Valentine's Day is special for me - I first came to Thailand on that day in 1989. But there was another Valentine's Day in Thailand that turned out to be the most memorable in my life. It is not the most "sanook" story I have, but I am going to tell it to you anyway.
PHOTO: PORNPROM SARTTARBHAYA
Ten years ago I was doing charity work for a Buddhist temple not far from Bangkok that cares for terminally-ill Aids patients. Many of these people had been dumped at the front gates by relatives; others had been ostracised by neighbours in communities such as Nakhon Ignorance and Moo Bahn No Idea.
I would go to the temple on a Friday night and help translate and rewrite documents there, returning to Bangkok on the Saturday afternoon. It was my "little bit" I did for society here amid the frantic bustle of Bangkok life.
There was one particular ward in the temple where patients were sent to die. Some of the men and women were mere skeletons with a thin outer layer of dry, yellow skin that reminded me of pages from century-old books. Some would shout in pain, while others just stared out into space with big, bewildered eyes.
It sounds gruesome, but in fact, it was anything but.
When I needed to take a break from translating I would wander down to this ward for a chat. Many of these men and women hankered for conversation, as I did. For half an hour I'd sit and chat with living skeletons, some of whom would tell me stories of how they had ended up in the temple. I remember the Pattaya tour guide who told me how he'd slept with hundreds of prim and proper Japanese women, and the older Patpong katoey who had the most wicked sense of humour and invariably lifted my spirits each time I visited.
Most of them died within a few weeks. Now and again they'd get better, but usually one or two had passed in the week between my visits.
The story I am about to tell you happened on Valentine's Day, a Saturday, and I had been translating some documents and needed a rest.
I walked to the ward for a chat. It must have been lunchtime because when I arrived it was empty of volunteers and nurses. I went and talked to one older guy I'd befriended over the months when a terrible, guttural groan came from the guy in the bed opposite, about two metres away.
He - the groaner - was an emaciated young man, probably no more than 20 or 25, for all intents and purposes a skeleton with eyes open, staring. He'd only arrived that week. He could not speak, and wavered between semi-consciousness and sleep. Maybe he knew what was going on around him, but I doubted it. He was dressed in nothing but an adult diaper.
He groaned again, so I excused myself and went over to him. "What's wrong?" I asked in Thai.
Very slowly, he raised his right hand and pointed towards his diapers.
Immediately I knew the problem, but there was no nurse in the ward. Then ... thank heavens! Towards the end of the ward I spotted Annie, an older American volunteer nurse who was attending to another patient, and I rushed over to her.
"Sorry to bother you, but there's a young guy over there who's soiled his diapers," I said, then turned to go.
Annie just smiled and said: "I've got my hands full here. You'll have to do it."
The blood left my face. Like an idiot, I started jabbering. "But ... oh, no ... I don't ..."
Annie was the consummate nurse. "Sure you can," she said. "Come with me."
Despite feeble protests I followed her, but all along there was a dull weight in my body and my brain was ticking over: "You don't do this kind of thing, Andrew. This isn't why you were sent to earth."
We were in the supply room. Annie handed me a bucket of water, a pair of gloves, a new pair of diapers and some cloth. "Which guy?" she asked, and I pointed dumbly like a scarecrow. She led me over to him.
"Just take off the diaper, wash him down thoroughly, then put on this new diaper. Leave the bucket and gloves in the washroom and scrub yourself thoroughly afterwards with this disinfectant. There's nothing to it."
And Annie was gone.
Dear reader, it is difficult for me to explain the feelings that went through me, but I can honestly say it wasn't revulsion that gripped me. It was more like doubt, insecurity and fear. A feeling of I don't think I can do this.
The young man lay there in front of me. "Okay, mate. You're gonna have to help me with this," I said out loud in English to the pained expression of the guy, who clearly wasn't aware of what was going on.
And so, breathing through my mouth, I undid those diapers. What lay within those diapers needs not to be explained, suffice to say I did everything Annie told me to. I cleaned him up. I washed him down. And after I had done that, I lifted up his body and slid the new diaper underneath. I'd never put a diaper on a baby before, let along a fully-grown man. But I did it.
"There," I said in English. "As good as new."
I took the putrid concoction of water, cloth and bucket with me out to the washroom. For 10 minutes I scrubbed my arms and hands. Then I went outside and sat under a tree not far from the ward. I needed to be with myself for 15 minutes as I took stock of myself, shook off the memory and went back to my translation.
It wasn't great translation, that afternoon. A few hours later I was back in the ward, this time showing a group of visitors around. As I said before, it was Valentine's Day, and the temple was selling roses to help raise money. Visitors would buy a dozen roses and hand them out to the patients in the terminal ward.
I was showing a group of four Bangkokians around when I came to the scene of the fecal event not two hours before. I stole a glance at the guy and noticed he hadn't moved, but the diaper was still fastened tightly to his waist, just as I'd left it. A single megahertz of pride zapped through me.
Like other patients, a rose had been placed on his pillow beside his head. And as I passed he let out another long groan.
"Excuse me," I said to the visitors and walked over to the guy. His head was a cruel juxtaposition against the beauty of the single rose that lay beside his right ear. "Surely you're not going to tell me you shat your pants again," I said with a smile.
With distant eyes that attempted to focus on me, this pained man, wracked with a cruel disease, lifted his right hand up, up, up, as if to scratch his ear and then down, down, down to the flower on his pillow. So very slowly he grasped the stem, and with great effort, lifted it up.
And handed it to me.
I took it, and didn't know what to say. Finally, I said: "Well, this is one Valentine's flower I'll never forget."
The following week he was dead. But what a Valentine's Day. What a gift.