It’s funny how the things you don’t expect impact you more than anything you’d dreamt up – maybe because there is no way to mentally prepare. I knew moving to Thailand would be humbling in so many ways, particularly in terms of comfort, convenience, access to knowledge and to certain experiences and luxuries, the ability to travel.
I also knew to some extent that I would experience being a minority for the first time. In the rural areas of Lomsak and Lomkao, it makes sense that I stand out like a sore thumb since the number of white people in the neighboring regions can be counted on one hand. I anticipated having more eyes on me, but didn’t realize I’d be held to higher expectations as a farang. I didn’t foresee being followed in the markets of Chiang Mai and Bangkok so closely that I can practically feel the shop owner’s breath on my neck, as if at any moment I am expected to steal something just because I am a foreigner. (This happens to people of color in America every day. White privilege.)
But what I did not at all see coming as a humbling force was the visible pain.
There are many stray dogs at Lomkaophittayakhom who live on school campus. They roam freely around the grounds, friendly enough to mingle with students and teachers, but wild enough to hunt for themselves. When Jenn and I first arrived at Lomkaophittayakhom, the dogs became part of our campus tour. As John showed us one building and the next, he introduced us to Tony, Wolf Dog, Scar and Tem Tem. Some dogs greeted us that John wasn’t familiar with. He explained that animals come and go – mostly, they come and unfortunately pass. He told us about Butter, Pee Som’s dog who passed last semester, and the kitten who was being taken care of by last semester’s foreign teachers.
Throughout the past month, I’ve seen more and more strays – some that I’ve only seen once. Some that I will never forget, that are training me to be less squeamish. Last semester, Scar caught a disease that infected his eye. After a terrible bout of sickness, Scar’s eye exploded out of his socket. He is a beautiful dog otherwise and miraculously survived this trauma, but the wound still tells his story loud and clear. Another stray roams campus with a horrific neuter job that looks like it was done with scissors.
It’s amazing to watch these animals live – to see an undeniable amount of pain on display with a tongue-hanging grin and tail wag to match.
One dog in particular grabbed my heart. I met her within an hour of being on school campus for the first time. Though we arrived at night on that Wednesday in May, we were immediately taken to meet Pee Som, our boss. Standing at Pee Som’s side was Khao Noi, a small white dog. She was skittish, the kind of gentle-natured dog that you want nothing more than to smother in love, but with whom you need to be patient. She had straight, wirey blonde hair that was turning white in many spots marking her age. It was clear that she was missing some fat on her bones, though equally evident by the pink bandana that with Pee Som she was in good hands.
“This is Khao Noi,” introduced Pee Som, “It means ‘small white'”. Very descriptive, Thai people.
It didn’t take very long for me to fall in love with Khao Noi. I suppose the same can be said about how long it took for her to become comfortable around me. Pee Som explained that she’d shown up around the office around six months ago. No one knew where she came from, but Pee Som’s open arms so briefly after Butter’s emotional passing speaks of the size of her heart. Pee Som and I took care of her together, and it wasn’t long before students started referring to her as my dog.
Only a couple of weeks after we arrived, Khao Noi’s health started to decline. It was becoming more and more difficult for her to eat, thin as she already was. I spent many nights on the floor of our office with Khao Noi begging her to eat, even putting the food in her mouth. I’d stay with her until she ate, but my heart sank on the days I had to leave and she still hadn’t mustered up the energy.
We snuck her into the office on many days to save her from the Thai heat. Some of the other teachers in the office aren’t as welcoming to pets as Pee Som and I, so we hid her under a table with a long cloth covering. She slept in her bed there with a bowl of water. Periodically, I would check on her, feeling her too-dry nose and kissing her between the eyes.
