Dark Secrets In Our Keep
By Phil Mortenson
Everyone has them. Secrets so dark, you would rather be ex-communicated by the Pope on live television instead of having someone find out.
A short while ago I learned about a dark secret that envelopes Tui’s family. A secret so unbearable, they cannot face it, will not think of it, and cannot stand to believe it even exists. I pondered if I should send this article to Stickman. It is deeply personal for Tui and I. In the end I felt it was better to inform rather than censor my thoughts and feelings.
It’s simple, very simple in its absolute form. Tui has a daughter she never told me about. Tui’s daughter was a prostitute. Tui’s daughter is dying of AIDS in a Buddhist hospice.
For the general Thai population it is the darkest secret in their collective keep. No family will admit they have a family member dying of AIDS. It’s just not done, it isn't clean, and in their minds it just cannot be true. The Thais are so bloody terrified of AIDS; they will refuse to take the ashes of their kin because they had AIDS, thinking they will catch the disease by handling the box of cremated remains. This is totally true! I did not realize the sheer terror AIDS causes Thai families until I found out about Tui’s daughter. Mostly, it is the refusal to accept any type of shame or responsibility that causes this utter terror. The deep dark secret will somehow cause immense and all encompassing shame to the whole family if revealed, or admitted in the open. Tui was no exception to this phobia.
Quite by accident I opened up a letter addressed to Tui. It was from a Thai AIDS Activist cum Pseudo Social Worker that informed Tui that her daughter was dying and that she wanted to see Tui. I gave Tui the letter. She read it and tossed in the trash and went on with cleaning the bathroom. A bit later I asked her about it. She denied having a daughter and said it must be a mistake. Letters like that, penned by hand in Thai are not sent to the wrong people; never! Tui had her mail sent to my address since she was spending most of her time with me. Something was up with this letter. I was determined to get to the bottom of the issue, no matter what.
That afternoon I was reading the paper in the living room. Tui came in and plopped down beside me on the sofa, munching a mouthful of chips and turned on the tube. I asked her again about her daughter. Tui was trying to lie to me, but she was having a difficult time. She was emotional and not making a whole lot of sense. When I asked why she could not go and see her daughter, Tui began to weep. She got angry and balled her fists up and began to hit the sides of her head. I grabbed her wrists and looked her in the eyes; she was really in deep emotional pain. This was serious stuff. Tui began to sob and quake with emotion. I hugged her and let her cry it out for a while. Eventually she calmed down and told me that her daughter was “velly, velly” bad, not a good girl. “Velly, velly bad” meant that her daughter was a prostitute and the family knew about it, but would never admit it to themselves, or others for that matter. I wondered if Tui knew about her daughter’s condition before she read that letter. I somehow sensed she did and was refusing to accept the reality of the situation. The shame she felt must have been deeply personal.
After this scene, I sat out on the balcony and thought deeply to myself. The lights of Bangkok were beginning to wink on one by one in the distance. I was getting involved with her family, something I swore I would never do again. After the row with Jiraporn’s family, I had no intention of linking my feelings and trust to a Thai family ever again. I was just so damn conflicted about the situation. If Tui hid this type of secret from me, what else would she hide? In a short period of time Tui and I are going to be parents. I don’t want my child to grow up with her mother displacing guilt of a dark family shame onto him or her. Some facts in life just need to be faced head on. The eventual death of her daughter was one of these facts. One way or another, Tui needed to confront the situation and make her peace with her daughter. I wondered how I could steer Tui into seeing her daughter.
The next day I did something I’ll eventually regret. I took a tuk-tuk over to the hospice and met her daughter. Curiosity and the need to get closure on this before my child comes into the world were my motivators. I knew I was putting my nose into Tui’s business, but I just had to find out why Tui was so ashamed of her daughter, in my mind Tui needed to make peace with her daughter before she died. This is a western concept, but I think it still applies to all races of people. I managed to find the hospice after wandering around for a while. No signs, no front desk, just a wat, a Buddhist shine and accompanying building. I went in the entrance and was immediately assaulted with the scent of human body odor, decay, and sickly sweet incense. My mind flashed a memory of the old folks home from when I was 10. I suddenly remembered Jiraporn dying in my arms. My stomach tightened and I felt a bit queasy. The smell was dying humanity and incense with an antiseptic overtone. A chill raced up my spine. I felt strange, kind of detached from reality as the memory flashes flickered in my mind.
