The Life In Between 16,071

BLOG POST: Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 – 6:05 p.m. in Saigon, VN

My visit with Sr. Goretti (next to me), Sr. Josephine (end) and the other Sisters from the Good Shepherd order.

Yesterday was February 14th. For many people, it’s not just like every other day of the 365/366 days we observe on the calendar each year. For me, it is one of the most important dates each year. This is my story about the life between 16,071 days.

The note my mom wrote down as they prepared to pick me up at Chicago O’Hare airport on February 15, 1975.

On July 9, 1974, my family became casualties of war at the hands of the North Vietnamese. By the grace of God, I survived. Following that event, military officials found me in my family’s shelter and brought me to the Catholic Relief Services halfway house in Binh Loi (which is just over 7 kilometers from where I’m typing this blog). For the following 2+ months, I was in the care of the sisters in the Saigon area, receiving some medical attention and evaluation. I was baptized into the Catholic Church on September 28, 1974 in the convent chapel at Binh Trieu before being sent down to Vinh Long to the Good Shepherd Convent in fall of 1975 where the sisters operated an orphanage for children born to mothers out of wedlock. I was sent here because they were staffed and equipped to care for children whereas their convent in Saigon was not. Sister Josephine said my case was “out of the ordinary”.

Two of the sisters I met yesterday (pictured above) worked at the orphanage. Sister Goretti was a 20 year old postulant in 1975. Much of her work was transporting infants and babies between Saigon and Vinh Long, taking the children to doctor visits, and general care of the children within the orphanage. The probability that Sr. Goretti cared for me at some point during my 3-4 months in Vinh Long is “very likely”. Sister Josephine was a teacher in the orphanage in Vinh Long and too had most likely crossed paths with me.

As we sat around the table yesterday sharing stories, the two Sisters filled in more and more gaps with information about the troubled times that came to a head in 1975. When I left on February 14, 1975, I was one of the last that made it out of their custody to America. On April 4, 1975 during the 2nd day of Operation Baby Lift, a military plane crashed shortly after departing Saigon; 138 were killed, including 78 children bound for the America. There were babies on that flight that came from their orphanage. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Following the fall of Saigon, all aid services came to an immediate end and the sisters of the Good Shepherd order fled Vietnam to Thailand and Singapore; some sought asylum in the US. Their stories and tack-sharp memories of the events were so important to hear.

I had sent down my adoption file prior to my trip and they read the pages. We hugged when I shared that it was exactly 44 years to the day that I left Vietnam; 16,071 days between when I left the sisters’ care to this day when were reunited, sitting around that table drinking iced coconut milk and snacking on fruit bars they’d made. It was a beautiful moment that we were able to share and I was overwhelmed with many emotions. I made it and others did not – more than once. Why me? I felt the guilt creep in and the burden was heavy. That burden was lifted when Sister Goretti told me, “God’s plan. He always has a plan, even if we don’t understand”. Thank you sister – thank you for SO many things, but thank you for the wisdom to know what to say when you said it.

16,071 days is more than half a lifetime for most. For me, it represents a life of gratitude. Like an Oscar award winner’s speech, the list of those to thank could go on and on until the music started playing. For today, the two at the top of this list are these 2 wonderful women of God I met on February 14, 2019 in Vinh Long. This has truly been the 2nd greatest journey of my lifetime.

The letter dated 02/14/1975 Robert and Mary Hamerlind received making things “official”

On February 14, 1975, my parents started their next journey and on February 15, 1975 left MSP to ORD (Chicago O’Hare) to come pick me up. I was enroute to join them in the United States. One of my most favorite stories of my father is that when they were waiting for my plane to arrive in Chicago, he thought he heard an announcement saying the flight had arrived. The normally mild-mannered Mr. Hamerlind ran into the women’s bathroom to let my mother know; he was so excited. Turns out he misheard the announcement and it was another flight that arrived. I did arrive as scheduled and as they say, the rest is part of the next 16,071 days.

I will retrace my steps from 44 years ago, making one last stop in Chicago before heading back to the home I love in Minnesota.

This journey to my original homeland has been a dream come true. I never had an identity crisis about my adoption story. It was more just wanting – or needing – to know who played a part in my story. I didn’t think an opportunity would ever present itself where I could hold someone’s hand on the other side of the earth and say “Thank You”. Words hardly seem appropriate to measure the amount of gratitude. Still, it happened. By another sign of God’s good grace it happened.

I will travel soon throughout the day and night to my home. A million thoughts still fill my head. Perhaps starting today on this new Day 1, I can sort them out and share more stories about this beautiful country and its people. So much more to talk about, but planes – they don’t wait.

Thank you for following my journey. Life isn’t about any 1 journey, but instead it’s about the linear journeys we make that stretch into the days and weeks and years we live. For me, I want to end my journey some day long from now knowing I did the best I could, did good things for others, left a legacy for my family, and honored those that gave me life.

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