I’ve loved a lot of dogs already in my young life and I don’t recall any dog allowing me to hold them like Khao Noi. I suppose it was due to the condition of her health, but regardless, it only made my heart swell more for her. I would cup her face, looking in to her eyes, and she’d sink her head into my hands. For me, this gesture became a balance of adorable and painful to watch. The way she rested onto me was almost to say, “Teacher Sam, I am tired.” I always held her for as long as I could, kissing her between the eyes before leaving.
My favorite part about Khao Noi was the way she greeted me every morning. She was very attached to our office – it remained her consistent home base. Without fail, every morning when I arrived at our office, she would come down the stairs wagging so hard she could barely stand. She’d wait patiently for me to park my bike and then jump on me with her two front paws. Once she settled down, I’d say “Sawatdee Kah, Khao Noi,” and she’d give me her paw to shake. “Good morning, Teacher Sam!”
The amount Pee Som cares for every being around her is a rare find, and in expressing her love for Khao Noi was no exception. In the afternoons, Pee Som and I would take Khao Noi for her “car therapy.” Pee Som thought that going for car rides made Khao Noi feel better, so she’d load her into the passenger seat and drive her around campus, letting Khao Noi stare out the window. When I joined, Khao Noi sat on my lap and Pee Som called it “Sam therapy.” We’d drive to the market, to the physical education fields – simply put, anywhere to bring Khao Noi some peace.
When I walked into the office last week, one of the student teachers approached me. Very distressed, she said, “Sam, Khao Noi is bleeding from her mouth.”
I was hopeful – Maybe Khao Noi has a gum disease or another mouth infection that makes it difficult for to eat. Pee Som decided to take her to the vet in Phetchabun, the major city in our province. Phetchabun is about an hour away by car, and I was unable to join Pee Som because I still had classes to teach. I helped Khao Noi in the car, settled her with her blanket and water. I told Pee Som, “Su su.” Keep fighting, be strong.
Khao Noi had a blood infection and kidney disease. She was expected to be hospitalized for seven days while the vet treated her. Though she had her bed with her, she was kept in a small metal cage. Pee Som and I worried incessantly about her being alone in a new place, as timid as she already is.
I planned to visit her that Saturday. I would ride the bus from Lomsak to Phetchabun and go to see her at the vet’s office.
As I sat in the Lomsak bus station waiting for the bus, I looked up and saw Pee Som – a coincidence, or as Pee Som called it, a mircale of love. She was buying a bus ticket for her sister, on her way back to campus from Phetchabun. When she saw me, she could not believe our timing.
She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Khao Noi did not make it. I picked her up from the vet in Phetchabun this morning. She is in my car. I am bringing her to school to bury her.
I can not believe this timing. Khao Noi wanted to see you. She loves you.”
Pee Som held my hand and walked me to her car. Khao Noi was still warm as I rested my hand on her one more time.
One night, as I was pleading with Khao Noi in the office to eat her dinner, I laid down next to her and rested my head with her. I kissed her on the nose. Jenn looked at me, concerned, and said, “I don’t like this. You are going to get hurt.”
John repeatedly said, “I don’t want to see Pee Som go through this again.”
I am hurting now and so is Pee Som. We miss Khao Noi. Even after only caring for Khao Noi for a little over a month, I feel a sharp pang when my students ask, “Teacher Sam, where is your dog? Where is Khao Noi?” and I have to tell them the news.
But what matters more than how much we hurt is the love Khao Noi experienced before she passed. The love we experienced.
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
– Helen Keller
In the final few days, I somewhat came to terms with our potential loss, but I did not foresee Khao Noi passing alone. I hate that we lost her while we were an hour away, that she wasn’t sinking her head in my cupped hands. When I told Jenn how much this upset me, she said, “She was not alone and she never will be again. I know a pretty amazing brother of yours that was there for her.”
Pee Som buried Khao Noi beautifully behind John’s house, next to Butter. We visited her yesterday, laying fresh flowers. As she whispered a prayer, I breathed in love. Rest peacefully, Khao Noi. You are loved.