A Boy Loses His Mother
by Murray Hiebert,
MCC Vietnam 1973-175,
MCC Laos 1975-1978
Three Vietnamese nursing students were the first to find the critically ill woman. She was unconscious, had a high fever, and was lying on a straw mat on the floor of her tiny thatch house on the edge of the refugee camp. Her listless young son, about two, was propped against her chest. Her husband wasn’t around and her neighbors didn’t have any idea what disease was afflicting her.
It was obvious the woman, who was probably in her late 20s, wouldn’t survive long without medical treatment. We felt we had to do something. We consulted the woman’s neighbors and discussed among ourselves whether we should bring the woman to the small Protestant hospital in Nha Trang, about 45 kilometers northeast of the camp, where my wife Linda and I worked as MCC volunteers. The hospital had two experienced MCC doctors who might be able to help the woman.
Linda and I had arrived in August 1973 in the idyllic beach town of Nha Trang, overlooking the South China Sea — the Vietnamese call it the East Sea — about halfway up the coast between the South Vietnamese capital of Sài Gòn and the demilitarized zone, or border, with North Việt Nam. The Paris Peace Agreement had been ratified in January before we arrived, theoretically ending U.S. involvement in the Việt Nam War, and U.S. troops had been withdrawn from the country. Nha Trang had, for the most part, not been affected much by the war, with the exception of some surprise attacks, including during the Tết Offensive of 1968.
MCC had long operated a hospital with the Vietnamese Protestant church in the northern suburbs of Nha Trang, on a sandy beach between a military base on one side and a fishing village on the other. Linda taught in the nursing school that trained about a dozen young nurses each year. I worked as the hospital coordinator, which meant I ordered medicines for the hospital, maintained the hospital vehicles, and served as a liaison between MCC and the Protestant leadership of the hospital.
I also explored other social work opportunities, which is what had led me to the refugee camp where we found the sick woman. Nha Trang never attracted the hundreds of thousands of war refugees that inundated Sài Gòn and Đà Nẵng. The several hundred refugees in this particular camp were ethnic minority Montagnard people who had lived in the highlands of central Việt Nam. They had fled fighting between U.S.-backed Sài Gòn troops and guerrilla fighters loyal to Hà Nội in the mountains west of Nha Trang.
MCC ran several projects in the refugee camp, including organizing work camps for university students who helped the refugees build more permanent houses with supplies provided by the Sài Gòn government. Linda also started to bring her nursing students to the camp each Friday afternoon so they could help teach the refugees basic hygiene and nutrition, provide rudimentary public health services, and help diagnose some diseases common in the camp. It was on one of these Friday’s that we encountered the sick woman.
After some deliberation, we decided to load the woman into the beige MCC Volkswagen van and take her to the hospital for treatment. We asked the neighbors to inform her husband if he returned overnight that we had taken his wife and their son to the hospital. We promised to return in the morning to give him news about his wife and to take him to the hospital if he wanted to join her.
The trip took about an hour, and it was almost sundown when we arrived back at the hospital. Dr. Don Weiss, an MCC doctor from Ohio with previous experience in a remote area of Indonesia, quickly came to check out the patient. He put her on an intravenous drip and began running diagnostic tests so treatment could begin.
But Dr. Weiss never got to treat the woman. She died suddenly about two hours after we arrived.
Before sunup the next morning, a Saturday, we wrapped her body in a cloth and laid her in the van for the trip back to her village, with her young son in our care. Two MCC nurses from the hospital, Ann Noel Ewert from Canada and Isha from Indonesia, joined us.
We stopped along the way to see if a French Catholic priest — who also worked with the refugees and lived in a town halfway between Nha Trang and the camp — would join us. The priest, who had lived in Việt Nam for over 30 years, spoke French, Vietnamese, and some Montagnard languages, but no English. We communicated in the only language we had in common: Vietnamese. I often relied on him for support and advice, and I viewed him as a mentor. I was relieved that he was home when we arrived and he agreed to go with us to look for the woman’s husband.
No one was home when we arrived back at the woman’s house. The neighbors said her husband hadn’t returned overnight. They thought he was in the mountains, perhaps a dozen kilometers up the road, collecting firewood for cooking and selling. We laid the woman’s body back on her bed and put some money next to it to help her husband cover some of the costs of losing his wife. The Catholic priest crossed himself and uttered a short prayer for her soul. We had no idea whether she was animist or Christian.
We left her frightened and bewildered son with the woman next door. Then we set off down the road toward the mountains to try to find her husband. The road quickly deteriorated into a tiny bicycle and cattle path, and it was obvious not many motor vehicles had driven this route in recent years. After about half an hour of bouncing along a heavily rutted trail, we realized that we had gone as far as our van could navigate. As we were deliberating what to do next, a short, dark man, wearing only dirty gray shorts and carrying half a dozen long bamboo poles, appeared on the horizon. It was the woman’s husband.
The priest helped us communicate what had happened to his wife. The man demonstrated no visible feelings, no sadness, no anger, only stoic acceptance of the latest blow of many in his life that he would have to endure. I can’t remember another time I felt as much pain as I did then, watching the realization of loss sink into the man’s consciousness.
My partners and I were at a loss about what more we could do for him. We couldn’t even offer him a ride home because we couldn’t carry his bamboo poles in our van, and they were too precious to abandon: they could be sold for a week’s worth of food. In the end, we shook his tough calloused hands and drove slowly back toward the camp without saying a word.
Two small three-wheeled xe lam taxis were sitting at the entrance of the camp when we arrived. They waved me down and asked where we had been. When I explained, their eyes widened with shock.
“We haven’t used that road in years,” one of them said. “That road has long been controlled by the communists.”
Maybe an angel watched over us that day or maybe the forces that controlled that road could intuit that we had already absorbed enough pain for one day.
When I next traveled to the refugee camp, five or six days later, I stopped back by the house. Again, it was empty. The neighbors said the husband had left with his son a few days earlier, but they didn’t know where they had gone. I hoped the man had an extended family that he could rejoin who would help him raise his son.
As the image of the woman, her husband, and their little son floated through my mind over the next few months, I often rehashed the events of that day. Life’s experiences don’t always offer neat options about how to respond. To this day, I don’t know if we did the right thing, nor do I know what we could have done differently. All I know is that a man and his young son were left in a heap of pain.