It is past time to write about it, so here we go. The song begins and after 15 seconds I am running for the exit - I say to myself, “I can’t do this,” as I shove open the door to Irving Park Road. A few months later, the scene repeats itself and I disappear from my friend’s basement and collapse into a corner of the stairway on the way to the second story - Susan by my side. And just yesterday, silent tears as we watch PitchPerfect 3 of all movies.
One of the most stupefying aspects of returning from Thailand has been which people and what moments pervade my memory. Many are moments that I did not make special note of while we were there. Many people are those I spent a lot of time with, but did not recognize as having an especially strong bond with.
At the care center, we assisted a young woman who survived an especially difficult childhood. From what I was told, she had survived: abuse from her family, possibly a time in the sex trade, she had contracted HIV, and unsurprisingly, had concurrent mental health struggles at the time we lived amongst her. She was generally considered medically stable, but there was nowhere else for her to go.
She was a quiet, helpful young woman who carried her history deep in her eyes at times. Some days were better and there were moments where I witnessed excitement and joy in a way I rarely feel. She seemed to love group activities and was always up for our routine whether it was games, exercise, art therapy, or music. She did not stand out as exceptional at any particular activities, but that never seemed to hold her back.
She had assigned tasks like cleaning and helping with cooking and she did them without complaint. I was told we had to be careful with what we assigned as tasks, because with anything supervisory she could talk down to others or treat them as less - a little too prideful. She also seemed a little isolated as she never appeared to create any close bonds or to have longer conversations with any particular community members - I mean this as an observation, without judgment.
We worried about her from time to time. She had her mental health appointments and her regular check-ins with the infectious disease doctors (HIV treatment falls under them). There was a period of time where she lost a lot of weight, another where she was sleeping a lot and needed her mental health medications adjusted, and another where heavy menses seemed to lead to significant anemia. All of these situations were treatable, but none of which she ever seemed to be self-aware of. As medical professionals we, usually the Thai nurse, were pretty important in recognizing an onset of symptoms and having them followed-up on.
There was this magical evening, and I want to say it was at Loy Kratong (a festival to give thanks to the Buddha for the harvest) but it may have been Christmas at the Garden of Friendship. There was a Karaoke machine that mostly went unused until near the end of the night. And somehow Susan ended up with a microphone and put on an old stand by. There was the bird, with the second mic in hand singing every word next to her and beaming with electric joy. The bird did not speak a word of English, but she sang every word to that old Cranberries classic, Zombie. She almost seemed giddy as she and Susan shared a smile and full-hearted laugh when the song was over. She seemed bonded to Susan after that.
A few months after we left Thailand, we learned that she had died unexpectedly, suddenly, and tragically from some sort of a hemorrhage. This news broke me for a time. She was someone whom I had expected to see at the care center on many visits in the future. I was angry, and probably still am, that this was how and when she was taken. I get that life is unfair, but this? I tell myself at least she was cared for, knew that she was loved, and was not in the depths of her trauma or exploitation at the end. As I write this I am prescient to how people died right in front of me in Thailand. My career exposes me to death, yes, but these were people in my community whom I saw every day. An intimacy in death I had not previously known.
Music has always been magic for me. Beyond its immediate beauty and enjoyment, it connects and records memories in hidden recesses of the mind: a time, a place, a smell, a feeling, an emotion, or an entire story. The chords strike and I am in a memory before I consciously process the song that is playing. I am transported back to high school, or a dorm room next to my roommate, our wedding dance, or driving through Carbondale in my jeep with the top down and the wind rushing headed toward a rainstorm because it has just been so long since it has rained.
And now it happens. Regularly enough to stay close, but irregularly enough to stay jarring. She is here and we are there. The first time I remember was at that Karaoke bar where a friend sang it - Susan by my side as I sobbed. My friends love me, but I didn’t want to ruin the party and I am just now beginning to understand how to talk about it.
The song starts and I am weeping before I know why; before there are even emotions. Emotions, some of which I realize are pain, anger, sadness, homesickness, love and even joy. And this is beauty of the path I am on, blessed to be a suffering servant carrying so many beautiful stories in me.
I don’t usually sob anymore, but I can rarely keep tears from rolling down my face. Susan does not sing that song at Karaoke any more, but I am starting to think maybe she should: someone is going to and she can honor Song Bird as well as anyone in the room.
I believe I may have shared some of these before, but if you know any struggling with vicarious trauma, healthcare related burnout, or a difficult transition from volunteer work - these books may be helpful.