There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not aware of how fortunate I am. That’s not to say each day doesn’t have its little (or even big) personal melodramas, discomforts, annoyances, and valid worries. But if I’m keeping score, and considering what awful things could be my portion, I understand I am truly lucky, blessed, or privileged – whatever you want to call it.
We walked through Saigon today to get to the Notre Dame Cathedral. The only time it opens its gates for visitors is for mass on Sundays, and in my 4 previous trips to Vietnam I have never seen the inside. “It looks like the post office,” said the front desk clerk at the hotel. A half-hour walk through the rising heat of mid-morning brought us to the front door. Inside, the pipe organ was in full breaths and the standing-room-only congregation sang along – not badly, I thought. Inside I snapped a few photos of the nave and its vaulted ceiling, and true enough, the color scheme resembled the post office across the street. Not a bad thing, they both have a bright airiness to them.
A few latecomers stopped to light candles in the Lady chapel near the door and made a prayer to the Virgin Mary shrouded in argon light in one corner. “Let us give thanks,” I thought, recalling my Catholic upbringing.
These days churches are mostly about photographs for me. We stepped back into the sun, and just before we crossed the street, we saw an old Vietnamese woman walking across the wide avenue. She looked to be about 65 years old, possibly older, as many of these Asian woman appear younger than they are. She wore modest but neat clothes. She had short, cropped gray hair and wore flip-flops. But it was the burden on her back caught our attention. Around her neck were a pair of arms, and legs – visibly thin through the pants fabric – straddled her waist like a sash. Above and behind her right shoulder was the kind of face that always makes me shudder with hopelessness. The distended features shined, the skin drawn tightly, and the mouth hung open not unlike that of the dead. The eyes were open but sought nothing. The only indication of life was that this man somehow remained firmly attached to the one certain thing in this world: his mother.
I looked away. I never know what to do in these situations. I want to take a photo to share the experience with people, to make them think and appreciate, but I loathe the thought of exhibiting the poor soul like a circus act. Do I dig through my pockets looking for money? I watched her discreetly as she made her way past a crowd of tourists about to board their bus. She showed a toothy smile for the strangers, but never stopped with her palm held out. In fact, I realized this smile momentarily replaced the modest one that occupied her face from the first moment I saw her. The kind of gentle expression of contentment, of enjoying a walk in the park or feeling happy for no reason – not a gesture to share with another person, but how one looks happy when no one is looking. She paused a moment, but only to adjust the weight on her back.
She found a place across the square, along a wall with a small angling ledge across it where she backed up and rested her charge there pressing her back to him a bit to keep him in place until she situated herself and set down a cloth bag she was carrying. This was the only moment the smile faltered. She let out a deep breath of relief, wiped away a bit of sweat, and started gathering things from the hand bag.
We passed her and she disappeared behind the wall behind us. We walked in silence a couple blocks, then Peung looked at me with that deeply pained look. The one she makes when she invariably thinks of her own departed grandmother. And I know this and so I think of my own. As we keep walking, here’s a guy on the walk missing a hand. And here’s a mother blended into the filth of the pavement, her moaning child as dirty as she is. She scolds him a bit for something as we steer wide of her. But Peung is agonizing over the scene back by the church. “Should we give her some money?” “Well, I don’ think she was asking anyone for money.” What to do? “Water, at least?” We head back. She smiles at us as we pass again. The man looks, by most definitions, a vegetable, perhaps cerebral palsy. There’s just nothing going on there to the untrained eye.
Peung returns with a sweating bottle of water from a nearby shop and approaches her. There is no common language between her and us, but Peung offers the water. The woman smiles, nods in appreciation of the gesture, but then indicates her bag. She has plenty of water. She does this every day, no doubt. I see she has slips of paper; lottery tickets to sell, I guess. Peung is now stuck with the water bottle held out and unsure what to do so she looks at me. I’m useless. The woman’s smile falters a bit. I think she senses Peung’s discomfort and so she shrugs and accepts the offer, seemingly to avoid making Peung feel bad rather than out of any kind of need.
I said in English, “Happy New Year!” She just smiled again, bigger than even before, and we scurried off like a couple of shy elementary-school students, unsure how to present a token to a new teacher.
She bears her burden quite literally, one that – if we are reading the situation correctly – has been with her for a goodly portion of her life. If the streets of Saigon are any indication, social services for a Vietnamese resident with such troubles are lacking, and with the scant economic resources of the average person, little else could be done. I think of the things that make me “miserable.” I think of the challenges I’ve faced in my own life, the difficulties I’ve walked away from, and the ones I’ve taken on with a sour face.
And I think of this woman’s face, in its relaxed state when no one is looking, and I imagine that gentle upturned line of her lips is going to stick with me for a long time. It’s a Sunday, the first day of the Vietnamese New Year, and I think I’ve just witnessed grace.