I am 63 years old
If you asked me, I would say that I am happy
I have friends
A new family
I pick mangoes with my neighbors
And we help each other cook meals
We play cards
And gamble with rambutans
Behind the gate.
We yell at the futbol players on the old tv during matches at lunch
And sit together as the sun turns the treetops to gold
I help some of the older residents walk home in the dark
And say good night when it gets late
Before sleep claims me
I remember my mother
And how she looked at the floor when my father told me I had to leave
I was 18
When I became a leper
And first saw the gate.
During the day I miss my fingers
And try to recall the ease of twisting a door knob
But at night I remember her
And try to recall the feeling
Of my mother’s arms around me
On the other side of the gate.
This poem came to me after our visit to the Phud Hong Leprosy Community near our town in Thailand. It was an incredibly powerful experience to see how its members have adapted to life within their community. All the residents are elderly, as there have been very few new cases of leprosy in the region in the last couple of decades. Many members have been there for the past forty years, sharing with us stories about how they were isolated and cast out from their families and communities when they were first diagnosed. It is a disease with a terrible stigma, especially back in the 1960s and 1970s when many of the people we spoke with first contracted it.
For many years, members of the Phud Hong community were not allowed to interact freely with the surrounding town, and very few people came to visit them. Today, however, modern medication has eradicated the bacteria from their bodies and made them non-contagious, allowing them to come and go as they please. Many, however, have found that they still prefer life within their community compared to the outside world. I wrote this poem from the imagined perspective of an older member in the late 1990s or early 2000s when the community was still gated, and based on some of the testimony we heard during our visit.
In Thailand, the family unit comprises an extremely strong bond. Having that broken, as some members described to us, and being disowned by the very people that are supposed to love and support you unconditionally is something that really hit home for me. I first imagined rage and fury as the predominant emotions. But many members spoke of feeling an indescribable sadness rather than anger. Here, I’ve imagined what someone who has gone through this thinks about when they are alone with their thoughts at night, and the emotional rigidity of daytime gives way to the melancholy cover of darkness.