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A Final Farewell Vietnam Adoption Story

By Christine Rhyner

Saying goodbye to my son's orphanage caregiver before leaving Vietnam.

One evening, after a brief visit to see how things are going with Lucas, Hai startles me, "Van will be coming to the hotel tonight to say good-bye to Baby Long."

"She will?" I search her expression for some meaning to this unorthodox proposition.

"She's in Ho Chi Minh City Hospital taking care of the baby getting the surgery on the intestines," she says.

"Oh great!" I feign enthusiasm. I want to meet Van. I think she should get to say good bye to Lucas. But, I have to wonder if it's common for orphanage caretakers to show up at hotels to visit former orphans. It's certainly not something I've read about in anybody else's adoption story. This whole experience has been so good at surprising us. Until we're on the plane homebound with our bundle of joy, I'll have this fear that around any corner lurks the threat of something or someone taking Lucas away. It's in the air here, in the weeks of sweating it out until we finally left the orphanage with him, in the way he almost died, in the recent swirling allegations of baby selling, in the way Le told us we were to be appreciative of these babies, in the way they all refer to him as Baby Long instead of the name we've chosen for him, Lucas.

"I'll call you when she get here," says Hai.

"Right," I say, gently closing the door behind her. I roll my eyes at John, who reminds me, "Hang on just a little bit longer. We're out of here after tomorrow."

As the hour of Van's seven o'clock visit approaches, I start to feel more curious about her. I want to meet this woman I'm beginning to believe really has a special bond with our little boy. Though I'm still a bit unnerved and angry that Lucas's serious illness was kept from us until we arrived, I am appreciative of Van's round-the-clock care for him during all that time. She must be a special person to be designated orphanage "nurse."

How to dress Lucas for this Final Farewell is important to me. I'm proud of our handsome baby and want to show him off. I don't know if it might be expected of us to dress him in traditional Vietnamese garb. Just as we've been referring to Lucas Benjamyn Rhyner as Long out of deference to his culture, I don't know if Van or Hai or Le would prefer he be dressed in native clothing. The day we met him he had on a Pokemon sweat suit. But was that out of any deference to our American culture?

I decide on western fashion. He's ours now, and John and I are an American couple bringing him home to live with us in the United States. But everything I packed for him is summery. With the hotel air conditioning, perhaps Van will think that anything short of long pants, a sweater and hat won't be warm enough. We still haven't encountered a single sweating Vietnamese, even among those wearing long sleeves. One thing is sure--if I don't dress him soon, he's going to catch cold from his recently bathed nakedness in our lightly air conditioned room.

I put him in the blue and white checked overalls my mother gave me for my baby shower. On its white bib front float three colorful whales. Underneath this I put him in a white, collared shirt with blue trim around the short-sleeved arms and neck. Then I slip on the matching sandals and stand back to admire him.

"Watch him a sec," I say to John as I leave him on the bed and run to the diaper bag for a soft, blue baby brush. Together, we attempt brushing down his wispy, black hair but stubbornly it keeps popping back up. No matter, he's absolutely adorable. I give him a blue, plastic fish to chew on that my mom gave as part of the gift, and, as a last thought, put on his wrist the tiny, gold bracelet we bought for him at the Ben Thanh Market. We purchased it as a celebration of both his Vietnamese and American heritages. I reason it should show Van she and his native country are important to us, and that we won't let Lucas grow up without knowledge of either. Satisfied there is nothing more to be done before the call comes, I stand rocking Lucas while John dresses.

Clicking on the TV, I try to blot out my anxious thoughts with a nature show. Once again, the television mesmerizes Lucas. Sappy music accompanies pictures of wild boar as I tell him where we're about to go.

