Sunday, September 6, 2009

Another Sad Vietnam Story

At the Window


Larry Engelmann

She remembers the view from the the tall second-story windows of her bedroom. Sometimes, she imagined, she could thousands of miles away to the shores of other continents.. With her sister, she often arose early and pushed open the heavy shutters that covered the window. Then they’d gaze out through the fronds of the tall swaying palms in the yard and over the corrugated tin roofs of the shanty shops fronting the wall around their property. of tall palms in our back yard and and over the tin and tile roofs of run-down single-story shanty-shops that lined the street beyond the wall that marked the limit of property. Beyond the shops a narrow strip of road ran along the edge of a glistening white beach that dipped down into the the South China Sea. The sea swept on and on and on to the distant horizon where the day began and where the tiger lived.
We’d awaken before dawn some mornings and push open the heavy shutters covering the windows, lean out over the sill and silently watch the city come to life below us. Sometimes, if our father heard us stir, he’d join us and take us in his arms and hold us up so we could stand on the sill and see even more.
We marveled at the kaleidoscope of brilliant colors on the sea at sunrise. Father told us the rising sun was the flame from the breath of a waking dragon in the east, igniting the air with a fire that slowly crossed the sky then descended and died at the end of the day in the steep highlands in the west. But we need not worry about the dragon, father assured us, because he could not cross the sea to reach us.
The sun crossing the sky each day was a reminder of the futility of the distant monster to harm us.
As we stood there in his arms we believed we were the luckiest children in Danang because we occupied the perfect perch from which to see the world. Father called the window our “angels’ perch,” since we looked down on the world like angels looking down from the clouds.
The house had been in father’s family since the 1930s. It was built early in the century by a well-to-do French accountant who worked for a large Danang shipping firm. He’d eventually tired of life in Annam -- as the French colonists called our land at that time ---and of the “indolence of the Annamites,” who did all of the heavy work for his company. He sold the house and took his wife and their daughter back to Marseilles and the civilized world. Grandfather, who worked for the same firm, purchased the property at a bargain price -- it was during the depression years and the owner was in a hurry to depart. Grandfather willed the house to his eldest son, my father.
Grandfather was a successful businessman. He earned enough, he believed, so his son would not have to worry about wealth. Grandfather wanted him to become a scholar and to bring prestige instead of piasters to the family -- scholars are traditionally honored more than businessmen or military officers in our culture. Father graduated from the best high school in Danang and then attended a university in Hue. When he completed his education, he returned home and became the superintendent of a private school for young women. The school was also a gift from his father. Grandfather left a small endowment to pay the operating expenses of the school. Within a short time the school earned a reputation as one of the best in central Vietnam, training young women in French, English and Vietnamese languages and in the arts, literature and the sciences.
Following grandfather’s death, father shared the house with his mother and three sisters. Only after he’d arranged good marriages for his sisters did father begin the search for a suitable wife. He found one among the students in his school. Mother was 17 when she graduated from the school in 1959. She was preparing to attend the university in Hue when father let his interest in her be known to her parents. They extended their permission and blessing for him to marry their daughter. Father was 44 years old he married mother. My elder sister was born in 1960, the year after they were married, and I was born in 1961. Despite father’s wish for a son to manage the family property in the future, my parents had no other children.
I remember father as an elderly man, the same age as the grandparents of my friends. He was affectionate to my sister and me -- especially when only the three of us were at home. At those times he played games with us, read to us or helped us write and perform our own dramas. But he assumed a rigid formality in the presence of friends and associates. At those times he became the serious scholar-mandarin who stood apart from the commonplace world to mediate and comment on larger realities. He was devoted to his mother who occupied a room on the first floor of our home, where she was tended by her own female servant. After she passed away her photograph was mounted in a small shrine beside that of my grandfather and of my great grandparents, near the entryway to our home. Father made sure that a candle burned in the shrine day and night and that items of fresh food were placed before it each morning to honor the memory of our ancestors.
