Towson, MD, USA
Elizabeth A Remembrance
By Roland King, Her Father
She's wasn't Elizabeth back then. In fact, she didn't really have a name. The hand-printed card in the photo, that looked for all the world like an infant line-up photo, said "Nguyen Thi Beba," but the people at the international adoption agency said that was just the Vietnamese equivalent of "Baby Jane Doe." Her mother, they told us, had gone into a maternity hospital in Saigon to deliver, and then had left as soon as the baby was born. There was no record of the mother's name, we were told.
It had all started with a voice from beyond or at least, so my wife Mary thought. A full year and a half before Elizabeth was even born, we were in the surrealistic, troubling depths of the war in Vietnam, watching napalm and orphans and pronouncements from Washington and vacant-eyed soldiers on the evening news over dinner. One night, as I walked in the door, Mary said, "I heard your father today." He had died only a year or two earlier. "I heard him, loud and clear, say just one thing: Isn't anybody home?,'" she told me, and then, without missing a beat, she said, "I know what that means. That means we're supposed to adopt a Vietnamese orphan."
It wasn't something we had ever even discussed, but somehow at that moment it made sense to me. So I simply said, "Okay. Let's figure out how we do that."
Now, two years later, after endless forms and frustrations and bureaucracy, after home studies and counseling sessions to make sure we would be fit parents, after thousands of dollars in fees and interminable months of waiting, here we were, studying the photo that had arrived in the mail that day -- a wallet-sized black and white photo of a very grumpy looking baby girl in an infant seat on the floor of what we assumed was the orphanage. The question from the adoption service was simply, "Do you want this baby?"
We looked at her and then each other. "Yes," we said. It was love at first sight. We decided to name her Elizabeth, in memory of my late aunt.
By early April in 1975, the gears of the adoption machinery had moved to the point that we were in constant contact with the agency as they arranged transportation for her trip to the U.S. Meanwhile, the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating daily, and the conventional wisdom was that it would only be a matter of weeks before the U.S. forces pulled out, taking with them the fragile infrastructure of international adoption that was to deliver our baby to us. Finally the call we had been waiting for came, in the middle of the night.
"Your baby is scheduled for the next flight out," the woman told us. "She's going to be put on a 747 tomorrow."
The following morning as the clock radio clicked on we slowly started to absorb the lead story. A plane carrying a load of orphans out of Saigon had crashed on take-off, killing many of the infants and injuring many more. I grabbed the phone and called the adoption agency, Holt International, and was surprised to actually reach someone even though it was the middle of the night on the West Coast. It was chaos in Saigon, he told me, and while there were a number of planes carrying orphans out of Vietnam, they couldn't say with certainty at this point which child was on which plane. All we could do is wait, he said.
A day of uncertainty, pain, and unbearable tension seemed to last forever until finally, that night the phone rang. She's all right, the voice said.
Not quite a week later, Mary and I were asked to meet our six-month old at the Philadelphia airport on a Saturday afternoon. A very pleasant woman -- the infant escort from Holt -- walked down the ramp holding our baby. After checking our identification and exchanging a few pleasantries, the woman handed Mary her new daughter, and was gone.
Mary looked at her brand-new only child and then at me. "I thought maybe she'd come with instructions," she said. On the flight back to Pittsburgh, Nguyen Thi Beba spit up all over her mother's new dress. Real-world child rearing had begun.
Not everyone was as thrilled as we were with our new child. Mary was being interviewed on a radio talk show when a caller objected to the adoption of Vietnamese orphans by American parents because it removed the children from their culture. With her usual directness, Mary responded, "Culture? What's cultural about starving to death?"
Most of our relatives were delighted and eager to meet the new addition to our family. But then there was my uncle ironically, my favorite uncle who when he learned we were adopting a Vietnamese orphan, said to my mother, "Don't you think that's just awful?" Later, I know my mother was able to forgive him. Maybe it indicates a smallness of spirit, but I must admit that I never have.
Two weeks after Elizabeth's first birthday, I called from work to let Mary know that I'd be a bit late getting home that evening. The phone rang and rang as I called repeatedly for over an hour. Finally, I called our next-door neighbors and asked them to go over and make sure everything was all right.
A few minutes later they called me back to say that they couldn't get a response, but that when they looked in the family room window, they could see Mary on the sofa. They called 911, and I began racing to the hospital where she would be taken.
As the doctor came into the waiting room, I knew the message before he ever had to say a word. I tried to listen ". . .nothing anyone could do." ". . .massive heart attack." ". . . died instantly." Testimony to the suddenness of Mary's death was the fact that, even though Elizabeth's playpen was no more than six feet away, she died holding her new daughter in her arms.
