I met Keith at the guesthouse’s restaurant, and we hit it off. He recently left a corporate job in Los Angeles and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia, his only plans being to see what he finds. He’s a musician, and we spent much time talking about music—both Cambodian and western—but it’s his reasons for traveling that stuck with me. After he turned 40, he lost any satisfaction with his job and his body began showing signs of aging; a sports injury that he used to overcome easily suddenly became a significant setback. With priorities reevaluated, he decided to travel the world. Such awareness of one’s mortality makes a drastic change like that seem easy, even necessary.
Mortality is on my mind, too. There is my Great-Uncle Bud who sits in a hospital room silent and motionless, needing support for even his most basic of needs. I remember him as a vibrant, energetic man who was always smiling and laughing. But, age and a stroke have taken hold, without any sign of loosening their grip.
Then there is my main Cambodian music teacher, classical wedding music master Sok Duch, whose age has finally caught up with him. In March, when I was still unsure whether or not to make this trip, I heard from friends that Sok Duch was very sick, even close to death. Since then, his health has mostly stabilized, but still, his condition made my decision to travel easy: I had to come, for what could be a final visit to my teacher and friend.
Since arriving in Cambodia two weeks ago, I have been to his house twice, the second visit easier than the first. There are the normal difficulties of countryside visits—a slower pace of life, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, no running water—but the hardest thing is watching someone you love and respect grapple with a failing body.
In some ways, Sok Duch is still himself. When I first arrived at his house, he inspected my kse diev (a one-stringed Cambodian instrument) and fixed a part that had been installed incorrectly. He can listen to songs and say when they sound good or if a mistake is made, and he can still play the kse diev, but only quietly and for a very short time before his hand cramps up. On good days, he can walk across the yard to the roadside shop where his Granddaughter sells goods to passing motorists. Other days, he can hardly sit up. I imagine that, for him, the emotional pain is worse than the physical; he has a willing mind in an unwilling body.
When I arrived for my second visit and greeted Sok Duch in the usual manner, he took my hands and held them to his chest, pulling my close for a long time. I told him about my past few days and he asked life in Phnom Penh, but mostly we just sat together.
A day and a half later, when it was time to leave, I couldn’t. I had plans to get together with friends that evening, but something compelled me to stay another night. We didn’t do much that night. We ate dinner, talked a little, and watched the news before he grew tired and fell asleep. But, it meant we had more time together, which right now seems to be the most important thing.
I plan on visiting once more, for a few nights, right before I leave. Sok Duch, his son and daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have become family, and they are always the last people I see whenever I leave Cambodia. Still, I expect the last visit to be difficult; there is not much one can do when a good friend is living on borrowed time. You sit together, hold hands, and hope that small show of companionship provides some balm against an old man’s pain.