This day, 24 years ago, was a day that I shall never forget. It is a day that could be in included in the count of the worst days of my life.
When I was a young teenager, our family took in a young boy from Vietnam. My parents acted as foster parents to Dung Duy Dao (pronounced Yung Wee). Though we were never certain of his exact age, not knowing his birth date, he was about 10 or 11 years old. He stayed with us for about 2 years.
On Christmas Day 1986, when I was 16, my parents, Dung, my friend Andrea, and I boarded a plane to San Jose, CA where he would visit to his biological father. There was much discussion by the state about Dung needing to return to his father, despite the fact that he wanted nothing to do with such a plan. Dung had come to the US as a refugee on a boat. He had some horrific stories to tell about Vietnam and his memories of his father were not pleasant. I suspect that there were many stories that Dung kept to himself, not wishing to talk about them, perhaps stories too awful to tell.
On the flight to Califorinia, Dung became very ill. We had a lay over in Denver and were told we would not be allowed on our next flight without documentation from a physician that Dung was fit for travel. Dung was admitted to the hospital and Andrea and I stayed at a hotel. While at the hospital, no medical explanation for his illness could be found. A psychiatrist determined that the visit to his father was causing him extreme stress and advised us not to continue to CA, but return home to Illinois. After a couple of days, we headed back to the airport to fly home. As we prepared for takeoff, Dung declared that he was going home.
Shortly after we were in the air, Dung slept against the back of his seat, directly across the aisle from me. My mother got up to use the restroom. As she returned to her seat, she appeared rather shaken. I watched her intently and with some irritation as she seemed to be poking and prodding at Dung. I asked her why she didn't just let him sleep. With wide eyes, across his sleeping form, she mouthed "He's dead." Her "poking and prodding" was, in reality a check for pulse, reflexes, response to pain, or any other sign of life. While my dad, Andrea and I remained in our seats, mom went to inform the flight attendants of what had happened. There was nothing to do but wait for our landing at Chicago's Ohare. We put a pillow under his head and pulled a blanket up close around him to shield his lifeless face from the inquisitive eyes of other passengers. We remained calm, showing no outwards signs of our inner turmoil, in an effort to keep the full flight from knowing the truth. We sat like this for over an hour before the plane finally landed. I will not even attempt to describe what that hour was like for it would be virtually impossible.
After landing, the pilot announced that we did have an emergency on the plane and asked all passengers to deboard quickly an quietly. We stayed put, drawing the attention of all the passengers as the family with the "emergency." A couple of times a bag or coat caught on the blanket over Dung, exposing a face that, by this time, was unmistakably dead. As I watched the steady stream of people filing off the plane, most seemed unaware, but there were a few that glanced at Dung and I could see understanding register on their faces. As soon as the plane was empty, the paramedics rushed on, firing questions at us. I shall never forget the sight of Dung's ashen face as they picked him up, placing him on the floor of the aisle, and began CPR. The rest was a blur of activity that my brain really cannot make sense of. I recall the plane's cockpit, and yelling and a sterile green room. In utter silence, we drove home from Chicago to our family, brothers and sisters who knew nothing of the nightmare we had been living that day.
A cause of death was never determined. There was nothing clinically that caused his death. Still, his death does not remain a mystery, at least not for us. Dung's life was horrific but for the 2 years that he was with us. He had found peace and safety with us and it looked as though the state was going to take that away from him. He was one determined young man and he was determined not to return to his biological father. I suspect that he lost faith in everyone, even us. He likely did not know whether or not to believe that we were really taking him back to Illinois. Dung came to know Jesus in the hospital the night before and His statement "I'm going home" was not a reference to Tremont, Illinois but his eternal home, Heaven.
Every Christmas for 24 years, I have remembered. On Christmas Day I remember leaving for CA and how violently ill Dung was. On the 28th of each December I remember his death and at times I even dream of it. He is so heavy on my mind at this time of year that, earlier today, I even absentmindedly called Moise "Dung." On New Year's Eve I am taken back to another year as we stood in the snow at his burial. I recall confusion, disbelief and utter hopelessness. Perhaps it is for this reason that I hurt so terribly at the knowledge of what my children experienced at the time of Laynee's death. The memory of CPR being performed, unsuccessfully, on someone you love, leaves a mark upon the human soul. In many ways it feels like a cruel twist of fate that my children should have to suffer something so similar to what I experienced at such a young age. I am fully aware that for all of time they will remember with great pain. I know that there are some memories that cannot be dimmed by the passage of time. I can no longer bring to mind the image of Dung's smiling face but the image of his face in death is seared upon the pages of my memory. The sound of an ambulance siren, even if in the far off distance, has always triggered memories of paramedics in dark blue, red airplane seats and death. Now my mind seems confused by whether to remember Dung's death or Laynee's.
There was great sadness surrounding Dung's death. There was also a sense of comfort in knowing that, though his life was filled with trauma and unfairness, he had 2 years of being loved and cared for as children should be. There is no doubt that the 2 years that he was with us were by far, the best years of his life. By comparison, Laynee never knew sorrow, trauma or sadness only 2.5 years of great love and joy. I am so glad that they were spent with us.
I have often thought about Dung and Laynee being in heaven together. Do they know each other? Are they aware of the connection that they both have with me? When I get to heaven, will they be side by side, waiting for me? So many questions that I will never have answers to, this side of heaven.
Happy Angelversary Dung! Kiss my Laynee for me.
CS Lewis once said that "grief is like the sky, it covers everything." In recent weeks, our family has found that this is so very true. It seems that there is no right or wrong way to travel this path of grief. I have created this blog in hopes that some day we will be able to look back on our journey and see written proof that our great God never leaves us. God is good all the time.