A strange silence pressed down on me as I turned the truck off. I opened the door. Johanna opened her door. And we sat there – awkwardly. It was Keenan who finally shattered that moment of silence with, “Is this the village Daddy?” His little words made me jerk. He brought me back to the moment. So then I turned to him with a smile. “Yes Keenan. We’re at the village now – at least as far as we can go. From here we’ll have to walk down into the valley.”
“Is this the last time we are coming to the village Daddy?”
“Well, I may come one more time tomorrow, Keenan. But that will only be for a short time. But this is your last time to the village. And this is Mommy’s last time to the village. This is Jaden’s last time to the village.” Then I hopped out of the truck, closed the door behind me, and opened Keenan’s door. As I helped him out of the truck I told him, “This may be a hard day for you, Keenan. We’re going to be in the village a long time. We want to tell everybody goodbye. This is the last time they will see us. We’re going to go to every house. Try to be cheerful and we’ll go through the village as fast as we can.”
Little Jaden held his mommy’s hand, and Keenan held mine, as we made our way down the hill into the village for the last time. Johanna walked slowly, intentionally. She was seven months pregnant. Our last trip to the Pnong was so different than when Johanna and I had come down the hill eight years before. I tried to wrap my mind around how much had changed during the past decade and how much more was about to change. But for some reason my mind wouldn’t go there. So we walked on as if it was just another visit to the village.
In the next three hours we visited over 20 different huts. The villagers welcomed us in with warm smiles and laughter. There were no tears. The boys played with tiny puppies, laughing at the wet, sloppy kisses. Everyone else laughed too. We gave each family the first book in the Bible story series and a family portrait. And we asked them if we could talk to Chief God one more time with them. Most people eagerly agreed and sat there beaming as we invited Chief God into their home. And then we shook their hands one last time and assured them that we would come back again someday. “Don’t forget about us,” they called as we walked to the next house. “We won’t. We won’t,” we called back, laughing.
But Momat was different. He’d been drinking that morning and was quite drunk. Following in his father’s footsteps, Momat is an alcoholic. You may recall my stories of Momat years ago. He’s the son of an old man I’ve called Koin – otherwise known as my Pnong father. And every time I look into the eyes of Momat, I see the twinkles that were always in Koin’s. During our last furlough, I told the story of how the bananas fell and killed the dog. Momat ate the dog and became terribly sick and asked me what to do. He and his wife wanted Chief God to be with them and I sat and prayed with them, asking Chief God to bring him healing. Momat did recover and though he never told me so, I feel certain he gives Chief God the credit. He always nods his head in a knowing, familiar way when I mention Chief God. Like his father, Momat is a quiet man and you’re never quite sure what is behind the twinkles in his eyes. But as he stood before me on that final morning, swaying back and forth in his drunkenness, I sensed a great sadness in his eyes. He reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, steadying himself, yet tenderly holding me as well. Looking deeply into my eyes he simply said, “I want you to have my knife. I’ll be waiting in my hut.” And then he stumbled away, back down through the village, toward his hut.
When we had finally been to every hut in the village except Momat’s, I told Johanna, “Why don’t you take the boys back up through the village. I’ll jog across the bridge and up to Momat’s house on the other side of river. I’ll be back before you head up the hill.” Johanna nodded and I turned and jogged toward Momat’s house. I wondered if I should even go. He was drunk. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking clearly enough to offer me a present. But then I remembered the sadness in his eyes. I knew I had to go.
I found him at the top of his stairs – passed out. I called into the hut to see if anyone else was home. No one answered. I was about to slip back down the stairs and away for good when suddenly I heard from inside the hut someone call me. “Mbut Keenan. Mbut Keenan. Wait.” It was Chyam, Momat’s wife. I turned to see her smiling face. I could tell she had just woken up from a nap. “Oh I’m sorry to disturb you,” I declared. “But I wanted to give you something. Here.” I handed her the book with our family photo. She came over with a big smile, nodding her head in appreciation. Just then Momat began to stir. He looked up at me, but his eyes refused to focus. He mumbled something that I could not understand. Chyam must have understood though because she turned and went back into the room behind the thin wooden wall where she’d been resting.
