• A Mother's Love

    The Story of Cô Nga

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    In the summer of 2008, I returned to Vietnam as an adult after nearly 30 years being away from my native land. On that trip, I visited a friend of my mother in Saigon. Cô Nga, as I call her, worked with my mother in the 1960's in the Public Health Department of Gia Định province. My mother was a nurse and Cô Nga was the Department's translator and a secretary. Cô Nga spoke English well and provided much needed translation for the American aid workers who sought to improve the lives of the South Vietnamese.

    At her house.

    My mother spoke fondly about Cô Nga who helped to expedite requests for medical supplies and other healthcare services for the poor and rural population. That was almost 45 years ago. Today, she lives in a small house that belonged to her late parents in the outer edge of Saigon. The house has a small cement porch and the roof is a single layered, rusted-blue sheet of metal. I had to duck my head at the door to step down into the small living area. On the red/white checkered hard floor is her wooden bed, a dresser, a small table, and of course, the familial altar.

    She warmly greeted me and invited me to sit down on her bed. Unlike all my visits to other households, she didn't offer my any refreshments. That was a relief because I figured she couldn't afford it and I wouldn't want her to waste it on me. She can't be more than 4'10", but her serene smile is very sweet and her eyes very tender.

    We sat next to each other and chatted. She said she never met me but mentioned how happy she was to see my mom again a few years ago. She spoke fast and with such glee that I had forgotten about her difficult life disposition. I had been told that she only has one son and he was intelligent and quite charming. She had raised him mostly by herself, because her husband died shortly after he was born at the end of the War.

    When Saigon fell to the North, she raised her son along with her mother. With her English skill no longer needed, she lost her job, but was lucky for not being taken away to re-education camps. People with close ties with the U.S. government were often taken away to concentration camps before they could resume a normal life.

    Life in postwar Vietnam was very difficult for her. While many of her friends, like my mother, could escape from Vietnam, she had no financial means for such a risky attempt. She struggled to survive on meager food rations, worked odd jobs while supporting her son through primary education. Like all other mothers, one big concern was the draft. Vietnam was still at war with her neighbors, and compulsory military service often means death.

    Meeting her son

    I asked Cô Nga how her son is doing and she said he has good/bad days but has been losing a lot of weight. I asked if it's okay to see him and she jumped up with excitement and led me down a little hall and into his bedroom. I walked slowly after her, admittedly, a bit nervous.

    I saw Nghĩa in a corner sitting with his back toward to me. He was barefooted and crouching on the thin bamboo mat reading a comic book. She came and lifted him up. "There's an uncle (Chú) to visit you," she said. He stood up with a big smile and nodded. He was quite pale, gaunt and dressed in mismatched pajamas. She told him to say hi to me but he refused. I then asked him his name.

    "I don't want to tell you my name," he blurted out. Cô Nga, holding his arm, smiled and urged him to tell me. I asked him again and finally he said his name is Nghĩa. I then asked him how old he is. "Two years old," he jokingly said. We all laughed and I asked again, this time he said 27 (he's actually 32). She stood next to him as I requested a picture of the two of them. I took the picture but could not help noticing her warm smile and proud eyes gazed on him.

    I took a few more pictures with just him - he indeed has a very cheerful face. Sure enough I can see the iron shackles on his left ankle (yellow arrow on the picture). The chain runs to an iron bar affixed to the torn out corner of the moldy walls. Usually, there was a bucket-for-a-toilet but she had taken it away before I arrived.

    Before I left, I asked him if he needed anything, he said, "yes, some cigarettes." I laughed, told him he shouldn't be smoking, said good bye, and Cô Nga walked me back out to the main room.

    Treatment went wrong

    Nghĩa was a happy child. He grew up normally until falling ill at sixteen. In high school, Nghĩa began to have hallucination and acted out with fits of rage. Cô Nga frantically looked for doctors and medicine to cure his mental problems. Different medicines were tried but his psychosis came and went like demonic possession.

