We heard stories about a thin man in dark Hmong clothes, rags held together by big safety pins, walking in flip-flops about the dirt roads of the village. A poor man who was silently insane. He climbed roofs and took asunder pieces of trees.
In 1978, his brothers left him in the jungle of Laos. There was a massacre of the Hmong. Uncle Shong’s son was on his back. The bullet hit the little boy in the head. Blood soaked into his father’s shoulders. My Uncle made a decision to stop running. He stopped his tired feet. He pulled his child in his arms. He said goodbye to his brothers, their ragtag groups of hungry children.
Uncle Shong sent tapes to the camps of Thailand looking for his brothers. In a small voice that shook at the ends, he told the story of how he was captured, taken into an enemy village, placed on a bamboo platform in the middle of an empty hut. Syringes of hot liquid were inserted into his arms. Questions: Where are your brothers? Where have they gone? Why are you here?
The voices filtered through a growing haze. After a month of relentless questions, hot liquid heating his blood, he was released. The man who had walked on steady feet, faltered on shaky legs. Uncle Shong would never be the same man again.
Uncle Shong who had taught my father how to be a man.
When the rooster crowed in the early morning and my father turned against the coming day, Uncle Shong said, “The body works in the world, it tires. Call always on the heart first.”
When my father rolled a boulder down a hill and it fell on the neighbor’s fence the man came over and knocked on their door. The adults told my father to go and fix the broken fence. My father cowered in their anger, his unthinking action, unsure of how to fix what was broken, how to repair the work of grown men. Uncle Shong kneeled close and told my father he would fix the fence. He assured my father that there was hope for little boys to grow up to be good men.
When my father fell in love with my mother in the war and everyone said it was no time for marriage, Uncle Shong went with my father to ask for my mother’s hand. He believed fervently that love happens before life.
In 1978 his brothers left him. In 2003, an ocean, years and year away, he left them. He left them with a legacy of his heart, his unending care. They cried for him in their homes. Searched for him in their memories. Remembered his words and his stories. They taught their children to believe in a man who was small, whose life was full of sorrow, but whose good heart remained intact through the worst of what human beings can do to each other, in love and in war.
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