For our State of the Union issue, we received some fascinating submissions and heard some illuminating stories. In this invited blog post, practicing nephrologist Jean Robey tells of her father's road to America. She attributes her own happiness to her father's efforts as a refugee.
My father was an only child made fatherless early then motherless soon after. No image of his father exists and the only image of his mother that exists was taken hours before her death. In this weathered photo, she is propped up in a chair and looks fit except her eyes fall cross-sided and her mouth looks unnaturally parted. After his mother’s death, he was sent to live with his mother’s sister’s family, who had ten children of her own.
“Why did you join the military?” I asked. My father was not a political man but seemed deeply moral. I assumed he was anti-Communist looking for American idealism.
“I didn’t want to die,” he admitted simply. “Jeannie, if you joined early like me and tested well you could maybe be a pilot. If you were on the ground and in the jungle then you would die.”
My father volunteered to serve the South Vietnamese army and proved bright enough to be offered training in Arkansas. He would frame the certificate that announced his graduation from aviation school with its bold English letters and return home to Vietnam to fight. He did as he was told and air-lifted soldiers. He also dropped an orange powder over the green Earth. Return trips revealed the ravages of these chemicals. Defoliated, the naked jungle told its tale of hidden enemy forces. The roughest kind of warfare was unleashed deep in the hot, humid jungle. Everyone was inhaling orange dust and looking for morning sun through a haze. I saw my father fortunate to fly above toxic air and vulnerable pick-offs around overgrown trees and vines.
“How did you get out of Vietnam?” I pressed.
My father inhaled and described a time of panic once word came that Saigon had fallen and the Communists had won. “There were six of us, I was the only one married and with a child. The other pilots agreed to help me. I was flown to get your mother and sister and then we all left as soon as we could.”
“You didn’t fly the helicopter to get mom and Liz?” I asked.
“No. Another man,” he answered but looked down. I feared the man was dead by my father’s pause. “I needed to get out fast to get your mother and sister."
I imagined my mother packed nothing more than a suitcase of dried noodles, saying goodbye to her entire family without certainty of where she was going or when she would send word again. The helicopter landed and the loud, heavy blades rotated over top a young woman and a small child. Then they were gone.
“Once we were together,” my father continued, “we flew to the air craft carrier. Many others tried to flee.”
I imagined standing on the aircraft carrier as Hueys pushed off to make room for more people, while off in the distance boats full of South Vietnamese soldiers launched towards cargo ships. Desperate, those loyal to South Vietnam fled by all means.
“There were deals made to save 150,000 people loyal to the South Vietnamese but the Communists didn’t let every one leave, Jeannie. Maybe a third would leave." My father suddenly looked like a man who had lost friends. He often cried out in nightmares and I knew that some of these thoughts plagued him. “We were then taken by the thousands, Jeannie, to cargo ships."
It hurt to think of humans as cargo and I could feel the tight spaces and humid, stifled air closing in on them. My father continued, “We arrived in the Philippines but the Communists only allowed us to stay there for four hours so we had to leave again. It took us twelve days to get to Guam. At the base there you could not leave if you did not have a sponsor. For nearly four months we waited.” My father’s shoulders slumped and he seemed worn down by hopelessness. I saw a field of refugees without a nation. What happens when no country claims you? Does a human fully become cargo?
“Finally, there was word of sponsors for us." He shook his head in disbelief, even after all those years. Adopted, believed in, supported, salvaged, re-identified and reclassified as human, my father, mother, and older sister were going to America.
“Mama, we have hope! We have a sponsor,” I heard my father say to my mother. I saw them rejoice and pack quickly. I saw them make love quietly that night and sleep, finally assured. I was born nine months later in Louisiana, an instant American citizen. I would grow up thinking a silly thought that would make me feel unstoppable: “I could be President of the United States. I am an American citizen.”
“Dad, I owe you so much… for … piecing your way here,” I began. I wanted to thank my father for paving a way for me to be free to thrive. I wanted him to feel finally safe and to know I was safe from war and
poverty. I wanted him to see that graduating medical school was just the beginning of how I would pay back being born an American.
“Jeannie, I tell you true, I am in heaven here,” my father said, then took a drink of the cold water, smiled, and handed me the glass. To my father, thanks was never being ungrateful for even simple gestures. Resilience has this near nobility. Such is the American way.