May 30, 2019
I was never meant to be in this world but I came out screaming and full of life.
Mum had given birth twice before I came along and childbirth for her had proven to be a long, arduous and life-threatening undertaking. She was a petite lady, five feet nothing and weighed about 40kgs. After the birth of my sister, the midwives advised my mother not to have any more children, as it would surely kill her. They told her that she was fortunate to survive two births and to have two healthy children. Beyond that there was no guarantee that her husband would return after the war. It was best not to tempt fate.
As fate would have it I was to be conceived on the last home visit my father made before the fall of Saigon.
On learning of her condition my mother was given accounts from the local ladies the many different ways to cause a miscarriage. She could carry heavy loads for long distances, do vigorous jumping up and down steps, eat certain foods like cinnamon and lots of citrus or not eat at all for days.
Mum would never find out if any of these methods would prove effective. It was never her nature to harm or even inconvenience another to save herself from suffering. The guilt of trying to kill her unborn child would burden her for the rest of her life. Come what may, her life and the life of her unborn child would be left to chance.
1974 was the Year of the Tiger but the people of South Vietnam called it the Year of the Hidden Tiger as it had become apparent the fall of Saigon was inevitable.
Life in Saigon was chaotic. Local traffic and bikes shared the streets with army tanks and soldiers and the hum of the helicopters was constant. Many young girls in Saigon had been prostituting themselves to officers to feed their children. Children played in airplanes that had crashed landed on the streets.
With dad away fighting with the South Vietnamese, and at my grandmother’s insistence, Mum returned to her family home in Rach Gia, on the far side of the Mekong delta, 250 kilometers from Saigon and my father’s family farm. She had only lived in Saigon for one brief year with dad and his family. She had been terribly home sick and was relieved to move back to her home town.
Her in laws did not protest as it was one less mouth to feed and food was limited on the farm.
It was late in the wet season when mum felt the familiar pain of the first mild contractions. My great aunt organized a rickshaw and stayed home to look after my older brother 7, and sister 5, and sent a cousin with mum to get her there safely.
It had rained that day so the ground was wet with big puddles of tepid water. The heat and steam rising up from the ground added to the discomfort of labour pains and the bumpy ride. Fortunately the ride was not long.
With all the doctors and nurses drafted north, tending to injured war victims, two local women, who had learnt the art of midwifery, had set up a makeshift maternity hospital in a long narrow building.
The building was built out of bricks and white washed stucco with a high thatched roof. They had sectioned the long empty spaces of the building into a series of rooms. The walls were constructed out of old cardboard boxes and blankets. The beds were hard flat timber slabs in the Vietnamese style which were cooler to sleep on timber, as it was humid and hot and had the other benefit of being easier to clean. There was a room set up for toilets and showers, which consisted of a hole in the ground and a cold-water tap. Water was collected in a bucket and boiled up in the kitchen on a fire stove.
By the third time, the pain of child birth was familiar, the body had learnt what to do and the birth was not as long. The only form of pain relief my mother had was biting down on her lips so hard that the skin ruptured and bled. To this day she bears the faint scar of teeth marks on her bottom lip. The tears she encountered were stitched up using a common sewing needle without anesthetics. The wounds were wiped with rags soaked in warm salted water.
I was a big baby with an enthusiastic appetite for food and life. She named me Bích Ngân, which means ‘The Land of Jade’.
I was born in September. The exact date of my birth was not registered until months later and by that time the date was forgotten and insignificant compared to the surrounding chaos of war.
Four months after I was born I met my father for the first time. He was home for a very brief visit to say his goodbyes before surrendering himself to the North Vietnamese army for re-education.
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