Chocolates in heaven

A spiritual reflection from one of our recent volunteers

I was awakened in my room by the tolling of the Don Wai Village church bell around four in the morning. It was a sign that someone from the village had recently died. Indeed, I received the sad news later that morning that one of the children of Sarnelli House passed away.
    Gao was already very weak when I met him early on in my immersion exposure in Sarnelli House at Don Wai village, Nongkhai, Thailand. Ms. Kate Introna, the lovely volunteer nurse from Australia and considered as the “Mother Superior” of the foundation founded by Fr. Mike Shea, CSsR, introduced me to Gao and explained to me what he was suffering at that time. As one among the many HIV afflicted children cared for by the foundation, Gao, as with any HIV-positive person, was susceptible to all sorts of diseases. Thanks to the advancement of medical science, the new ARV (Anti-Retroviral) drugs given to the children on a routine basis help in keeping their viral load at the lowest level (making the immune system “active”) with minimum side effects. Unfortunately, Gao contracted a debilitating infection in his brain stem, thus affecting his locomotor skills, speech, and other sensory functions. He could barely walk or move his limbs and his speech became slurred and barely audible, while his eyes would only slightly open, tears constantly flowing from them. Pitiful would be a lousy word to describe his situation.

    When Ms. Kate said that I could help in giving Gao his routine exercises, together with the two Swiss nurse volunteers, I gladly accepted. I was anxious at first because of the language challenge, during this time I was yet to begin my formal study of the Thai language and my present vocabulary was still limited to “Sawadee krap” and “kawp khun krap”. Just imagine how challenging and comical it was when I was giving him his exercises. I always remember how the house mother and some of the children would bawl in laughter when I mispronounce (actually, mis-tone) a word I gave to Gao; and as I laughed along with them, I could actually notice a slight smile from him, too. But one thing I learned from Ms. Kate and the house mother was that Gao loves chocolates. So, every time I came to visit him, with or without exercises (sometimes he was too tired to do so), I brought along chocolates with me (Swiss chocolates from the Swiss volunteers, yum!) just to give him encouragement and sometimes as a prize when he was able to do even a simple exercise like opening and closing his hands. I couldn’t help but smile every time I had to wipe from his mouth and hands the mess he made with the chocolates as he slowly munched on them. But the inevitable was yet to come.
    A few weeks later, Gao had a sudden high fever and was rushed to the government hospital in Udon Thani. In the crowded hospital ward, the day before he died (he was confined for a few days there), I was beside him giving him a cold sponge bath to help lower his rising temperature while staff members Ms. Kate, Bro. Kaeng, and Krunoi, went to talk with the doctor. While I was trying to ease down his frail, shivering body, I held his right hand and offered a silent prayer to our Mother of Perpetual Help asking her to comfort this suffering child of hers, praying that whatever her Son, our Lord, wills, may it be done. Then I heard Gao, almost inaudibly, whisper that he would like to have some chocolates. So, I took the KitKat chocolate from the side table, opened its foil wrappings, and gently handed it to his mouth. I was tearfully smiling at him as he munched on them with a childlike gusto. I never knew it would be the last time I would be giving him chocolates. Later that night, he succumbed to pneumonia and died. I was never able to look at chocolates the same way again.

    I felt so sad (grieving, yes) that a young lad like Gao, barely seventeen, should die so young; yet, I found consolation that Gao is finally at peace and no longer suffering, embraced in the eternal comfort of God’s presence. Yes, I attended to Gao’s physical weakness and frailty, but in the end it was Gao who taught me how to be strong. Though we only knew each other for a short while and could barely understand each other’s language, I became a big brother to him. My encounters with Gao taught me a valuable lesson in life: that real strength comes from caring and being compassionate with one another. I was full of anxiety and fear when I first arrived in Sarnelli House, not knowing what to do or how I could really contribute, yet God made a beautiful plan through Gao. I could hardly speak Gao’s language but my encounters with him reminded me that love—a love that transcends the boundaries of language, culture, or race, is the real language of compassion. It reminded me that love should be my primal motivation in everything I do. In other words, Gao showed me my capacity to love. Right now I see in each and everyone a life that is so precious, an encounter that may be the last, each moment an opportunity to love. I always had issues with death, my own, and the apparent sadness of losing a loved one, but my remarkable experience with Gao was a reminder that it is when we truly and genuinely love in this life, that death becomes not a defeat but a triumph of life.
    As I witnessed Gao’s cremation on the 26th of June 2017, I was holding a bar of chocolate in my hand planning to include it in the cremation offering, but I held back. With tears filling my eyes, I smiled as I said to Gao in my mind, “I know Gao; no chocolate this world can offer is as sweet as God’s presence!”

Bro. Jose Lemuel E. Nadorra, CSsR
Pafang, Thailand

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