Learning From Tison
By Tom Hewitt
Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
Last week at this time, I was waking up in a Jakarta hotel in preparation for a 36-hour flight back to Alaska.
Let me back up.
I left Thanksgiving morning to travel to Indonesia, where I would begin filming a documentary about a 10-year-old burn victim named Tison who was coming to Fairbanks for reconstructive surgery. The whole opportunity had come together relatively at the last minute, but there are some journalistic opportunities it’s difficult to turn down.
It was a long haul traveling to the clinic where Tison lived – Planes from Fairbanks to Seattle to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Singapore to Manado to Ternate, then a speed boat from Ternate to the island of Halmahera, and a cab for the final three-hour drive to the clinic. I like traveling, but after four days en route, I was ready to stay in one place for a while.
The travel wasn’t the only thing bothering me. I was missing over a week of school – and an issue of the Sun Star – right before finals, and I had several papers and projects to complete before my return in addition to filming Tison and life at the clinic full time. My stress level was high.
What finally brought my mind back to my work was a trip to a soccer game at a nearby village, where the clinic’s soccer team had a match against the locals. The twelve players, Tison, and I piled into a minivan and rumbled off.
The villagers were poor. They lived in aluminum-and-wood shacks with tiny yards. The soccer field was mostly dirt, and a noticeable rise in the pitch near one goal provided a terrain obstacle. The bridge to the field couldn’t support a car – the villagers had to ferry us across the river on rafts.
Despite all this, everyone at the game was happy. The whole village turned out, and the visiting clinic team was treated like royalty, with cold water before the match and hot tea and baked bananas after. When the home team won, 3-1, the players’ mothers and sisters stormed the field cheering.
Life isn’t fair. Sometimes there’s no good reason why some people get to travel halfway around the world to see incredible things while others sleep on dirt floors and don’t know where their next meal will come from. The Indonesians know that, but it doesn’t stop them from finding fulfillment.
Nor did having burns over 40 percent of his body diminish Tison’s spirit in any way I could detect. On his worst day, he was several times cheerier than I am in the best of times. No matter how long I pointed the camera his direction, I never got tired of telling his story. And he pretended not to mind me tagging behind him everywhere he went.
We get thrown curves sometimes, and part of the way we may be measured is how we respond not to situations we expect, but those we don’t. I don’t know where I stack up, but the most important thing Tison taught me was that while things don’t always turn out the way we want to, all we can do is our best. And if I can do half as well as Tison, I’ll count myself a success.