A young monk came up to me. I wai’d him and asked him if Ae XXXXXX was here, she was a patient. He smiled and escorted me through a few doors and hallway to an older monk who was busily folding blankets and bed sheets. The younger monk spoke to the elder, I could not quite understand what he was saying, was he speaking in Khmer? The elder monk smiled at me, I wai’d him. He said that Ae was here and that he would take me to her. I followed him down the cavernous corridor, my God, so many people! All in various states of living decay. It was just a horrific scene to me. Where the hell were the nurses and doctors? My stomach was twisted in a knot; it’s a good thing I didn’t eat that morning.
The elder monk gestured to my left, there was a young girl on a padded mat shivering under a blanket despite the midday heat. I knelt down on my knees and introduced myself. Ae looked at me and smiled. She was painfully thin and gaunt, had several open sores on her neck and face. There was a tattoo of a scorpion stinging a rose on her upper right breast. She looked like her mother; she had the same dark hazel eyes and demure smile. Ae asked me if I had dated her before, she said she didn’t remember faces anymore. I told her that I was her mother’s boyfriend and came to see her. Ae’s eyes brightened up when she heard this. She asked if her mother was here, I told her no that she was back at my home making supper for me. Ae falsely smiled and took a deep breath and sighed. I held her hand and talked with her for a couple hours. She was starved for attention and was just happy to talk to someone other than the monks. I noticed something very strange; I was the only person other than 3 elderly Thai women, the monks and the patients in the hospice. No family members of others, no mothers or fathers, no doctors, no nurses. Just monks, the three crones, and myself. I wondered what the hell was going on, surely these dying people deserved better than this! I felt a deep sense of moral outrage, but there was nothing I could do to change the reality of what I was experiencing.
Ae talked about her life and her mother. She was surprisingly open and direct. I could sense a deep pain in her in regards to her mother. Could it be self-shame? Perhaps. The woman on the mat across the aisle began to have problems breathing; she was tensing her shoulders, arching her back, and was breathing very fast. Oh crap, she was going to die. I closed my eyes and squeezed them tightly closed and turned away. I felt very dizzy and sick to my stomach. There were a few raspy gurgles and then silence. I felt someone squeezing my hand, it was Ae. She looked at me and smiled slightly and told me that it happens a lot around here. God bless her, that beautiful and oh so ill 22 year old girl was comforting me in the face of death. I suddenly had the urge to run away, tried to get up but my legs were asleep. I managed to roll onto my butt and massage my legs until some feeling came back. Ae seemed amused by this and joked with me for a while, even called me numb-butt in Thai. I suppose the acceptance of one’s nearing demise allows humor to be used as a narcotic.
I started to sense numbness in myself, the same numbness I felt when Jiraporn died. It’s probably my brain stopping me from going off the deep end so the gentlemen with butterfly nets would not have to chase after me. After a while I managed to get up and told Ae that I would try to get her mother to come see her. Ae smiled slightly and nodded. I don’t think she believed me. I began to walk away, I felt so old, so very old and tired. As I left the building I left a 1000 baht note as an offering, made it out of the building just before the dry heaves hit.
What the hell was I doing to myself? I really felt terrible, my stomach ached, and I was feeling numb, old and foolish. Good God: A dying girl comforted me because someone across the aisle died. I felt so bloody worthless. The elder monk came over and sat down beside me. He asked me if I was with a health organization. I told him that I was here to see Ae, my friend’s daughter. The monk smiled at me, he sensed that I was shaken to the bone by my experience. He went on to tell me that hardly anyone other than health organization workers and AIDS activists come to the hospice. Not even Thai parents or relatives came, only once in a great while. He had a a serene smile and feeling about him, how could he be this way in the face of such suffering and pain? The elder monk told me about how Thai society views AIDS, the social phobias. AIDS is taboo, asking your partner to get a HIV test is not. A very strange logic, indeed. The Thai government has been active in educating people about HIV and AIDS, but the general populace regards the subject of AIDS as taboo, much as America did in the late 80’s. I used to think that AIDS was a disease that only queers and needle junkies contracted. I found this old monk to be a genuinely compassionate and wise man. We talked for an hour. At the end of out chat he gave me a Buddhist blessing. I had learned something valuable about myself and about the Thai people.