Father’s school enrolled 100 girls from some of the best families in Danang. He not only supervised the school and designed the curriculum, but he taught advanced Vietnamese, English and French. Mother taught elementary English.
When my sister was 5 and I was 4 we were enrolled in the school. I recall how excited we were on our first day of class when we put on in the required uniform -- blue skirts and blazers and white blouse with the school emblem over the pocket -- and walked hand in hand with our parents through the city streets to begin a new phase of our life.
My parents planned to send my sister and me to a university in London or Paris following our graduation from the school. After receiving degrees abroad -- including, perhaps, even graduate degrees -- they expected us to return to Vietnam to teach in a university. To assure that adequate funds would be available for us to study abroad, they kept a careful accounting of their income, always putting aside a sizeable portion for our education and travel. They assumed that our world would remain stable and that plans well-made and soundly-financed would be realized. They did not, however, foresee the approaching whirlwind that engulfed Vietnam and swept away their simple dreams.
In the Spring of 1965, American soldiers came to Danang in large numbers. Our government told us they were required to defend us and to preserve our freedoms and our way of life.
On March 5, officials from the city government came to father’s school to ask an important favor of him. They told him that on the following Monday, March 8, American Marines were scheduled to come ashore on Nam O beach. Public officials -- including the mayor of Danang -- would be present to welcome them. But they also requested that two dozen young women from the upper grades of father’s school be sent to help welcome the men. Father was asked to bring the young women to a prearranged assembly point where each of them would be given garlands of yellow dahlias and red gladioli (yellow and red being the colors of the flag of South Vietnam) to place around the necks of the arriving soldiers. The young women -- fluent in English -- were then to say simply, “Welcome to Vietnam.”
Father agreed. He selected the best English speakers from the upper grades to participate. He instructed them to be discreet and to say only the words the city fathers required them to say. There were to be no other exchanges between the soldiers and the students. Mother was selected to supervise the delegation.
Father disliked providing students for the event. But he also wished to remain on the good side of the city fathers. Several of them had daughters in his school. Anything he might do to arouse their ire could hurt his school enrollment and jeopardize his dreams for my sister and me. He also expected that acceding to this wish might bring favors in the future.
Participation in the landing ceremony, nonetheless, comprised the full extent of our father’s official participation in politics.
In the next months more Americans and several thousand soldiers from the Saigon government were transported to bases in and around Danang. Father complained that Danang was being transformed into a military garrison. This could not happen, he cautioned, without endangering the cultural soul of our city. But when he was challenged by his friends who asked him what the alternatives were, he could provide none. He loathed the regimentation the Communists imposed on people in the North and in areas they controlled in the South. The Communists, also, he knew, killed traditional culture and respect for free inquiry and replaced it with an ironclad Marxist ideology. And so although he disliked the military build-up, he knew it was the lesser of two evils. Father was left only with the conclusion that “we live in difficult times.”
While war engulfed us, father attempted to lose himself in teaching and managing his school. He seemed to believe that if he ignored the war it would somehow go away. But the war would not ignore father. With thousands of Americans in Danang with dollars to spend, prices rose rapidly. Father soon found the endowment that was supposed to finance the school was inadequate. He faced a financial bind and was forced to raise tuition. But when he did several students dropped out of his school and enrolled in less expensive institutions.
Father tried to find new ways to increase our income. Mother said that some of her friends who were fluent in English had taken jobs with American companies or at the nearby American military base. She proposed that she stop teaching and work for the Americans until the crisis passed.
At first father objected. He insisted that if my mother went to work for the Americans, family pride would be compromised and he would lose face. But mother answered that sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice a little pride temporarily in order to survive. Once the war was over, she said, she could return to her first love--teaching.
Father relented. But he was sullen and temperamental for several days after that because he felt there had to be another way to save his school and his pride, but he failed to find it. Sending mother to work, in other words, was the result of a personal shortcoming to father rather than to the overwhelming force of circumstance.
