At the age of two, my brother Ti fell along the waterfront from a fatal allergic reaction to penicillin, given to him by a medic who had no other available medicine for children. At the age of 10 months, my sister Vilay turned cold blue and stopped breathing in my mother’s arms. It would be years later before mae would go to the local temple. She prayed for a child who wouldn’t leave her side. She told me Buddha answered her prayers. He brought me to her on a Monday night, when she looked out the window and saw a falling star in the sky. She named me Chanida.
I wondered what it was like for my mae, who was 9-months pregnant with me, and what she was going through as she went to demand for my father’s release from the labor camp where he was a political prisoner. Over 25 years later, mae would finally tell me this story over a morning cup of coffee. The pain was evident in the cracks of her voice as she began to share that moment. I didn’t want to just recount what happened, but the details of that day in what could have been a letter to my father in 1984, the tumultuous year I was born.
Mae is shaking and crying as she’s having contractions. She’s trying to think about what to do. We’ve lost count of the years since you’ve been taken away from us since the fall of the royalists.
I’m hungry. We’re all hungry. Mae is taking care of all seven of us with grandpa and grandma. We have nothing to eat but small grains of rice and handfuls of vegetables that’s being shared in the village.
Grandpa argued with mae all morning about going to ask for your release from prison. She’s still confident and determined.
In front of a young guard, she struggled to hold back her tears as she pleaded with him to see you.
“I need help from my husband to take care of our children. I can’t do this alone. Please let him go home.”
The guard told mae that she could visit you, but she had to bring the rest of the children inside. He promised us that you could go back home. We all held our excitement.
I’ve never felt so much warmth. The family was together again.
“You can’t leave.” The doors closed on us.
We hear mae fall to the floor. Shocked.
The deception from our fellow Lao felt raw. Unnerving.
“Maybe this is better than being away from each other, ” you whisper to us; with a reassuring hold on mae.
We had stopped counting the days we were treated like ox grazing the landscape of our blood, sweat and tears.
I know you don’t want to remember being stripped of your identity, your valor, your dignity. Your eyes are tired and your heart hurts from a history that keeps wanting to forget you. Your memories are becoming shadows shuffled behind the pages in an untold history book, yearning to clear out the old battlefields of the country’s past. The violent memories that have wiped your mental capacity to think and feel normal again are in the worn out truths of your wrinkled hands. You tend to your gardens in silence, because it’s the only beauty you want to hold onto. I will remember for you. Without our story, there is no history of our family, no memory of us. We may have found comfort in America as transplants, displaced from the motherland who’s identity we can no longer touch, see, and smell. And the American Dream you brought us into since your days in the military seem to still be a distant reality, muddled in a system that keeps us humble at the bottom of the food chain. We rebuilt our lives in the pursuit of happiness. Happiness in seeing your children grow in a society that wanted to save us. But you found out we didn’t need saving after all.
You will always be just as Lao as the country you loved and fought for and just as American as your fellow comrades who’s ideals you had believed in and celebrated. Holidays are created for those in the limelight and yet they keep you behind the veil. They say freedom is never free, but are we really free?