All In A Day

{Written on our way to the beach, posted when the internet felt cooperative}

Yesterday, we drove to the province where Luke was born.

On the way, he sat in the front row in our van and peppered our guide with questions, as he does every time we go somewhere. And as he always does, our guide called him by his Vietnamese name. Luke leaned back against the seat to quietly ask me a question.

“Why does he call me T__ D__?”
“Because that’s your Vietnamese name.”
“Is it Vietnamese for Luke?”

I have told him what his Vietnamese name means, and what his new given name means. Many times. But somehow, here, the layers come together in a new and confusing way for him and the questions take on a depth that they don’t have at home.

We arrived at the children’s center (orphanage) – after an interesting and at times nerve-wracking ride. (The adoption agency’s rep who met us in the town and then led us to the center on her moto somehow didn’t process that our large van would not be able to drive down a road tightly packed with market stalls and people. Halfway down the road our driver gave up. He then had to back down the same road. Yes, he drove in REVERSE down a packed street. My heart was in my throat the entire time.)

Despite insisting that we arrive promptly at 8:30am, there was no one at the center to greet us. The director had a meeting off site. All of the older (>3) children were at school. The place was very quiet. But that was okay. It gave us a chance to take it in and remember without being overwhelmed. We walked into the first courtyard and I pointed to the wall.
“That is where I first saw you.” I said to Luke.
“Do you remember? Daddy gave you a little fan.”
“Yes, I remember” He said. I think he remembers because we have a picture of him holding the fan in his memory book. Most (if not all) of his memories of Vietnam are attached to photos.

We gave the bag of gifts that we were instructed to bring for the staff and the children to our agency rep. She and a woman from the center dug through the bags. I felt scrutinized. I’m pretty sure our gifts did not impress. The agency rep pulled out some of the small candy canes for the toddlers and then lead us to the nursery rooms.

Before we step inside, we removed our shoes. I pause and say to Luke, “This is the room where you stayed, when you were at the center.” Cribs line the walls, most of them empty. There are only three babies here, and a couple of toddlers. The agency rep reminds us that most of the children are at school, including the three year olds, who are in pre-school. There is a tiny baby in one of the cribs. For a moment, I look at him and see Luke, in one of the earliest photos we have of him. I want to pick up the baby and love on him, but I don’t want to overstep. I coo at him instead, and play with his fingers. He smiles and kicks his little feet. I think of all the families who want so much to adopt right now and can’t, and think how unfair it is this baby has no mommy to coo over him every day.

A little toddler boy has attached himself to Quinn. Literally. “Mom, look.” she says, as he leans his body into her legs and looks up. She only has to bend over and he is instantly in her arms. “He’s so cute.” My girl who is afraid of babysitting because little kids baffle and annoy her is completely charmed.

Luke, who has given the room the once over, is bored. “I saw it.” he says. I think he is disappointed. I don’t know what he expected, but a few babies and two or three caregivers is not it. We linger, and I take many photos. I don’t know why. I think of these children’s future parents, and decide at the very least I can send their pictures to our agency. I know how precious every photo is when you have missed such tender moments in your child’s life.

Another toddler, a little girl, sits on the floor with her candy cane in her hand, sucking the candy right through the wrapper. I pull off the plastic and talk softly to her. She is clearly not used to seeing so many strangers. The agency rep says to me, “She has a heart condition.”

“Has it been repaired yet?”

“Not yet. She is waiting for operation.”

I don’t know if she waits because the doctors want her to be bigger, or because there is no money to cover the cost.

“Is our agency sponsoring her?”

“Yes” she replies in a tone that says it was a given. I am glad, and relieved. And thinking of how much I want to be one of this girl’s sponsors. I want to know that she will be okay.

With no other children to visit, our agency rep says we will leave now, and go to see Luke’s foster family.

We pile back into the van for the short drive to their home in the city. On the way Luke remarks at how few children there were. Husband reminds him that most of the kids are in school.
“There are lots of older kids at the center. Many of them your age.”
“And Quinn’s age?” (Quinn is 17)
“Probably not. I think they graduate out by then.”
“Without a mom and dad?” He is incredulous. And thoughtful.

His foster mother’s house is like most of those in the city. A small storefront coffee shop in front, a couple of rooms behind. She greets Luke with a hug, and chatters at him in Vietnamese. He looks to me for translation.
“I don’t speak Vietnamese, remember?”
Our guide translates, summarizing. “She says you are so big.”
Family reunions are the same everywhere.

She has a baby on her hip and a toddler stands nearby. I ask the agency rep if these are her children, or if they are foster children. She tells me they are from the neighborhood – she has not fostered any children since Luke. Later in our visit she tells us that one of the little boys belongs to a rich family. She cares for him from the morning until 9 at night, because she is the only one he will take milk from.

Up on the wall are two photos and a shelf. A small alter for family who have passed. Foster mother points to the man in the photo. Our guide translates.
“That is her husband. The foster father.”
I ask Husband to pick Luke up so he can see better.

