A uniquely American tale

My daughter was in the hospital for a few days this last week. It was a blur of tests and deep scares and high reliefs and bad coffee and an endless march of doctors and medical professionals.

One woman, small and unassuming, with a sweet smile and a singsong lilt to her voice, came in often. She was the nurse’s aide, a tech of some sort. She took my daughter’s temperature, and reminded me to eat, and then took away the trays and brought in clean linen.

We chatted, in between vital checks and uneasy naps and IVs. I learned she worked three jobs. She cleans houses in the early morning hours. Then, Monday through Friday, she works for a school. On weekends, she picks up two 12-hour shifts at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

“I pay my bills,” she told me. “I want to buy a house.” She explained how she considers those two hours in the mornings between cleaning houses and working at the school her “break.”

She was from Cambodia, I learned. Her two older brothers had been taken from their home in the middle of the night. “Murdered,” she told me. “But we never know for sure. We never got their bodies.” They had been in the Cambodian Army. Her father, too, had been murdered – for being educated. Educated people were a threat, she explained, and exterminated.

It took me a minute before I realized she was speaking of the Cambodian Genocide, and how she managed to survive it.

“They didn’t allow us to eat the food we grew,” she said, and explained how, as a child, she had learned to cut bananas a certain way, so the theft would go undetected, and how she would bury the peels deep.

Eventually, she and her mother made it to a refugee camp. While waiting for placement, her mother died, and so she was alone, a teenager, and given the choice that other refugees were given: Australia. France. America.

She chose America.

When the Embassy asked why America, she said, in her innocence, “I want to see the snow. It doesn’t snow in Cambodia.”

She came to America in 1977, without knowing a lick of English, alone, father and brothers murdered, mother dead in a refugee camp. She started to clean houses, and at night, she took English classes…when she could afford them. She found love. She had three boys. She raised them and now, in the two hours she has between cleaning houses and working at the school, she goes out into her backyard, which connects to the backyard of one of her sons, and yells for her grandson to come out so she can see him.

“I never can believe I am here, still, in America,” she told me, with nothing but wonder in her voice.

I was stunned with the enormity of her story. I was astonished that this tiny woman who took my daughter’s blood pressure and brought me ice water when I couldn’t leave the room, dressed in scrubs, carried within her such a story of loss, of tragedy, of bravery and perseverance.

I was humbled. Perspective often does that.

I found her story to be uniquely American. She came here to escape persecution. Her spirit remains resilient. Her vision is forward. Her work ethic is impeccable. She is the immigrant that our country relies upon, in so many ways, and her dedication to this country is deep. Her appreciation is even deeper.

And she still loves the snow.

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