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Page 20
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<< 19. Someone Else's Sons and Daughters21. Intense Male Bonding >>

Mysterious Ways

By Susan O'Neil

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I was an Army nurse thirty-plus years ago, stationed at a succession of three hospitals in Vietnam. In 1999, I went back with my husband Paul, also a Vietnam vet, as part of a bicycle tour called Discover Viet Nam.

We began the southern piece of our trip in Hue. It was familiar territory for me; my first duty assignment in 1969 had been the 22nd Surg in nearby Phu Bai. Back then, I had spent my weekly day off from the hospital at an orphanage in the Hue neighborhood of Kim Long. It had been a sad, teeming place, a desperate repository run by Vietnamese nuns from a French missionary order. When I came back, I was certain it must be long gone — flattened by bombs or, perhaps, made unnecessary with the end of the war. Still, I wanted to go walk the area it had occupied, to conjure up the ghost of the place I remembered so vividly after all these years.

Kim Long was a fair distance from our hotel, the Saigon Morin, so Paul and I hired two cyclo drivers to ferry us there. As we rode, I found that Long, my driver, spoke good English because he had served as an ARVN soldier with U.S. troops at Da Nang and Chu Lai.

We jogged and lurched over the broken street into the poor suburb that was Kim Long, past shacks with children squatting in dirt dooryards, past makeshift stores selling silk paintings and cigarettes in dusty glass cases. Past a tiny market and a hospital and, at last, to a big, blue-painted metal gate.

Long reached through a small square cut in the front and unfastened a chain; the gate swung open.

Inside, laughing children darted about a tidy courtyard. A dog wandered by, lively and well-fed, unlike the cowed and threadbare specimens prowling the streets outside. A small monkey chattered in a wooden cage that hung from a tree branch. It was a school, perhaps, or some kind of co-operative housing. Everything looked new, clean. There were bright blue slides, climbing bars, a pink plastic ball.

Whatever it was, this was not my orphanage. My orphanage had sad, peeling walls and hoards of Amerasian children in church charity clothing. In my orphanage, a handful of white-habited nuns had held hundreds of precarious lives together against impossible odds. I'd fed babies there who were little more than dry flesh over living skeletons. In that place, toys had never lasted; if they got them, the children had quickly broken them because they didn't understand what toys were for.

No, this was definitely something else.

I snapped a picture of the main building — the only one that looked familiar — and turned to leave.

Paul spotted a nun, a tiny Vietnamese woman in white; he flagged her down and tried to tell her, in loud pidgin-speak, why we were here. She watched him blankly for a moment, then asked if we spoke French. Alas, we didn't.

Long had been standing by in silence; he stepped forward and told the nun that I'd been here thirty years ago. She brightened, and corralled us into a small room, insisting that we sit — assez, assez! — at a table. She summoned a second sister and produced small cups of homemade yogurt and little glasses, into which she poured a caramel-colored brew. It tasted like sherry.

Through the intrepid Long, the sisters told me that this was, indeed, my orphanage. The buildings I had known in 1969 were gone, except for the nuns' home and the large main house, which was now a hospital for paralytic children. I glanced outside at the kids playing in the sunlight. It was not just the buildings that had changed; it was the very feel of the place. It was as if a long-held breath had been released; there was the feel of love, food, learning and play, of time for so much more than survival. The nuns looked rested; they beamed with a quiet joy at their charges.

There are still many orphans, said Sister. The government does not give support. Her missionary order begs help from overseas — from France, Australia, the United States, Canada ...

... From us. Not a word was spoken directly, but we were being shaken down — graciously, gently, subtly. Spiritually. Paul and I were sipping wine at 10 a.m. with two cyclo drivers and a pair of nuns, and those nuns were — I have no doubt at all — thinking what all the nuns I had ever known always thought: God Works in Mysterious Ways.

As Long snapped pictures of us in a yard full of gorgeous, vibrant children, I told myself then that, if I ever managed to sell my book, I would donate some of my profits to this place.

And I sold the book; so I keep my promise.

What choice do I have? I gave up Catholicism long ago, but I'm still pretty sure you can't welsh on a deal made with nuns wielding wine, who have an inside track on the mysterious workings of God.

Susan O'Neill is the author of "Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam" (Ballantine Books 2001).
She lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband of 32 years.
She is currently finishing a novel. Visit her on the Web at susanoneill.us.

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