When Hai rings and tells us to come down to the hotel lobby, I hug Lucas against my pounding chest and trail John to the elevator. Feeling the descending tug of the cables, I shoot up to the Lord "rocket prayers" for Him to remove feelings of jealousy. I sweat despite the hotel's air conditioning, from the thought of meeting the woman who represents the closest thing to a birthmother Lucas knows. She exists in his infant psyche as the maternal connection intertwined with him his during needy, boundary-less months when she possessed all matriarchal rights. I not only want her to like me, a part of me wants her blessing to replace her.

The hotel lobby twinkles with the glow of heavy strands of white lights wrapped around chunky columns supporting the ceiling. The parquet floor gleams under the tap tap tap of my sandals as they give me surprising cooperation in getting me to what feels like the end of a ship's plank. Passing enormous vases overflowing with flowers, I see Hai standing by the sitting area where a huge window displays Ho Chi Minh City's evening glitz.

Sitting on a lustrously varnished chair cut from a large tree with its bark, trunk and gnarled branches left intact, I see her. Van is the only other person besides Hai in the lobby. There's no mistaking what she's waiting for as she smiles, claps her hands and reaches for my baby.

Her wide grin reveals some extra-short front teeth. While not a beautiful woman, she might be considered attractive in a plain, conservative sense. Quite thin, even for Vietnamese standards, she wears short black hair scooped into a small bun resting low at the back of her head. Wavy bangs float across her forehead. Her matching outfit is a colorless print--large, flowery designs in shades of black, gray, beige and a swampy mud color. The hem of her collared, short-sleeved button-down shirt meets the top of traditional, loose-fitting pants.

Lucas allows himself to be lowered onto her lap, even though the blank stare he wears seems to imply that Van's more a stranger than mother figure. As recognition dawns on him, he seems unsure if she left him an hour or an eternity ago. But once he's made the firm connection as to her identity, his face illuminates like a babe's on Christmas morning from the glow of a thousand bulbs and shiny, wrapped packages surrounding a tree. She speaks to him in their native, nasal tongue while he beams with delight. She never looks at my husband or I, and that stings a bit. I feel like the babysitter having immediately been dismissed now that mama's back. Lucas rests his head against her shoulder as though finally reunited with the source of all happiness. Ouch.

When Lucas's gaze lands on John and I watching him from the other side of the coffee table, his smile fades into trembling lips and he begins to cry. Looking back at Van, he stops. Back to us--more crying. My heart feels for his conflict. Yet I wonder if he cries because he thinks he'll be returned to us rather than stay with Van, or because he's already missing the good time we've been showing him.

I find the affection Van lavishes on him quite unlike anything we've yet witnessed by the Vietnamese. Frankly, my impressions were that they must be a fairly non-demonstrative people--until now. Van wriggles her nose for an endless round of kisses she plants all over Lucas. They reverberate through the lobby with smacking, snuffling sounds. She lifts him above her head and nudges her face into his belly, extracting the most endearing giggles that float like bubbles all around him. How I long for him to do that with us! Our son has barely smiled during our days together.

I ask Hai, "What's she saying that's got him so happy?"

"Hoop de rah," she answers. When I frown at her waiting for the translation she quickly adds, "Baby talk."

"Oh," I say.

When Van suddenly hands me a photo, I'm relieved to have something else to look at besides her inhaling of my child. It's a formal-looking, laminated picture of her sitting on a bench in the orphanage with a younger, balder Lucas on her lap. Neither smile. Lucas's attention is directed toward the floor, where something interests him. He wears all white, except for a Mickey Mouse stitched onto his shirt and a red soccer ball to his right pant leg. Van's right hand rests on her crossed right knee while the left delicately holds one of Lucas's tiny fists. Hers, mine, hers, mine…. She resembles a stern school marm. Forty in Vietnam must be older than forty elsewhere. But the orphanage director we met is even older, yet softer and younger-looking than Van.