I left and was still feeling numb to the bone. Somehow I made it back home and entered the condo. Stasha was splayed out on the sofa watching a Thai lesbian video. He and Meow (his wife) are staying with me for a week. Meow, Khae and Tui were out on a shopping excursion and would be back later that evening. I went over to the bar and poured myself three fingers of bourbon and sat in my ez-chair. Stasha noticed that something was bothering me and asked me what had happened to me that day. I told him about the hospice, about Tui and Ae, about the woman dying across the aisle. He listened intently. Afterwards he got up and showered and changed into shorts and a t-shirt with an obscene logo of a penis with sergeant’s chevrons saluting a smiling vagina. “C’mon you old fart, let’s go out and have some drinks” I drained the remainder of my tumbler of whiskey and we went out and hailed a tuk-tuk. Stasha gave him directions and before too long we were in a place in Bangkok I did not recognize. Believe it or not guys, there is a Russian-Polish-Lithuanian grotto in Bangkok. We stopped at a rather dumpy looking bar. I got out, Stasha paid the fare and then we went into the bar. Wow, this place was a total dive. I think it was called Pulaski’s, but I’m not sure. Stasha went up to the bar and talked with a greasy looking Russian barkeep for a while. I noticed an older guy at a corner table in the back. He had seen better days and looked as old as I felt. The old guy just mumbled to himself, lifted a cheek and farted, chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and slurped shot after shot of Vodka. I laughed to myself. I’ve seen some rat hole bars in my time, but this one was definitely at the top of the list.
Stasha and I sat down at a table and the barkeep brought over a frozen bottle of Belvedere Vodka, two large bottles of Singha, and two glasses. Some downright ugly bargirls came over and tried to get us to buy them a drink, Stasha waved them off and we began to drink. That vodka is pretty good. Never had it before. It was one I could actually drink with out a mixer. We drank and chatted for an hour, Stasha ordered some food. A couple plates of Pad Thai were put in front of us. What the heck was this I wondered? Pad Thai with sliced up Kielbasa and blood sausage! Eastern Europe meets South East Asia, Polish style. I could not help but laugh at this food. I was numb, but hungry. We ate and talked for a couple more hours. The bottle of Belvedere was empty, Stasha was plastered and happy, I was plastered and numb. The old Russian guy in the back corner was passed out with a cigarette still hanging out of his mouth. A group of drunken Russian guys were trying to sing a song at the karaoke microphone. The horse-faced bargirls were chatting up an obviously stoned young Russian chap and were grabbing his crotch. I found out later that the old Russian guy was the greasy bartender’s Grandfather. In the distant past the old Russian was a big cheese in the military (Czar Nicholas? Yea, he looked that old!). Not anymore, he’s just a pathetic old soldier slurping Vodka and chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes. I was happy I did not end up like him. At least I don’t smoke anymore. Although I think I slurped my fair share of Vodka that night.
Stasha and I staggered into the condo around midnight, arm in arm, swaying, trying to brace each other, and were obviously three sheets to the wind. Stasha had a bad case of the hiccups. Tui, Meow, and Khae were on the sofa watching television. They broke out in laughter when they saw us arm in arm, we must have looked quite a right sight. We sauntered into the living room, arm in arm, steadying each other and trying to look composed and dignified. I made an unplanned detour due to gravity suddenly increasing and landed in the ez-chair face first, Stasha missed his mark completely and landed on his butt next to the sofa, the girls were now shrieking with laughter. Stasha managed to climb onto the sofa, buried his face into his wife’s breasts and passed out.
