On a side street in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you’ll find a homely little Anglican church. If you saunter by of a Sunday, as I did not long ago, you might notice that several people linger on the premises after morning services. It was enough, at my visit, to draw me in, on the chance I might take home with me a sabbath story.
The priest was absorbed in a counseling session with a young couple – marriage is a demanding business these days – but I struck up conversation with a young Khmer musician who began to describe his life in a village on the border with Vietnam. The central figure in the story was his grandfather whom he had loved dearly. Long ago, it seems, as World War II broke out, the grandfather had been conscripted willy-nilly into the French colonial army and sent by ship to fight in Russia’s remote Far East.
Though lucky to survive, he brought home grave wounds on his thigh and abdomen. Even worse – he was unhinged. For five years, the returned warrior would strip off his clothes and limp, silent and naked, to the pagoda, sometimes wandering into the forest. Trailing him in this brokenness was his distressed but tender wife. He began to drink heavily, said the young Khmer. But in all these things, the grandfather could not explain himself. Despite such trials, his wife would not abandon him.
Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the old man began to emerge from his torment. Was it the tenacious love of a wife? The regenerative powers of the human body and spirit? The merciful touch of heaven, perhaps? Who knows? But he resumed speaking, as though returned not just from the long-ago Russian front, but from the grave itself. He began to tell for the first time of what had happened to him in those faraway and cruel places. It was these stories of suffering and courage that drew the young Khmer boy to his grandfather’s now-healed side.
The plucky old man lived – by dint of his family’s love – into his nineties. And his grandson now makes music of the stories he once heard, yes, of bewildered suffering, but also of a tenacity and love that wins healing against all odds.