Saying goodbye to people we love is never an easy thing to do. We’ve all been there in one form or another, and we all dread that familiar feeling of your heart sinking to your stomach as your throat becomes tight and you instinctively begin to fight back the tears. I like to think we do this more for the sake of those we are saying goodbye to than because of ego or anything like that. We want to protect them by not making them cry. This rarely lasts for long though and before you know it, the tears flow, creating a domino effect among all those around us.
Saying goodbye to Grandma Black and our neighbours in the village was hard. Really hard. They have been so good to us in our time living on their land, constantly ready to help out or laugh at how nothing we do is right or quite up to their lofty standards. They loved & looked out for us, and we loved and looked up to them. But even this was no where near on the same level as what was about to happen…
Our minibus pulled through the school gate at exactly 07:51am, I know this because we only had until 09:00am with the kids and I had consciously counted exactly how many minutes we had left with them. Getting off the bus we were immediately greeted – as we are every other day – with hugs, shouts of “Hellooo Drew (or Louiiii or Kokyyy or Veeee)” and those absurdly large smiles beaming across the students faces. They know we are here to say goodbye, but they don’t really understand that we won’t be back for about a year – this is evident when some ask us if we will be back tomorrow…
Regardless, we all put on a smile and start to run around playing with the kids for the next 30 minutes, laughing and acting like the big children we seem to morph into around these incredible little beings. Then we see Narin, who’s parents own the store next to the school. Her family have been incredibly kind to us over the past 2 months, so she grabs our hands with some of the other girls, and we walk to the shop to say goodbye. Whilst Narin’s mum speaks no english, she understands why we are there and immediately grabs me and gives me the biggest hug she can and starts to cry…. This is when it starts… I immediately stop fighting it and follow suit, all the while, Narin is tightly clutching at my hand and looking up at us with a sad smile… I hug her and her little sister, wait for Louis to say his goodbyes and we all head back to the school together.
The next half an hour is much of the same, local parents arrive at the school with teary eyes and hug us or shake our hands. The expression on their faces is one of pure gratitude – genuine, real gratitude and appreciation. If only they knew what their own children have given us and how grateful we are to them… We spend time embracing the teachers as they also cry freely, and we try to spend every single moment being present whilst 10 or 12 or 15 kids fight for a part of your hand, arm or leg to clutch onto… Narin, Dau and Benyar offer me half of their breakfast snacks and along with Lung and Naiit, we all sit and eat together in silence. We farewell the builders who we have become close friends with and laugh at the fact that we still don’t understand a word we are saying to each other, yet continue to speak louder as if it will solve that problem…. A final hug with Bong Da, the boss of the building company and absolute legend with the most incredible laugh I’ve ever heard, then it’s time to head back to the bus… It’s a difficult 20 meters to walk, as we know that while this bus is taking us towards the next leg of our adventure, and meeting the next group of inspiringly beautiful people, it’s also taking us directly away from all of these beautiful kids, teachers and families whom we truly love.
As we board the bus, the entire school all stand in a semi circle waving and blowing kisses. By this stage many of the kids are also crying which cuts me even deeper. I remember all of the incredible moments we’ve shared with these children, from launching their rockets to the sky with their dreams painted on them, making friendship bracelets with them and then have some give them to me in a silent, symbolic gesture, running around the school yard like crazy people with 3 of them piled on my back, leaping with wild abandon through the salt farms dressed as superhero’s, watching (forcing) them to try Vegimite for the first time so we could film their faces, and just the silent moments when working, walking or standing still and feeling a tiny hand grab yours and a smiling face to go with it… These are the moments that I will cherish forever, and the ones which cut so deep right now… It all floods back very quickly and becomes very real as the engine starts. We hang out the window for one last high five and, with that, we drive on… The bus ride to Phnom Penh was silent for the 4 of us. For the first hour I don’t think a single word was said. There were tears and smiles and there was plenty of time to reflect on what had just happened.
I understand that to a lot of people this may sound a bit melodramatic. If someone told me 3 months ago that I’d be feeling even half the amount of love and gratitude I do for these kids, teachers and my fellow volunteers, I’d have brushed them off and thought them a little crazy. But the fact of the matter is, I do love them, they have all been incredible friends to me for the past 8 weeks and have taught me more about life, compassion, trust and love than I can put into words. I admire them for their resilience, to arrive at school every morning – even though many cannot afford to eat even one meal that day – rather than working on the salt farms and eating a meal is a choice that, whilst unfathomable in Australia, is a very real one for them. They choose education over food. I love them for their courage, to push through adversity with such humour and grace is something I can only ever aspire to. And most importantly, they never – ever – stop smiling or being grateful for what they do have. I think this makes the situation harder still, the fact that there is a very real chance that many of these kids will no longer be in school when we return next year, and that breaks my heart completely. Whilst I have absolute confidence in the teachers, principle and the ongoing support of Baby Tree Projects, the harsh reality is that they have to want to help themselves, and for some of these kids, they just don’t understand that the short term pain is worth the long term gain.
I’ll continue to send all of the children positive thoughts and love every day, and will hopefully be able to Skype with them when Koky is at the school next, but for now I’ll just keep missing them and being grateful for everything that they have given me. It was definitely the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to say, and for me that just serves as a reminder to always enjoy the time we do have with loved ones, strangers and everything in between.