In a matter of four days, I walked in and out of her life. So easily, so relentlessly, I turned my back towarded her and disappeared.
Her eyes were luminous, her eyelashes long. Within seconds, I saw them droop, tears then cascaded into a waterfall. I watched her face grow red as she wrapped her small arms around my waist. “Sao vay?” What’s wrong? I asked if the girl on the crib next to hers had bullied her. No. It was because of me. I told her I would return tomorrow, a promise I whispered before leaving every afternoon. Today, my departure only made her shriek and cry. “Khong duoc di.” You can’t go. She stomped the bed and screamed, her cry echoing down the corridor. The nurses stepped in and buckled her down, then signaled me to the door. They said she would be all right, that she would get over it. That I should leave.
Lâm Kim Dung. Bé Dung. Every one adores her; she is the size of a six-month old baby with a face so pure, angelic. We are not allowed to hold her due to her delicate bones. She crawled to my side on my first day at the Peace Village of Tu Du Hospital, a home for over sixty children with disabilities. I mistook her for an infant until she spoke. Dung is so incredibly smart; her eyes flutter when she speaks. Ua, chi ten gi vay? What is your name? I tell her my name is Trâm, and she remembers instantly. I ask her age, and she tells me she is four. Four would be an underestimate, but no one in the hospital knows her real age. Dung is so clever, so quick, well beyond her years. She even knows English. What’s your name? My name is Dung. If this world is darkness, then she is light.
On the end of my first day, I stood by her crib. That day, she was happy. As always. “Chi Tram hom nay co vui khong?” Sister Tram, are you happy today? She has asked me this question every day, right at that hour. I smiled and said, “Hom nay chi rat la vui tai vi chi duoc thay mat dep cua be Dung. Today I am very happy because I get to see Dung’s pretty face.” She blushed pink. I asked her, “Ai dep? Who’s pretty?” She gushed and gleamed. “Dung dep. Dung is pretty.” I lowered my face as she puckered her lips and kissed my cheek. I kissed her back. Ngay mai chi co den khong? Are you coming tomorrow? I promised her I would.
CHI TRAM! Dung screams my name every time I arrive at the hospital. She crawls to me, a huge smile on her face. She loves to laugh. I could be sticking out my tongue and she would be roaring in laughter. I do my best to spend time equally with every child, but at the end of the day I find myself by Dung’s crib, saying long goodbyes to her. Those moments grew; I am unsure when it became overwhelming for the both of us. Soon Dung wanted me to feed her at every meal. She even began asking in a frantic voice when she saw me pick up my bag. Ua, chi di dau vay? Where are you going? My excuses kept piling: I’m going to get food. I’m going to the next room. All ended with: “But I’ll be back.”
Because of me, this girl who only knows how to smile is left wallowing in tears. I walked into this place knowing I would leave in two weeks, but I brushed it off. Was it wrong to grow so attached? Was I doing more damage than helping? My time here, with Dung, with the kids reached a whole deeper level. When I walked away, all that shed. I was just another person, like so many who have walked into her life and left. But to Dung, Thuy, Linh, Hang, Hoa, Bang, Thanh, Thong, Du, Hiep, Nhu, Loan, everyone, and most importantly myself, and a thanks to Lan and the fellows who have given me insight.
This pain of saying goodbye, it’s not a bad thing. Pain stems from love, a love that Dung knows, a love that will only do good in the long run. I am not here to save any one. You all save me—you, my new siblings but more importantly, my mentors. You’ve given and taught me so much—pieces of yourselves entrusted to me with bundles and oodles of pure love. Like Peggy said, it is not about what I can or am able to give to you within these two weeks; it is what you all have given to me. I hope you understand that I will leave this place, but I’m going to come back.
I will think about each and every one of you every day and build my goals around you all. Thank you for everything.
— Ai-Tram Bui