The next morning, as one would expect was quite horrid. I managed to get up and amble into the kitchen. Tui was grinning at me and sipping her tea. I got a glass of water and put a Berocca tablet into it and let it fizz. For you lads out there that drink, an Aussie chum of mine turned me on to Berocca. It’s a hangover cure that really does work. Lot’s of vitamins. I drank it and made another, this was a purple she-devil of a hangover you know the kind where your tongue has grown a beard. Stasha staggered into the kitchen, his eyes looked like open wounds. Tui began to giggle at Stasha. His shorts were on backwards and someone had put lipstick, eye-liner, and mascara on him. Looks like the girls had a bit of fun when he was out of it. I chuckled a bit myself at this sight. I made him a Berocca and he sat down and drank it silently, oblivious to his appearance. Tui seemed to be enjoying this, she just grinned and sipped her tea.
Later that morning after some much needed recovery time, Stasha and Meow left for an appointment at a bank. I came into the bedroom and sat down next to Tui and told her that I had gone out and seen her daughter. Tui was not pleased with this; in fact she was pretty pissed off at me. We talked for a while, I told her what happened, the woman dying, and Ae comforting me afterwards. Tui was crying and angry with me. I told her that Ae needed to see her, she asked for her mother. I poured the guilt on as deep as I could. Yes, I was being a total rotten bastard to Tui in guilt tripping her, but she needed to confront the situation and see her daughter before she died. Tui tried to make up excuses: The baby will get sick and get AIDS, the family will go see Ae later, pregnant women were not supposed to go there, it was too far away, it was going to rain that day. All of her excuses were weak and showed the social phobia that is so prevalent in Thai society. Eventually I told Tui that she was going to see Ae, it was her duty as her mother. I put my foot down as a man, even though I felt totally rotten about doing so.
The next afternoon Tui and I took a tuk-tuk to the hospice. We went in and Tui immediately turned and tried to run out. The odor of the place had obviously scared the hell out of her. I hugged her and told her that she needed to make her peace with her daughter, she needed to make merit. She squirmed like a little girl in an unwanted hug. Tui followed me in and seemed to be jumping out of her skin with fright. She was swiveling her head and looking completely appalled at the mass of dying humanity all around her. We came to Ae’s mat and Tui looked down at her daughter, the tears stated to flow from both Tui and Ae, a few even squeaked by from me. I handed Tui some surgical rubber gloves and put them on her. Tui knelt down and grasped her daughter’s hand. It was an indescribably tender moment, mother and daughter connected and the tears began to flow faster. Tui and Ae talked for a while. I kept my distance; this was heavy-duty mother-daughter stuff. Tui was tenderly combing Ae’s hair; she put some make-up on Ae, trying to hide the open sores. Tui stood up and came over to me and asked me if I could get a basin of water and some soap and a washcloth. I went over to a young monk; wai’d him and asked him for the supplies. He nodded and disappeared. A few minutes later he came over and placed the water, soap and cloth by Tui. Tui gently washed her daughter, her daughter was now crying and they were talking in hushed tones. This all was a bit much for me; I went outside and had a real bad urge to smoke a cigarette. I had quit forever so I sat down, sighed, and thought for a while.
A small cat came over and meowed at me a few times. The little critter was cute, had beautiful light green eyes. I suddenly remembered that I had a bag of spiced squid snacks in my knapsack. I took the bag out and opened it and placed it on the pavement in front of the cat. The cute little beast sniffed the pile of squid snacks and then began to munch away while purring. Out of nowhere, a half dozen more cats suddenly appeared and made a beeline for the chow. The little green eyed cat puffed up her fur, growled and scooped up a big mouthful of the squid and sat close beside me munching away while the meowing hoard descended on the remains left on the pavement. Little green-eyes managed to choke down most of the squid snacks before being driven off. She was a scrappy little thing. She purred and rubbed up against my leg, I suppose that was my reward for giving her a snack. The rest of the hoard circled about for a while and eventually meandered off towards some shade. It was getting hot out in the afternoon sun.
