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Lessons from the Dump

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I’m your average American mother. I raised 3.4 children (okay, we’ll round it up to 4), drove enough miles in a minivan to reach Saturn, and kissed so many children’s owies that I resorted to buying both ChapStick and Band-Aids by the case. I’m the first to admit, I have been around the motherly block and have plenty of battle-scared stretch marks to prove it.

Don’t let me imply that parenting—nurturing, lecturing, praying, prodding (fine, I was yelling)—kept me chained to the house. In between packing lunches, pressing my husband’s shirts, and coaching my daughter’s soccer team, I designed bridal patterns for a major NY design house, served the youth in my church, and started a successful decorative painting business. There was a time when reliving my accomplishments would make me want to pat myself on the back—but then I met Sang Ly.

Actually, to be truthful, I haven’t met Sang Ly in person yet. Instead, I’ve peeked into her life by watching hours of footage shot for a documentary where filmmakers followed her around for days on end. You see, one of my sons was a film major in college, and for his final project, he headed off to Cambodia to shoot a movie.

He’d actually planned on making a film about the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), an amazing organization that helps to educate the city’s poorest children. (He had worked for CCF a year earlier, teaching at their school in Phnom Penh.) When my son realized that filming at the school would be difficult (that’s another story), he and his small crew switched gears and headed to Stung Meanchey, the city’s largest municipal waste dump.

And that’s where by sheer accident (read grace), he met Sang Ly.

Sang Ly lives with her husband and three children in a small shed surrounded by trash. She has no running water, no sink, no toilet, no electricity. She cooks rice for her family each day by burning sticks inside a ceramic stove.

At first, I’ll admit, I felt pity watching her plight, the kind of emotion that makes one decide to donate a little extra to the Red Cross, right before they head off to meet friends at the local café. Yet the longer I watched the woman, the more my pity morphed into anchored admiration.

Her youngest child was sick. Not sick as in haulmychildem>to-thedoctorem>forhis-little-cough sick. I’m talking about diarrhea-every-night, can’t-keep-food-down, protruding-belly and close-to-death kind of sick. And yet, in frame after frame, Sang Ly heads off each day with her child in tow, to help her husband gather enough recyclables to feed the family for that day. She also tries to save enough extra for another visit to the doctor to try a different kind of medicine for her child—and generally, she is smiling, occasionally even laughing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Sang Ly doesn’t have days where she wants to throw her hands toward heaven and scream, because I know that she does (as do I). What I admire is that she endures. She harbors hope.

She is relentless in her quest to help her son, and after finally deciding that modern doctors are not helping, she treks back to the province of her childhood to see the local healer. I have watched the footage over and over and I am still amazed. In a tender moment of courage and faith, she turns her screaming toddler over to the Healer to let the man perform his ancient art. The Healer, who has melted a black tar-like substance in the bottom of a broken cup, begins to poke it into the child’s tiny wrists with a dirty needle. If I were there, I would jump in and snatch the terrified child away, save him from the pain. Luckily, I am not, for in later footage, it becomes clear that the medicine, mixed with a mother’s faith, has worked, and the child’s health dramatically improves. And then I wonder if I will ever be as brave as Sang Ly.

Lest you think I’m just getting sappy as I age, I am not the only one Sang Ly has affected. My husband was so inspired by the woman’s actions that he began to write another book with Sang Ly as the main character (to be released in September). Then, in April of this year, he headed back to Cambodia with my son to find and meet Sang Ly in person. (My husband’s first book, Letters for Emily, was published about ten years ago by Simon & Schuster. See

Scheduling conflicts didn’t allow me to go with them, but I didn’t feel slighted. I already know Sang Ly well enough that I no longer pity her—I admire her. We will meet soon enough.

We come from opposite sides of the world, from disparate social structures, with completely different life experience. We have nothing in common—and yet we have everything in common.

We want our children to be educated, to grow up well and healthy. We want our husbands to succeed, our families toexperience joy and peace and satisfaction. We want to live our lives with hope. We want to believe that sometimes, on occasion, miracles do happen.

When I finally get to meet Sang Ly, it will be on equal ground, as one mother to another. I will clasp my hands together and offer her a gracious bow, like I’ve seen her do so many times to others. And she will no doubt exclaim that she is pleased to meet me, but the pleasure will be mine.

Until that day, I have a new goal. As I climb into my car and head to the store to buy more groceries, I’m going to try and live my life a little more like Sang Ly.


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