Children who are admitted to Emergency are accompanied by a relative who remains on the ward until the child’s release from hospital. Sometimes a father or grandmother will stay behind – if, say, the mother must tend to other children at home or both parents must work on their field; but typically the child’s mother is the chaperone.
I’ve been watching the mothers on Ward C closely. They sleep on the beds with their children, unless the child is older in which case they sleep on unfurled mats on the tiled floor below.
These blue- and teal-tinted uniformed moms bathe and feed their children. They accompany them to the physiotherapy clinic. They bring bedpans for the immobilized amongst them, fans to cool down painful limbs, snacks bought from the street vendor outside the gates to while away the time. And they ensure that relatives arriving on visitors’ day bear gifts of fruit, sweets and toys.
But mostly, it is awe-inspiring to observe the dynamics that develop between these women almost immediately, to see how quickly personal bonds are formed. A sisterhood founded on the necessity of living in a tightly shared space– much like they live in their own homes. But also based on their common experience of caring for their own badly injured kin.
They sit or sprawl on their childrens’ beds or empty ones nearby; often lying alongside one another in close proximity and speaking for hours when their children are otherwise occupied or napping; occasionally combing each others’ hair or checking for lice.
They watch each others’ children when one of the women needs a shower or must make a lengthy phone call. They tell stories about their lives, fill each other in on details about the latest arrival or departure, ogle at a visiting relative wearing a colorful outfit, and speak in hushed tones – a clear sign that the topic is a foreigner in their midst.
I’m reminded of the words of Father Totet. A Filipino priest who has lived in Battambang for 16 years, Totet deconstructed the source and meaning of Khmer relationships at a workshop I recently attended: When they first meet, Cambodians aren’t particularly interested in learning each others’ names. Instead, what binds them is an understanding of each person’s age, because then they can quickly establish a relationship based on a hierarchy of respect. They call each other sister or brother, uncle or aunt, and with the greeting of jum reup soo-uh (hello, but also I am binding myself to you), they bind themselves to each other in a relationship until one of them greets the other with jum reup lee-uh (goodbye, but more precisely I undo the tie that binds us).
The almost-familial bonds of jum-reup are evident every day on Ward C; with a sense of intimacy unlike anything else I’ve witnessed elsewhere. I’ve not yet seen a hug or embrace, but make no mistake: Powerful ties are being formed everyday in this garden oasis, through shared trauma, recovery and a path towards healing. There are angels among them. The Cambodian sisterhood, uniformly decked out in matching checkered outfits, confiding grief and gossip, is alive and well in Battambang.