Laos is the homeland I fled with my family at the tender age of four, half asleep, in the dark of night, across the Mekong River. According to The Guardian, “Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973.” That’s more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II, giving my homeland the distinction of being the most heavily-bombed country in the world.
It took three years, but through secret letters and encrypted telegrams to relatives living in Thailand, my father was able to coordinate and execute and escape plan. We went in the middle of the night, escaping with only the moonlight, and made it across the Mekong River. Relatives who were living in Thailand met us and hid us in a produce truck, stacking boxes of vegetables to hide us. When we reached a safe house, we stayed with these relatives for a couple of weeks while my father and uncles mapped out a way to get us inside a nearby overcrowded refugee camp.
On the night we traveled to the refugee camp, we quietly waited until there were no guards in sight. My grandmother recounted how she, along with my father and uncle, shoveled dirt underneath barb wired fences so that we could each crawl under and find refuge within the “walls” of the camp. Our family was very fortunate. We lived at the refugee camp for only a year before we were sponsored by Davies Unitarian Church, a small church in the State of Maryland that helped us become permanent residents of the United States of America.
During my childhood days, life was confusing. At home I was a traditional Lao girl and when I went to school, I often found myself either hiding or trying very hard to fit in. Identity was a struggle during this phase of my life.
When I was fifteen years old, I began working at a fast food restaurant to support my parents with household bills. Every other check went to the family expenses and what I was able to keep was in preparation for my college tuition. I worked every night after high school, including weekends, knowing that this was the only way I could afford college. I studied very hard with full intention of qualifying for academic scholarships and eventually graduated at the top of my class. My high marks awarded me several scholarships, covering the first two years of my University tuition.
In order to graduate, I worked full-time, studying very late into the early mornings with only a few hours of sleep each night. This went on for five years. When I finally graduated, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Two months from college graduation, I was hired by a government contractor to join their commercial marketing division. At age 22, I would be responsible for submitting a marketing plan to the Vice President for consideration. In preparation for this project, I was introduced to a gentleman named Chris, who was part of the federal marketing team. I shared an office with him and he became my friend and mentor. After working closely together for months on end, our friendship blossomed into admiration, which then turned into love. He was a kind and sensitive soul whose laughter was infectious. He was the light of the party and had charisma like you wouldn’t believe. It was this natural charm and humor that attracted me to him. Five years flew by and he finally proposed marriage.
On a hot summer day in 2003, Chris and I went on a family picnic. I was excited to introduce him to my extended family and friends as my new fiancé. It was during this picnic that my world came to a halt. As I was finishing up with food preparations, I walked toward the water to see that Chris and my brother-in-law were waist high in the Potomac River, talking and laughing while our nephews and relatives were splashing water at each other. Within seconds, Chris must have felt my presence from afar because he turned around and waved at me. He motioned for me to join them but I held up five fingers, as I still needed a few minutes to finish up with the food prep. He nodded as if to say, “OK” and gave me a thumbs up signal. I smiled, waved and made my way toward the picnic tables. That was the last gesture he ever offered me, telling me he was going to be ok.
Soon after I walked away from the scene, there was a riptide that came in and swept away the five of the boys who were wading in the water. My brother-in-law and Chris swam out to rescue them. They were able to bring four to safety with help from nearby jet skiers. Unfortunately, Chris lost his life trying to save the last child, my brother-in-law’s nephew, and they both left this earthly plane together that afternoon.
The months that followed, the steps that I took, the weight of an elephant that showed up to sit upon my chest, these things gave me many words with which to fill up my journals. My family and friends were there to support me and yet I needed to find other ways to grieve and to heal from within. I felt so smothered by care and love that I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to pretend to be all right. I didn’t want to have to shed (or hide) tears. I just wanted to “be” and I was frustrated every day because I didn’t know what “being” meant in my despair.
It was at least eight months before I could see or think straight and another year before I fully reached acceptance that my life had taken a different course than the one I had set out to travel. I had to come to terms with this reality and create a fresh starting point. As I embarked on creating a new start, it included a change in my career. I started a financial practice with the goal of educating others on the importance of planning, helping them prepare for unexpected life events like the one I had just experienced.
At my first networking event after launching the practice, I remember feeling nervous and very much alone. There was a moment when I thought to myself, “What am I doing? I have no idea how to run a business. Is building this practice even going to work?” I thought to leave the networking event and just go home, curl up in my bed and cry. But then I heard another voice in my head say; “You have no other choice but to move on with your life. He cannot come back and the only place for you to turn is forward”. I took in a deep breath, drew out a sigh and challenged myself to stay. I rallied my inner thoughts to focus. I challenged myself to find the first friendly face that walked through the doors, look forward and go make a new friend.
Several people walked in and then I spotted a man who entered the room with a smile. I walked up to him, learned that his name was Victor, and told him that this was my first time at this networking event. I learned it was his first time also. We navigated the room together that day and stayed in touch. He became a client of mine. We became good friends, like so many of my other clients.
