Eastern Spirits and Western Angels

We are in the country of spirits and as a child, when living here with my family, I remember stories of friendly ghosts inhabiting the houses of my schoolmates, evil spirits causing harm to workers in my father’s warehouse, water spirits invading the bedroom of our closest family friends. Of those who believed, it wasn’t only the Thai’s who had grown up on tales spouted through the generations; expatriates with experiences of their own came to independent conclusions and began dutifully placing offerings in the spirit houses that sat inside their homes. I, for one, neither believe nor disbelieve. I entertain the notion, however, that a Thai spirit has come onboard Atea to disrupt our balance. Whether benevolent or malicious, I believe it is up to interpretation and I try to look at what we’ve been given rather than what has been taken.

As I look back at 2015 our time has been generally been split evenly in fourths between Malaysia, Thailand, the United States and New Zealand. In that year, we lost a child due to miscarriage in both Malaysia and New Zealand; Ayla underwent major surgery in the US and Braca is now in intensive care in Thailand. Perhaps a Thai monk is in order to appease the spirits, or perhaps I owe thanks to my guardian angel for our good fortune. A response to our Facebook update on Braca’s condition resonates with this sentiment. In it my friend Gini stated, “I understand the Thai hospitals and doctors are world-class… I am amazed and encouraged by how your family has been so blessed with very scary health and welfare occurrences time and time again. The angels really take care of you and there is no reason why that will ever change.” There are so many ways to look at a situation; this is the first time we have had travel insurance. We could have been mid-passage. We could have been in a third-world country with poor medical care. Realize this and we can say how very blessed we are.

As many of you know we are now residents of the Bangkok Hospital in Phuket. This has come as a total surprise as at the moment we should be midway between Thailand and Sri Lanka, away from the business and busyness of society and lost in the silence and solitude of the sea. We have spent the last two months working overtime on overdrive, madly preparing and crew for a year in the Indian Ocean. We have spent $30,000 on the boat to ready her, countless days and endless expense buying provisions in preparation for remote regions, downloading hundreds of charts, upgrading equipment, the list goes on. The boat has been turn upside down, reordered, dumped on again and resorted in the flurry of preparations that had become our daily routine over the last two months. The months preceding this were spent on planning and organization, getting visas and caites in order, lining up local representatives in required countries, bolstering and purchasing insurance for both body and boat, our cash flowing like water. It has taken a lot of dedicated, hard work to get us to this point and at the very moment of completion all plans have been dashed on the rocks as a moment of crisis takes over the months and months of preparation and planning.

We’ve had increasing concern for our son Braca but have been unable to identify the issue. Over the course of a few weeks our normally exuberant and delightful son slipped towards a temperamental and lazy four-year old to a weak and to lackluster grump, sliding further in the last few days to an emaciated and exhausted inpatient. At first John and I reveled in his growth as his body slimmed down to a trim, long-legged stature; I attributed his mood-swings and bouts of anger to the testosterone spurt known to come to boys around the age of four. Gradually his appetite decreased, his energy dissipated, his temperament became moodier and more difficult. He started loosing his interest in play or engagement with others. Our worry started to mount but we couldn’t get Braca to admit to any discomfort. We took him to a clinic where he was diagnosed with vitamin deficiency; I felt it was more than that but continued to prepare for our journey while keeping a close eye on him. We cleared Thai customs and immigration and moved Atea to the westernmost departure point; the boat was ready but we were not sailing out until the final piece was in place: Braca.

On the day of our intended departure I whisked Braca to a reputable International Hospital, clear that we needed medical sign off before we departed. They checked his vitals and ran standard blood tests; all came back regular. The doctor found lesions in his throat, which he felt explained loss of appetite and as a result loss of weight and energy. He ran abdominal x-rays that revealed severe constipation. I left feeling optimistic with a handful of drugs and an easy cure, reporting back to John that we’d paid money to be told our son was full of shit. However, by night he was vomiting and his inclination to sleep all day still a concern, compounded by an abnormally heavy, deep rhythmic breathing pattern which certainly raised the alarm.

After researching the doctor’s analysis we felt the assessment was not represented by his symptoms. We ran our own list of symptoms against possible causes, knowing that non-professional self-diagnosis always provides the most dramatic results. Braca’s list was long: weight and muscle loss, over ¼ his body weight down to 14 kg; lethargy and loss of interest; mouth sores and bum rash; frequent urination and constant thirst; constipation; loss of appetite. We came up with a list of four: Depression, Addison’s Disease, Diabetes, Cancer.

In the morning we about-faced and returned to Ao Chelong, rushing ashore illegally to get Braca to the Bangkok Hospital in Phuket. It took no time after a quick examination for the doctor to recognize that Braca was in a critical state and things ran fast from there: IV drips, blood tests, ultrasounds, admittance to ICU. We’d gone from a surge of testosterone to vitamin deficiency to mouth sores to chronic illness in the space of a few weeks. Each prognosis was worse; it was a relief to finally arrive at the right conclusion.

To understand our predicament fully you have to appreciate a few of the circumstances. For one, we had gone through a lot of transitions and Braca was adjusting to changes in condition, environment and weather since leaving the United States. We also have a son who absolutely refuses to admit discomfort, illness, or unease. Since birth he has rejected a sticker for its resemblance of a plaster. I’d repeatedly asked how he has been feeling and he refused any confession, saying only “I’m FINE mom. Just leave me alone!” There is a beauty hidden in this frustrating trait. When admitted to hospital, the nurses in Intensive Care produced a chart with a series of ten faces, each expression progressively pained. Point to 1 and you had a grin from ear-to-ear, point to 10 and the head was sobbing into a puddle of tears. When he was admitted, lethargic and eyes half-mast they held the chart in front of him and asked him to identify the face that best matched his state. He took awhile to respond and after studying the faces he finally pointed to number 2: A cheerful grin on a very happy face. They suggested a few other expressions but he shook his head and pointed again at number 2. A few hours later, after he had exceeded his tolerance level for needles and jabs and was in a flurry of tears, they produced the chart and asked him to assess his pain. He pointed to number 2. The nurse again provided a few other suggestions and he doggedly shook his head and held his finger on number 2. This was repeated several times and he never varied once from his choice – a cheery grin on a happy face. Is there a better example of looking at the bright side in times of hardship? At age four Braca is teaching the world a lesson: Even in times of strife there is always a smile to be found.

John and I started this blog when we began our first season on Atea expecting it to be filled with stories of our travels along the way, opening our experiences to those interested along the way. We didn’t expect it to become such a personal narrative of our intimate and private affairs. In following us through times of play and pleasure as well as through struggle and more unfortunate circumstance, we’ve shared so much more than hidden jewels sprinkled far out at sea. Our high points and low points have taught us that life is full of surprises regardless of the most meticulous of plans. It has shown us that adventure comes in all forms and that even hardship brings beauty. Look at a little boys smile in the most dire of times and you know that life is all about perspective; regardless of events, rainbows can always grace our horizon.