A short time later I went back in and saw something incredible. Tui was bathing the woman next to Ae. They were smiling and talking to each other, Ae was chatting with them both. A miraculous transformation had happened to Tui, to Ae also. I saw some life in the halls of death. It really touched me. Tui was making merit and helping others. My view of Tui changed at that moment. She will make an excellent mother for the life now growing inside her. The elder monk walked up to me and smiled, I wai’d him. Words did not need to be exchanged; we both knew that something wonderful was happening.
Tui stayed with Ae the rest of the afternoon. They talked and laughed and had reconnected. My view of the Thai family had changed. This was good, it was real, and it was happening before my eyes. Tui left Ae the cosmetics she used and wrapped them in a small cloth and tucked them under Ae’s thin pillow. Ae was sleeping now. It was time for us to leave. I made an offering of 5000 baht at the shrine. On the way back home Tui said absolutely nothing. She was deep in thought and I wasn’t about to disturb her.
When we got back to the condo, Tui went into the bedroom and undressed, she got into the shower. After 30 minutes I suddenly grew very terrified, what if she had slit her wrists?!?! I burst into the bathroom and found Tui sitting in the shower, knees drawn up and clasped to her chest, she was crying and rocking herself. I turned off the shower and picked her up and placed her on the bed and toweled her off. I sat next to her pondering what to do to help her; she grabbed onto me and hugged me so hard it knocked the breath out of me. For such a little gal, she was damn strong. She held me tightly and buried her face into my chest. It’s as if she wanted to crawl inside me. She was crying and mumbling nonsensical sentences. I held her for hours, gently rocking her. I became concerned that I might have pushed her towards a nervous breakdown. Had I done the right thing by forcing her to see her daughter? I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do. Eventually Tui fell asleep and I put her to bed.
The next morning Tui was packing a bag. Aw hell, she’s going to leave me I thought. I talked to her. She was getting some bedding and some things together for Ae. Tui kissed me deeply and for the first time, pounced on me and insisted we make love. This was all too strange. I’m not complaining, but it was just really strange behavior from Tui. We went to the hospice early that afternoon. Tui and Ae cried again and Tui made up a new bed for Ae. She bathed Ae again and then the woman next to Ae and they chatted the afternoon away. On the way home, Tui was smiling. She was joking with me and seemed to be in good spirits. When we got home Tui undressed and showered. I was in the living room deep in frustration, trying to assemble a bookshelf with the wrong sized screws and screwdriver when Tui came out in her birthday suit. She pounced on me again and demanded we make love. I understand Tui now; she just needs to feel unconditional love from me. She is going through a very traumatic time and needs to have me there for support and love. I think Tui’s going to be ok. I’m seeing a side of Tui I never imagined could exist. I’m falling in love with her.
Over the last week Tui has gone to see her daughter every day in the afternoon. Ae is not doing so well, she is fading quite rapidly. Tui and I talk about the eventual passing of Ae on a daily basis; it’s a catharsis for Tui. It’s rough for her, but she has now accepted Ae’s end and is willing to be there when Ae’s thread is eventually severed by the fates. Ae knows that her mom is pregnant. She is very happy her mom will have another child. I’ll be there for Tui when she needs me, no matter the circumstance. That seems to be my saving grace-just being there when needed. I was terrified at the prospect of becoming a father at 69, but now it just seems to make sense to me. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.
The last time I sat down and spoke with Ae, she wanted to talk to me alone. Ae asked me to make sure her mom is taken care of and to take care of our baby. She also made me promise that if the baby is a girl, that I will never ever let her follow in her big sister’s footsteps, no matter what I have to do. I made her that promise.
The little green-eyed cat now lives in the condo with Tui and I. The last time I was at the hospice, the cute beast came up to me and meowed a few times, looking to get another snack. I picked the cat up and put her in my knapsack. On the way home I brought her to a vet. She was checked out top to bottom, got de-wormed, de-flea’d, and vaccinated. I picked her up the next day. The vet told me that she had already been fixed and was probably someone’s abandoned pet because she was in good health. It’s really funny, the cat (now named Isis) hassles Tui incessantly when Tui is in the kitchen cooking. That little beast seems to be a needed part of our life now. Isis seems to know when Tui is feeling sad; she just comes up and climbs into Tui’s lap and turns on the purr motor until Tui feels better.
