“Now You See the Sky” is an extraordinary memoir. Forthright, honest and haunting, it tells the story of a Westerner who goes to teach English in a camp in Thailand that shelters 42,000 refugees. “As a bright young, American educated in the best of schools, I had been taught to believe that I held the key to success for the ‘less fortunate’ people of the world,” she writes. There, drawn to a culture so different from her own upbringing in suburban Chicago, Catharine H. Murray meets and eventually marries a Thai, and she and her husband Dtaw start a life and a family.

But everything changes when Chan, her second son, is diagnosed with leukemia. It is the beginning of a journey in which the writer is caught between worlds — that of her Western heritage and that of village life on the edge of the Laotian jungle. To cope, she draws on her nascent Buddhist practice. “Meditation became essential,” she writes on the opening page. “I had to learn and practice the art of accepting uncertainty. Every moment in my life seemed to revolve around ambiguity.”

Photo courtesy of Akashic Books.

For a brief time before Chan’s diagnosis, she had moved her family to Seattle, believing that the West would offer her children a better education and more opportunities for success. But the family struggled there, and her husband was unable to make a livable wage. They returned to Thailand and settled on a parcel of land that his friend has given him, where Dtaw built a hut as a surprise for his wife.

Soon after their return, though, they learn that Chan has cancer. It’s back to Seattle for treatment. Having his head shaved in advance of his hair falling out from chemotherapy, Chan jumps up and wraps a blanket around his small body and declares, “Look, Mama! I’m a monk.”

Rarely allowed to watch TV before, Chan is now permitted the occasional video. He loves “Black Stallion,” which stars Mickey Rooney as a horse trainer who helps a bereaved boy and his horse overcome life-threatening obstacles. Chemo fails to cure Chan, who next undergoes a bone marrow transplant. Again, the cancer prevails. Told by the doctors that Chan has perhaps two months to live, the family returns to Thailand.

“I saw my mind as a textbook example of Buddhist theory,” Murray writes. “Attachment is suffering. When the child she loves is sick, the mother suffers from the pain of his pain and the fear that he will die.” She goes on to write, “I was ashamed of how spiritually backward I seemed to be, so attached to one outcome.” But as a mother, she feels it is her obligation to fight for the life of her child.


Dtaw gathers his friends and tells them they need to to find horses for Chan, as he’d promised his son a black stallion. Without reservations, his friends cross the river and head north toward China in search of horses.

When Murray laments how powerless she feels, Dtaw refuses to accept that their son is dying. “He will get better,” he tells her. Murray feels morally bound to tell the boy that he is dying. All her education and background makes her feel it’s unfair and dishonest to keep this from him.

“It is a very hard thing we are doing, living with this illness of Chan, of ours,” she writes after Chan screams at her: “How would YOU like to be ME?” A part of her wants him to hurry up and die so he, and her family, won’t suffer anymore.

Slowly, “I was beginning, finally, to understand why talking about death with Chan, or even in relation to Chan, was such a completely abhorrent and alien concept in the culture where we were. I realized that if we lived where there was no doctor and no one to tell me what illness my child was living through, I would simply do my very best to take care of him, giving him all the most effective remedies I knew about, giving him love and encouragement and doing all I could to heal him. I wouldn’t think, Oh, he might die, so why bother. Death wouldn’t be something I would give much thought to until it happened. I would just fight and fight until I could fight no more.”

The ordeal worsens, and Chan is in near constant pain. But there are moments, still, of sweet connection between mother and son. The relationship they forge as he grows weaker illuminates the power of love in the face of loss. Six-year-old Chan tells his mother that he doesn’t want to grow up, because then she’ll die. “I would just miss you too much.”

The title of Murray’s book, her first, comes from a line that Chan’s Thai grandmother crooned to him the first time she ever held him. His name in his native language means “enlightenment.” The morning Chan died, his mother carried his six-year-old body down to where the horses were. A mother horse touched her nose to the dead child’s face and inhaled. “I looked at the mother’s eyes, wide open and staring straight at me as she never had before, and I told her Chan was gone, but as I spoke, I knew I didn’t have to.”


Though the story could have used closer editing in places to streamline sentences, Murray’s memoir is wise and enlightened. She subtly yet powerfully conveys that the most important lessons are often the most painful to learn, and that one of the greatest truths is being fully present in the moment without attachment.

Ultimately, Murray returned with her family to Maine, where she’d spent summers as a child. She lives in Portland and teaches at Portland Adult Education.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound.” His novel was also a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.



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