Calm. Professional. Detached. Solomon Santiago was a newspaper reporter and photographer. That’s all. He went. He clicked the camera, reported the facts. He left.
As Solomon stepped into the Vietnamese orphanage, he gazed across the room, looking only for the best lighting and camera angles. He stepped against the wall and took a long shot, capturing the striped shadows that fell upon the yellow-stained sheets filling twenty cribs stretched from wall to wall. Only a few of the beds were occupied.
“Where are the kids?” Solomon stepped in front of a nurse.
“They’re outside.” She thrust past him, throwing over her shoulder, “we need help--not pictures!”
He found a door to the courtyard. Even outdoors the air was laden with the sent of feces and urine. One by one, dark eyes spotted him through the wooden slats of the playpen crates. The constant wailing grew in intensity and dozens of matchstick arms reached out, futilely hoping for comfort, attention, human touch.
Solomon’s lens immortalized the longing eyes, the tear that slipped down a toddler’s cheek, the naked bottoms sitting on dirty slats.
He was in the middle of his third roll of film when a voice paused him.
“Mr. Santiago?” A woman stood before him, her Australian accent tinged with urgency. “I am Rosemary Taylor. Do you have any connections here? We need another flight out. The government has issued evacuation notices to all of the foreigners. Saigon will fall any day now and it will be impossible to leave.”
Solomon raised his hands. “Look lady, I’m just here to report. I can’t help you. But maybe you can answer me something.” He jerked toward the boxes behind them. “What’s with the cages? With trays to catch their waste like they’re gerbils?”
“Mr. Santiago, there are over two hundred babies and only six workers. Trust me: not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t break for them. We do the best we can with what we have.” Her eyes flashed. “That’s why it’s so important to get them out of here! They have wonderful families waiting for them in America and Australia. They must be evacuated immediately.”
He shrugged. “I’ll call my boss. That’s all I can do.” He turned his back and finished the roll of film, moving toward one child who stood in the corner of the courtyard. She was old enough to be free of the pens, apparently, but the freedom didn’t seem to touch her.
He stooped down to her, pulling out his notebook. “Do you speak English?” Her eyes didn’t so much as flicker. Only when Solomon touched her arm did she react, jerking and turning her face away.
He lay in his hotel bed that night, with the sounds of protests and panic rising from the streets. That tiny girl’s face, stone hard and expressionless, tugged at Solomon, seeming somehow familiar, despite the almond-shaped eyes and straight dark hair. She was so different from the children at home, solemn and beautiful, yet somehow the same.
The same as children everywhere who waited love. Who, perhaps, had waited too long for that which never came, until the waiting itself was abandoned.
Solomon fell into a restless sleep, his dreams mixed with fragments of memories from long ago.
“A small cargo plane will evacuate you if you come now.” Solomon didn’t react as Rosemary burst into tears at his words. “Everything’s packed and ready, right?”
“Yes.” Her answer was simple. “I knew God would provide.”
By the time the cumbersome plane lifted from the ground, Solomon could hardly move. Toddlers were strapped along the few seats. The babies and remaining children covered the floors, cardboard boxes serving as temporary cribs.
“Her name is Tâm.”
Solomon started and looked toward Rosemary. She smiled. “I noticed you’ve been watching her. Her name means heart.”
He turned back to the girl. Her unmoving eyes were fixated on a crack of light dancing on the wall. “Fitting name.”
“She has an attachment disorder. She never got the attention she needed as an infant. Tâm will have to go to a very special home.” The woman’s eyes were full. “She may never learn to bond.”
“I know the feeling.” Solomon smirked a little, and turned back to Tâm. “A special home,” he repeated, “with someone who understands.”
And for the first time, Tâm looked up. For a brief moment their eyes met, and looking back at him, Solomon saw a mirror. A mirror of his heart.
Immediately before North Vietnam overthrew South Vietnam in 1975, the government okayed an emergency evacuation of a large number of orphans. Operation Babylift resulted in around 3,300 babies and toddlers finding adoptive families in America, Canada, Europe, and Australia. The resources for this story were found at http://www.adoptvietnam.org/adoption/babylift-index.htm. While Solomon and Tâm are completely fictional, Rosemary Taylor’s true story can be read at the above website.
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