“ We go AIDS unit now.” These words were spoken in fragmented English by a tiny Thai woman dressed in a crisp white nurse’s uniform, complete with a stiff little hat perched on top of her overly styled black hair, teased and sprayed to perfection. I looked down at the nurse, somewhat startled. I certainly had not expected to be permitted to see into the gruesome reality of taboo Thai culture.
I had come to Lampang, Northern Thailand with nine other American students on my first of several community service programs to the country. By the time we reached the Kanyalyani hospital, we had already experienced our fair share of encounters with the peculiarities of the Thai people and their constant struggle “to keep face” for their country in the eyes of these young farangs (foreigners). Perhaps the reason the Lampang Kanyalyani hospital proved different was because they recognized the hospital lacking in superficial beauty to show off, I reflected, as I glanced at the peeling white walls of the hall, mold formations prospering in the damp corners, and then over to the disarray of rickety wooden chairs cluttered in the center of the cramped room full of sickly people, many of whom would not be treated for hours. “This OK?” confirmed the little nurse. I looked over to my friend, Alex, who was furiously nibbling on his fingernails, a sure sign that he too was nervous. We both nodded with false enthusiasm, plastering huge fabricated grins across our faces, a habit that we had acquired since arriving; a method for concealing emotion. I took Alex’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze as we turned to follow our guide across a courtyard overrun with weeds and cluttered with piles of rocks, into a separate building. The sagging roof and high windows, splattered with mud, ( a far cry from the Four Seasons) was not a place I would want to wait to die. I took a deep breath, trembling with both fear and anticipation, and walked through the door that Alex held for me.
When I first scanned the room, it was as if with selective vision. I saw things, but not the people to which they were attached. The high metal beds, the IV drops, the rasping respirator impacted me. I moved in closer, hoping to overcome my reservations. I walked past a bed with a young man sprawled across it, online leg hanging lip over the side. He was perhaps no older than myself, but his face was startlingly pail, contrasted against the dark skin of his arms. His eyes were closed, ringed with black. In the next bed over, lay a woman who once possessed great beauty, now stolen by the disease. The nurse leaned in, speaking quietly, “She was a prostitute. She had baby girl, but it die of AIDS last week. Very sad.” I fought back the urge to cry and Alex muttered something about my nails digging into his palm, but I barely heard him, as I let go of his hand and walked further into the room, the click of my heels against the blackened linoleum resonating through the room. As I reached the back of the room, a man’s eye caught my own. He had massive, weeping ulcers covering his face, body and hands, with only patches of tan skin peeking out from between the sores. His appearance alarmed me, but something shined in his eyes, and I edged closer. He reached out a thin, emaciated arm to me, and I took his hand in mine, curving it around his. My original fear melted away as a smile encompassed his face, and I too could not help but smile down at him. “Suwhy,” the man whispered, “Suwhy, ma crap.” (Beautiful, you are very beautiful) Caught in the moment, I had not even noticed that Alex and the nurse now stood next to me. The nurse spoke to the man for a moment and then turned to me and said, “ You do good service. You make him very happy.” I looked back into his eyes and stood silent. He would never know the service he had done for me. I was overcome with emotions that I struggled to make sense of. I had never encountered dying in such a real sense before. Until the man with penetrating eyes and contagious grin took my hand in his, I had always seen death as an ugly thing, yet here was beauty shining through; dark teaching me light.
Alex touched me lightly on the arm, breaking me from my trance. “Are you okay? The nurse says we’re going to the maternity ward now, but if you need to go sit down, I’ll tell her.” “No,” I said, shaking my head, “And miss the babies? I think not!” We walked through a back door and into another building, the maternity ward. Unlike the AIDS unit, the maternity ward was flooded with light and had a cleanliness exclusive from the rest of the hospital. A tall bassinet stood at the entrance of the door. I peered into it, a beautiful baby girl staring back, wide eyed and swaddled in a pink flannel blankie. She was quite awake and clearly not interested in this huge thing invading her line of vision, an opinion emphasized by a large yawn, exposing a toothless mouth, her adorable little tongue flickering out. The sight of the baby instantly disintegrated my earnest contemplation as my maternal instincts grasped hold. I smiled at Alex with delight, exclaiming, “Ohhh, isn’t she just gorgeous?” A stately nurse with shocking magenta lipstick smeared across her mouth approached me, her broad smile exposing an amazing number of teeth. “You hold?” I nodded, and leaned down to pick her up. The baby briefly protested, but then stopped when I cradled her, holding her head against my chest. The weight of the child I held in my arms felt so right, so perfect, and so curiously like the brief moment I spent with the man minutes ago; it had less of the intensity and more of the joy, yet with the same awareness of life. I held on tighter and leaned over to brush my face against her already full head of soft black hair. The nurses all laughed at my blissfulness, one commenting, “I think you be good mother, yes?” which inspires another bout of giggles from her colleagues.
The rest of my friends came in then, having toured other parts of the hospital as well, each wanting to hold the little celebrity. I parted with her reluctantly and went outside to think.The thick humid air hit me as I began to realize what I had experienced that day. I had seen the beginning and the end of life, and the splendor that encompasses the entire range of being. I cannot fully articulate how I felt after leaving the AIDS unit and then later the maternity ward of the Lampang Kanyalyani Hospital because I do not completely understand it. I’m not sure exactly what I felt, only that it has helped cultivate an intense respect for life; I appreciate that I had the privilege to see life’s beauty, if only briefly, in such brilliance as I did that day. As the Thai’s would say, “Pohm sook bpen nee, ka.” (I am glad to be here.)