Hai confided in us previously that Van's prospects of marriage and bearing children are next to none. I wonder if Van ever considered becoming a single mother to Lucas or one of the other babies from the orphanage. I don't know if caretakers even live outside of the orphanage, or if their monthly salary of twenty to twenty-five dollars makes it financially feasible to raise a child. Compassion swells within me for this woman my own age, who not only will never likely birth a child, but for whom the option of adoption doesn't even exist. Her gift to these babies of loving and letting go makes me ashamed of my envy and insecurities.

Mark appears with Li. He chats with Hai about the results of Li's visit to the local French clinic for an ear infection. Lucas wears his far away, trance-like stare growing familiar, if not a little freaky to me. He's mesmerized by all the action and glare outside. Yet I know he splits his attention, leaving some for Van with his intermittent smiles for each stimulus like a kiss, a squeeze, or a word, not loud nor soft, musical nor grating, but so alien from the ones I utter. He must have missed her voice so.

Curious, I watch Hai take Li from Mark, handing him to Van. Van's reception of the bald, serious-faced Li is markedly reserved compared with the one she gave Long. She holds him only a moment, never smacking her lips against his darker, rounder head and face, nor coaxing even a smile, let alone a giggle. Despite the fact she may be trying to avoid bringing back an ear ache to the baby in the hospital, Lucas is no doubt the main reason she came.

With her good-byes to both babies complete, I get ready to bid her adieu myself. That's when she quickly exchanges Li for Long once more and Hai asks me about pictures for Van. I'm holding them all the while, snapshots of the boys' adoption ceremony. As I hand them over to Hai, I offer for Van to keep them all. We have the negatives.

While unsure if my subconscious planned it out in advance, I'm relieved to have an excuse to leave the lobby for a breather to fetch Van's "tip" in our room. Heading back upstairs, I ponder whether it's a sufficient amount. Maybe it's too much.

Understanding tipping etiquette and gift giving in Vietnam hasn't been easy. For my plan on how to give a gratuity for everyone from drivers to caretakers to our housekeeping staff at the hotel, I went with Steve Le, the Butterfly Man's advice to bring cigarettes and gum. We envisioned passing cartons of American "butts" across the counters to officials in exchange for timely and smooth processing of our paperwork, which hasn't been the case. We discovered smokers absent among our helpers, the bulk of whom have been women, who don't often smoke in third world countries. As for the gum, every time we're approached on the street, we're offered a pack of Doublemint, the same brand we loaded up on for our trip, in exchange for money.

While reading of others' foreign adoptions, I noted a wide disparity between countries in the methods and preferences of gift-giving to those involved in the process. From the Russians' acceptance of "blatt," or small bribes of honey, hand lotion and shampoo, to expressions of gratitude the Chinese prefer wrapped in pretty packages filled with chocolates and soaps, we assumed we could come up with suitable purchases for the Vietnamese. But nothing seems to work better than cash or food. For example, in cases where an orphanage worker in a rural region does not get running water, gifts for the bath don't get a lot of use. And in the instance of our offer of colorful, practical baby seats for the orphanage's infants, the expression was appreciated, but the necessity was really for that of cases of noodles.

I don't know what to do. When considering the thousands of dollars we've dropped on this whole process, a donation for the person responsible for my child's ability to soak up and show love seems pathetic. Her work to me is the most precious, short of our son's birthmother's in making us joyful parents, so that I feel she deserves a lot more.

Our little group is seated now at the hotel lounge. I walk over to where Van sits with Lucas on her lap, and place the envelope in front of her with a final, parting pat, and smile. I'm hoping she will save opening it for later.

Whereas just a couple of minutes ago I was anxious for her departure, now, in this more intimate setting, I'm interested in finding out more about my son from her through Hai. In particular, I would like to know details about his health and hospital stay. From the horrendous coughing he's kept up, he sounds like he needs more medical attention.

During Van's entire visit, she has held a small, white terry washcloth. She's been periodically using it to dab at the constant drool on Lucas's mouth and hands from teething. Now she uses it to vigorously rub his entire sweaty head, after which he lets out a loud, barking cough. Its suddenness and force coming from such a little thing startle everyone into laughter to laugh, including John and I. It's become such a maddening condition over these few days, I think we laugh out of relief to be sharing it with others who don't seem to think it's as devastating as we do.

"Do you think you're an old man?" Hai says to Lucas, still laughing.

After a moment, my fear creeps right back in. I desperately hope Lucas isn't still sick from bronchitis or about to relapse. I can't wait to bring him home for a thorough examination instead of the perfunctory one he received here. I bring up, in what I hope is a non-threatening way, how Long has been coughing so loud and hard that he's caused stares at more than one restaurant. Neither Hai nor Van, through Hai, responds. I wonder if I'm just being neurotic. After all, I was plenty concerned about his initial rocking, and that turned out to be nothing more than "dancing." I decide if there is a problem, I'm talking to the wrong people about it.

Lucas gets fussy. Van responds with bouncing him on her knee, changing positions, then giving him a tiny sip of her coke, after which he grimaces. She laughs. I hand her the bottle of formula I've been holding since returning downstairs and he immediately lays back and opens his mouth wide like a baby bird. He gulps until the bottle's drained, and I give myself a mental pat on the back for anticipating his need. When he sits back up she tries more Coke. This time, he won't even part his lips. I'm glad. A lot of mothers have told me of the evils that sugary, caffeine-laden soda has brought out in their children.

Lucas lifts his arm for another of several attempts to taste his shiny bracelet. Van pulls his arm away fingering the gift I hoped she'd appreciate us giving him. She inspects it and I think she approves, until she lets out a big scowl of disapproval when he tries again to eat it. I silently beat myself up for not anticipating her reaction and making Long wear it. I think she must think I'm a bad mother.

I try drawing her out through Hai, asking several questions about Lucas. I want to know everything I can about his tastes, preferences, habits and personality. Not only would it help me make him more comfortable during this transition, but I want him to have as comprehensive an understanding as possible about himself including these nine months of life before bringing him home. Yet time and again, each of my questions is met with a nod or a vague, one-word reply. It's frustrating.

"You know, Van says Long loves to get up in the middle of the night for a party."

"Yes!" I say, running away with this simple statement. "He woke up singing at one o'clock this morning!" We all laugh.

Tentatively I venture to ask, "Can Van say what it is that makes her love Long so?" Hai translates and I wait expectantly for Van's answer, but Van looks confused.

I re-phrase my question, "What is it that, you know, makes him so special to her?"

The women talk back and forth for a moment. "She doesn't know," Hai finally says. "She just does."

Disappointed, I grab at one final straw, "Is there anything she wants us to know about him or maybe to do for him?"

Hai dutifully translates my final question to Van. Another brief exchange between them. Then she turns to me as says, "She wants you to buy him a sweater in the winter."

After a pause I look directly at Van, who looks me in the eye for the first time, and solemnly nod, "Yes, we have one upstairs." She continues to look at me with an expression I don't understand. Then she kisses Lucas one final time and jumps up.

"She needs to get back to the hospital to the other baby," Hai says.

I look up at Van. I still want her blessing, her approval, though I'd settle for a light touch on the forearm, a smile even, something to help me seal the deal, but it isn't forthcoming.

Despite all my mixed emotions this past hour, I want to give her more-more than the money, the pictures, the knowledge that I will keep him warm in winter-I want her to know that she is my God's answer to prayer. When I prayed for Lucas at home, fearful he might be languishing in an orphanage, untouched for hours on end, I asked Him to provide one caretaker whose heart my little boy might win over. And God answered with Van, drawing an extra dose of love out of her for Lucas. In the end, this makes me truly glad, grateful and blessed. I want her to take this understanding with her, if only I could find a way to impart it. I don't but maybe the Lord already has.


Christine Rhyner is a freelance writer. This is an exerpt from her upcoming book, "Birthing Lucas, A Spiritual Labor through Infertility to International Adoption."


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