“You know what? You still thinking we your kids!”
Her statement zipped across 3,000 miles of telephone line and a decade of Christmas cards to wet my eye. And wash me back to a Tennessee airport 13 years earlier, to memories of maybe the best thing I’ve ever done.
Her first words when we met were, “Hello. I’m Anh.”
“Great!” I thought. “She knows English!” But this 18-year-old woman/child with raven black, steam rolled hair had just recited her entire vocabulary.
It was 1979 and Anh La and her trailing 20-year-old brother Xuan, wide-eyed refugees from a Viet Nam that held no hope for them, had just arrived in the United States. My wife, Sue Ellen and I were their sponsors.
Viet Nam still struggled to recover from the political and social chaos of war and reunification. Thousands of South Vietnamese fled in crowded, leaking boats for refugee camps in bordering countries. Those who made it safely past pirates and through hazardous open seas often waited years for someone in America, Australia, Britain or France to sponsor them, to agree to help settle them in a new country with a job and housing.
With little understanding of what it meant or what it might require, Sue Ellen and I raised our hands.
Anh and Xuan came, speaking little English, but with a written command learned in camps. They stayed a week in our home while we helped them find work and an apartment. At night we studied language, bus travel, grocery stores and the practical hurdles to step over in American life.
We got out the piggy bank and made change, read cereal boxes and newspapers and laughed together at Xuan’s fascination with “The Hulk” on television. After a couple weeks he grew bored with “The Hulk” and television generally because every day it was, “same, same.”
They loved our little baby and struggled to tell us of their family in Viet Nam that was now in danger because Anh and Xuan had successfully escaped. Because of their small physical stature, innocence and wonder, Sue Ellen and I felt like adult rescuers to their “lost children,” even thought we were only a few years older.
One night Anh and Xuan babysat for us. When we returned the kitchen was clean and the supper dishes washed and put away. But we couldn’t find the dishes. Anh directed us to the dishwasher where she had stored the clean dishes after washing them in the sink. She had seen Sue Ellen take clean dishes out of there to set the table, so Anh assumed that was their storage place.
Anh and Xuan made it in America. After less than a year, they moved to Ohio to be with a sister who had been resettled there. Then they all moved to California to a more familiar climate and a large population of Asians.
They worked hard, secured good jobs and started businesses. Eventually they sponsored and resettled their parents and they’ve raised their own children who are now in college. They came to our baby’s wedding.
One of Anh’s daughters – whom I’ve not met in person – wrote me a note when she graduated from high school. “Thank you for making my life possible,” she said.
That note is a treasure to me, glistening greater than the gold in Aladdin’s cave. It affirmed to me that sponsoring Anh and Xuan was probably the best thing we’ve ever done.
What significant event, achievement, or risk successfully concluded do you declare, “The best thing I ever did?”
For many of us, a lot of years have passed since that event. Perhaps the effort demanded more of us than we can muster again. Perhaps we think having done it once, we’ve done enough.
But do you remember the joy in its doing, the enormous satisfaction? Remember how you feel best about yourself when you’ve accomplished something for others?
Remember the best thing you ever did?
Why not do it again?