The next morning mother filled out a work application at an American bank that had opened recently in Danang. One week later the bank hired her. The pay she received was several times greater than what father was able to pay her for teaching and our family’s financial crisis abated.
My parents expected mother’s job to last for a few months, at most. But it lasted for the next eight years. Mother did very well in her job and earned several promotions. As the disparity between their incomes grew -- mother soon earned a high salary and father lost money in the school -- father’s pride suffered more and more. He spoke fewer words when he returned home in the afternoon. In the past, he and my mother sat in the veranda in the evening and drank tea. Sometimes they invited friends in to spend the end of the warm day with them. But mother’s job required her to spend longer hours at the bank and she often returned from work after dark, exhausted. On those evenings father sat alone waiting for her, staring into space and saying nothing. Now and then he became restless and he paced back and forth from one end of the veranda to the other staring at the floor. Then he’d sit and later rose once more to pace, lost in his own thoughts. He continued this until mother let herself in the front gate.
Despite my age, I sensed something changing in my father. So I tried consciously, as children often do, to be especially happy and animated when I was with him. I tried to give him happiness through my own laughter and my own recitations and demonstrations of scholarly expertise. My sister, Anh Thi, did the same. But making father laugh -- pulling him from the melancholy we saw slowly swallowing him -- soon became impossible. We feared we were losing him to something we could neither comprehend nor chase away.
After mother went to work in the American bank, the happiest moments in father’s life seemed to be those evenings when mother returned from work with her pay. She and father sat at the table and carefully counted out her money, putting some it aside to run the household, some to run the school, and some to finance the education of my Anh Thi and me. Whenever mother accumulated a certain set amount of money for our education fund she went to the black market to buy gold and kept it in a secret place in her room.
When mother was required to work late her employer usually gave her a ride home. Mother asked him to drop her off at the end of our street, and then she’d walk the short distance to our gate. Father said he didn’t like Americans and he didn’t want to man to be introduced to our family. Mother assented to his wish. She told her employer nothing about us, we thought. A formal separation was maintained between family and business matters.
But that separation was violated one morning. As mother prepared for work and my father, sister and I were readying ourselves for school, there was a loud knock on our front gate. My sister and I ran to the front door and watched our housekeeper slide open the steel grate on the door. I saw a large white face appear on the other side of the grate and ask in English, “Does Nguyen Thi Lac live here?”
“No English. Please to go away,” the housekeeper said, and slammed the grate shut. She turned to come back inside the house when there was an even more insistent knock on the door. She turned and slipped open the grate and before the same man could say anything she slammed it shut a second time.
The knocking resumed. This time mother went to the gate and opened the grate. I saw the man smile and say, “Lac, I thought I’d stop by and give you a ride to work this morning.” My mother whispered to him in English and I could not make out her words. She turned and waved to my sister and me, opened the gate and stepped outside and then closed it behind her. The engine of a car started and then I heard the car pull away. Father watched this from just inside the door, concealed from anyone looking through the gate. I turned to him and saw a worried look on his face. On the way to school that day he said nothing to us. He seemed lost in his thoughts, again.
That evening father sent Anh Thi and me to our rooms to work on our lessons as soon as we’d finished dinner. We were watching out the window, talking about the people passing in the distance when we heard a car stop in front of the house and a door open and close. We hurried to the front window and saw mother exchanging words with the driver. The driver’s arm reached out the window and he tried to touch mother’s face but she stepped away. Moments later the car drove off and Mother came through the gate and into the house.
We listened as our parents exchanged words. At first there was just an indecipherable buzz of conversation. Then we heard father’s voice rise and fall and rise again, and my mother’s plaintive response. Mother protested to something father said. Then we heard father demand she quit her job. She responded as adamantly that they could not afford for her to quit. There was pounding on the table then a door slammed. After that it was quiet again.
