My Father Saved My Life, And Saving Mine Saved His

It was 1979. We were fleeing Vietnam on an over-crowded wooden boat. Dad, 26. Mum, 19, and seven months pregnant. And me, two years and two months old.

After pirates terrorized our boat's passengers, they disabled the motor and the lights - except for one light. Traumatized, we floated out on the open ocean - with only the horizon in all directions - carried by the currents and our desperate prayers.

After a few days, our boat hit a storm, and the storm surge shoved us into a sandbar. Heaving under this relentless force, our boat took on water. We were sinking and being torn apart at the same time.

In amidst the chaos, Mum sat me on Dad's shoulders, and tied me on with a shirt, so that I wouldn't fall off or be separated from Dad. Dad then jumped into the darkness of the stormy waves, and swam with me on his shoulders, a first-born child with his precious first-born child.

Mum, terrified, not knowing how to swim, was now alone without Dad, on this see-sawing vessel that was slowly breaking apart in the rolling surge. She held onto her belly, and jumped towards the voices of young men who were already in the water with life buoys.

They found each other on shore.

That night, Dad buried Mum and I in the sand, up to our necks, to keep us warm.

We eventually made it to a refugee camp, established by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Red Cross.


I've heard this story many times over the years.

Not once did Dad weaponize that story. To make me feel guilty with gratitude. To make me feel like I owed my life to him. To shame me into behaving.

As a child, whenever Dad re-told this story, I remember forlornness reverberating through him. And I didn't know what to do with that sadness seeping through every cell in his body. Even after years had passed, the threat of my death and the impact of that potential loss was still alive in him.

This story disappeared from our family's narrative as I got into my teens, as the imperative to maintain identity became swept away by tides of toil and time.

This story re-surfaced during the Syrian Boat People crisis in 2014, ignited by images of the small, limp body of Alan Kurdi, washed upon a Turkish shore, held by his grief-stricken father.

Dad then told me, for the first time ever, that there was another young couple on the boat, with a son, the same age as me. His dad swam with him, sidestroke. Amidst the battering of waves, this boy did not make it.

Now, I finally understood.

My father stood at the brink of being childless and widowed - a fate worse than death - that seared into him as a very particular experience of PTSD. He had to tell me this story so that he could remember what he nearly lost, as a way of trying to step back into the land of the living.

We made it, Daddy. It's over now. We’re safe now.

Stock photo: Vietnamese refugees scrambling from a sinking boat. It was the middle of the night, when our boat sank

Image: Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose drowned body washed ashore upon a beach in Turkey.


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