    Nghĩa's illness became worse and worse. One doctor in a desperate bid to help decided to give him Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). ECT is a controversial technique of running electrical current through the brain to help patients snap out of mental illness. It is used today for patients under anesthesia, but the technology was very crude in post-war Vietnam. In America, it was once considered to be inhumane, after it was dramatized in the 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest played by Jack Nicholson as the patient (picture at left).

    Insane Asylum is not an option.

    After several costly sessions of ECT, Nghĩa became apparently brain damaged. After the failed treatment, doctors said Nghĩa needed to be confined in "nhà thương điên" (mental hospital) for the long term. Yet, Vietnamese psychiatric hospital was pure hell. Cô Nga was convinced that Nghĩa will die in such a facility. She made a fateful decision to bring him home. In a locked room in the house, she would feed, bathe and be his companion for as long as she is still alive.

    But that was by far not a perfect solution. Nghĩa repeatedly destroyed property, tried to hurt himself and especially his mother. When, Nghĩa became violent, she would yell out for help and neighbors rushed in to extract her from his attack. Bruises became a common sight on Cô Nga's face and body. Finally, she resorted to a drastic option. She would chain his leg into the wall so when he becomes violent, she would have a chance to run from his grip.

    In the following years, Cô Nga couldn't work in order to look after Nghĩa nearly 24/7. She gives him his daily meals, medication, toilet care and companionship. There is no assistance from the government. Her only steady source of income comes from one former co-worker, thanks to having relatives in the U.S., is able to provide Cô Nga a steady amount of money to live. Other neighbors and friends visited and offered whatever they could for support the desperate mother and her very ill child.

    At right, a photo taken in 1966 of a patient in Vietnamese mental hospital

    A better life is not meant to be

    In the early 1990's Cô Nga had an opportunity to leave Vietnam. The Humanitarian Operation was in full swing and offered Amerasians and former South Vietnamese officials and government employees a chance to resettle in the U.S. Cô Nga has friends in the U.S. willing to sponsor her, but her son would not be accepted, because of his mental illness. Besides, her mother was ill and later died. Because of her son and mother, she didn't think twice about leaving Vietnam. A better life in the U.S. was for others, not for her.

    I asked to see old pictures and permission to share her story with others. The old black and white photos revealed a beautiful woman during her youth. Even today, at 65, she looks amazingly better than most 50-something women I've seen in Vietnam. She jokingly said that she had many foreign suitors - Americans, Koreans, Chinese - back then, and had she married one of them her life would have been so different. But she quickly reverted back to reality and said that she has accepted her fate to suffer in this life. Her sole purpose is to be a good mother and take care of her son.

    Before I left I handed her an envelope of money from my mom as a gift. She was genuinely surprised and said she didn't expect any gift. Her real joy was that someone so far away would want to come to pay her and her son a visit.

    Nghĩa as a happy youngster

    A little help goes a long way.

    Knowing part of her story before my visit, I was expecting to meet a bitter and miserable old woman. Instead I left so touched and moved by the devotion of a mother's love that cannot be underestimated or measured. I asked my friends to donate some money to fix her house for a new roof, and possibly a small yard to give Nghĩa some room. Within days, I received pledges totaling $1000. When my friends and I gave her the money before leaving Vietnam, she was overwhelmed with gratitude. She promised to fixed the house the way we wanted and wrote the following translated letter:

    Dear benefactors,

    Today, Aug. 25, 2008, a group of friends visited my family and donated a large sum of money ($1,000) to assist my son and I. I am deeply moved by your generosity and compassion. The words can not convey my gratefulness to you all and I wish all of you the very best of health, happiness, and prosperity throughout your life. I am profoundly thankful to each and every one of you!

    Thank you!

    Mother and son,
    Nga and Nghĩa

    Happy life ahead

    There is new hope on the horizon for Nghĩa as well. Doctors have come to offer Nghĩa to try new medicine. She hopes one of them will work and release her son from the iron chain. Nghĩa's temperament is much improved but his unpredictable violent fit is not yet vanquished. Any day now, age and new treatment will free Nghĩa from his shackle.

