Dense forests and golden fields surround their one-room house. It’s an idyllic setting – but something wasn’t right.
Mai One (82) and Yom (80) have been happily married for over 60 years. Here in Oudomxay province, they live with their son, daughter in law, grand-daughter and two great-grandchildren. They often sit and share grilled fish, river greens and steamed rice in their one-room thatched house, their conversation interrupted by squealing grandchildren.
Love is abundant in this humble setting, but the smiles were missing from the faces of Mai One & Yom. While the food was being cooked, they sat and waited to be hand fed by their daughter-in-law, Phay. “We can’t feed ourselves, wash ourselves, work or go anywhere. We feel like such a burden on our family”, they said.
Two years ago, Mai One and Yom went blind from bi-lateral cataract. Before this, Mai One used to help his son in the rice and vegetable fields and Yom worked around the house, cooking, cleaning, making rice wine and weaving traditional fabric for sale. They also helped care for their great-grandchildren.
Blindness rendered them completely dependent on Phay, who had to stop working on the farm to stay home and care for her elderly relatives. This placed an enormous financial burden on the family: four income earners became one. Their son, who was desperate to provide for his family, was earning less than $1 a day to support the family of seven.
A love story for the ages
Despite their struggles, the Mai One and Yom have an almost unshakeable bond. It all started when Mai One was a soldier and was passing through Yom’s village. He saw Yom weaving outside her house and was taken aback by her beauty. At night he returned to her house and asked her out.
“We fell in love after just one day, the next day Mai One came back and asked for my hand in marriage” said Yom.
She's a great cook and a good kisser...
- Mai One, on why he loves his wife...
While holding hands and with a cheeky laugh, Mai One expresses what he loves most about Yom. “She has a good heart, is a great cook and is a good kisser”. They’ve always maintained their humour, but it was clear how sad they felt. “We’ve loved each other for a very long time and we’re still so very much in love. We long to see each other again.”
Mai One and Yom were both diagnosed with bilateral cataract during a door-to-door outreach organised by Fred Hollows Foundation-supported doctors from the Eye Unit of Oudomxay Provincial Hospital. Like many people in this region, Mai One and Yom didn’t know their sight could be restored. They were surprised to hear that a simple 15 minute operation could restore their sight within 24 hours.
And that’s exactly what happened.
We're a bit older since the last time we saw each other...
- Mai One & Yom after their cataract surgery..
Mai One and Yom were scheduled for surgery and Dr Phetsamon skillfully removed both their cataracts on the same day. It’s fitting that after 60 years together, they remained close to each other throughout the whole procedure.
When their patches were removed, they looked at each other, almost shy. “We can see each other, we can see each other’s smiles,” they said ecstatically. Giggling, they admit, “we’re a bit older since the last time we saw each other”.
After their post-op recovery, Mai One and Yom journey back home, unable to contain their smiles. Along the way, Yom pointed at every house, rice field and person she could see. Her enthusiasm peaked when she saw her house and the face of her daughter-in-law clearly for the first time in years.
“She used to have to feed us by hand but now we will be able to feed ourselves”, Yom said. Additionally, Phay will now be able to work and relieve the financial stress the family has been going through.
Their neighbours came to visit and they were shocked to see the extent of the transformation. Mai One excitedly tells people that if anyone has a problem with their eyes, he would “tell them to believe the doctor and believe the eye unit in the Oudomxay hospital. Don’t believe ghouls and traditional medicine, believe the doctor!”
It's a second love for us, we can fall in love all over again.
Mai One & Yom, after their successful cataract surgery
Perhaps the most heartwarming sight after the operation was Mai One and Yom – together as always, but now able to look at each other. As they reminisced over an old photograph of their younger selves, Mai One couldn’t help but express that. “It is a second love for us, we can fall in love all over again.”
Mai One added that the next time there is a traditional Laos ceremony in their village “we will be able to go and join in and dance the La Mong Lao dance together.” He then got up and enthusiastically started dancing and Yom looked on laughing, her eyes full of love.