I knelt down beside Momat. He sat up and leaned against me, still trying to focus on my face. “You’ve always cared so much about us.” He mumbled. “You cared so much for my father. You care so much for me. I want you to have my knife.” Just then Cham returned carrying the treasured item. It wasn’t just a knife. I knew Momat and his wife had several. It was the knife – an enormous blade, a hardwood handle, and band of gleaming brass. I’d often admired it on elephant rides with Momat in the jungles. He used it to chop through the heavy jungle as he guided the elephant to the waterfall. Several times I’d ask him to make me one. I told him I’d never seen such a nice knife. Each time he blushed and muttered something about being too lazy to make another one. I’d always hoped he’d make me one. But not once did I ever imagine he would offer his own knife to me as a farewell gift. I didn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t even know if I should accept it. But he placed it in my hands and closed my fingers around it. “I want you to have it,” he spoke with intent. This time his eyes clearly focused on mine. “You’ve always cared so much about us.” A lump came up in my throat and for the first time in the day I felt like crying. This precious, quiet man had just blessed me beyond words. “Oh Father,” I prayed silently. “I hope he’s seen you.”
And then clutching that huge bush knife in my hands, I waved goodbye to Momat and his wife and jogged back down the trail into the village. Moments later, waving goodbye to all our friends, we began our long, slow walk up out of the village and to our truck for the last time. The moment was serene. There was no wailing and crying. We would miss our friends and they would miss us. But I think we all sensed another One present in that moment who would never leave any of us for a moment. And in that moment we all sensed that He had led us to this place nearly a decade before and now He was leading us away.
The next morning I rode the motorcycle back over the hills toward the village. My heart was pounding and I didn’t know why. I knew my blood was running hot with tension and stress. For the past week I’d spent over 12 hours a day escorting Levon around from village to village. Levon had come from the AFM home office to make a documentary of our project. Though we were excited to have our time in Cambodia recorded as a documentary, the timing could not have been worse. Instead of setting up interviews with villagers and helping Levon find the perfect shot, I knew I should be packing. In just a few short days we would need to move our family to a new continent and the other side of the world. And there were a million things that needed to happen before we could walk away from Cambodia for the last time. We had so many goodbyes to say. Our house was still filled with furniture that needed to be delivered to those who purchased it. What about all the food we had yet to give away? What about the boxes of clothes and supplies downstairs that we hoped someone could use? We still needed to clean out the house. What about packing in such a way that we could get everything on the plane? How many extra bags would they let us take? My mind was in a blur as I made my way to the village for the last time.
I slowed the bike down at the top of one of the biggest hills and turned off the engine. I wanted to soak in this moment. The early morning sun seemed to make the rolling green hills glow with brilliance. And the wind did something magical to them. As it danced through the grass it tossed it this way and that causing a ripple effect that looked like the waves of the sea. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Oh father,” I prayed. “Thank you for this moment. Thank you for this opportunity I’ve had for the past decade to live in this land and know these people. Thank you for sustaining me during this time and bringing me to the end still full of health and energy.” Then I suddenly opened my eyes. Something was different from other days. Something had changed. What was it? I glanced around the hills once again. Then it hit me. The winds had come! The sky was blue! The rains were gone! This was the first day of dry season!
After that my heart was merry as I continued the trip to the village. I sang into my helmet and I praised my God for this one last trip to be with my friends. I parked the bike at the top of the hill again, knowing the trail down into the valley was still slippery and dangerous. And then I went in search of the few people we’d missed the day before. One of them was Grandfather Maat. I found him by the stream. He beamed a brilliant toothless grin when he saw me. He was standing in water up to his knees. “So you’re leaving us, huh?” he laughed. “You’re going to forget how to speak Pnong. When you come back to visit us you won’t know how to talk.” At that we both laughed. “That’s not true,” I argued. “I’ll have Met Keenan to help me practice in America. And whenever we want to talk without letting anyone else know what we say, we’ll speak in Pnong.” Then we both laughed again.
By this time he made his way over to the edge of the stream. Then he squatted next to me on the bank. I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to miss you Grandfather Maat,” I said quietly. “You’ve taught me so much. When I first came I didn’t even know how to talk. I didn’t know anything about the rice. I didn’t know anything about baskets. I didn’t know anything about the jyaks. You’ve help me – like your own son and I want to thank you.”
He smiled, still looking out over the stream. Silence reigned in that moment. Finally, “I’m going to miss you too,” he finally replied, still looking out. “Come back and see us. And don’t forget about us.” At this he turned and looked at me mischievously and began to laugh again.
“I won’t, I promise,” I said as I stood up. “I hope within a few years I will be able to come back again and visit. Until then, be careful. You’re an old man. Walk carefully on the trails.” We laughed together again and then I turned and made my slow way back up the trail to the village.
