Columns 2013

A tragic loss

I grew up in a neighborhood of extended families. Everyone had dozens of first and second cousins, aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles as well as grandparents living within a short distance of each other. It was not at all unusual for your best friends to also be your relatives because that’s who you spent your holidays and summers with; that’s who blew out the candles on your birthday cakes from the day of single digit candles until… well, in my case, until today when I refuse to put that many candles on any cake. The faces that surround me when I go East are the faces that surround every memory of my childhood.

When I read about the horror that visited a family here in Anchorage last week, when I read of the deaths of Touch Chea and Sorn Sreap and the assault on their great-granddaughter, my heart twisted in my chest. Their names may be hard for me to pronounce and their culture might be something I’ve never experienced, but the concept of family is something people share universally. I felt that tug of familiarity because I too grew up with a close, extended family.

My grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood. Without her, I would have had few links to the “Old World” – our euphemism for Italy. I would never have known of my family’s journeys. I would never have known that she once picked coffee beans in South America or that one of her most precious memories was of the day when her father was caring for a beautiful white horse that she got to ride. I certainly would never have heard about how she met my grandfather while she was hanging her hair out the window to dry.

My grandmother’s English was spotty. But these were stories I understood and held close because they connected me to my past, a past that children of immigrants can all too quickly lose.

Touch Chea and Sorn Sreap endured a world that was not always kind to them, from the killing fields of Cambodia to refugee camps to that long journey they had to take to a strange land. But they did it. They endured. They made a life for themselves and their children here in America, just as my grandparents did so many years ago. How terribly sad it is that their collective memories of a way of life no longer lived by their offspring will now inevitably fade.

Their private memories of what they did and what they sacrificed and the courageous fight they fought to not let the world defeat them was ended in one horrible night of unspeakable depravity. It is almost unbearably ironic that they survived what they did only to be brought down by one perverted human being seemingly bent on satisfying a twisted need that normal people can never comprehend.

I would almost hope to find that the alleged perpetrator was horribly abused in his childhood. That might at least give some reason to his actions. But, as monsters like Ted Bundy and Ted Kaczynski have shown, some people are just born twisted and there is not much society can do to untwist them. The best we can do is to separate them forever from the rest of us.

One of my dearest cousins had open-heart surgery last week. In about a month or so, my brother will have essentially the same procedure. It’s scary for me to think of a world in which they are not a phone call away. I held my breath the entire day of my cousin’s surgery until I heard he was in the recovery room. Then I started holding my breath all over again knowing that my brother was next. I am profoundly grateful to still have them both in my life.

I can’t find the words to express how sad I am for the family of Touch Chea and Sorn Sreap. The little girl will heal and, with love and support, be able to live her life normally. But she’ll never know her great-grandparents. She’ll never know their love and gentle touch. She’ll never hear them tell their stories to her. More than anything else that monster took from her, this was perhaps the saddest – he took them from her.