’s number because I wanted to call him. I started to get worried again after I heard that he was sent home that maybe his motivation might be draining. I also heard that his girl friend left him because she didn’t want to have to support him and that worried me further. I first felt anger toward her, but then I realized that she was an 18 year old girl and I couldn’t expect that kind of emotional maturity from most people that age. I had intentions and even learned the Lao vocabulary to talk about his motivation and drive to live and do what he’s always done, to figure it out and to go beyond the expected to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
I stopped by Ing’s place on Monday this past week, but didn’t see her and figured she was busy because of Woman’s Holiday. I went there on Tuesday to eat dinner next door and luckily enough, I saw her come up on her bike with a big smile on her face. I haven’t seen that look of joy since before her husband left. Wait, I also have never seen her ride a bike before. I knew that something must have happened and I assumed it was something good. I stride up to her and ask for Gom’s number and start to explain and then all I hear is “thai”, which means to die in Lao. I thought I had heard this before when she was talking about Gom, but got it wrong. However, this time her facial expression told it all. I asked her again and she told me that he died yesterday in the afternoon. Everything suddenly hit me like a wall. All I could feel was grief for his family, for the Lao country, and that I would never get to see him again. All I could think was that I should have called him earlier. I was lazy to put it off and it was selfish. Then I zoned back into her speaking, which was all in Lao, of course. She told me that his family took him out of the hospital to go back home. He told them he was feeling very weak, but his family wasn’t taking very good care of him. They didn’t even give him oxygen, even though he complained about being weak and not being able to breathe that well. It’s also getting very hot lately, so that just makes everything more difficult. His mom went out to get phone credit and when she came back he was dead. The worst part of all this is that it probably could have been avoided.
All the way through my relationship with Gom, he was teaching me. He would teach me directly, with his wonderful anecdotes and life lessons, and indirectly, through just being Gom. I have to say this last lesson he has left me is like a big coconut falling out of a tree and hitting me on the head. The coconut being the fact that it took me two weeks to think of calling him regularly and then not actually following through with getting his number until it was too late. I want to be very clear that I don’t feel regret because I think to wallow in the past would be to miss the point entirely. To wonder what I could have changed if I called him, was an initial thought response that I couldn’t avoid, but past that is a waste of time because he’s gone forever and nothing will change that. There’s no avoiding the fact that I made a mistake, but to go along with all of those famous quotes about practice; I’m out here enough to make a mistake and making mistakes are the foundation of lessons and the indicator that there is a process of learning. Now, what I choose to do with this lesson is what will define who I am and my role in making the people and places I come in contact with better then how I found them.
Another lesson I learned is about support from the people around you in your everyday life. I immediately called Pavath and told him on Tuesday night about Gom. I knew he was a better friend with Gom and I was worried about how he would take the news. I saw him the next day and just as I expected he looked devastated. People in the office even came up to me and told me about Pavath looking like he was really angry. I went in one of the other rooms to talk with Pavath. We talked about the craziness of it all and I quoted Ing talking about how it all felt like a dream. Over the next few days Pavath and I had serious moments reminiscing on Gom’s life and talking about the tragedy that is the situation of Lao health care and how may other people are in the same situation all over the world. Then, we went through better times where we talked about great memories that we shared with Gom. I was trying my best to support Pavath, but I have to say I think he was supporting me as much as I was him. Seeing him able to laugh and smile about this was something that also gave me strength. If Pavath and I didn’t relate so well together about Gom, we probably would have made the whole thing much harder to get over. Neither of us have ever experienced losing someone so close. Even as I would be going through out the week, outside of discussion with Pavath, I would suddenly remember the fact that Gom was gone and a deep sadness would rise in me. I felt like I was strong enough to combat that feeling, but I was wrong. It was too strong and it washed over me like a cold shower first thing in the morning. I think the people in the office would recognize this and would try and cheer me up, like I had done for them so many times in this past six months. My goal has always been to make friends, but in general was just to create a fun and happy atmosphere in the office. Now I was cashing in on all my hard work. The people in my office were able to tease with me and keep everything light enough for me to digest the situation. I still have reoccurring thoughts of not believing that he’s actually gone, but I feel much more positive about everything now.
Through this loss I have gained so much. I have a deeply learned lesson not to let life pass me by without taking a hold of it and doing the best I can now. Some things can only be solved with patience, but for the others, I will try my best to never make the excuse of thinking I have more time. No one knows if they will wake up tomorrow with the same physical and mental strength they have today. This incident has only grown my passion for life and lessened my fear of the unknown, beyond my control. The other lesson I’ll never forget is the strength that I get from those around me and to appreciate the give and take relationship that makes life so beautiful.
This experience is a small part of the fabric of my life and while I wish it never happened the way it did, I also can’t avoid being grateful for the lesson it gave me and how it has grown my appreciation for every new day I’m blessed with and the wonderful life situation I’ve been given that allows me to be able to digest things in this kind of constructive manner. So, I think he’s actually never left, he’s still right here, inside of me, teaching me, and reminding me constantly. This essence, these lessons from Gom, are now apart of me and hopefully someday I will pass the lesson along to others who are ready to learn. So, sure I’ll always feel sad that this happened, but it is a sadness that gives me strength, in a way that inspires me to constantly challenge and improve the quality of my life and to try my best to live it to the fullest.
To Gom, my friend and my teacher,