By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
It starts that way with the Fabulous Five of Klong Toey Kindergarten Class of 2009 – 2010. This paddle of ducklings are growing up to be among the most beautiful young men and women on the planet. Maybe not swans, but certainly the greatest of all ducks!
First there’s Miss Bhai. (Her nickname means, “ the highest branch of the tree touched by the morning sun.”) Three years ago, when she was two, the drug cops special branch did a 3:00 a.m. blast into her momma and papa’s Klong Toey shack without knocking; then cuffed and took her folks to the station for possession with intent to sell.
It wasn’t pleasant, as intent to sell brings with it an industrial-sized prison term. Plus momma and papa were small players: they didn’t have the ten thousand baht or so, cash up front, that might have helped them on the way to the station. On top of that, when their agent got word a few minutes later, she wasn’t really interested in helping at the police station, as momma and papa, in her eyes, were dumb, and had been caught before.
Everyone assumed Bhai’s Granny would come to bundle up the baby and take her home as soon as the uniforms left, since they were locking up Momma and Poppa in the Ta Rua (Port Authority) jail, on their way to court and a long stretch in prison.
But Granny got distracted. She got the news in the middle of an all-night-all-day card game with some cronies; it was one of those “I won't quit till I win my money back, or lose everything” moments. And she let the news slip by her.
Two nights later, a thief broke into momma and poppa’s shack. Baby Bhai was lying on the floor, whimpering. The thief was shocked but still stole the rice cooker (probably to save his honor as a thief) plus the drugs the cops didn't find; then shouted “Dying Baby! Dying Baby!" at the top of his lungs and ran into the night. He most probably saved her life. But it took her three months in the communicable diseases hospital to heal and fatten her up. I forgot to mention, she got AIDS from her mom, who got it from her dad.
That was three years ago. Both mom and dad are still in prison, getting sicker.
Now, just a couple-three weeks ago, Miss Bhai got sick again. She’s over it now. After weeks in hospital, she’s back with us. “Measles Bhai,” the Klong Toey Kindergarten Five call her.
Almost lost her to The Measles Monster. That, plus The Measles Monster called in an ugly friend - maybe a stray mean Orc - who shoved a fist-full of pneumonia down her lungs. The doc talked gently, but translated into street talk, he said, “This kid's going to the temple in a wooden box.” It was five days of touch and go. The odds were bad: two in three, she dies.
She's a tough kid. Beat the odds. She didn’t die three years ago, and she didn't die a couple-three weeks ago.
When she returned to us in a hospital van, the rest of her paddle of the Fabulous Five Kindergarten Class of 2009 - 2010 were waiting. They had skipped kindergarten class when they heard she was coming home: Miss Sim, Miss Dao, Miss Fai, and Master Winner.
Bhai insisted that she walk on her own, although she was still pretty wobbly on her pins. They wanted to know about cookies, candy. Did the nurse make you eat all your food? Did she comb your hair nicely? Did you have to take a bath? Did they have school there? Could you watch cartoons? What time did you have to go to sleep? They had wanted to visit, but she was quarantined with the measles. Master Winner wanted to know if anyone had given her a toy car and the girls wanted to know if she had any new dolls.
Today, if you looked at her, even with her taking the aids antivirals twice a day, you wouldn’t know. She looks healthy. Eats as much as she can possibly stuff in each meal, pats her tummy. Doesn’t ever want to be hungry again.
Last week, she completed the school year along with her special paddle of friends: she finished ninth from the top in second-year kindergarten.
Miss Bhai, the number one tough lady of the ugly ducklings says that classmate five-year-old Miss Sim is almost her favorite girl friend. Miss Sim, with an armful of burn-scars, is the smallest of the paddle.
Miss Sim actually struck the match and lighted her own birthday cake candles last week. We asked her if she wanted to, and she nodded okay, which was not an easy call for the five year old who was carried out of a burning shack - singed hair, smoldering clothes, and burned arm, screaming - just over a year ago.
Miss Sim’s arm has healed. Though scarred and certainly not pretty, her arm, hand and finger movement is not impaired. This child fears almost nothing. Five years old, she boldly says there are no goblins or monsters under her bed!!! If there were, she'd whomp 'um just like her Granny used to whomp her if she’d make noise when Granny was in a card game. And Miss Sim gets up at night when her best friend Dao knows she's going to wet the bed and is afraid to put her feet on the floor because of the goblins and monsters under there. Sim, whose bed is next to Dao’s, checks under Dao's bed to see if “the coast is clear.”
