In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot by Gail Gutradt, with a foreword by Dr. Paul Farmer
Gail Gutradt is not a journalist. She is not a nurse or doctor, and actually has no training in the medical profession. She is not a mother. She is not a Buddhist. She speaks very little Khmer. For everything she is not, Gutradt is a thoughtful, involved observer of human relationships, regardless of age, gender, background. With eyes and heart wide open, she becomes the writer she never thought she could be, “because [she] found a story so worth telling.” It’s also so worth reading … and celebrating and sharing with others.
In a small village in Cambodia, the Wat Opat Community is home to some 50 children and almost a dozen adults, most of whom are HIV-positive. Established by Wayne Dale Matthysse, a former U.S. Marine Corps medic, and Vandin San, a local working with AIDS awareness programs, Wat Opat is a haven for the infected, not only because of the nurturing care they receive, but because they are able to live as normal lives as possible, accepted and loved, nourished and educated.
In 2005, three months after her 60th birthday, Gutradt made her first visit to Wat Opat as a volunteer. She stayed for five months, and knew she would return. She went home to Maine after her second visit with plans to take a year off to write a book – she had finally found that “story so worth telling.” The year became three, as she battled her own insidious disease – cancer; she missed the Wat Opat children most of all. “Their experiences and mine were becoming intertwined as I found myself dealing with serious illness, and memories of their courage and joy often sustained me. … I poured my longing and love into telling their stories.” Should you choose to go aural, narrator Lorna Raver with her somewhat older, sometimes quavering, often impassioned voice is just right for Gutradt’s perceptive prose. That said, keep the book close because you won’t want to miss a single picture.
As is the Wat Opat way – “[i]t is a matter of respect for the children” – Gutradt prefaces every child’s name with Mister or Miss, “especially the very little ones who run around with no pants.” Some of the children love her right away and fight for time on her lap. Others are more wary, having already lost too many during their short lives. Some of the children are wrenchingly ill; some are so lively as to seem impossible that they are riddled with such a life-threatening virus. Gutradt helps to feed and care for them, to learn from and bond with them. She watches relationships flourish, some come to an abrupt end. She reaches her own limits, and makes plenty of mistakes. She draws strength and inspiration from co-founder Wayne’s gentle ways, his creation of Wat Opat as “a workshop of souls.” Each time she returns, she realizes, “these quiet moments we share are the things we go through together, the things that make us a family.”
A story about children confronting AIDS in a faraway country still recovering from the ravages of devastating war and the subsequent genocide of the “Killing Fields,” could have been just another tear-jerker. But more than pulling at the heartstrings, for every tragedy, even death, Gutradt recognizes and celebrates the power of hope, sharing, and healing. “So I ask the reader to relax into the chaos, knowing that life is not linear, but can perhaps better be viewed as a spiral, as we revisit certain events and people, explore expanding dimensions, recognize contradictions, and deepen our love for each other.
“In the end it all comes back to the children.”
Readers: Young Adult, Adult