The next morning mother and father didn’t speak to each other at breakfast. As my sister and I prepared to leave for school we heard a knock on the front gate. The housekeeper answered and the white face appeared on the other side of the grate. Words were exchanged and the maid unlocked the gate. A very large white man walked quickly to the front door. My sister and I waited on either side of the door, half hidden from his view. Behind us we heard mother’s footsteps racing across the room to meet him before he came inside. She confronted him on the veranda.
“Lac!” he said, surprised to see her. “Excuse me, but I wanted to meet your family. Why don’t you introduce them to me, then I can drive you to work.”
“I told you not to come here,” she said, in an anxious tone.
“It’s OK,” he said, a large grin crossing his face. “My intentions are honorable, believe me. You have nothing to fear.” He looked down at my sister and me and said, “And these must be your sisters, right?”
My mother was quiet for a moment and then responded, “Yes, these are my sisters, Pham Thi and Anh Thi.”
He patted each of us on the head and asked how we were and we stood looking up at him dumbfounded. Father came to the door and the man looked at him and said, “And this must be your father.” He extended his hand and said, “I’m David. I’m sure Lac has told you about me, sir. Very glad to meet you. You have an extraordinary daughter.”
Again there was a long pause and mother said, softly, “Yes, this is my father, Mr. Nguyen Cao. But he doesn’t speak English, David.”
“Well then translate for me, will you?” the man said. “How do you do, I am so happy to meet you. Your daughter has said so much about you.”
Father looked at the man for a moment, then looked at mother without saying a word. Mother translated the American’s words into Vietnamese as father stared at her. When she was finished, the American said, “Please tell him how happy we are to have his daughter working for us. Tell him everyone at the bank feels privileged to work with you. We are very lucky.”
Mother again translated, her voice breaking as she did so. Father stared at the floor as he listened to her words. Then in Vietnamese he told her to tell the American goodbye and he turned and walked back into the house.
Mother left for work with the American. Moments later father returned and walked my sister and me to school.
That evening father again sent Anh Thi and me to our room after dinner. When we heard the car pull up we ran to the front window and saw mother come in the front gate. She entered the house and went into the dining room, where father waited for her. Again, we heard a buzz of words, then an argument. The volume of the voices rose and fell. We heard mother cry, heard father pound on the table, and then heard father’s voice break. Then we heard father cry. It was the only time in my life I heard him cry. We listened to his footsteps as he climbed the stairs and went to his room. Moments later we heard mother climb the stairs, go to her room, and close the door. We heard no other sounds from their rooms that night.
In 1973 the American soldiers left South Vietnam. One year later, the bank that employed mother scaled back its operation. Mother’s American was sent home.
Before he left Vietnam, however, Anh Thi and I saw him one last time. One evening while we were sitting in our room watching darkness fall over the city we saw his car by the side of the road that ran along the beach. We watched as two people sat in the car talking to each other for about 15 minutes. Then they emerged and we recognized mother and her American. They walked side by side on the beach. Several times the American reached out to take mother’s hand and she pulled away. He tried to put his arm around her waist and she twisted out of his grasp. Finally, they got back into the car. Several minutes later we heard it pull up outside our house.
We ran to the front window and watched. Mother argued with the American. “But I insist,” he said. “I have your best interests at heart. Why in the world would he object? I can give you everything you want. Why wouldn’t he agree to that? I’m sure he’d see reason. I can even bring him to the U.S. if he wants to leave. And your sisters. Lac, this is best for all of us. We’re in love. This is what people do when they’re in love. We can’t wait until were too old for this. Let’s do it now. We can be married here or in the States. Whatever you want. In whatever kind of ceremony you want. But let’s do this soon.”
Mother objected to each of his statements. “Please, no, he won’t understand,” she said. “He’s old fashioned. He’d never agree. Never. The time isn’t right. It will only cause trouble.“
”But I’m in love with you,” he responded. “Don’t the Vietnamese understand love, for God’s sake? And I have to leave Danang. Time is running out.”