Miss Dao’s been with us two years now. She doesn’t have the virus, though her mom did. When momma was still alive, they moved shacks often. Momma was “the roving kind.” The neighbors noticed, and often told her off, said she wasn’t taking proper care of Dao. Dao’s Granny told us that finally she herself urged her daughter, “Best you take that baby, and go to that foundation. Those people there will at least feed you and Dao. Besides, you’re too skinny and sick to keep earning nighttime money any more.” Momma died with us. Miss Dao is now nearly six, and Granny comes to visit when she feels a bit chipper and can hustle bus fare.
Right hand companion to Dao among the Fabulous Five is Miss Fai (her name means “fluffy cotton like the clouds”) who loves to stand in the rain, letting the raindrops wash her hair, run down her face. She came to us four years ago, a sickly child full of lice. Back then if you brought Miss Fai near water, like even a toilet, she'd go bonkers. Suggest a shower, she'd go hysterical. That’s because in the past, her momma, barking mad with each full moon, crazy with the AIDS virus in her brain, would have spells where she would throw water in her daughter's face and then into her own as punishment, screaming the whole time. One night, with another full moon, Momma walked off into the night. Miss Fai is charming, front tooth-less, likes to wear her hair short, dresses like a six-year-old fashion model: always neat and clean.
The only boy in this paddle is young Master "Winner." He's just like his name: a kid every dad would like as his own son. Wears his superman costume to kindergarten. Says he wants to live at our farm on the canal with the big boys. Our farm is half an hour’s drive out of Bangkok, postage stamp small, but enough room for our street boys to be healed and heal themselves from the scars and horrors of city streets. Our farm boys walk to school, go barefoot, go fishing, grow from boys to men. Master Winner tells us he's ready to join the older boys, but just not quite yet as his momma couldn't visit him there very often.
His Momma's gentle, loving, long black hair down her shoulders. She got the virus, from his Western daddy, now disappeared. Or at least so says momma. She knows his relatives; they blame momma and won't touch Master Winner with a 30-foot barge pole. Momma worked in a factory, quit her job for a while, as the daily bus travel was literally killing her. Now she's stronger with the government-sponsored antivirals, and has a new job; got herself a hot water pot and a coffee grinder, and now she sells fresh cups of coffee on the sidewalk in front of a low budget backpackers’ hotel. The police there are kind – know she’s sick - and they ask no favors. Not even free cups of coffee or other favors. And they chase away the bad guys who seek “sidewalk space rent,” so Momma survives.
She tells her “truth,” and that's okay. She tells what she feels she wants us to know.
She offered this unbelievable pact with us. Her idea. I wouldn't have dreamed of such an agreement on my own, nor our staff. I'm not that smart!!! Her pact works like this:
No matter what. No matter how many days she may eat just rice and fish sauce, no matter how tempting the easy nighttime money might be, now matter how much money she might have to borrow from the money lenders, even at 20 Baht a day on a 100 baht, she won't give in. Won’t spread the virus – she promises - IF we care for her youngest son, Master Winner. We gave her our word and we live and die by our word.
And me, I promised beyond the grave. Heavy stuff. I'm 69 and promised her we'd care for this kid, until he grows up. Certainly after I'm dead and gone. The staff said they would keep their word. We will care for Master Winner.
So we said, Momma of Master Winner, you try to keep your word, as best as you can; and if you goof up, we’ll look the other way. Don't worry; we will care for your son. He's part of the Klong Toey Kindergarten Class of 2009 - 2010. He’s a member of the Fabulous Five.
We made our promise, candles and joss sticks in hand at our Mercy Centre: she in front of a statue of the Buddha and me in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Momma comes now and then, mostly alone, but sometimes with a boy friend. We ask Master Winner if he wants to help Momma sell fresh cups of coffee over the weekend. Off they go, hand in hand.
This paddle of five of our Klong Toey Kindergarten Graduates… they waddle, they quack, they fall down, and get up. They swim without being really taught, and somehow have found each other in their own beautiful way. Now, school’s out and each morning, they wake up to try to have as much fun as they possibly can.
They may never turn out to be swans, but fabulous ducks they shall be.
Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation-Mercy Centre. For more information: