My oldest son has traveled back to Vietnam on three, four occasions now. He arrived at our home in 1975 as an eleven-year-old refugee. We, my first wife and I, adopted him five years later. He was part of the contingent of “unaccompanied minors” temporarily housed at the refugee center at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas. Something on the order of 2,200 Vietnamese fleeing the fall of Saigon went through there, finding sponsors, relocating, rebuilding lives.
Helping two Vietnamese families resettle in Topeka, Kansas kept me on the phone with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. I casually asked one worker if the camp was going to be closed by Christmas 1975, like President Ford wanted done. He said all the families would be out, but he didn’t know about the three hundred kids.
Kids? My wife and I wanted a kid. So we spent a day together with a Vietnamese-English dictionary, I and the boy who became my son, and hit it off. Three weeks later, he landed at the Topeka airport. From an original vocabulary of “hello” and “no sweat,” he Americanized quickly. Our experience turned out well, but not everyone else’s did.
The tug of his homeland proved powerful. I urged him to try to locate his parents the first time he visited. How an eleven-year-old boy evaded the fall of Saigon is a story hard to fathom, but it did include relatives urging him to escape if he could, and he did. He was a formidable child. His family, I kept saying, deserved to know he was safe after thirty-some years. But he wasn’t much interested until the last day of his trip. A short walk through a familiar neighborhood, and there they were.
It was a happy reunion, and a relief to him I’d guess. He never spoke much of the family left in Vietnam; he does now. He and his wife, also Vietnamese, have visited since and she too has lingering ties to Vietnam, friends and former teachers.
I envy my son. There is something immensely satisfying in settling unsettled questions, the same questions my own adoption poses. How did life turn out, for them? How might it have been for me?
I go through questions like those once every twenty years or so. My adoption nags at me like a hangnail. I wish I could resolve them and, inevitably I suppose, get a peek at how things might have turned out differently if events, like my adoption, had not intervened.
It has never been a gratifying quest. The few details I do acquire are always disturbing and I have never sought any sort of contact. Perhaps, like my son, I was reluctant to find things I would rather not know.
Not that I didn’t fantasize. Despite knowing I was conceived in step-sibling incest, I could picture myself poring over the “other” family album, all cozy-like next to my birth mother on the sofa as she pointed out the step-brother who was my birth father, and me feeling warm and accepted and everything, and her delighted with my family photos, and us saying how we must all get together soon.
Outside the fantasy, my birth father seems to have disappeared from any record. My birth mother, however, died in 1997 in April, the month of my birth. I learned this only lately and it weighs strangely upon me as another intrusive loss; something else in my life undone, never finished, and now forever out of my grasp beyond resolution.
My cousin is a genealogical geek. Just after Christmas I turned her loose with my original Kansas birth certificate, the one that says my birth was illegitimate. She searched the names. Her abrupt description of my birth family: “This family is such a mess.”
By that she meant the tracings of relationship are impossibly convoluted. They don’t form anything resembling the sleek procession of descent proper to a family tree. It upset her aesthetic sense of how family lines ought to look. Too bad, I think I said; I wasn’t expecting my birth genealogy to include the queen of England. It is a mess, that’s for sure.
By happenstance I wrote about my adoption not quite a year following my birth mother’s death. I asserted then what I know still to be true: I was not abandoned to adoption; I was rescued by it. Yet the very fact of it ever evokes an oddly melancholic nostalgia for something that could never have been.
Faye and Robert were their names. God grant us each “a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the University of Mary Christian Leadership Center. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.