CHEA Somnang   2000 to November 6, 2022 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have sent in so many wonderful pictures and shared your beautiful memories of Somnang. I know he was all of the things you said he was… and more, however, my memories unfortunately have been clouded by the skeleton Somnang that walked breathlessly into my kitchen just a few days before his death. I was frustrated and angry at him for letting himself deteriorate to such a point again because I realized that only a miracle would bring him back this time… and I had to prepare myself for what was almost certain to come.

I was also upset that no one had told me he had for the third time stopped taking his medicines for TB and HIV because he didn’t want others to know his status… as his condition worsened and he could no longer work, he told everyone not to tell me because he knew I would be upset.

He was right of course… I was upset. Upset each night he kept me awake with his persistent cough, each time I had to insert an IV in him, each time he called me to help him to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I was upset when we had to take him into Phnom Penh to start him on his ARV drug only to receive a call that he needed to start his TB medicine first… but when we called to make an appointment we were told to wait 5 days until after the holidays.

He knew I was upset and he apologized several times for being a problem. One night I heard a commotion outside my bedroom and found out he was trying to mop up a trail of loose stools. He had tried to make it on his own to the bathroom because he didn’t want to bother me. What he needed most from me was a hug… but what he got was more of my frustration. 

The next day I bought him adult diapers and complained about the price. He didn’t know how they work and so I had to put it on for him. This was embarrassing for both of us, but wearing the diapers gave him a bit more confidence, and by the next morning he had actually gotten up on his own to make himself some breakfast noodles, instead of eating the rice soup from the kitchen. I was encouraged and told him so as I finished my own breakfast and walked out of the room on my way to the office. He was watching a movie on TV… IRON MAN, I think it was. One of his favorite heroes.

I was working on the finances when he called me about an hour later… he could barely talk. I jumped on my bicycle and returned to the dorm to find him breathing very deeply, on the couch where I had left him. He said his heart was pounding and he had the look in his eyes that I have witnessed so many times in the past. I knew immediately that we had to get him to the hospital. 

He asked me to change his diaper before they took him to the car, and I did so, but this time with a bit more compassion. He died a few hours later at the hospital after being told by the Doctor that he would not be able to come back to Wat Opot until he was stronger.

He was brought back a few hours later in a hearse and I and three of the older boys performed the cremation immediately. The driver of the ambulance had been here several times before, during the COVID pandemic. We did not let the children view the body before cremation because we wanted them to remember Somnang as he was.

Some people may question my motive for sharing these less-than-positive memories about Somnang, and I understand your reasoning… however, I do so not to make Somnang look bad, nor is it to gain sympathy for myself. The Truth is that Somnang let go of Life because so many people failed him, including me. 

There are many people in today’s society, people of all ages, who, like Somnang, are living fraudulent lives. Guarding closely a closet full of secrets, that they believe would make them unacceptable to others if they became known… and the reality is, they most likely are right.

I suppose it could be said that it is only human that we protect ourselves from getting hurt, as I did with Somnang when I realized he might die… and too, it could be said that it is only human, that we protect ourselves from those things, like HIV and other possible threats in others, that, because of our ignorance, make us react in a negative way toward them. 

“Only human”… an excuse many of us use to negate our responsibility to Love others in difficult situations. “Only human”, is, in my estimation, a rather low bar that we have set for ourselves… but a bar that I wish could be raised to “Not typical human behavior” for both myself and all of humankind.


Lovable is not a word one would use to describe Chhang … and he was well aware of that. At one time, before the sores started, his looks were a little more tolerable but he never did gain weight in his lifetime, and having AIDS was something he could not hide from others.

Too weak to play, he sat or lay on the floor and watched the activities of the other children, but became irritable should anyone attempt to include him in on the fun. He was content to be invisible unless something didn’t go his way… then everyone knew about it. At times his demands went unnoticed however and he would eventually lie down on the floor and pretend the world did not exist. 

He did have his good moments, usually after a meal, when he would come over to my table. I was not always sure if it was to be with me, or so that he could clean my plate of the leftover scraps of meat or fish heads I had not consumed.

He wasn’t much for cuddling and he didn’t like being tickled… most times he would just curl up in my arms and fall asleep. He was one of my toughest critics, and although he seldom said a word, I could feel him watching me in my work and play with the other children. He seemed to be looking into my soul, questioning my motives, and evaluating my sincerity. For that reason, whenever he returned from a Doctor’s appointment and presented me with an ear of boiled sweet corn or another special treat that he himself had chosen to give to me, I was greatly humbled.

On the 16th of January 2005, he refused to get out of bed for breakfast and so we let him sleep in… but later that morning, when I went to check on him, he was very weak. I decided to start an IV but had difficulty finding a good vein. He offered little resistance as I poked around in his frail little arm with the needle. For Chhang that was unusual and, when after several attempts, I looked up, I realized his body was beginning to shut down.

There was fear on his face as I took hold of his hand. He looked straight into my eyes, following my every move. If I were to let go of his hand, he became restless, and so I continued to hold it while staring back into the ever-widening pupils of his big dark eyes. His breathing became shallow and his body relaxed, but his eyes never stopped watching me.

Several of the children came around, as did the other residents, they all knew what was happening… we have been through it so many times before.

With candle and incense lit, we sat there quietly waiting for what none of us wanted but all of us knew would come… and it did… but unlike any death, I had ever witnessed before, Chhang took a firm grip of my hand, and with his other arm, he reached up to wrap around my neck, like he had done so many times before when he wanted me to carry him. “Wayne!” he shouted, loud enough for all to hear.  

I literally saw his Spirit coming up and out of those big dark eyes and felt him, like a cool breeze on a midsummer’s night, passing through me. His lifeless arms then fell back to the bed while his eyes gently closed behind his departing Spirit.

I have always assumed that just before death when the eyes have fully dilated and the respirations have ceased…. There was no more recognition by the dying person of things going on around him… at least not of worldly things. Therefore to have Chhang reach out his arms for me and call my name, long after I assumed his Spirit had departed, was a bit startling. What could it mean?

I suppose there are many possible explanations for what happened that day… but I have now come to believe that Life is Eternal Energy and that what I saw and felt that day was, without any doubt in my mind, Chhang being released from the form that held him.