As Long As You Need Me

It was not unusual for Suzi Hileman to shuttle children in her neighborhood from one event to the next. She particularly loved finding ways to introduce young girls to smart, strong role models. So it was when she took Christina Green, a 9-year-old neighbor, to meet Representative Gab-rielle Giffords on Saturday morning.

Ms. Hileman was shot at least three times and her hip was shattered on Saturday. But the moment her ven-tilator was removed late that night, she turned to her husband and asked, “What about Christina?”

Since Saturday, Ms. Hileman has often been in a morphine-induced haze. On several occasions, Ms. Hileman has screamed “Christina! Christina!”

“I hear her, in her semi-conscious ramblings,” says her husband, “screaming out, ‘Christina! Christina! Let’s get out of here!'”

His wife and Christina were waiting in line to speak to Giffords when the shooting began.

Bill Hileman said: “Suzi was holding her hand trying to get away, and just—pop, pop, pop.”

“She keeps talking about how they had this incredibly tight grip on each other” when the shots began, he said. “She told me that they were almost breaking each other’s hands.”

Mr. Hileman said that he saw Christina’s father on Monday for the first time since the shooting and that for 10 minutes they said nothing as they simply cried together.

John Green remembers making his daughter an omelet with bacon and cheese for breakfast Saturday morning and kissing her goodbye as the neighbor took her to the event to meet Giffords.

The last thing Christina said to her dad: “I love you daddy.”

John Green said the reality of the loss struck him early Sunday. “There’s gonna be a lot of those kind of moments—just waking up,” he said. “She comes up and says, ‘Daddy, it’s time to get up.’ And she didn’t do that this morning.”

Beyond Rangoon is a 1995 film from John Boorman that concerns a young American woman, emptied by grief and loss, who finds herself in Burma in August of 1988, just as the government of that country is preparing to engage in one of its periodic spasms of emptying thousands of its people of their lives. It’s a hard film. It was hard to make: no government wanted to cooperate with it, and several tried to block it. It’s hard to watch: the more perceptive critics appreciated it, but nobody really wanted to see it; the film made money only in France. The second time I saw it, the woman I was with, after it was over, walked out of the theater, sat on the curb of the parking lot, and just cried. It’s that kind of movie. Like life.

Laura Bowman is a young American doctor, but she doesn’t practice. She doesn’t do anything. She just is. She was once a wife, but not anymore, once a mother, but not anymore. Because she arrived home one evening late from work to find that in her absence her husband and her young son had there been robbed and murdered.

The first words we hear from her are these: “The trip was Andy’s idea. It was easier to say yes than argue. Always that way with my sister. She meant well. A touch of the exotic East would get me away from all the things that reminded me of what had happened. But it didn’t. Wherever I looked, I saw only the moment when my life ended.”

Laura’s sister has signed her up for an Asian tour; at present they are in Burma. Laura identifies with the Buddhas she sees everywhere there: like her, they are of stone. When a young boy, climbing one of these outsized Buddhas, falls and injures himself, Laura turns away. She’s a healer, but she does not heal.

She can’t sleep, because she sees in her dreams what she sees when she’s awake. So one night in Rangoon, hearing chanting from the street, she violates curfew to chase it down. She finds there the pacific Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese democracy activist, at the head of a street march. As the people approach a line of soldiers, an officer orders his men to shoot anyone who proceeds farther. Laura watches San Suu Kyi, alone, calmly approach the soldiers. They do not shoot. They part before her. And the march continues.

This is a portrayal of a real event. Everything in Beyond Rangoon is real. Except for Laura’s story. Though of course that is real too.

The next morning Laura discovers that she lost her passport somewhere on the street in the night. She can’t leave the country without it, so as the tour group flies on to Bangkok, Laura is left behind to obtain a temporary passport from the US embassy.

While waiting for her paperwork, and her flight, she wanders into a street market, where she is induced to participate in the Buddhist karmic rite of purchasing a caged bird, and setting it free. Her bird soars high into the sky, but as soon as her back is turned, the bird’s keeper lets out of series of whistles, and the bird dutifully flies back into the cage.

“I’m afraid your bird has come back,” an elderly Burmese man tells here. “All they know is the cage.”

This is Aung Ko, formerly a university professor, who served two years in prison for aiding students in the 1974 democracy movement, and who now, barred from teaching, makes do as an unofficial tour guide for the few Western tourists allowed into Burma.

Laura tells him that she would like, before her plane leaves, to travel outside Rangoon, into the countryside. This is forbidden—Western tourists are confined to Rangoon—but finally he agrees. They will go out into the country—beyond Rangoon. “There was something comforting,” she finds, “about traveling with someone who knew nothing about me.”

The water pump in the erstwhile professor’s aged automobile gives out, and the two must spend the night with some of his former students, who are more or less living underground. Laura learns from them something about the country she is in, and in turn, after he has noted her “wounded heart,” she shares something about herself with Aung Ko.

“I was brought up to believe that if I were good, if I worked hard, that I had a right to happiness,” she says. “I was a fool. Wasn’t I?”

“We are taught,” he replies, “that suffering is the one promise that life always keeps. So that if happiness comes, we know it as a precious gift, which is ours only for a brief time.”

