Mama is on a plane ride right now, returning from her visit to our Motherland – Vietnam. While she was there, she caught up with me on FaceTime on several occasions. My siblings and I bragged to each other when one of us was able to connect with her.
Me: I got to FaceTime with Mom!
Sister 1: Nice, she called me first.
Brother: No, she called me first!
Me: Well then she called me last because she wanted to save the best for last!
Sister 2: She called me after you, Thao, so she saved me for last!
I’d like to think I am her favorite, but the siblings and I know she surely loved us equally, just in different ways. So no, I don’t think she has a favorite. She’s very practical about her love and how she shows her love. She is the kind of woman that simply gets shit done for us. Need a live-in nanny to your babies? No problem! Need some cash for your next financial venture? Absolutely! Need a meal after work? Done! Need your house cleaned? Sure! If she didn’t pay much attention to one of us, it was because she knew another sibling needed her more. She always took care of our needs and wants in order of urgency.
I’m the only sibling who lives out of state from Mama. When we have time for phone calls, she catches me up on family affairs and the lives of her friends. When I see her in person, we have these deep talks that stretch from heart to heart. They’re the kind of talks that I keep with me in my spirit and linger in my thoughts when I’m alone and missing my Mommy.
Many times, during our heart talks, she beams a grateful smile and reminds me of the time I “saved her life”. It was 1976 and we were newly minted refugees who had just settled in San Antonio, Texas. It was our first landing spot after fleeing Vietnam in 1975 at the end of the war. It was in San Antonio where #SheToo was gripped by the cruel hands of sexual assault. My father was at work. Mama and I were home alone with my newly born twin baby sisters. It was daytime when the knock at the door came.
Him: Hello, I’m a nurse from the hospital. My chart says you just gave birth to twin girls. Congratulations! I’m here to check on you to see if you are okay. May I come in?
She shook her head and didn’t know how to respond. Her English was barely there. As a daughter of rural folks in the rice fields of South Vietnam, she had not gone to formal schooling and never studied English. He seemed kind in his disposition with his friendly smile. He was an American. The Americans are our friends. They helped us in many ways.
He lifted a black oblong bag with black handles on the top. He opened the clasp at the top of the bag and reached in to pull out a stethoscope. He dangled it in front of her and smiled as he tried to show her he was there to help. She understood what the device was. The thin black tube with a round silver medallion at one end and two pieces at the other end that plugged into their ears – she recalled how the people at the hospital used it to check her. Ahhh. He’s a doctor. She let him in.
He sat down next to her on the only couch in the living room. The twins were sleeping, and I was there with her, a 3 year old refugee kid who was only scared of one thing Mama told me – police sirens. He started innocently and professionally with the stethoscope on her chest over her shirt. He moved it from the right side to the left. He moved it to her back, first center, then right, left, then up, and down. He then turned her shoulders so she would face him. He then slid the scope between the buttons of her top. She did not move. He reached over with his other had and undid the top button. She became nervous as he slid the scope further away from the upper part of her chest down toward her breast. His fingers let go of the scope as he opened his palm, cupping her breast. He lunged toward her and began kissing her and fondling her breast very aggressively. Mama was so scared, but she wasn’t strong enough to push him off. She screamed out in Vietnamese, “Thao, go get your Auntie!”
Auntie was not really an auntie. She was a friend who lived in the unit above us. She was a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who lost one of her limbs from the knee down due to a land mine that blew up her bus in Vietnam. She was the only survivor. Despite her missing limb, the exotic beauty managed to marry an American pharmacist, Mr. Don. They lived above us. I knew that no one was home. Both Auntie and Mr. Don both worked during the day. But the other thing I knew at that moment was that Mama was very scared. The American man was scaring her. I was scared, too. So when she screamed at me to get my Auntie, I got up and ran. He saw me from the corner of his eye. I had to go past the couch to get to the front door. As I dashed by, he lunged at me trying to grab me. His hand came within inches. Fear and instinct must’ve taken over my little runt of a body. My left shoulder leaned forward and to the right, my tiny steps full speed as my body tucked and I ducked away from his reach. I ran like a hare up the 2 flights of stairs to the next floor. Mr. Don and Auntie were not home, but I had to pretend like they were so I banged on the door with my tiny fists.
Mama said he grabbed his things and left quickly. Mama was so frightened. She wanted to lock the door, but her baby girl had run out. Did she really run upstairs? Didn’t she know that no one was home? What if she ran outside? What if the man has her outside? Mama called for me, and I replied. Mama ran upstairs. There I was, still banging on the door. She scooped me up and frantically went back downstairs. She was afraid he might be there, but what could she do? She could only hope he was scared away by the thought that the neighbors were coming. And her two other babies were sleeping inside the bedroom. She had to get back to them. Such a relief to reach the front door and see no one. Inside, she ran to her twins who were still sleeping. With me by her side, she locked the door, hugged me tight, and we both cried until my father got home.
Mama never lets me forget that I “saved her life”. I get very emotional at this idea because on countless occasions, Mama saved my life. Heck, she GAVE me life! When we have a heart talk about this moment in our lives, never once did she mention how it traumatized her or how it made her think poorly of Americans or how she was too scared to go anywhere or how she felt violated. She just files it away as something we had to overcome so we could continue building our lives.
When I reflect on the incident these days, I sometimes wish there was a way to find that asshole who did this to Mama. I want justice. I wonder how many other victims there might have been. But Mama doesn’t want me to hold on to the past.
Mama: It’s ok, Thao. Nothing really, really bad happened because you were smart, and brave, and fast! You saved my life.
Me: Oh Mama, I would do anything for you.
Mama: I just need you to do your best and be happy. Be a good person. That’s all I need you to do for me.
Everyday, I have to do my best, be a good person, and be happy. It’s what Mama is expecting of me. I can’t wait for her to land in Houston tonight and call me. I miss her bubbly voice and lovely face with that milky, creamy porcelain complexion. Happy Mother’s Day, Mama. Because of you, I always try my best, try to be a good person, and am very happy that you are my Mama.