I first saw a picture of Angkor Wat in the atlas I got for my 10th birthday in 1975. I gazed at the city of temples for hours. Was it growing out of the jungle, or was the jungle growing over it? How could I get there from the Florida mangroves? What would I know of the world by the time I arrived? Who would I be on that day?
I landed in Siem Reap 35 years later with my 7-year-old son and 65-year-old husband. I’d warned them about the poverty that comes with Cambodia — the converse of life in Singapore where we were residing. My husband, whose career is filmmaking, tends to have his head in the clouds, as does my son the daydreamer. Half my head is in the sand, the other half in the water.
My family and I operate at different altitudes even in the same elevation. Which is perfect for visiting one of most wonderfully incongruous places in the world. Where poverty shares the same bamboo roof as abundant joy. Where people and pigs and mattresses share the same motorcycle seat. Where you hang onto a Mr. Million’s Flying Tuk-Tuk for dear life as dear life hangs on around you.
I told my former self, the 10-year-old girl staring at the atlas, that I’ve learned very little of the world despite seeing a large portion of it. I told my 7-year-old son that he must find a place in his mind that belongs solely to this place. He must carry the image of these temples forward to keep him grounded on this Earth. Bring along the sight of naked beggar children, too, to keep him tethered to Earth’s residents.
We walked over the moat via a sandstone bridge right into the what was supposed to be the home/tomb of King Suryavarman II — built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu, facing the Westerly direction of death. But the King died before it was complete and was buried elsewhere.
Centuries after construction, as the Khmer people converted to Buddhism, so too did Angkor. Scholars believe the architecture also represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. A map of the universe, underscoring the small and temporary place a human has in it. I felt so big as a little girl looking at my atlas; so small in Angkor Wat.
Our Tuk-Tuk driver went by the name Mr. Million. I wonder how he decided on the moniker. Was it because 1.7 million Cambodians were massacred under Pol Pot’s regime between 1975–1979?
Mr. Million eagerly, and deftly, chauffeured us around Siem Reap for the five days we stayed in his city. Every time we took off in the open-air contraption behind his motorcycle, I was glad we weren’t in one of the huge air-conditioned tour buses. So many people came to see the seventh wonder of the world. To me, riding with Mr. Million in his Flying Tuk-Tuk was the eighth. A tour bus would have been more comfortable, but we hadn’t come to Cambodia to relax.
We came to wonder.
How was Angkor built? How did it endure? How did Pol Pot kill his own people? How did the survivors and the country carry on? Can we learn how to endure our own horrors from their devastating history yet heroic presence?
Upon seeing the collection of sculls that had been pulled out of the Killing Fields and put on display at a Siem Reap museum, I thought of my neurologist father battling Alzheimer’s disease back in Florida. He’d given me that first atlas, filled with maps and photographs, which lead me here. And because of my mother, I was led to discover that the brain my father kept in a jar on his office desk was that of his own father, who died of Alzheimer’s in 1971.
I was born a mere 1100 miles due East from here in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, which eventually spilled over into Cambodia and probably fueled Pol Pot’s homicidal tendencies.
Fresh out of medical school, my father joined the Air Force and was sent to Clark Air Base as a captain and general surgeon. My pregnant mother went, too, and I came into the world on December 27, 1965 in a hospital full of war-torn men. Remarkably, my dad had been born 27 years earlier in pre-World War II Manila where his dad worked for General Douglas MacArthur.
I broke the family tradition by giving birth to my child in Virginia, but I doubt I’ll escape my father’s and grandfather’s memory-stealing fate.
I recently took a good, hard look at myself in the mirror. My eyelids are beginning to sag over my blue eyes. My ruddy sun-damaged skin is going slack around my ears. I have a lone freckle on my plump bottom lip.
“Hi Dad,” I said to my reflection. “I’d recognize you anywhere.”
Our physical resemblance and character traits were undeniable: long-armed, big-lipped, blue-eyed, loose-jointed, freckle-skinned, angst-ridden Bercaws. Except for our male and female chromosomes, nearly everything about us was a perfect match.
My dad, too, feared that because he looked just like his father, Alzheimer’s disease would come for him too. As he approached middle age he began to experiment on himself, with diet supplements. By age 60 he was taking 78 tablets a day. He tracked down anything that offered the possibility of saving brain cells and killing free radicals: Omega 3s, 6s, 9s; vitamins E and C; ginkgo biloba, rosemary and sage; folic acid; flaxseed.
After retiring from his neurology practice, my dad turned his full attention to math puzzles. Even when I was visiting, he’d sit silently on his leather recliner with a calculator to verify the accuracy of computations he did by memory. I quietly wished that he would talk to me.
Be careful what you wish for, he’d warned me in my youth. As if to clarify the point, dad looked up from his Sudoko game once to say, “Promise that you’ll put a gun to my head if I turn out like my father.”
I didn’t kill my dad. Instead, I watched helplessly as he declined into the disease he’d heard coming like a Doppler effect. A disease he believed would come for me too.
For my 35th birthday, he surprised me with the genetic test for the APOE marker, which can indicate a predisposed genetic risk for Alzheimer’s. APOE-2 is relatively rare and may even provide some protection against the disease. APOE-3 is the most common and appears to have a neutral role. APOE-4 indicates the highest risk factor.
Like my father I carry the APOE-3 gene, which means I may or may not get the disease.
Regardless of our indeterminate test results, he inferred that Bercaws and Alzheimer’s are part of the same double helix. Perhaps we have a different anomaly in our DNA.
But I don’t want to spend the second half of my time on Earth worrying about whether or not I’m going to get Alzheimer’s disease. I’d rather see every inch of it instead. When all is said and done, I hope my son will discover what my father’s shrinking brain mass couldn’t reconcile, and what Pol Pot’s mass graves couldn’t put asunder.
Life is measured in hearts and love, not brains and sculls.