Three years after Chris’ passing, we learned that my father had aggressive liver cancer. Within three weeks of learning of his illness, he passed away. I spent every possible hour with my father in those final weeks. I learned so much about this man and his vision and mission for his life. He told me that the moment he got his entire family safely across the Mekong River was the moment he had accomplished his life’s mission. Everything else was an additional blessing that he negotiated with the Universe. When he prayed for us to survive that original journey, he promised he’d raise us to be incredible souls. My father did not fear the afterlife; he only worried whether his family members were going to navigate through life without too many challenges.
My journey of grief and healing included other experiences after Chris and my father. Within a timespan of ten years, I dealt with the loss of my godfather to cancer, best friend, Rafael, to suicide, uncle to lung cancer, and grandmother to a decline in health after two hip surgeries. I also had to care for my mother after a full knee replacement and am currently on a journey with my sister as she bravely battles cancer.
What I have come to understand about life’s tragic events is that we will all experience them. With each painful setback, we also get setup for a higher level of awareness and consciousness that prepares us for how we handle future challenges. I have found some solace in knowing that we, as human beings, have the capacity to move forward. We can find within us the will and strength to nurture and heal the broken pieces. I did this by seeking help. I read countless books, got counseled, worked with transformational coaches, attended retreats, practiced energy modalities such as EFT (emotional freedom technique), sought support from Reiki practitioners, learned meditation and released my emotions through my writing and poetry. For years I went on this journey to free myself of worry, anxiety, insomnia, and an unwillingness to open my heart to loving or being loved.
At age 36, I left my financial practice and decided to launch my own business. The company has grown into what is now the SOAR Community Network. In that same year I published my memoir, A Million Fireflies, and coauthored a business workbook, Seen and Sustained, with three female entrepreneurs. That July I traveled to Spain for one month to participate in a friend’s wedding and allowed myself the first vacation in seven years.
When I arrived back to the United States, Victor, yes the gentleman I met networking, called me to share that he had separated from his wife. He was living with an old childhood friend from Puerto Rico, and wanted to start writing and playing music. He knew that I was a poet and that I had collaborated with a friend on writing songs. On that call he was very honest in sharing that he was trying to uncover his own gifts and talents to create ways of healing and moving forward with his life. He asked if I wanted to meet his roommate and join them in writing original songs.
A year after we started writing and playing music, our feelings for one another grew but neither of us truly knew when it had turned from friendship into love. It slowly happened and it grew through our shared values and vision for life. As complex as it was, both understanding that he was still in the midst of a separation, there was a knowing that we would be fine regardless of what direction our friendship needed to take. We both agreed that peace had to be a part of the equation.
As fate would painfully have it, the same week that he and his wife submitted their divorce papers, she was diagnosed with Leukemia and within 8 months she passed away peacefully with her loved ones, including Victor, by her side.
Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. It offers so many contradictions including pain and joy, hatred and love, light and dark, life and death. I have come to learn that our life experiences, especially the most painful ones, create an empathy bucket that stretches far and wide. Because I truly understood what happens to a human heart when you lose someone you love, I was able to support Victor on his personal journey of loss and healing. It made us grow closer. I got him. He got me. This newly, yet unwanted experience, bonded and solidified our friendship. Today he is my best friend, husband, business partner, and life companion. He accepts my humanness and knows the purity of my soul like no other on this planet.
The pain and beauty of life means that everything moves forward and in time, if we so choose to keep walking toward the light, our spirits eventually find a sense of harmony again. One day we arrive at the end of the dark tunnel and are greeted with new blessings and lessons that will add to the width and depth of our empathy buckets. That bucket will become the reservoir we get to draw from when we realize and accept that some of the greatest roles we will ever play in this life include friend, lover, teacher, and light bearer.
If you’re out there and are feeling alone, remember to look up into the sky and trust that there are infinite souls who see you, have experienced what you feel and are shining their light upon you. There will come a time when other souls will be looking up at you and drawing hope and inspiration from your life experiences and the lasting contributions you offered when you were here, living on this earthly plane.
Mali Phonpadith is the CEO of the SOAR Community Network and Cofounder of the SOAR Community Nebula, an online community of conscious leaders creating social impact. She is a two-time #1 International Bestselling author, speaker, workshop and retreat facilitator, marketing strategist, podcaster and the Executive Producer/Host of Tea with Mali Cable TV Show. In 2015, Mali was selected as a Belief Team community partner through Values Partnership for the Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network BELIEF initiative. She has been nominated for several awards including Heroines of Washington D.C. Award by the March of Dimes, twice for the Women of the Year Award by NEW – Network Executive Women and recognized as the iBoss Capital Navigator in 2018 for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses grow and thrive. As the CEO of the SOAR Community Network, Mali leads a dedicated team of experts who provide customized solutions to develop strategic plans, authenticate brand messages, map shared values, develop conscious leaders, align teams, assess operational/IT efficiencies, and implement programs that ensure sustainable growth and healthy corporate cultures.
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