Written By Chansoda Roeun
Art by Chansoda Roeun
I’ve never known him to have a good night of sleep. Years of constant tossing and turning, nightmares and fears, things one shouldn’t have to face in the hours of rejuvenation. He always woke up startled – like he was ready to make a run for it; it would make me jump whenever I had to wake him. After all these years, safely in his own home with his wife and children, far away from the Killing Fields in time and distance, he still couldn’t leave that behind and allow himself a good night of rest. He worked day and night, from one job to the next, sneaking in that elusive sleep when and where he can, but I know he was never satisfied- it was never enough.
I walked in to the cold sterile room to where he was laying. Seeing him in this bed was the most peaceful sleeping state I’ve ever seen him in. I already knew nothing could wake him from this. The silent controlled breathing, to be interrupted at times by the beeping of the machines.
I flash back to the times he would fall asleep on the living room couch while we were trying to watch a movie. Soon snoring would ensue, then he would mumble in his sleep, start twitching his body a bit, then it got too distracting. We never asked him what went on in his dreams, but we knew it wasn’t pleasant. My brothers and I look at each other, which one of us will do it? Usually it was me.
I go over, nudge him gently, and whisper, “Pa, pa, wake up.”
“What?! Huh?!” He immediately jumps up from his sleep, and starts looking around.
I hated doing this to him.
“You should go sleep in your bedroom,” I’d tell him. Then I would watch him disappear down the hallway in to his room. If you’re going to face demons in the night, at least the bed is much more comfortable than the couch.
Now he’s laying peacefully in this hospital bed. His eyes closed, his breathing steady, but his sleep didn’t have those movements, his mouth didn’t utter any incoherent words. I reached over to hold his hand, but there were no surprises from him. His hands were rough, a worker’s hands, even though he was such a cerebral and personable man, he labored most of his life on vigorous manual work. He valued education, studied hard, and became an entrepreneur in his homeland, but lost all that when the Khmer Rouge came. He, like many other Cambodians, left their former life behind and did whatever they could to survive those gruesome years. His hands roughened up.
I brushed his hair and studied his face as he laid there. Still a very handsome man. I always admired my dad’s nicely combed hair, wearing his blue uniform that carried the scent of machine oil, he always looked good when he got ready for work. His hair had gone gray at an early age, which I inherited, but unlike me, he would color his back to black, I can see a few of his roots coming through. I fixed his pillow and his hair to make sure his head laid comfortably on it. Life had been hard on him, but his face was still gentle, especially now in this slumber. I traced my fingers along the lines of his face as I held back my tears. Is this really happening? I took the sleeve of my sweater and wiped his mouth.
Can you wake up and smile at me one more time Pa?
I bury my head in to his chest and feel it rise and fall. So controlled, the machines do their job at keeping this vessel functioning, but it’s not his natural sleep. Still, his body is warm, and this will be the last time I’ll be able to see him with blood flowing through his veins.
I was out of town when I got the news, time couldn’t move fast enough for me to get here. Now that I was there, I wanted it all to turn back, to the time when your hero was still invincible and this day didn’t seem possible. “Life is so fragile,” he always said, “when death comes, you won’t even know what hit you. It’s like a blink of an eye. Don’t waste it.”
I didn’t know what hit me, in a blink of an eye, a fine line between life and death. Now I stand by his bed in this sterile hospital room, watching the monitor record his final heart beats, the jagged lines fading to flat…
He can finally rest, to leave the nightmares of the Khmer Rouge behind, to quiet the stress that burdens him constantly, to free up the responsibility of always having to be strong for us. He never really talked about his life much under the Khmer Rouge, but we knew it haunted him everyday. He always said to me, “You’re growing up in America, be fortunate you’ll never know true suffering here.”
What kind of suffering did you experience Pa?
He never got in to it, but he would show us films, like “The Killing Fields,” or a documentary on Cambodia and he would say, “That’s what I had to do. That’s what I lived through…”
He could never put in to words himself how hard it was. Even if he could, we’ll no longer have the chance for him to tell these stories.