Chapter 32: An Unfinished Life
Several nights after my introduction to the Russian Unmos and my all-too-brief romantic encounter with Aiden, my delicious dream of sipping vodka martinis—shaken, not stirred—with a dashing, mustachioed Scotsman was interrupted by an incessant knocking at our front door. Putting the pillow over my head, I tried to pick up my dream and block out the offensive sound, until I remembered that Brielle was in Phnom Penh. I trudged out to the sitting room, rubbing my eyes and pulling on shorts, before stopping to wonder what kind of bizarre visitor I would find on the other side of the door.
The Unmos’ interpreter stood there—one hand raised to continue knocking, the other around the shoulder of a disheveled, gaunt, slightly-built woman. He began talking as I led her to sit down in the nearest chair.
“This lady trying to find her missing husband, a KPAF soldier. She walk all the way from a village in the south to Kampong Thom, where she hear that he might be in Skon or KPCC, so she come here. She try to sleep in the market, but two soldiers force her and she run to the Unmos to be safe.” He smiled but, before I could respond, scurried away and left me alone with the trembling woman.
Force. I took that to mean raped. Why the hell did the Unmos, instead of rousing the CivPol in the middle of the night, send her to me? I searched for something to help her relax, but all I could find was chocolate from Brielle’s stash. Although it was ludicrously insufficient, the woman swallowed the candy down greedily. With no other options, I put her to sleep on the chaise with a light cotton throw and a small pillow. I would take her to the KPAF provincial headquarters in KPCC in the morning.
I set out early with my nervous houseguest in the passenger seat. Only minutes from the outskirts of the city, as I tried unsuccessfully to find out where to go, my radio crackled with indistinct chatter. When I couldn’t raise anyone, something felt off. It was the absence of response—the absence of the ordinary—that didn’t feel right. A tingle rippled along my spine.
I pulled through the gate into the Unmos’ compound and radioed my location. Bruno’s voice responded, “Wait in your truck; someone is coming to meet you.”
I sat obediently, but my stomach began to twist with anxiety. Why was Bruno on the radio? My eyes darted everywhere as I watched and waited for someone to tell me what was going on.
“Have you heard?” Bruno asked as he approached from the villa.
“RAF Squadron Commander Aiden Grahem is dead.” His voice cracked. “One of the Unmos went to his room to look for him when he didn’t show up for breakfast, but he was already gone.”
“Aiden?” I forgot about the woman, who was still sitting next to me in the truck, and gaped at Oleg. “No, no. Where is he?”
The PEO silent, stared down at the concrete driveway. Long moments passed before he spoke again. “They took him to the airstrip by the Indian battalion. Go. They are waiting for you.” I practically dumped the poor woman out of her seat leaving her for Bruno to deal with, backed recklessly out of the compound and headed out of the city.
Arriving at the heliport, which was really the local soccer field, I stopped a short distance from a small military ambulance. Even from a distance, I could see Russ hunched over and slouched against the ambulance, a shadow of his usual self.
He looked up and, shivering, held out a clammy hand. I took it. He needed a shave and his clothes were rumpled. With his free hand shielding his red eyes, Russ looked towards the sky and scanned for the chopper that was coming to take the body. He tensed and squeezed my hand tightly as he stared at the ambulance, murmuring softly. I let him cry and waited for him to regain his composure.
Russ let go of my hand, turned and went to talk with some of the Unmos who had arrived at the field. In a slow daze, I climbed into the little field ambulance to sit for a moment with the shrouded body. “Why?” I asked myself aloud. My eyes burned, and I blinked back tears.
I gently pulled the sheet from Aiden’s face and lingered over a last look at my fantasy lover, who still looked handsome though not at peace. Remembering his desire for last rites, I flung the sheet over him and scrambled from the truck as a few military men strode over. I shouted for them to find a Catholic priest―or any religious Christian—but they returned empty-handed minutes later.
“I don’t know if it’s too late, but I’m going to give him last rites,” I said before climbing into the tiny ambulance again. As I unveiled Aiden’s immobile, pale face, the air was heavy with silence. It felt spiritual in that space where not a breath, except for my shallow sighs, stirred the air. I struggled with the propriety of a mostly agnostic and impious Jew presuming to undertake this function―the last samskara, the last rite to sanctify the body in this material world.
Frantically trying to be proper, I conjured up my best recollection of the Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy movies of my youth. I touched the tiny Buddha and Israeli Hamsa hanging together on a gold chain around my neck. Aloud, I apologized for being inappropriate and declared, “I’m doing this in Aiden’s God’s name, Jesus Christ, and I fervently hope that you will accept my intercession.”
I began with the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the Twenty-third Psalm. Concluding, I said, “Sh'maYisra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
I leaned over and kissed Aiden’s cheek. “Farewell,” I whispered.
Aiden did not die a military man’s death, valiantly falling in the line of duty. After succumbing to an as-yet-undiagnosed ailment, he had been stuffed into a drab green body bag and placed like a dispensable item on a UN chopper by a plastic-gloved medic. Many Unmos stopped by for a hug from “Momma” before going off to grieve privately or to wonder what had killed Aiden . . . and whether it was contagious.