This story is a true one that actually happened to me back in 2013 when I was traveling through South East Asia. It’s something I’ve rarely spoken about to anyone but my mum and a few very close friends. It is something I will never forget and more importantly, something that I SHOULD not forget.
I’d enjoyed my time in Cambodia but as I swung my backpack up on my shoulder for what felt like the fiftieth time that day, I discovered I was relieved to be getting back to a slightly more ‘upmarket’ version of civilization just across the border in Thailand.
I had replaced my newly stamped passport back in the front pocket of my bag and turned around to see my aunt and uncle doing the same just behind me. A few more steps and we’d be back in the Land of Smiles.
As we walked towards the checkpoint I could feel our steps quicken as if we wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. There’d been so much poverty and yet it was a sight I was no longer shocked by. In fact, it had become almost familiar, which made it worse.
It was at that moment that I saw her . Before I could say anything I heard my aunt gasp out loud and I realised that she too had seen what I’d seen at the same time.
We stared at the young woman squatting by the side of the road, a mass of cloth in her arms around a baby that didn’t look as though it was from this world. Its head was swollen to about twice its normal size and its already gigantic eyes looked out upon the world, seemingly far wiser than any belonging to an older person.
I found my steps slowing down and I said to my aunt, ” We can’t just leave them here.”
She had turned to face me, a look on her face that showed her own struggle with what she’d seen.
“What are we going to do with them? Where are we going to take them?” she asked me.
I tried to get the words out, but even as I stumbled over them, saying, “A hospital… surely there’s a hospital…” I knew it was pointless.
The baby would die; there was no doubt. Looking back at the mother I could see that her own eyes already registered what was going to happen. In fact, she looked tired and almost accepting. These things happened in this part of the world. You didn’t forget, but you moved on.
As I walked away that day I was deeply shocked and felt something in me change. I felt like a bad person to see a fellow human being in need and not do whatever I could to help. I had called my mum, crying, soon after and even now I can still see the baby’s eyes staring at me.
Life is life no matter where you are, but in some places its more easily extinguishable. I was faced with death that day and moreover, I was faced with the concept of just walking away and doing nothing. I also truly learned what empathy was.
I didn’t forgive myself for a long time.