I went home that night to Elizabeth who, though she had no idea, had just lost her mother a second time. The neighbors kept her in their home that night while I called all those who had to be told of Mary's death, then slept fitfully on the sofa where Mary had died.
Planning for single parenthood had to begin the next day. The family next door, aptly named the Rocks, offered to help with child care. In the days immediately following Mary's death and for months afterward, we built an elaborately choreographed life, with Cindy, the Rocks' teenage daughter, and her mother Millie caring for Elizabeth while I went off to work.
In the weeks following Mary's death, another reality set in. Adoptions are not final in Pennsylvania until a year after the child is placed in the home. When Mary died, Elizabeth had been with us only six months. This meant that I would have to attempt a single-parent adoption in a time when such adoptions were highly unusual, and single fathers adopting daughters were even more uncommon.
A new round of home studies and court hearings went on through the winter, with the Pittsburgh news media continuing to track the story on New Year's Day in 1976 a big photo of Elizabeth and me appeared above the fold on page one of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Finally, on an early summer morning that year, a benevolent judge granted the final adoption. We had our picture taken outside of the court house, and then appeared live on the KDKA-TV noon newscast.
Adapting to and accommodating being a single parent dictated other changes. My work required extensive travel, so I began to look around for other opportunities and later that year landed a position in central Pennsylvania.
I also had met Winnie, who lived in New Jersey, and our relationship had grown to the point that when I moved to central Pennsylvania, she moved in with us, staying at home to care for Elizabeth. Elizabeth now had her third mother.
The trauma of Elizabeth's first two years had taken a subtle toll. Now in a stable environment again with Winnie, she absolutely hated to be apart from either of us. Every night she would stand alone in her crib and scream until, exhausted, she lay down and slept. Every day she would follow Winnie wherever she went, staying so close that Winnie often tripped over her. She wasn't going to let this mother get away.
Years later, though, Elizabeth's world would once again be turned upside down. Late in 1987, when Elizabeth was 12, Winnie and I decided to divorce. Growing up, Elizabeth had put up walls around her emotions. I rarely saw her cry. But the night we sat on the same couch where Mary had died, and told Elizabeth that we would be separating, she cried and ran from the room.
Elizabeth now had a younger brother and sister, born when she was in elementary school, and with the divorce she had to adapt to a new role: the little mother of the family. Winnie worked full-time now, and so much of Elizabeth's responsibilities centered on caring for Rony and Missy. If there was a point at which she blossomed it well may have been in those years of heavy responsibility. Maybe because she had lost so much, she was able to give so much in patience, attention, and love to her younger siblings.
Once I had remarried, Elizabeth finally enjoyed the luxury of two mothers. Judy, my wife today, is a loving and giving woman with an infinite capacity to mother those in her world. Elizabeth has a comfortable and intimate relationship with her that lies somewhere between parent and sister. Blessed with uncommon warmth, intelligence, style, and grace, Judy has served as a wonderful role model for Elizabeth as a young woman.
Given her background, it's not surprising that Elizabeth would become a citizen of the world. Starting with trips to Mexico and Europe when she was in high school, she has been fascinated with travel to other countries. As an undergraduate in college, she spent a year in Italy, then upon graduation, went to work for a year at an American elementary school in Burkina Faso, an obscure and terribly poor country in Africa.
It was in Burkina Faso that she met Ross, an Australian geologist, and fell in love. Today, 25 years after her first airplane ride, Elizabeth lives in Sydney, Australia, and works for a public relations firm while Ross pursues his MBA.
Under the beguiling facade of a charming and self-assured young woman, I still see glimmers of the grumpy baby Mary and I saw in that first picture of Elizabeth. But I have since realized we misinterpreted the look. It was not grumpiness, but a strong sense of being able to handle whatever life hands her. It's the look of someone saying, "Come on world. Give me your best shot. I can take it and not just survive but prevail." The grandchildren, when they arrive, should be interesting.
This is not just a remembrance of Elizabeth, but also an early Mother's Day card to the women who have shared in shaping and nurturing her. First, her biological mother, whom we will probably never know, but who I believe had the depth of love to leave her newborn daughter behind in the hope of a better life. Then Mary who made that new life a reality. Then Cindy and Millie who gave selflessly in her time of greatest need. Then Winnie and Judy, who have shepherded her to adulthood.
It's a rare orphan who has so many mothers. My heart aches for all those others like her who never knew such benefits and blessings.