Poopik on the soccer pitch
by Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.

Published, Bangkok Post Sunday Spectrum, July 10, 2011

We've got the one family picture of baby Puk Pik. That's it - a picture that his dad somehow missed when trashing the rest. Taken eight years ago when he was a baby, maybe six months old, with his real mum holding him and dad standing by. Puk Pik is nine now, an orphan until a few weeks ago.

A slum-dressed lady who said she was his auntie brought him to us, then disappeared into the dawning day.

Now there's proof of his past. We found dad - hiding, avoiding us, whatever you want to call it - and dad had the picture.

Puk Pik's dad had kept the picture hidden almost nine years from his new wife. He knew she'd go into a rage because he promised she was the only one. His first and only. He told our social workers his new wife doesn't know about his HIV either.

He does take his anti-viral medicine regularly. About a year ago, totally out of the blue, Puk Pik's dad came to the Mercy Centre in Klong Toey, asking us to help him get the medicine. He had no idea his son was here, probably no idea he was even alive.

Only later, comparing notes at a staff meeting, did we realise, ''Hey this cat is Puk Pik's dad.''

Last month a fabulous Thai football school accepted Master Puk with a full scholarship. This is a really big deal. He passed his academic exams and they had him show his stuff on the pitch. They interviewed him for over an hour. He passed everything, but there was a condition. To save a place for him, they urgently needed some basic documentation. Birthplace, parents' names, etc. Otherwise no football scholarship, which could change his whole life.

We found dad after the good folks at the National Registration Bureau did a computer search. We knew Master Puk Pik's family name, Auntie had told us that when she brought him in a few months after the baby picture was taken.

She came early on a rainy morning, just at the time when the dogs stop their night-time barking in Klong Toey. In a hurry, in tears, totally distraught, with the taxi waiting, she said ''they'' were after her and wanted to hurt her. She was afraid they would kidnap Puk Pik. Would we care for him till she could come back ... someday?

More than eight years ago, armed with his family name at the registration bureau, we came up with a list of possible relatives. It still took over a week. First to the municipal district office, then police station, then the local postman. We were knocking on doors, and folks were suspicious. ''Why do you want to know?''

When Auntie answered the door, she was cautious but friendly. She said the danger facing her when she brought the boy to our door had long passed, but she's still constantly ''on the run'', now selling trinkets on footpaths to tourists. Each time the uniforms take her to the station they fine her 400 baht and sometimes take her stuff. But she was totally relieved to learn her nephew was alive. She thought he had died of Aids and we'd come to take her to the temple for his cremation.

We showed her his latest picture in his football uniform and she kissed it and kissed it, so grateful that her nephew had escaped the deadly virus and was healthy.

Good old dad was not so helpful, but he was there also, at the family house that was registered in auntie's name.

Dad, who'd always had a mean streak, had married again. He wouldn't talk, denied everything - that he had been married before, that he had ever had a son, that he had HIV - he denied the whole ball of wax.

So we left him and came back with a couple of lads we know to have a ''friendly conversation'' with good old dad. Shortly into the conversation, he began talking politely. He even found the picture, said he'd forgotten to throw it out with the rest he got rid of so his new wife wouldn't find out

He's ailing now, and doesn't get out of the house much.

Then Auntie told us about the horrible tragedy that took Puk Pik's mum, her little sister. No matter how you try to dress it up and explain it away, suicide is suicide.

Puk's parents had been living with Auntie in the house when dad walked. There'd been a huge fight. He blamed her for giving him Aids, which was not true. Dad slapped Puk Pik's mum, knocked her down, kicked her, and slapped their six-month-old baby. She grabbed a kitchen knife but he got out the door before she got to him. He never came back, not while she was alive anyway.

He was a gambler. The fight started when he told Mum to start working nights in a bar - hustle drinks, do whatever it took to make gambling money for him. She said no. She wouldn't sell drugs and she wouldn't run an illegal ''ping-pong'' lottery out of their house.

Good old dad ran from the knife and she chased him down the street until she couldn't run any more. A neighbour calmed her down.

Mum was from a good family. The relatives had told her to stay away from ''that man'' but she didn't listen. First love and nothing can go wrong. Now she had the virus, but she was still healthy.

Mum stayed in the house with baby Puk Pik, but her husband's ''associates'' kept coming around. They weren't nice people - they wanted payment for her husband's gambling debts. She was breast-feeding Puk Pik at the time. The medical people said that wasn't best, but there was no money to buy powdered milk. We found out later that Puk Pik didn't get the virus. The luck of the draw.

Mum couldn't pay the debts and there was nowhere to run. As Auntie tells it, her little sister told her what she was going to do. Said big sis couldn't stop her, she was convinced that it was for the best. She knelt down and begged forgiveness from her baby, and she begged her sister to pray for her - to make merit - for the proper three days at the temple, and to bring her son with her. Her sister honoured these last requests - almost. Together she and the neighbours got together enough money for two nights of chanting. The monks did double duty the second night as is common to complete all the necessary chants and prayers.

Baby Puk Pik was at the temple in his aunt's arms. Six months old, too young to be ordained as a monk and make merit as a loyal son for his mum. So Auntie convinced a neighbour's boy to become a monk for the two-day ceremony and pray for her dead sister.

Auntie did not have money to give the neighbours to care for the baby while she was selling her trinkets, so she carried him with her - constantly in fear of the uniforms. When her trinkets didn't sell well, she did a bit of begging with baby Puk Pik at her feet, asleep beside her. But she swears she never gave him drugs to make him sleep.

The penalty for begging with a baby the first time you're caught is 30 days, plus they take the baby away. One evening another beggar spotted the uniforms coming and told her to run with the baby. She hid till early morning, then a taxi driver she knew from school drove her to the Mercy Centre.

She came to visit a couple times, always looking over her shoulder. She told us his full name, but she didn't have any documents. She saw that he was well cared for. Then she disappeared.

Puk Pik is one of those kids who is like the sunshine. He wakes up at dawn and says, ''Today is going to be the best day of my life.''

Our Sister Maria told him he has powerful angels. The angels must have joined with St Anthony (the patron saint of locating lost articles) and found us proof to take to the football school.

One picture so this fabulous kid can have a chance for a good education and take advantage of his talents, and know what his mum and dad looked like. We keep the original in the safe and Puk Pik has a good copy. He's taped it to his locker door at football school.

He's been at the school almost a month now, says he's over being homesick. He has lots of friends and practises football every afternoon after class. The school sent a report that he's fitting in well, both in the classroom and on the football pitch. He's happy, not yet a star, but he's working at it.

Not long ago dad got back to us and asked for the boy's address at the school so he could write to him. We're leaving it up to Puk Pik. He's almost 10 years old now and has a mind of his own.

Mercy Children's Homes and Shelters