I found my dear mother Yau at the last house before I left the village. I was so glad to see her one last time. In my pocket I had a special present for her. I’d noticed she’d been wearing Koin’s watch ever since he died. But it had finally broken and she was sad. So on that final day, before I told her my last goodbye, I handed her a new watch. Her entire face lit up and she exclaimed. “Oh look! Oh look! A new watch! Oh Mbut Keenan! Now I can see yesterday! Now I’ll see your footprints!” It was the Pnong way of saying, “This watch will bring back all the memories of my times together with you.” But I like the Pnong words better. “Now I can see yesterday! Now I’ll see your footprints!” As she squeezed my hands goodbye for the last time, I thought to myself, “Your footprints Yau, will always be in my heart! I’ll always see yesterday with you!”
And then I was alone walking up out of the village one final time. The chief and his elephant had passed the house while I was talking with Yau, and now I could see them up ahead near the top of the hill. As they disappeared over the top I suddenly noticed the crescent moon was still shining brightly in the morning sky. It was a beautiful sight in the moment and it will always be etched into my mind. I threw my leg over the motorcycle, kicked up the kickstand, and revved the engine. And as I turned the bike away from Boan village for the last time, I was filled with emotions I couldn’t understand. Was I sad? Was I anxious? Was I afraid? Was I excited? I didn’t know what for sure. Then I saw the waves of grass again chasing each other across the hills. Today marked the end of the rainy season and the beginning of a new one. The thought caused my heart to skip a beat. For on the exact day that the seasons changed in the hills of Cambodia, the seasons of my life were also changing. Suddenly the tears began to flow. And as I sobbed into my helmet I sang a new song:
When winter ends we mourn the snow
But rejoice with songs of birds.
When Spring time ends we cry for flowers
Yet cheered by days of swimming.
When summer ends we miss the warmth
But delight in the fall of colors.
When snow returns we smile inside
“Praise God for the changing seasons”.
These are the seasons of my life
Some are fragrant, some are rank
Some are dry and weary
Some are fresh and sweet
Some are cold and frightful
Some are pure delight
Praise God for the seasons of my life
And there in those hills while riding my motorcycle home for the last time, I recommitted my life to God. I knew not what lie ahead or what season would break forth in my life. Would it be hot and trying? Would it be cold and unbearable? Would it be bright and beautiful filled with songs and laughter? I did not know, but I was anxious to find out.
I thought of all the times in the past I’ve moved from one season to the next. When I lived on the family farm as a boy, life was spring – fragrant and blooming with beauty. The six years of summer that followed were dry and hot and I wondered if I would survive. Then came the magic winter of academy where friends surrounded me and my true love came to me. But on that last day of graduation weekend, saying goodbye to all my friends, I was ready for a new season. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend even one more day on the campus of Upper Columbia Academy. My time there was precious, but I was sprouting wings and needed to fly. It was spring. And passing over those hills in the land of the Pnong for the last time, I suddenly realize that’s how I felt again. My time in Cambodia would always be precious to me. But I knew that in a few days when I got on the plane to leave I would not want to spend even one more day in the country. A new season was budding out before me and I knew my Father was calling me into it. And so I continued singing all the way home that day – asking God to walk with me into the new season of my life.
A few days later, we left Cambodia in a blur, traveled through thirteen states in one month (hoping our baby would not be born a month early somewhere on the road), told our friends in the AFM office good-bye, hugged and thanked our adopted church family in Collegedale, TN one last time, and ended our journey in Albuquerque New Mexico. Johanna’s parents graciously welcomed us into their home for the next seven months. I prepared for massage school and prayed the baby would come before classes started. He did. At 7:13 pm on January 3, Damian Tsia Pewitt entered the world. I was in school the next morning at 9 am. A blizzard was upon us. Some seasons are clear and you can see for miles. In seasons of storm, however, you move one step in front of the other by faith, unable to see before you. And for especially Johanna and the boys, January through June of this year was a blinding blizzard. We had no income. We had no home. We had no friends. We had no time. Daddy was always gone. Johanna struggled to nurse a baby born with a tongue too short to nurse and the boys cried at not having anyone to play with them. We pressed on knowing the season would pass and the skies would one day clear.
Though my heart ached for my hurting family at home, I put my heart and soul into becoming a massage therapist, for I knew that I would need these skills to start our new life in America. I learned the bones and muscles of the body by name and memorized their locations on the charts. I studied ligaments and tendons. I studied cells and tissues, organs and systems. I studied how the body communicates with all of its separate parts and how it transports all of the essential components of life to each individual cell. And most importantly I became the apprentice of experienced therapists and healers as they taught me the arts of massage therapy. For many hours a day I practiced their techniques and methods on my five fellow students. Of course that meant for many hours I let my five fellow students practice on me. I learned for myself the joys and healing nature of good massage. I came home excited each day hoping to bless my tired and hurting family. But I too felt the blinding blizzard and wondered how long I could go on.
