I envy doctors.
Not their paychecks (okay maybe a little), not their social status (what status?). I envy them because their profession requires them to partake in life at its most essential core, its bare naked truth; at the very crossroad of life and death. Observing death, or one’s miraculous escape from it, has a certain effect (or depending on how you look at it, a certain toll) on one’s life and thoughts. Life, stripped of all temporary badges, removed from all foam and bubbles, comes down to your health. At the root of everyone’s lives and concerns, health, and consequently death, is center stage. Observance of the body’s inherent weakness and vulnerabilities, often leading to tragic ends, humbles you like no other, constantly reminding you of what it means to “live.” Oddly enough, death illuminates life.
The life of an average lawyer is often monotonous. Contrary to public belief, not every lawyer enjoys courtroom thrills every other day like the JAG guys in “A Few Good Men.” Litigators, like me, spend most of our time buried in paper. This past week, in which a filing of thousands of pages was due, all I remember are Excel spreadsheets, corporate documents in PDFs, standing in front of the massive copier, feeding the copier, more spreadsheets, more PDFs, cursing at the copier, and walking to and from the copier. And the scanner with an unusual appetite to devour every other page, making that terrifying hissing sound as the sheet is violently crinkled and deformed. Like a pure, white lamb being devoured by a gray wolf.
Sure, this work was also for the public good (I try to console myself), as a victorious case will save this corporation millions of dollars, keeping it in business and providing paychecks for its employees. Yet in this statically hectic life of an average lawyer, “life” is so often forgotten. Working for corporations with no “face” makes it very difficult to measure the impact of one’s worth; dollar signs, while critical on the balance sheets of the business, do little to gauge meaningful “personal” impact on individual lives. Mindlessly muttering in front of the copier and computer monitor does not help, either.
Living in this gray area called “associate attorney,” I am sometimes jolted awake with utterly unreasonable tragedy.
A family of six was just beginning to revel in their new life in Phnom Penh. The parents were both missionaries from Korea, and were sent to the bustling city to study the language and culture of Cambodians, all in preparation of eventual missionary work. The young children – eleven, nine, seven and three years old – were grasping the language like dry sponges, slowly becoming accustomed to the suffocating heat, the very fragrant (but very different) food, the people, and streets, everything. As the parents began laying the ground works of their mission works, brainstorming and networking, the children also began building their imaginary fortresses – of new friends and classmates.
Traveling in Southeast Asia is fundamentally different from living there. No matter how long the duration, be it a weekend trip or an extended six-month stay, travel is travel. Knowing that your roots are not permanent, that you have the will and ability to pack your bags, book the next flight and get out of there offers a sense of freedom or outlet that calms the nerves. Leaving the comfort of your home country to set new roots in Cambodia – with four young children – takes guts. No amount of planning seems adequate, and suddenly, sacrifice takes on a whole new meaning.
Yet this family of six made it through the first three years. Chatting up the locals and making friends was easier, thanks to all the language training. The food – the food! – was beautiful, vibrant. When the announcement came that their missionary site had been finalized (Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia), the excitement in the household was palpable. The thought and process of moving again was daunting, but years of preparation had finally come to fruition. As they packed their limited belongings, thoughts of their new life and work in Siem Reap reeled through their minds, a distant land full of new people, new schools, new food. Change, they now realized, was a blessing in disguise, now an essential fuel for this young family.
Sometime in the early morning. The last of the boxes were stuffed into the back of the weathered SUV. Teary goodbyes were exchanges, as other missionaries and friends gathered around to send the family off. But no one was truly downhearted, for they had made plans to visit sometime in the near future. They promised to call when they arrived in Siem Reap, and to send pictures. A fellow missionary took a photo of the family in their SUV, and after the family had left, emailed the photo with the message, “Sending this now, but you’ll see it when you get there.” All of this took place before 10:00 am.
The missionary friend who had taken the photo (and who had also helped with the packing the past few days) went about his usual routine, taking language courses, making contacts. Ready to go to bed, he received a phone call later that night around 10:00 pm. “There was an accident. The SUV carrying the missionary’s family hit an oncoming tour bus head on.” His mind blanked. His knees buckled, and he grabbed a chair for balance. He could not believe what he was hearing. The family was passing through the Kampong Thom region. Both parents and the two middle children were killed on impact. The oldest daughter and the three year-old survived, but the oldest suffered massive brain damage, several compound fractures, and lost an arm. The youngest was in a coma. Ten Taiwanese tourists on the bus were also killed. Still unable to digest the news, the missionary rushed to the hospital, where the four lifeless bodies arrived around one in the morning.
I am told that the grieving mother of the dead missionary just boarded a plane from Korea to witness first-hand what had just happened to her beloved son and his family.
Why do things like this happen, even to the best of us. Why now, when their new mission work was just about to bloom. Why the kids, still so young, full of life. The surviving children, what about them, what about their lives. What about the old, grieving mother; what are you supposed to say to her.
There is simply no answer. Reason only goes so far. Logical explanations are often rendered meaningless. No words of comfort are good enough – they’re simply not good enough. Grief, anger, confusion. Nothing satiates what life sometimes regurgitates. It does not care about your circumstances, and it could care less about how you deal with it in the aftermath of tragic loss.
In the wake of things, as I continue to go about my work as a lawyer, swearing at the copier and cursing Bill Gates and his damned Excel, I am once again reminded that life has a purpose. No level of comfort will do, and no cry for an adequate explanation (why?) will satiate the thirst. But a belief that everything happens for a reason, and that every life in every path has a purpose mends at least a portion of torn hearts. The enlightenment that someone’s purpose may be realized through death is still hard to swallow. That “why” question.
So much suffering, so much injustice. As another tragedy is permanently etched in my mind, this average lawyer continues to ponder about the purpose of life.
May the victims rest in peace…