Calling the girls by their loving childhood nicknames is all I can do to avoid accidentally multiplying the pain from the misfortune that befell them. It's a way to preserve the faith and love for life in Chích Chòe(Sparrow), Be' Em (Little One) and Be' Ut (Littlest)
Sparrow has not been able to talk since she recovered from a severe illness at age 3. From then on, she became well known in the neighborhood for being fussy and unruly, crying and yelling at anything she is not happy about. But it was that easily agitated nature in Sparrow that exposed an earth shaking crime.
After her parents separated, her mother and the 3 girls went to live with her grandmother. And then her mother remarried, taking the 2 younger girls with her, only Sparrow remained with grandma. One time her mother picked her up for a visit with her little sisters. After a few days, the stepfather started to molest her. She fought at first, but by the 3rd time she lost. How could she even fight if her own mother pressed a pillow on her mouth to silence her!
Little and Littlest with the toys they brought home from summer camp- Picture by Phạm Vũ ( 2005)
When she got back home, through her tears and painful expressions, her babbling, pointing, the grandmother figured out what happened to Sparrow. She immediately took Sparrow to get checked, filed a report, and right away picked up Little and Littlest, only to find out the same fate also befell them. The girls had to see, had to face, and live with such horrible evil so early in life. Sparrow was only 13, Little was 8 and Littlest was 7.
In court, the couple were indicted for sexual crime against minors, everyone who heard the story was enraged, everyone who knew of the story wanted to cry. Even the prosecutor was choking back tears as he was presenting the case, as Sparrow's mother was crying too: " The accused is their own mother, how could she hurt her very own children...". Oh God, is that true? Maybe if she revealed the "real truth", then the girl , though they had already suffered from pain and loss, they would at least still have their mother with them to console them, to love them.
However, truth was not what had been hoped for. It was discovered through the consistent testimonies given by the girls, that their mother was present and directly involved in the crime against them.
When the verdict was read, Sparrow, Little, and Littlest all ran up to hold on to their mother, crying. When the couple were taken back to prison, the three little ones ran after the vehicle, their somber eyes full of tears, searching for their mother. Without having to be told, everyone gathered around the girls, and it suddenly became evident that all was not lost, for there remained a very fortunate thing: that the children still retained their childlike nature, honest and loving without hate or resentment.
Sparrow, Little, and Littlest went to live with grandma. Grandma had a little lot of land but she already sold it to take care of her grandchildren. When somebody asked about her situation, she would break down in tears: " I am handicapped and without education. I had worked so hard as a street merchant my whole life to raise my daughter. I did try to teach her right from wrong, I cannot understand how she could be so stupid that she even hurt her own children. I am old now, and handicapped, I don't know how much longer I can take care of the kids."
All the toys the kids have are a finger sized doll dressed in clothes the girls had made from rags they could gather, a few rocks to play the game đánh chuyền ( a game of speed and dexterity, where one throws a ball and picks up certain number of sticks before catching the ball as it falls back down), and a few objects made of egg shells.
It was even more painful to read the essays written by Little and Littlest in 3rd and 4th grades : "In the evening, my family gather for dinner, chatting happily. I feel so happy and content. After we eat, my mom washes dishes, my dad watches TV, we do our homework. No matter where I go, I will always remember my happy home, my precious nest."
Many people complained about the education system that teach children writing according to certain format, stifling their creativity, their ability to observe and truly experience life. The happiness described in their essays are clearly from a format. What would they write if they were to draw from their real life experiences? Maybe something similar to the endless questions Little asked: "Yesterday in court mommy said I should listen to grandma and study hard, but I can only go to the charity school until 5th grade, after that I will need to pay tuition..." or Littlest's murmuring: "I love eating rice with ribs but grandma said there is no money. Grandma bought two eggs, which she cut into four..."
After the heartbreaking introduction, I went into the house with Vũ . Little is already in 10th grade, Littlest in 9h grade. They looked at me as if trying to assess me. I found out later on that after those horror days, they no longer trusted men. I tried to be friendly and tried to earn their trust, but it was in vain, especially after Littlest asked and I answered that I was not the boyfriend of "mom" Vũ, as they call her, because, if I was not Vũ 's boyfriend, why would I bother go visit a friend's adopted children on First day of Tet. Yes, she is right too, as she said: "No one is crazy like that". So I admit, I'm crazy.
We were talking to the 2 younger girls when Sparrow "flew" in. Everyday, she goes sell the lotto ticket result page on the street to help her grandmother. Seeing a stranger in the house, though already 20 years old, she timidly sat downclose to "mom Vũ" and asked who I was. The atmosphere became more animated after that with Sparrow's cheerfulness but, though both she and I tried really hard, I still could not understand anything that came out of her. Vũ had to interpret each sentence that she said. However, I had a wonderful New Year afternoon with the three girls.
They say that time will erase all pain but I know the pain in these three girls will only grow with time, when they grow up and understand more. Many people asked me how will the girl be? What help is needed to sooth their pain?
During the visit I noticed Littlest still retained her innocence, maybe she was still too young to fully understand when "it" happened. The oldest one, Sparrow, was constantly talking and laughing so I could not quite figure her out yet. The middle one, Little, the prettiest one, did smile once in a while, but they were only fleeting smiles that quickly evaporated. And there was sadness in her, a very "grown up" sadness , deep and with resignation. Yes, that pain was created by a mother addicted to gambling and a stepfather addicted to drugs.
With each article that I write, I want to encourage you to "do something". Please, do not just read, let out a sigh, wipe off your tears, and then. .. go on like nothing happened. My friend Pham Vũ saw what happened to the three lives and bravely stepped up to shoulder the responsibility of a mother for the 3 little girls. She is single and alone, and still very young, but in spite of her own financial worries, in spite of her own difficulties, in the last few years Vũ has been the one who provides for the girls with clothing, tuition, summer vacations... ,she also attends the meetings for parents at their school. Beside providing for their material necessities, Vũ also tries to be the mother that they need. I am very proud to have a friend like Vũ , and hopefully after I write this, she will no longer be alone in raising the girls.
I asked: " What do you expect their future to be like?" She sighed, but then she smiled:" Hopefully they still believe in humanity, in family love and motherly love, and will always reach higher. For me, I can only try my best." Vũ also said that after reading about them, many people wanted to help, but they first wanted to meet them, to take pictures and film them but she refused, because the girls "still have their whole life to live, to look forward to" I can relate to and understand this because I was also offered $100,000 donation to help the children who were victims of sex slavery, but with similar conditions, and I had to tactfully refuse.
We left after giving them li-xi, but I could not forget their story. Their images will always remain with me.
(I had a picture taken with the three girls but I will not post it here because they did not want me to)
My Lord, today when I write this, it is the first Sunday of Lent! The Gospel told of temptations in life. Even You had to deal with temptations, let alone us. Please help us never to sell short and cheapen the beautiful image which we are created in, formed after Your perfect image! And may we, the more fortunate ones, always be the arms reaching out to share Your love in this world
Peace and Blessings,
Lm Martino Nguyễn Bá Thông - Phạm Vũ
Translated by K.N. The original version in Vietnamese entitled "Lại... Một Chuyến Đi - Chuyện Thứ 3: Có Chăng Một Tình... Mẫu Tử?"