Last night was a comedy with Tui and Isis. Isis ran out of the kitchen with a huge prawn in her mouth, Tui was in hot pursuit hollering obscenities. Isis ran in to the bedroom followed by Tui, then Isis came sprinting out in to the living room, prawn still in her jaws. Tui came in panting and red faced yelling some rather colorful obscenities at the cat. I burst out laughing at them both. Tui realized what she was doing and began to laugh also. Isis hid over in the corner by the television devouring her stolen seafood treasure.
Tui just came back from the hospice a few hours ago. She is rather quiet and sullen. She went out to the balcony and is sitting at the table in the dark wringing her hands. Ae is in really bad shape. I went out and sat down at the table and asked Tui if she wanted me to pack an overnight bag for her so she can be with Ae. She nodded and said “yes” and began to cry. Ae’s end is near; tonight, perhaps tomorrow. I can’t help but feel a sense of loss already. I’ve only known Ae for 8 days, but I have come to like her deeply. She really is a wonderful young woman. She has accepted her fate and has been brutally honest with Tui and I about her past. Tui really had difficulty listening to Ae when she said she was a prostitute. Ae apologizes for nothing in her life, she wanted the good life; to drink champagne with rich men and to live how she wanted. I will miss her. She’s the first completely honest Thai woman I have met.
I’m going to take Tui back to the hospice in an hour. Tui’s son is sitting at the kitchen table, head in hands, quietly sobbing to him self. Isis is in his lap quietly comforting him. He just found out his younger sister is dying. He thought she had moved to Ireland, thought she had married a postman. God help that poor kid. He’s totally clueless.
When this situation eventually passes, I will be taking Tui up to Lampang for a month. The holidays seem to have a special meaning this year. Ae was born there and wants her ashes to be spread in a pond nearby where she used to live and play when she was a child. Tui’s brother owns a house in Lampang and told us that we were welcome to use it as long as needed. He lives and works in Bangkok. Tui’s family members won’t be around when we go up to the house. She knows that I won’t get involved with a Thai family again and is content just to have me be with her. The last time I went to the country with Tui, her relatives hit me up for money and loans repeatedly. I expected this behavior and just politely refused again and again. Tui knows that I find that type of behavior to be undignified and greedy. She does not understand why I think this way, she just accepts it. Jiraporn’s family used to try the same tactics and behavior when asking for ‘loans’ and money. They weren’t poor; actually they were quite well off as a Thai family. I still wonder why they had to steal stuff from me. They really didn’t need it for money. Perhaps they just did it to put one over on me.
Tui’s family members have refused to see Ae. I no longer find this heartless and cold; they just cannot bring themselves to face the truth, to face the reality of a family member dying of AIDS. They will have to deal with Ae’s death in their own way. I think I did the right thing by getting Tui and Ae together so they could forgive each other. Tui still refuses to say her daughter is dying of AIDS, she just says Ae is very sick. The events of the past week have forced me to confront my feelings and inner pain in regards to losing Jiraporn. In some ways I have been healed by time, healed by Tui’s love, healed by Khae, healed by facing death again. At some time in our lives, we all have to face situations that force us to admit some dark and terrible secrets to ourselves. It’s part of life; it’s part of why we exist.
Four years back I was so deep in blackest despair, I actually loaded that old Spanish .32 caliber self-loading pistol and put the barrel in my mouth. I pulled the trigger and it misfired. The shell was a dud. That’s the darkest secret in my keep.
I’m not particularly religious or spiritual in my beliefs, however since I came to Thailand and met Jiraporn and Tui, I can truly say I was blessed in some manner. Thailand has a way of making life seem new again. The nuances of life and death are now beginning to make sense to me.
I got a second chance at life. I won’t screw it up this time. I’ve got a kid on the way that will need a Dad. I’ve got Tui, Khae, and a mischievous green-eyed cat named Isis.
Audentis Fortuna iuvat.
It could only happen in Thailand.