“You have to be patient,” mother told him. “I know my father. I have to wait until I know he’ll say yes before I ask him. Trust me. You have to trust me, David.”
Finally, we heard the door slam and the car drove away. Moments later mother came through the gate. Father was waiting for her. They exchanged words. We heard a slap, a cry from mother and then hurried footsteps across the room and up the stairs.


And so mother’s American left Vietnam without again asking father for her hand in marriage.
As a going-away gift he bought mother an expensive gold ring and bracelet. She placed the two items on the table before father on the evening she received them. Father examined them carefully, remarked on the quality of the workmanship and then ordered her to store them with the rest of the gold to be used for our education.
At the end of 1974 the American bank closed and mother lost her job. Shortly after that father closed his school.
For the next four months we depended on mother’s American for our income. He wrote to her daily. When the letters arrived mother brought them into the house and father opened them. Before reading each letter, father shook out the bank draft or dollars inside. The money was used to buy more gold on the black market or was changed into piasters and used to pay household expenses. Father dictated the response to each letter and mother transcribed his words. Each letter was quickly answered by a letter filled with romantic allusion and promise. And each one closed with a desperate appeal for money. Mother told her American how she’d lost her job, how she was the sole provider for her family and how much money she needed. Within days a letter arrived with the requested amount. At the end of each week father burned the letters from the American.
The American, for his part, appealed over and over again for mother to come to the US. He’d moved to California, he said, and taken a job with an aerospace company near in Sunnyvale. He’d purchased a home and he sent half a dozen pictures of it. He wrote on the back of each picture describing what it showed. There was a picture of a room for my sister and me, one for my father, one for my mother and him to share. There was even a picture of a swimming pool in the back. Father looked through the pictures carefully, thought for a time, and then dictated his response and his appeal for more money. Father even dropped his reticence about using certain words and phrases. “I truly love you” and “my heart is breaking from this separation” were dictated into the letters that mother wrote. We knew she never would have said this to a man to whom she was not yet married. But father said he understood Americans and what they wanted to hear. That knowledge, he pointed out, paid off well and secured a future for my sister and me.
But we could tell mother was bothered by this. Sometimes in the evening she left the house to go for a walk alone. My sister and I saw her on the beach, where we’d seen her with her American. She stopped and looked out to sea as we watched her from our window. When she returned home, later, we listened to her footsteps as she climbed the stairs and then heard soft muffled sobs from her room.
While mother and father composed love letters to America and bought more and more gold, South Vietnam disintegrated around us.
The Central Highlands fell to the Communists in early March and thousands of refugees poured into Danang. Friends came to our home in the evening to discuss the grim situation. Some insisted that the Americans would return to save us. But father said the Americans they would never come back because they didn’t care about Vietnam. They only used us to make money, he said. They were all crooks. We were never important to them.
Facing the inevitable, my parents prepared for our escape to Saigon in the south. Some of the gold that had been put aside for our education was used to buy passage out of Danang.
Father bought four places in a boat scheduled to leave from the Danang wharf during the last week in March. He was told to bring us to a particular place at a particular time and to bring along the receipts he’d paid for our passage.
On the evening before our departure, my parents packed all of our gold in newspapers and tied the bundles shut with string. Then the gold was placed in two well-made leather bags. Before we left the next morning, father tied one of the bags tightly to my mother’s wrist and she tied the other to his wrist. Then we hired a car to take us to the wharf. But when we arrived, we were shocked. Thousands of people were waiting for passage south. Father turned to mother with panic in his eyes and said that the men he’d trusted and paid had betrayed him. We were on our own now. He said we had to stay together and get aboard one of the large barges that was being filled with people.