After three months I began work in the public clinic, meeting real clients and seeing real health issues that needed to be addressed. During the 150 hours in clinic that followed, I began to see how an hour of massage can truly touch a person at multiple levels. In Cambodia, villagers sit with each other, holding hands, putting their arms around each other, or even run their hands through each other’s hair. But where is touch in our American society? Where is the time to sit with each other? Massage therapy gives me the opportunity to provide an hour of healing rest to a tired soul and place my caring hands on them in love. During clinic I found it to be a wonderful way of blessing people with peace, rest, and healing. I’d often pray for them for the entire hour as I worked. I began to see amazing results. Some said they felt healed. They used words like miracle or magic to describe the massage. I smiled knowing that we had not been alone in the room during the massage. Another One was present and I could feel His hands on mine as I worked. Sometimes His presence was so near that tears stung my eyes as I worked and I wondered what He was doing through my hands. For my clients it was truly Good News. And that’s what I’ve been trying to find a way to share here in this wonderful land of America. Massage is an amazing way to proclaim God’s ways of doing things on this earth – often without words.
On June 30 I graduated from Crystal Mountain School of Therapeutic Massage. I was the only one in the class to have finished all of my 150 clinic hours and the high scores on my transcript reflected the hard work and commitment I’d given to my sixth month intense study massage. During the ceremony I publically thanked my lovely wife for supporting me during the difficult time of school. I thanked my in-laws for opening their home to us. And I thanked my boys for letting me be gone so much and for helping mommy with the baby. I promised that I would spend more time with them. Another season was upon us.
A few days after graduation, we were driving to our new home in Walla Walla, WA. The trip was over 1300 miles but surprisingly we made it in two days. Why Walla Walla? Johanna and I have had the wonderful opportunity to once again decide what we want to be when we grow up and where we want to play “house”. Coming back from Cambodia we didn’t have any obligations or commitments. We looked across the nation and asked, “Where would we like to live?” We both love the Northwest the most but not too close to the coast where it rains. After so many hot and humid winters, we wanted a land of snow in the winter, at least not far from the mountains. But in the spring we wanted black, rich soil and bubbling springs to grow a thriving garden. We wanted an area of growth and rich with investment opportunities. We longed for the fresh air of new thoughts and young ideology. And we longed to be closer to friends and family. Where could we find all that? While still in Cambodia, we got out a map and went from town to town until we came to Walla Walla. “That’s it!” we said. “That’s where we’ll go!” We prayed about it for months while still in Cambodia and little bit by little bit God made it clear that Walla Walla was indeed our final destination.
On our trip from Albuquerque, we passed through the Blue Mountains and into Washington State. A beautiful sunset lingered in the sky nearly taking our breath away. It seemed reluctant to fade. In that moment Joie and I squeezed each others hands, there in the car, and reminisced of the night we stood looking over Sen Monorom. We knew in that moment, in the hills of Cambodia, that we were right where God wanted us to be. That moment of assurance, right from the start, kept us working in Cambodia for over a decade though the challenges were often great. And as we watched the sun set in the Blue Mountains we once again heard God saying, “This is the place and this is the time. Trust me!” And that’s enough for us. Working for God is so exciting. Whether it’s finding a job or a place to live or crossing the Red Sea, moments before miracles are always exciting.
God led us to a beautiful home here in Walla Walla. A friend of ours from UCA was moving and a landlord needed tenants for a few more months. So we have the most beautiful home with a fenced in back yard and raspberries. But only for a short unknown season. We have a microwave, hot steaming water, a washing machine, carpet, a dishwasher, a real sink, a room for the boys, a room for the baby, and a room for ourselves with its own bathroom.