    Cô Nga also learned that her son has schizophrenia, an incurable disease. With this condition, ECT was the absolutely wrong treatment to give him. In the West, ECT is used only to treat severe depression and never for schizophrenia.

    For Cô Nga, her belief in Buddhism has given her hope. She believes that her son suffered due to his karma, and she as his mother has been called to help. Through love, his karma and hers become joined. But she is not resentful or bitter. Cô Nga had a wonderful relationship with Nghĩa before he became ill. She truly believes that by doing her best in this life, she and her son will be happy again in their next lives.

    Photo of mother and son in a happier time

    Comments 2 Comments
    1. anhhungminh's Avatar
      anhhungminh -
      Cảm ơn bạn Thaiman đă post lên một câu chuyện cảm động về t́nh mẫu tử to lớn, sâu đậm, gánh vác trách nhiệm nuôi nấng đứa con bệnh hoạn không nề hà, không than oán, unconditional love and compassion as well as responsibility to take care of her ill child. Câu chuyện của bạn rất có ư nghĩa trong ngày lễ Tạ Ơn (Thanksgiving).
      Tôi xin phép sẽ trở lại câu chuyện trong vài ngày sắp tới.
    1. anhhungminh's Avatar
      anhhungminh -
      Sau đây là trích thơ của một thân hữu:

      Thank you for sharing w/ us the Mother’s love to her son all by her heart/soul. You’re correct. Yes, we're very lucky to live in the country with wealthy, resourcefulness and a better education, careers etc.. However, it’s also full of suffering, dilemma, strain, mental disorders, hatred from this universal and around etc.. Well it’s normal in life, isn't it?? Thankful every day for live, breathe, work, friends, and reach out to other people around the community etc.

      With the Mother’s love effortless, strong faith and hope to called out for help from Buddha/BoTat for a better life to her family. It's pretty sure that Buddha/Bodhisattva have heard her voice as well as Buddha/Bo Tat have being reaching out to Mother’s love family.

      As matter of fact, her family has been received help from #'s of the generosity people like Doctors, your Mom, and your friends whom have been continuing their loving-kindness, (bàn tay nhân ái, trái tim thương yêu, bao la rộng mở, màu đỏ của tình thương yêu bao bọc, giúp đỡ nhau trong tình ba con ngheo que nha) of contributing their humble financially, and mentality to bring joys, happiness, love and light to her family.

      Please count me in as a small contribution if you plan to send any donations.

      Mong rằng cuộc sống gia đình Cô Nga có phần tiến chuyển tốt, và kính chúc Cô luôn gặp nhiều thuận lợi & may mắn.

      Metta - Thank you
      Nhận xét thêm: những tiến bộ về y khoa chữa trị bệnh tâm thần đă thay đổi cách chẩn đoán và chữa trị các bệnh này tại các nước tiên tiến. Xă hội cũng đă dần dần đổi mới cách nh́n, cách tiếp xúc với các bệnh nhân bệnh tâm thần. Đó là một may mắn đối với người dân đang sống tại các nước này.
      Trong khi đó, tại Việt Nam, những định nghĩa về bệnh tâm thần vẫn là những định nghĩa xưa cũ, hạn hẹp, chưa phù hợp với tiến bộ y khoa hiện đại. Những cách gọi của dân gian như là "khùng", "mát", "điên" vv.... và vv... chưa phân loại cụ thể các loại bệnh tâm thần, và cũng thể hiện cách nh́n hạn hẹp, khắt khe của xă hội với các bệnh nhân tâm thần. Từ đó dẫn tới vài cách chữa trị như là: đưa người bệnh vào nhà thương điên Biên Ḥa, hay xiềng xích trói buộc người bệnh ....
      Mong nhận được thêm ư kiến từ bạn đọc, nhất là những vị có chuyên ngành chuyên môn.
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