The next morning they awake to learn that martial law had been declared in the night. Aung Ko and one of his students will drive Laura to the train station, so she can return to Rangoon; while Aung Ko talks to the soldiers at the station checkpoint, Laura will slip quietly onto the train.

But once she successfully boards the train, Laura sees that the “talk” between Aung Ko and the soldiers has taken a turn. A soldier strikes Aung Ko in the back with his rifle, then goes to work on his kidneys. A blow to the head is deflected by the student, who tackles the soldier, then strikes out into the jungle. Aung Ko lies crumpled in the dust, while the soldiers pursue the student.

Laura gets off the train. Because you have to.

While the soldiers slowly shoot the student to death, Laura drags Aung Ko back to the car, and speeds off. Aung Ko is shot in the pursuit. Laura doesn’t know where she’s going; she drives headlong through the jungle, then plunges the car into a river. She can’t haul the beaten, shot, half-unconscious Aung Ko out of the sinking car, pull him through the water, drag him onto a muddy bank. But she does it anyway.

In the most extraordinary sequence of the film, accomplished without words, because words are not necessary, there on that muddy bank we are shown that she can’t do any of these things. And that she can’t do any of the many things she now must do next. She wants only to stop. But then we see, as she does, that she’s going to do them anyway. Surrounded by what appears to her to be impenetrable jungle, she begins beating at it with a stick, trying to clear a way through. To discover that it’s not nearly as impenetrable as she thought it was. In truth, what separates her from what’s next, is but a scrim.

She can’t drag him into a village, convince a passing wary boatman to float them downriver to Rangoon, further convince the boatman to dock outside a second village, where soldiers are lazily rounding up and executing people, so she can slide into an abandoned clinic to secure the medical supplies needed to secure Aung Ko’s life. She can’t do any of these things, but she does them. She can’t pull the bullet out of Aung Ko’s body with a knife, but that she does too.

She can’t move Aung Ko first through Rangoon, where the military is absorbed in massacre, and then overland to the border with Thailand, to which they, and those that they have gathered to them, might hope to flee as refugees.

The night before their crossing, she tells Aung Ko that when she lost her husband and her boy, she wanted only to die herself. But that she can’t seem to manage it. Aung Ko tells her that she must remain in life, that she is a healer: this she rejects. “My boy, Danny,” she says, “I’ve held him so clearly in my mind’s eye. But I can’t seem to hang onto him. He’s fading. I’m losing him. I want to believe that he’s somewhere else. He and his father. Together.”

“They are shadows,” Aung Ko says. “As we are shadows. Briefly walking the earth, and soon gone.”

The next morning there is a soldier at the foot-bridge leading into Thailand. The pacific Aung Ko, alone, calmly approaches the soldier. We know that this is possible, because at film’s dawn we saw that with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi it was possible. And it proves possible again. The soldier lets them pass.

Once on the bridge, the fleeing refugees are shelled by unpersuaded elements of the Burmese army. Many of those who do reach the refugee camp on the Thai side arrive bloody and torn. Laura stands in Thailand confused, bewildered. The wounded are stumbling towards a Red Cross medical tent. Laura is carried along with them. Inside the tent, there seems to be only a single doctor working, an Australian woman. There is more suffering there than that doctor can possibly address.

Laura finds herself before a table of medical supplies. She slips on a pair of surgical gloves.

“I’m a doctor,” she announces.

“Where the hell did you come from?” asks the Australian doctor.

Laura doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to. The question contains the answer.

Instead, she asks: “Can I help?”

“Are you kidding?” replies the Australian. “How long can you stay?”

“As long,” Laura says, “as you need me.”

She turns and beckons towards the first of the numberless suffering. “Okay,” she assents. “Come on.”

The Most Rev. Gerald Kicanas, Bishop of Tucson, told the crowd that Christina’s organs were donated.

A friend helping the Green family said they received a call yesterday from the organ donation network, telling them that Christina’s donation had already saved the life of a child.


4 Responses to “As Long As You Need Me”

  1. 1 Elva January 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    After my youngest son died, I just sat and sat. I could not believe he was gone and I would never see him again. This was in 2006 and I have come to remember all the great memories of the fun times I had with him. There are still days when I still just sit and remember him. I am luckier than Laura, as I still have a great daughter and special son. I do not know how I would survive if something happened to them, as with Laura we all must go on and try to do the best we can to help others. I plan on ordering this movie from Netflix and watching it. Thanks for this story.

    • 2 bluenred January 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      Did you hear what President Obama said this morning, speaking still of Arizona? He said: “We carry on because we have to.” It seems such a simple statement. And it is. But it’s also true.

  2. 3 possum January 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    The special pain of losing a child is beyond comprehension or telling. Just over a year ago a member of my extended family, a young woman I met 14 years before, died in a car crash. She was 21 years old. The pain of her loss remains to this day. I suspect that pain will remain so long as her memory remains alive and well. Even now I can see her quirky smile and hear her voice in my mind.

    And yet “We carry on because we have to.” What more is there to say?

  3. 4 sally January 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Egad, my good friend, your blog articles are always incredibly powerful and wondrous. Thank you! xoxox

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