We managed to edge our way with the crowd toward the water during the next several hours. What I remember most from that time is people screaming and crying and some people falling down and others ignoring them and stepping on them in their haste to get into the barges. Then, just as we neared one barge there was a sudden irresistible surge of the crowd, and father and my sister were pulled back while my mother and I were pushed forward. I was forced to release my sister’s hand. I screamed her name and turned to grasp her again, but all I saw was her terrified look and then she was gone, swallowed up by the crowd. Mother screamed her name, too - and tried to stop but it was no use. We were pushed forward. Both of us were crying as we were picked up and dropped into the barge, already packed tightly with thousands of other people. Within minutes we felt the barge move. At that point mother tried to get us out but it was no use. She was shoved back. We were pulled out to sea, fastened to another ship and pulled to the port in Vung Tau in the south. From there we took a bus into Saigon.
Mother still had the bag of gold tied to her wrist and she told me again and again, if something happened to her I should keep the bag safely with me, no matter who asked for it. I was never to surrender it.
We searched for my father and sister in Saigon. But the city was crowded and we found no sign of them. Mother learned that nearly everyone thought the whole country would fall to the Communists within days. She had to make a decision to stay in Vietnam and try to find father and sister or to get out of the country and hope to find them after that -- in America. Because she had worked for the Americans, she was told, she would be on the Communists black list, and once they took over she would be punished. She used a bit more of our gold to buy us exit papers and passage on a plane that flew us to Guam. From there we were flown to Camp Pendleton in southern California. In the camp she resumed her search for father and sister but couldn’t find them. Then we were sponsored by an American family to St. Paul, Minnesota, where we settled into a small apartment.
During this time, mother used the services of several charitable organizations to try to find my sister and father. But she could find no news about them. She never gave up hope of locating them in the U.S. or in Vietnam.
In the fall of 1975 I was enrolled in a high school in St. Paul and mother took a job in an American department store to pay our living expenses. She sold her gold at a good price and put the dollars she received for it in an American bank for the education of my sister and me. Four years later we had still not located my father and my sister. I graduated from high school in 1979 and was admitted to the University of Minnesota. Part of the money mother saved was used to pay for my education. In 1983 I began medical school and graduated four years later. After I completed my residency and internship in internal medicine, I was able to go into practice in a medical facility in San Jose, California.
Mother came with me to California. She devoted herself full time after that to finding my father and sister. She poured through American telephone directories and made calls to Vietnamese whose names she thought she recognized. She joined a dozen organizations helping newly-arrived Vietnamese refugees and questioned them about people they’d known in Vietnam. No one had news for her about father or sister. She wrote to friends in Danang but received no response.
In 1993, we returned to Vietnam together and flew from Saigon to Danang. We spent a week there trying to trace the flight of my sister and father. But the trail was cold. Few people remembered them. There had been so many tragedies in 1975, they said, and many people had disappeared. They advised us to give up our quest.
We visited our old house and found it had been divided into quarters for four families. The entire structure was in disrepair. The old iron gate had disappeared and the shutters had been removed. All of the old neighbors were gone. The families who lived there were unfriendly.
We walked along the beach every day and sometimes I looked up and to see the window from which my sister and I in our privileged perch had once looked down on the world. One morning I arose early and walked to the beach so I could see one final time see the fire ignited in the east by the opening of the dragon’s eye.
In San Jose, I devoted myself to my work and to the care of my mother, who became acutely ill after our return from Vietnam. I bought a large house for us in Cupertino.
Mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1996. Her strength failed her quickly after that. One of the activities she enjoyed during those days was short walks near our house. Sometimes, in the evenings, when I’d completed my shift, I walked with her. There were no parks near our home but one of the large computer companies built a beautiful structure with a sidewalk that circled it. Mother loved to walk around the building in the evening and to see the reflection of the setting sun in the panels of glass in the structure. She said the way the light sparkled on the glass reminded her of the surface of the South China Sea in the early morning when the sun’s rays caromed off its surface.
We spoke of many things during our walks. Mother said she still missed my sister and my father very much. Her heart was broken by their loss. She asked me to continue looking for them after she was gone and to care for them when I found them. I promised.
