“I want to know,” I said, “how does she do it?”
The question was presumptuous, of course, but it was the only one I wanted answered. It was the only thought I could entertain, the only speech I could tolerate.
There was a pause, I remember that. Perhaps she was gathering her thoughts. Perhaps she would never have answered because what do you say to blundering Americans anyway? Someone from our group, perhaps unable to endure the silence, spoke for her and the moment was gone.
She is a survivor of the massacre at My Lai. Shot through the hip, she lay hidden under the bodies of her family members and friends. When she regained consciousness she crawled out and was found. She continues to live close by in a small house where she receives visitors. She and her son and two daughters sat with us in their yard. It was there I asked my question.
We were told that she (and, over and over again, “the Vietnamese”) have forgiven us. Nothing happened that day to disturb that message. Everyone smiled. Many pictures were taken. Failing everything else, we would have a photograph of us, there, smiling. Proof. Of something.
How many times has she played this role? How many times has she emerged from her home to sit with visitors for whom she is one thing only – a survivor of a horror we have not learned from? What resources must she draw on to greet, again and again and again, people who, carrying their own stories, their own pain, come to her hoping to receive something she cannot give?
In other stories, by different storytellers, this lady has not somehow transcended her memories. In other stories she bears the pain still, struggling with anger and depression. Had I known that when I sat at her table I might have been better able to honor her. That she is human, a woman who loved and loves, who has known first-hand the horror human beings can inflict on one another, who mourns still – that is something I can understand.
I longed just to sit with these people, to cry with them. What happened to them happened to all of us. It ripped the fabric of the universe. It tore the bonds that hold us together.
Of course we who are related by nationality and culture to those who hurt her want to be comforted, consoled. We want to be welcomed in a place where we know much harm was done in our name. We want to be freed of burdens that no one can take from us. So we do all we can do – reach toward one another, sit together, let the tears fall, mend the world.