I was born in Saigon at the tail end of the Vietnam War, not long after the Paris Peace Accords were signed. The first few months of my life coincided with the steady withdrawal of U.S. military support and, consequently, the steady encroachment of communist forces into South Vietnam. By late April 1975, the ARVN had collapsed and it was only a short matter of time before Saigon fell.
April 29, 1975 was a mess — absolute chaos as the communist forces tightened their stranglehold on the city. My dad, a captain in the South Vietnamese Navy, was already in California, studying at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. For weeks, he worked desperately to find a way out for us, calling in every favor to his naval buddies still in Saigon. On this day, he got word to my mom that there would be a boat waiting if she could get us to the harbor.
Somehow, against a fiery backdrop she likens to the fleeing-of-Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind, my mom was single-handedly able to shepherd my 15-year-old brother, 8- and 6-year-old sisters, and 14.5-month-old me to the docks. As we approached the boat, the crowds were so thick and rowdy that the boat’s crew suggested she toss me to them, across several feet of open water between dock and deck, to make it easier for her to manage everyone and everything else. Even in that mayhem, my mom clearly recognized insanity and kept her tight grip on me as she pushed us along a more prudent path on board. We were on our way.
That’s my favorite story that my mom tells about me. And though she’d never say it — or even think it — my mom was a hero that day. Not the quiet, everyday hero that all good parents are. Not the five-alarm, run into a flaming building kind of hero. Not even the charge up a hill despite a rain of gunfire kind of hero. That day, she was a my world is falling apart and I have just a few hours to pack up my life into three suitcases, but there is no way in hell I’m letting my family perish kind of hero. My mom has done many things for me over the years, but nothing comes close to what she did for me that day (well, except for giving birth to me).
The other morning, as 14.5-month-old Piper was drinking a sippy cup of milk, I held her and told her that story for the first time. I told her that she’s just about the same age I was when grandma refused to toss me onto that boat — and that her mom wouldn’t have tossed her, either. Then I thought to myself how lucky I was that day, and how lucky I’ve been since, to be where I am after such a harrowing beginning. And I hoped that Piper, too, will be as lucky as I have been.
Of course, if luck has anything to do with having a mom who would move heaven and earth (but not toss her child onto a boat) to protect her family, then Piper will be all right.