She passed away peacefully one cold rainy evening in February, 1998.


I thought mother’s death would be the end of my story. But it is not. In April, a middle-aged man came to our clinic. He’d suffered chest pains and needed a physical examination. The moment I walked into the examining room I recognized him. His features had softened since I’d seen him last in 1974, the tone of his voice was lower, his hair thinner -- but I still recognized the American who stood at our front door and asked for my mother’s hand.
Before I could go over his medical history he read my name tag and asked, “You’re Vietnamese?”
“Yes, I am,” I said. “Have you been to Vietnam?”
“I spent seven years there,” he volunteered. “1967-1974. The best years of my life. Where was your home?”
“I’m from Danang,” I said. “Where were you stationed.”
“I was in Danang. I fell in love with the place.”
“It is a beautiful city,” I said.
“I also fell in love there,” he said.
I was curious as to what had happened to his man after 1974. So I sat down and asked him, “And what happened?”
“There is no happy ending, I’m afraid. We never married. But it wasn’t from my not asking. Her father was very traditional -- very Vietnamese. You probably understand that better than I do, doctor. I thought we had time, but I was wrong. Everything fell apart so fast in 1975 we lost touch. Or should I say I lost her. I remember watching the fall of Saigon on television on April 30, 1975. I stood in front of my TV and watched the Communist tanks rip through the fence of the Independence Palace and I burst into tears and cried like a baby. I’ve dreamed about going back to find her some day. But, I don’t know. I don’t know if I should any more.”
“Why not?”
He thought for a moment before continuing. “I guess I’m afraid I’d find her and she’d be happily married now and I’d just intrude and ruin her life. You know, I loved her... so much. I really did. Like a teenager, actually. But I think if she wanted to find me, she’d write. I waited so long. And she never wrote. She broke my heart but...I hope I did the right thing. Maybe she’s here in the US now. But if she is, you’d think she’d look for me, wouldn’t you? But she didn’t. She’s probably married to some lucky guy now and has a houseful of kids.”
“Are you married now?” I asked him.
“No, I’m not. I’ve never married. I never met anyone else like her. She ruined me for women, doctor. I think I used up all my love on her. I wish things could have been different. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened to me if I’d never met her. But then I come back to my senses. It was nice while it lasted.”
He seemed to lose hold of the moment and was lost in the memory of his life in Danang and the woman he pursued there. “You know, despite my doubts, doctor, I know she really loved me,” he said. “You know Vietnamese women -- I mean the nice ones --they’re very discreet. Very quiet. Difficult to read. But this one really loved me. She told me so. That’s why it hurts so much now. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. Not a day. I wonder where she is?”
“Vietnamese women seldom use the word love during courtship,” I told him. “But I’m sure she loved you. You’re very romantic.”
“Oh,” he said, “but she said she loved me. She told me so. She used that word -- love. That’s why our story is special. It was really love.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s unusual.”
“Yes. I saw her one last time before I left and we walked on the beach in Danang. She cried and told me she couldn’t leave her father and her sisters alone. I held her hand just for a moment and she said she really loved me, truly, and asked me to forget her. But I never could. I think she knew I never could.”
“Then your story is special, “ I said. “And it’s lasted a long time. What was her name?” I wanted to hear him say my mother’s name.
“It was Nguyen Thi Lac.”
“That’s a common name,” I told him.
“Well, doctor, she was an uncommon woman, I tell you. I wish I could describe her. You wouldn’t believe it. And her dedication to her family. That was something, too.”
“She sounds like a wonderful person,” I said.

I’ve seen mother’s American several times since then in the clinic. He still has no idea that I’m the little girl who watched him from the window of her home in Danang. I do not intend to tell him. I plan to leave him with his dreams.
After mother’s death I continued her search for my sister and father. But nothing ever materialized. I’ve concluded they were lost forever in 1975.

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