She caught the HIV-AIDS virus from her innocent mom at birth, who got it from her not very innocent dad, And now her eyes don't work well at all. They did for a while over a year ago when she first came here. A while ago, the virus turned nasty and beat up her optic nerve. Her eyes, recently, don’t work very well even on bright sun shinny days. She’s blind.
And beautiful she is. A gift. We’re absolutely convinced that she is some former grand noble lady, born out of time and place whom you read about in ancient books of lore. This fragile precocious “just catching up” seven-year-old little girl with the virus. Still got her baby teeth, and smiles when you ask her to, and sits up now by herself and can manage her arms and hands into a beautiful Wai of greeting. Not yet totally cool on feeding herself but we’re working on that, along with her walking.
Life did not start well for Miss Peh. Her dad met the virus in some unmade bed on a booze filled night. Mom never knew till almost two years later when pregnant with baby Peh, when her routine hospital pregnancy blood test showed her HIV positive. Dad died first, mom later, just a few weeks after she gave birth to her first and only daughter Miss Peh. That was seven years ago.
Granny cared for Baby Peh as long as she could, living in a rented shack room about the size of a mosquito net. Then baby Peh moved in with her Auntie, a street sweeper with three children and a motorcycle taxi driver husband. Peh was almost five and couldn’t/wouldn’t walk or talk. By that time, Auntie knew about the Virus, and her Auntie did not dare tell her husband.
During the day, there was no one to care for Peh. Auntie sweeping streets, Uncle, long hours as motorcycle taxi driver and their 3 children in school. Do what you can! They put her on the floor next to some freshly cooked rice, locked the door and came back in the evening.
Auntie was afraid her husband would find out, get angry, and leave her and her three children, plus she didn’t like keeping secrets from him. She never had. A neighbor told her about a day care centre - an eight to five p.m. affair.
Auntie said ‘yes."
‘They frowned, hemmed and hawed, politely gave Auntie our phone number. That’s how Miss Peh came to us
Auntie visited once. That was a year ago. She promised to come often. How does that expression go? “Don’t hold your breath!”
Miss Peh cries when the older children touch her unexpectedly. Surprising her. Frightening her. When they don’t talk to her first so she can recognize their voices, their smell. She’s timid like a fawn.
This piano guy – he stopped by to play a song or two. Fiance of a nice lady who comes to visit. They listened politely to bits of the Alleluia Chorus of Handel’s Messiah, but five year olds, even six and seven year olds tire easily with unfamiliar classics. Miss Peh was in the back. Sitting in the lap of Momma Gung. Crippled beat up Momma Gung, off the streets, who wandered into Klong Toey, then walked, hobbled really, to our door step. Said she had no one, nowhere to go. We said, you can stay three days to catch your breath - a clean bed and some food. That was four years ago. Now, she loves Miss Peh for all the children she, momma Gung, will never have.
When the Piano guy came, Miss Peh had had a bad morning. Some of the children had teased her. And tears and whimpers are her only defense. We thought the music might sooth her. We believe in the magic of music. The children know how to sing scales. So we asked the Piano guy, could he play some scales. And when he played them, we heard a new voice – most tiny…a “Tinker Bell “ sound. Miss Peh was singing! We’d never heard her sing before.
As far as we know, her first time singing, sitting there on Aunty Gung’s lap. So I picked her up gently, whispering “it’s okay.” and I sat her on top of the piano. I held her so she wouldn’t fall and she put both hands on the top of the piano and sitting there – feeling the vibrations of the music. She sat there totally awe struck by the music and the vibrations from the piano. When he stopped playing, and the vibrations and music stopped, she frowned.
Then we asked the Piano man could he play some ragtime … and when he did, Miss Peh smiled, grinned, doing her best to clap her hands to the music and for the first time, moving her feet. Later that day, she took two steps and tears. Now, a week it’s ten steps hanging on the a railing, and then ‘ker-plunk” and giggles.
It’s Easter. The Holiest of all Feasts. Our holiest time of the year. It’s Passover. It’s Thai New Year – the full moon of the sixth month – the beginning of the Monsoons – the beginning of the Rice Planting Season. Soon it will be Miss Peh’s eighth birthday. She marches to a rhythm of a different drumbeat and her path is not one that most of us would choose, but celebrate life she does. She celebrates with a beauty all her own.
And if you want, next time you hear, perhaps Handel’s Messiah or a bit of ragtime – think of us, here at Mercy Centre, think of Miss Peh, this precious and precocious child with lots of catching up to do. But then again, don’t we all.