Sun, Moon, and Stars


Sophia Lee


Her dark brown pupils searched mine deep, like she dove into the ocean, scoured for answers, but resurfaced empty handed. She blinked twice; said nothing.

Knowing she could not understand nor read English, I translated her doctor’s instructions again. “Start this new medicine, one tablet a day. Stop this other medicine. Increase this here from one to two pills. Okay?”

“Yes,” she replied, a faint quiver in her voice.

“So which pill are you going to stop?”

Her wrinkled hands fidgeted with the handles of her purse. “I don’t know.”

Hmmm… “Can you read in Khmer?”

She shook her head. “In the countryside [in Cambodia], there was no school,” she answered.


How do you survive, illiterate, in a literate world?

Like the signal that triggers the rooster crow every dawn, inviting farmers to the fertile fields,

like the reflection that bounces off the sharp sickles cutting into tall rice stalks,

like the sweat that trickles down a laborer’s temples, saturating their plaid scarves…

I drew the sun. A circle with lines emerging outwards from its perimeter, drawn directly onto the pill bottle.

“This, take one in the morning….” I repeated. Then I called her pharmacy and her daughter, to reinforce the instructions two more times.

Expressing her gratitude, she pressed her palms together, raised them towards her face, and bowed her head.

~ ~ ~

She paused at the door. “Nurse?”

“Yes?” I swiveled my chair to face her.


It was a different patient, a different day. Her black, soft curls masked her gray rooted hair. She handed me her pills. “The doctor wants me to take this at night, right?”

“Yes,” I grabbed my pen. “Can you read Khmer or English?”

Her eyes shifted, avoiding mine.

I knew what that meant.


Like the light after sunset, that shined its silver smile onto dark lotus ponds,

Like the lantern in the dark, that directed survivors escaping terror of the Killing Fields,

Like the respite from the heat, that carried the coolness of evening…

I was ready to draw a crescent moon onto the label, but she snatched the bottle out of my hands.

She drew triangles, half circles, and squiggles on the label. It was her own hieroglyphics she had invented, that she could read herself.

“See? I wrote it here, take one at night. I’ll remember now.”

~ ~ ~

His young, strong arms propelled him in the wheelchair.

“Can you tell me how to get downtown? I was dropped off, and I don’t really know the way back.”

“Sure. I’ll even give you a map.” I searched for his destination and printed directions. “Turn right at Smith, then left…”

“But.. uhh….” He looked up at me, his dark bangs blocking his eyes.


I continued explaining the route on the map.

“Uhhh…the truth is….I can’t read,” he finally confessed.

I froze.


He was American, born in America and couldn’t read as an adult?

“Oh.. uhh… that’s okay.”

But it’s not okay.


Like the constellations that navigate the sky, beyond the flashing police sirens,

like the detailed works of art that speckle blue ink upon his skin,

like the progress marks on the board of his hospital room, one for every milestone after his debilitating injury…


I drew stars.  “At the gas station [this star], turn left…”

“Thanks,” he grinned, and he wheeled himself through the open door.

~ ~ ~

How do you survive, illiterate, in a literate world?

One small step at a time.

About the author:

Sophia Lee is a Khmer-American nurse who serves the Khmer community in the greater Boston area.

Reflections on being a nurse, life, death, and humanity can be found on her blog: