Today I am praying for Tu-Minh. Tu-Minh is a fellow birdwatcher and an undying advocate at the shelter I moonlight at. For months now she has been taking care of her dying mother, and she is struggling. But of all the people I’ve ever known, Tu-Minh won’t sink — she’ll swim.
Tu-Minh’s family arrived in the States without her, during the first wave of refugees fleeing Vietnam. In her late teens, she at first resisted the idea of leaving her homeland, but it became clear that to survive she needed to leave. For the journey, those too old to attempt leaving gave her gold and her younger cousin to look out for. Their own dying dreams lived beyond themselves and found an afterlife in young Tu-Minh.
The airport was bombed out and the roads were fraught with struggles for military control, leaving the surrounding ocean the only way to reach a country that cooperated with the UN. The first boat Tu-minh embarked upon, propelled by a weak engine, traveled less than a mile off shore when, overburdened, it sank, drowning most of the passengers and the hopes that had been invested in them. She was down in the ship when people above started panicking and while many froze in shock, she broke out a small window, grabbed her cousin, and swam him to shore.
On the second boat she boarded, the engine caught fire, and only some of the people were able to jump off and stay afloat. Again, she grabbed her cousin and a piece of floating debris and was picked up and brought to shore.
Somewhere in the story she laughs that most Vietnamese do not know how to swim and that the experience made her more discriminating about the kind of boat she chose for the next time. Then she laughs that there was a third try, and I might think she was crazy, but there was no other choice — and the odds were increasing in her favor that at least one of the boats would make it. In a side-note, Tu-minh adds that for as many boats she tried to leave on, there were as many times she failed her DMV driving test. She repeats in a deep mechanical voice, “Please return to DMV. Your driving test is over.”
Indeed, the third boat — made putrid by the long journey, holding women who died in childbirth, husbands who beat their wives and threw them overboard, women who cradled dead babies, the huddled and starving skeletal survivors — made it.
Today’s Advice: “Go with art into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free.” Paul Celan