He was theirs and they were his
THE day Daniel came to us from Saigon, his story was to become our story. He was almost 2. Behind him were memories of Vietnam war refugees, ahead of him would be memories of a family - five brothers and sisters, a French father and an American mother - in Switzerland. So much was new to him. He'd watch us and we'd watch him. We had no common language to understand each other at first. Daniel had heard Vietnamese but wasn't trying to speak. Instead he'd hum, a nasal chanting hum, like a litany or a lullaby, again and again. It was after many months that he said his first word, ``Maman,'' and soon afterward ``Papa.'' Still today, 14 years later, when he says ``Maman'' or ``Papa,'' it seems an enormous mark of trust.
He slept very little and wasn't happy with the white wooden crib we had repainted for him. At the orphanage he was used to sleeping on the floor in the middle of lots of other children. So night after night, one of us would sit next to him, holding his hand. And when he'd wake up screaming, I'd take him in my arms and rock him back to sleep.
His first smile came when he was sitting in the bathtub, with all seven of us kneeling around him. He stared up at us with his big dark eyes. One sister splashed him just a little. He looked at her in surprise. He picked up his hand and tapped the top of the water. Then he looked again at his sister and with a big smile splashed her back.
For a long time he had trouble walking and would always reach out for a hand. Only in the summer, when we were at the seaside in France, did we discover why. We were walking along the beach, on the wet sand, when we noticed that his two footprints weren't the same. On one side there was no heel mark, only toe marks. Watching him closely from behind, we saw that one leg was shorter than the other. He still doesn't put both heels down, but he learned to walk, to run, and to take part in sports.
His brothers and sisters took him in tow from the start, sharing each new experience with the rest of us. At mealtimes it was often Cecile, his oldest sister, who would feed him. Daniel liked rice and still does. We had to persuade him to like most everything else.
So we'd mix rice into carrots, into chicken, even into applesauce. He would never let even one small grain fall from the spoon and be lost. He'd pick up what fell with his fingers, then lick each one before opening his mouth for more.
His next oldest sister, Katie, was feeding him the day he first tasted ice cream. We were all having lemon sorbet for dessert. Daniel was sitting in his highchair. His sister offered him a taste. He tried and wrinkled up his face, puckering his lips. Then he pulled on her hand to start again. Lemon sorbet became a standby and to make us laugh, whenever he tasted it, he'd close his eyes and wrinkle his nose.
He always had an audience around him. At the school fair in June, Christopher, his six-year-old brother, took him on the merry-go-round. He gave Daniel a ticket and sat him on a small black horse. When the merry-go-round started to turn, Daniel held on with one hand and kept the ticket in the other. But when the horse started to go up and down, he was startled and wanted to hold on with both hands. Finally he put the ticket in his mouth and gripped the black horse around its neck. He stayed that way until the music stopped, the horse stood still, and his big brother loosened his arms from the horse's neck.
At the swimming pool, it was his oldest brother Peter, who got him to jump off the diving board into his arms. Daniel would jump right into the middle of the deep water. He wasn't afraid as long as his brother was waiting for him. It didn't matter how high the diving board, or how deep the water. Daniel would stand there, in his bright yellow bathing trunks. And when Peter said ``Jump!'' he'd jump.
Daniel has always had this extraordinary trust in his brothers and sisters. They are his and he is theirs. We have lots of photograph albums in the house. Each child has his own, and there are rows of family ones, all lined up on the bookshelves in the front hall.
One time Daniel was looking at his oldest sister's album. He saw a picture of her as a baby and turned and asked her where she was born. ``Brussels,'' she said, ``in Belgium, far away from here.''
``Oh,'' he said. ``Did you come all the way on a plane like me?''
How far is faraway? Belgium, Vietnam. And America, France.
I don't remember how his oldest sister answered his question. But it doesn't matter. Daniel was growing up. His story had become our story.