Foster mother gestures for us to sit down in the wooden benches that flank a small low table. She gets out a photo album. It looks very much like one I had back in college. A silver and brass frame in front that opens to pages of photo sleeves inside. She opens to the middle, where there is a picture of our family. It is one we sent while we were waiting for Luke. Next to it is a photo of him when he was two or three. Our agency gave me one like it, probably from the same photo session. I turn the pages and see pictures of Luke when he was part of their family. Held in his foster mother’s arms at a wedding or some other family event.
Then she gets out another album and sits next to Luke. She talks to him as she shows him the photos. He looks to Husband for translation. Our guide says, “Those are pictures of her husband’s funeral.”
I feel like I should say something. Like I am sorry for her loss. But I don’t know how that translates or if its the proper thing to say. So I sit and watch and listen instead.
When she finishes showing him the album, there’s a moment of awkwardness, so I tell Luke to get the photo book we made for her. He points to pictures and tries to remember where they were taken. “Was that our house in D__?” He asks. It was two houses ago. “It doesn’t matter so much where, Luke, as what you were doing.”
After we finish sharing photos, Luke says he wants to see the rest of the house. The foster mother says they didn’t live in that exact house when he lived with them. She points toward the back. We walk back outside. Behind her rooms is a small walking alley with rooms on each side. She points and talks, and the guide translates. “She rents these rooms, to local students and workers from the factory.”
She tells us that Luke used to go knock on the doors and talk to the tenants. One of the men would give him lemon juice. (I’m still not altogether clear on where exactly they used to live, if not in those front rooms.) She points to a coconut tree in the small yard. Luke used to like to drink coconut juice, she says. Back at home I bought a bag of dried coconut, for a snack for the kids. Luke didn’t like it. Perhaps he only likes fresh coconut.
Then we go sit in the small courtyard near the street. There is a hammock hanging between two small trees. Our guide urges Luke to try it out. At first he is embarrassed, but then he sits. He lies back, looking relaxed.

Before we leave, the agency rep pulls out a binder. She shows us that our yearly reports are all cataloged there, as well as pictures from Luke’s pre-placement reports. She also has photos of his birth mother. We do not have these. We only have a photocopy of what looks like a visa photo. Husband takes pictures of the two photos, doing his best to block out the glare of the sun. In one of the pictures she is holding Luke, as a small baby. She is looking at him lovingly, and sadly. It is the day of his relinquishment. For that one picture, the trip is worth it.

On the way back to Saigon, Luke is thinking, processing. He asks again about his birthmother. The agency rep made a point of telling us we can not search for her now. Vietnamese law says the paperwork is sealed until he is 18. And if we hired a private investigator, we might hurt her and her family. I understand. And frankly, I don’t feel a need to search. We have information and photos. And Luke has never expressed a desire to meet her. I told the rep that really all he wanted was to see his foster mom, and now he has. His questions on the way back are asking what we have told him before… how old was she, why couldn’t she keep him. He isn’t sad or upset, just curious.

All in all, the morning went as well as I could have hoped. Luke said he didn’t remember his foster mother, and the only Vietnamese he could speak were the few phrases our guide has taught him since we got here. But I think maybe deep down it was familiar.

Once in the city we stopped for lunch at a big Vietnamese restaurant where the food is served in the traditional way and the only utensils were chopsticks. I’m pretty sure we were the lunchtime entertainment. (I can use chopsticks. But throw in some smallish pieces of meat still on the bone covered in a sticky sauce and it’s a whole ‘nother ball game.)

Back at the hotel, Husband and the younger kids needed a rest. Quinn and I wanted to do more shopping and to see the Notre Dame Cathedral. (photos to come, another day when I have better wifi) After a short nap, the kids went to the pool and swam the afternoon away. Luke told me the pool was 50% of his good day.

For dinner, we went across the street to a french restaurant. Drew, who is normally the least adventurous eater in the family, decided to order escargot. (He’s in third year french. I’m pretty sure that had something to do with it.) The food came and he got a plateful of snails. And proceeded to eat all of them. Luke, who was sitting directly across from him, was equal parts awed and disgusted. “I’m going to tell everyone at school about this.” He chattered on and on about how he was going to write a report about going to Vietnam and how his brother ate snails. So at the end of the day in which he visited the children’s center where he lived as a baby, reunited with his foster family, and saw new photos of himself as a baby with his birth mother, the thing that made the greatest impact was watching his big brother eat snails. And I’m pretty sure that is what being nine is all about.

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3 thoughts on “All In A Day

  1. So emotional for me to read. It must be so strange to see your child living this totally different life! I have often imagined this kind of thing – what life might be like if Addy had grown beyond infancy in VN. But seeing it in reality is a whole different ball game. And how bizarre to have a whole life that you can’t remember. A language, a neighborhood, a foster family. And that birth mom pic? I cried.

    My pickiest eater randomly ordered escargot this may in Florida and loves it too. So strange – he won’t even eat pizza or fast food!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story and for being so candid about Luke’s reactions. We hope to take Reagan back to VN someday too, but I think it will probably be more emotional for me than for her. What a treasure to get to see those birthmother photos! Luke will certainly appreciate them at some point too.

  3. We ordered escargot frequently in VN, my dh loves it…but M. was not that adventurous! Thank you so much for sharing these experiences. We are years away from going back, but it is overwhelming to consider.

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