Van's wide grin reveals some extra short front teeth. While not a beautiful woman, she might be considered attractive in a plain, conservative sense. Quite thin, even for Vietnamese standards, she wears her short black hair scooped into a small bun resting low at the back of her head. Wavy bangs float across her forehead. Her matching outfit is a colorless print--large flowery designs in shades of black, gray, beige and a swampy mud color. The hem of her collared short-sleeved button-down shirt meets the top of traditional, loose-fitting pants.
Lucas allows himself to be lowered onto her lap, even though the blank stare he wears seems to imply that Van's more a stranger than a mother figure. As recognition dawns on him, he seems unsure if she left him an hour or an eternity ago. But once he's made the firm connection as to her identity, his face illuminates like a babe's on Christmas morning from the glow of a thousand bulbs and shiny, wrapped packages surrounding a tree. She speaks to him in their native, nasal tongue while he beams with delight. She never looks at my husband or I and that stings a bit. I feel a bit like the babysitter having immediately been dismissed now that mama's back. Lucas rests his head against her shoulder as though finally reunited with the source of all happiness. Ouch.
When Lucas's gaze lands on John and I watching him from the other side of the coffee table, his smile fades into trembling lips and he begins to cry. Looking back at Van, he stops. Back to us--more crying. My heart hurts for his conflict. Yet I wonder if he cries because he thinks he'll be returned to us rather than stay with Van, or because he's already missing the good time we've been showing him.
I find the affection Van lavishes on Lucas quite unlike anything we've witnessed by the Vietnamese. Frankly, my impressions were that they must be a fairly non-demonstrative people--until now. Van wriggles her nose for an endless round of kisses she plants all over Lucas. They reverberate through the lobby with smacking, snuffling sounds. She lifts him above her head and nudges her face into his belly, extracting the most endearing giggles that float like bubbles all around him. How I long for him to do that with us! Our son has barely smiled during our days together.
I ask Hai, our translator, "What's she saying that's got him so happy?"
"Hoop de rah," she answers.
When Van suddenly comes up for air to hand me a photo, I'm relieved to have something else to look at besides her inhaling of my child. It's a formal-looking laminated picture of her sitting on a bench in the orphanage with a younger, balder Lucas on her lap. Neither smile. Lucas's attention is directed toward the floor, where something interests him. He wears white, except for a Mickey Mouse stitched onto his shirt and a red soccer ball on his right pant leg. Van's right hand rests on her crossed right knee while her left delicately holds one of Lucas's tiny fists. Hers, mine, hers, mine. She resembles a stern school marm. Forty in Vietnam must be older than forty in America. But the orphanage director we met is even older yet softer and younger-looking than Van.
Hai confided in John and I previously that Van's prospects of marriage and bearing children are next to none. I wonder if Van ever considered becoming a single mother to Lucas or one of the other babies from the orphanage. I don't know if caretakers even live outside of the orphanage, or if their monthly salaries of twenty to twenty-five dollars makes it financially feasible to raise a child. Compassion swells in me for this woman my own age who not only will never likely birth a child, but for whom the option of adoption doesn't even exist. Her gift to these babies of loving and letting go makes me ashamed of my envy and insecurities.
Mark appears with Li, the other little boy who was adopted from the same orphanage as Lucas. He chats with Hai about the results of Li's visit to the local French clinic for an ear infection. Lucas wears his far away, trance-like stare that is growing familiar to me, if not a little freaky. He's mesmerized by all the action and the glare from outside. Yet I know he splits his attention, leaving some for Van with intermittent smiles for each bit of stimulus she provides like a kiss, a squeeze, or a word--not loud nor soft, musical nor grating, but just so alien from the ones I utter. He must have missed her voice so.
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