Dao with Granny
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R. Published Sept. 23, 2012, Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum

She has mostly had to learn everything herself. Mum couldn't be there for her, and Miss Dao also has to take care of Granny, as she'd promised her mother. You know, things like mixing her betel nut chaw and holding her hand crossing the street. She has three older half-brothers and a half-sister, but they aren't close. Her half-sister is married, and Dao only saw her once at the temple for her mother's cremation.

Dao is now seven years old and knows it wasn't her mother's fault. She doesn't blame her for ''borrowing'' those things whose owner didn't want them to be borrowed. Mum knew that drug dealer would beat her up, even kill her if she didn't do as she was told. The judge? He didn't like her mother. He'd dealt with her before. She was sentenced to three years.

Granny's only income was her old age government pension, and 500 baht a month is not enough to raise a granddaughter. They'd both starve. That's how Miss Dao came to grow up with us, and had to learn her amazing feats on her own.

Like running across busy slum streets by herself. The first time was on her fourth birthday, even though her house mum told her to ''Be careful.'' But Miss Dao said that in all the times she's darted across the road, only two cars had ever honked at her (or so she tells her friends).

And what number bus to get on at Klong Toey market, and how to look forlorn so the bus conductress will let her ride for free. And then to remember to get off by the big tree next to Granny's shack.

She learned to use a mobile phone when she was five, in her second year of kindergarten. She asked Granny first, but Granny had never made a phone call in her whole life. However, there was always a solution. Miss Dao won a game of rock, paper, scissors. So she made the older girl she beat teach her, so that the other children wouldn't laugh at her and call her a ''dumb buffalo''.

She graduated from her third year of kindergarten when she was barely six years old (minus six teeth _ they just fell out). She can read pretty well, except for big words, and she can write her full name. That's really important, because she has a beautiful, hi-so name.

She learned not to wet the bed at night, well, most of the time, but never when she stays with Granny. She did once when she was younger, and Granny made her wash the bedding and it was smelly.

And she's been combing her own hair and brushing her teeth ever since she can remember. She had to, with a missing mum and a betel-nut grandmother.

She says her nightly prayers (except when she forgets, or is really sleepy), and makes friends easily with stray soi dogs. She feeds them part of her lunch and she's good at taking pictures of herself with the dogs when she can borrow her house mum's mobile phone.

And of course, she has many more amazing feats. But most amazing of all is the front teeth story. The other teeth too, but especially her front ones. That was two years when she was five, and her mother was out of prison, but sick. Mum would come to see Dao every three or four days when she felt strong enough for the bus ride from Granny's rented shack by the big tree. Miss Dao would secretly save her allowance to give to her mother for bus fare.

Dao panicked when her teeth started falling out. Maybe they didn't like her, like it was something personal. But then again, what's more personal than your teeth? She asked her mother, but mum didn't have front teeth either. But her mother promised her: ''Girl, teeth are temperamental. They come and go as they wish when you are growing up. Your teeth will come when they want to. It's one of the many things in life we are not in charge of.''

But her mother's teeth would not come back. They somehow got loose from her other teeth and walked away in prison. Maybe they were angry as mum didn't brush them every day.

Dao knew her mother had spoken quietly to the Nang Fah, or tooth fairy. And the Nang Fah, as a special favour, had magically found mum's missing teeth that she had lost in prison. The Nang Fah understood such things and would keep them safe. Dao asked about her own missing teeth, and her mother had said: ''Oh, they're too small now _ you need bigger ones. The Nang Fah will give them to some younger children, much younger than you.'' And the matter was settled.

So a while ago, but not too long ago, after her mother died, Miss Dao was urgently in need of her two front teeth. So, as a girl who has to depend on herself, she decided to change her nightly prayers _ to pray direct to the Nang Fah. Miss Dao needed to look pretty.

It's her name, you see. She has this absolutely hi-so first name. Mum gave it to her. She didn't consult with the monks, she didn't consult with Granny. She decided by herself. Good on her _ good on mum!

So, here was Miss Dao with her exalted hi-so first name but no teeth! Wags would scoff at how such a high-class name could belong to a girl of such low station. You know, ''a slum girl, with a never-to-be-seen-again dad who literally killed her mother by giving her 'that virus'''.

Her name: Siriyagorn. It's difficult to translate, but the general meaning is: A woman, beautiful in soul and body of high station. I feel it's the perfect name for this little girl. As we know from the Harry Potter films, ''the wand chooses the wizard'', and thus the name Siriyagorn chose Miss Dao.

True, Dao is her nickname, but even that is special, meaning ''bright shining star''. So the teeth came, and now, at seven, Miss Siriyagorn has her front teeth _ the ones the Nang Fah brought for her. Not perfectly matched, but sturdy.

But her mother's love meant much more than a name when her mother was pregnant with Miss Dao _ her fifth child with her fifth man. No, she wasn't a sex worker, but it was just her and her own mother in a rented shack. You do what you can do. And no matter what, that has to be good enough. They sold underground lottery tickets. She did ''favours'', ran errands, moved drug packets here and there in the night.

She came to us when the hospital pre-natal blood tests gave her a nasty shock _ she discovered she was HIV positive. We got her the meds and food supplements and she went home to the rented shack: her and Granny; daughter and mother. Her other children already fending for themselves.

Her gift to her daughter was life and health. She scrupulously took her antiviral meds, and then a few days before giving birth, she took the huge doses of antivirals she was prescribed. Her daughter, her new baby, was born without HIV.

She insisted the name Siriyagorn went on the birth certificate. She died at the age of 37. Her daughter, Miss Siriygorn, was almost five when Granny brought her to us in desperation. When she came to Mercy she had lice in her hair, she was skinny and had just the clothes she was wearing. But she had one possession, which she clung to like it was made of gold. It was an incredibly dirty, tattered doll that staff called ''the Worm''. We bought her a brand new teddy bear, but it took weeks for Dao to become attached to anything besides the Worm.

Her closest friends are orphans, some born with HIV, some not. The luck of the draw. Her roommates, including Jah and Grasshopper, are in the same situation and share similar convoluted backgrounds before they came to live with us.

She likes to play, but she is quiet, shy and doesn't make friends easily. Even now, whenever she comes back to Mercy after a weekend with Granny, she sometimes cries uncontrollably, and the house mums hug her and cuddle her into calmness.

Miss Dao is in the third grade and her mother has been dead for two years. She's a special little girl. Mostly self-taught, she has to depend on herself, taking care of Granny when she can. Mixing her betel nut chaw, holding her hand, leading her across the street.

We want her to wear braces to get her teeth straight, but she has to consult with Granny first, to ask if her mother would approve. Because, after all, the two front teeth were special gifts from her mum. And although her mother is gone, she knows, somehow that she will consult with the Nang Fah. And that it will probably be OK, but she wants to check first. Just to be sure.

Now available. "The Open Gate of Mercy - Stories from Bangkok's Klong Toey Slum," by Fr. Joe Maier, published by Heaven Lake Press. You can purchase a paperback copy here. E-book: here. Kindle edition: here. For more information about the book, to arrange an interview with the author or request a review copy, please contact Khun Busakorn, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Please join us for a "book launch event" at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Thursday, Oct. 4, 8pm: An Evening with Fr. Joe - Slaughterhouse Priest.