Even so, this season has been dark and miserably cold. After five months without employment, I longed to start work as a massage therapist the day after we arrived. But we had to wait for the state to grant me a license to practice before I could even start a job hunt. That took six long weeks and two days. The time of waiting was dark. We desperately needed an income. We waited and prayed and cried as our last pennies disappeared, rushing each new day to check the mail box. The demons of America and the jungles of this land are just as dark as Cambodia – but in a different way. I see now why Americans come in for a massage completely worn, exhausted, and living in great pain. For this land of beauty, this land of blessings (flowing with milk and honey) is a land of darkness and suffering. We have so much but so little time to enjoy it. We are enslaved by bills that grow throughout the month. And all our tools and machines that make life simpler chase us in circles until life is a blur around us. “Oh God, we need your rest. Oh Lord, we need your peace. Oh father, we need your healing presence. Come to us in this land of darkness. For we can’t see you. Our life is blocking you out. All is growing dark. Come, rescue us. Show us your ways. Save us from ourselves!”
A friend of a friend told me I should talk to the owner of a hair salon in town. “She may be interested in starting massage,” they told me. I’d given my resume to a few spas in town, but I’d never heard from them. Who wants to talk to a massage-therapist-wanna-be without a license? So I stopped by the hair salon and met the owner, who was busy cutting hair, and handed her my resume. I briefly told her about my situation and that I didn’t yet have my license. She smiled with a pair of scissors in one hand and a comb in the other and said, “Thank you for stopping by! It’s nice to meet you. I’ll call you tomorrow, but let’s just say that if you’re interested in working here, you’ve gotta job!” I couldn’t believe it. A real job guarantee even before my license arrived? But that wasn’t the best of it. The next day she told me the details. Her numerous clients had been asking for massage for years and she felt sure I would quickly have plenty of clients. She would be willing to pay me by the hour until I did and then pay me on commission at the highest rate. And she seemed pleased that I eventually wanted to start my own business. “No one owns the clients,” she stated. “Feel free to take them with you to your new location someday.” We were thrilled!
On the first business day after my license arrived, I started work at the hair salon. For six weeks now I have set up my massage chair each day by the counter at the front of the salon and offer a discounted chair massage to the waiting clients. I give each one my card and encourage them to schedule a full-body massage. Some days are agonizingly slow but I’m learning to use the time to further my education with numerous books on the topics of massage and overall well-being. And I’m beginning to see massages added to my schedule. I work at the salon Sunday through Thursday and spend Friday at Andy’s Market in College Place offering chair massage. Andy’s has been a fantastic place to meet people and let the community know that I’m available as the new massage therapist in town. I’m seeing some of the faces from Andy’s at the salon now for a full hour massage. And every person that comes and enjoys their massage tells someone else about their experience. I believe God has given me a wonderful opportunity. The darkness is lifting and a warmth is in the air. The seasons are changing once again.
Baby Damian is nine months old now and has learned to roll around the house. Sometimes he even scoots around on his tummy and is already getting in to all sorts of things we didn’t know he could find. We recently added two new faces to our family. They have the cutest little whiskers. Jaden named his orange kitty Pumpkin, having just learned what a Pumpkin was this fall. Keenan named his black kitten Chaser since he loves to dash after anything that moves. Keenan and Jaden are taking gymnastic classes at the university two times a week. We love watching them, and their fellow gymnasts, following their teachers across the mats like a line of baby ducks. They are learning forward rolls, backward rolls, cartwheels, the balance beam, and even the uneven bars. We’re so proud of them. Keenan is also taking rock climbing lessons at the YMCA. We joined as a family and are enjoying Yoga, Palates, swimming, and basketball. These are ways of meeting people and little by little we are starting to recognize faces around town. We’re praying a close fellowship of friends will eventually come from these acquaintances. We’re enjoying this new season of our life!
But during the darkest days of this past year I have often thought, “I wish my prayer team would pray for us!” That’s the purpose of this letter. We miss you! We loved writing our reports of what God was doing in Cambodia and your prayers often lifted the darkness enough for us to see a Guiding Hand before us. Thank you for each of those prayers through the years! And thank you for your prayers now. You have truly been a family of support for us. I hope to continue writing of my adventures in life and I’d like to invite you to continue following us on this journey. Of course the stories will be different. Instead of jungle adventures in a remote village, you may read about miracles in a massage room, but God’s miracles are always thrilling no matter where He works. I will continue using www.searchingforthesea.com to post updates, though they may be far and few between for a while. Every season is different. You can continue communicating with us through this same website if you wish. But we will not be offended if you choose to unsubscribe. You can unsubscribe here.
Thank you again for all of your love, support, and prayers along this road. We hope to run into you now that we’re back in your world. If you pass through Walla Walla, let us know. And when the seasons of your life get a bit stressful and you feel those shoulders tight, with tension running up into the back of your head, come in for a massage. Thank you for allowing us to be your missionaries for the past decade!
Braden, Johanna, Keenan, Jaden, and Damian