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De Profundis

In the photo lies an infant
toothpick limbs at his side,
motionless, mouth agape.

Yellowing paper ages his skin and leaves him
transparent underneath the afterglow
of a photographer’s flashbulb.

The sisters named him.

Up from the depths,
he called from the back of a bus
with no arms curled under him.
The nurses thought he’d never live past a week.
But when his sores healed and the clouds in his eyes parted,
he posed for the camera on the floor of the orphanage,
plump cheeks laughing.

One more child flown out of the carcass of civil war.
A life saved to memorialize those who perished
in the wind above the coast.

This is the first real poem I wrote concerning adoption. Its origins can be found in a book called Turn My Eyes Away, a book given to my parents, I believe, when they adopted my younger sister. Rosemary Taylor, a prominent figure in establishing orphanages in South Vietnam, compiled the photos and text and dedicated it to the orphans and their caretakers who perished on the first Operation Babylift flight.

When I was little, I used to look through the book without comprehending its subject matter and without being told the background story as to the reason it was stuffed alongside all the other books my parents had on their bookshelf. I was oblivious to its intent and the history it was imparting to anyone who would listen. In my little brain, I thought I was just looking at some strange kids who didn’t resemble me at all.

But, during my own personal reclamation project back in 1999, when I was quickly distancing myself from the environment I had grown up in, I took the book down from the bookshelf and put it on the night table by my bed. For a couple days, I hesitated to open the front cover, but then one night I sat on the bed, took a deep breath and just started reading and peering at the photos for a long time.

The most dramatic photo was the one that took up two pages, showing an emaciated boy lying in a crib with dark boils all over his skin, sporting white bandages wrapped around his hands and around the top part of his head. His eyes betrayed confusion, loneliness and fear of facing a nonexistent future. Turning the page, I came face to face with the photo of a healthy, plump infant with a dark tuft of hair sticking straight up, and he was sitting up on the floor laughing. Amazingly, according to the text, this was the same boy in the previous photo a couple months later, after he was properly fed and cared for. His caretakers, appropriately, gave him the nickname of ‘De Profundis’, which is Latin for “up from the depths”.

I guess I can now say that his life and mine are uniquely intertwined in the paradox of human cruelty and compassion.


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