I was a 6th grader in 1987. The year Good Morning Vietnam came out. We were living in Denver, Colorado in a shared house. We rented the top and another couple rented the bottom. I was going to a private Christian school paid for by an anonymous donor. The school was mostly Dutch-Reformed and very American. I had been born in the Philippines and up until 6th grade had lived there my whole life. My memory of Denver that year was just a wet cold and the silence of snow very different from tropical rain. Rain has a sound that lulls and soothes with its fat drops of life. Snow just quietly builds into a heavy weight. It seeps into fingers and toes as pain and caused the continual wiping of my nose as if I were crying all winter.
My Mom and Dad had been missionaries for 15 years. They had come home for furlough. That's the time "off" that a missionary takes to rest. Only you don't really rest. You speak in churches after churches about what is going on in the country you are coming from and then you fly back to pick up where you left off. We usually stayed for only 6 weeks but this time we had to stay a full year. My older sister and I had contracted tuberculosis and we needed a year to recover our lungs. The Dr. had said a dry climate would clear them better so we picked Denver. Mostly because that is where my grandparents lived. It could have been Timbuktu for all I knew. It was nothing like where I came from.
While we settled into our life there the mission board we were with decided to let us go (because our furlough would be too long). In a matter of two weeks we left our house and moved to the rented smaller one. My Dad started working as a security guard at night and Mom worked cleaning houses. My sister and I had jobs after school. We ate Hamburger Helper every night of the week and we shopped at Goodwill. I remember this bright green coat I got from there and how it had this brown stain on the front pocket. I had never needed a coat before and it felt so weird to wear clothes over clothes. To a 6th grader life didn't seem so bad. I can remember feeling a great grace at school and having some wonderful friends that year: Krissy and Katie and Matt. I can also remember these wonderful things called, "Little Debbie's Nutty Bars." Oh man. I loved those things. And Tracy Chapman came out with a tape (yes, tape!) called Fast Car and I wore it out. I loved how her voice trembled in the story of that song.
In all of this change Good Morning Vietnam was in theaters and I wanted to see it for my birthday. I saw it first with my family. I know I didn't understand some of the jokes but I loved the energy, the way Adrian Kronauer saw fun in his monotonous work and brought laughter to dark times. What I remember was seeing what looked like home on the big screen. Rice. The open fields green with new rain and heavy back labor. I was reminded of people I went to church with as I saw Asians giggling and gracious in their learning of English. I saw friendship between two cultures and I saw love between two opposing sides. There was someone on the screen not trying to hide the truth of what was happening. And he did it with a sense of humor. If I wasn't laughing I was crying and it was cleaning me out.
Adrian had a way of playing joy and goodness back into a person with these old songs. He would sigh, "What a Wonderful World by the Great Satchmo" and I could feel that song was true. Between the war, the rice and crowds of black hair I remembered life. Not here in these mountains, frozen in time, waiting for the world to thaw it. But back home. We had been so busy picking up our lives that we forgot how much we loved, yes loved, the Philippines.
Robin Williams gave a performance not just in his delivery but through his eyes. He saw. He really saw these men and what was happening to them. He saw they needed to laugh. He reminded me I needed to laugh and cry and think about other people. He reached out through his art and shook me with my own laughter. I felt the notes of it like little black dots I could step on out of a hole. I saw my Dad wiping his eyes. He wanted to go home too. We laughed over a plate of longing. And we knew. Without having to even say it. We would go back. Whatever it took.
Robin, thank you. Your art helped us see clearly and feel wisely. I truly wish someone could have told you a joke. Made you laugh so hard you swam in the joy of it. I wish you had been given what you gave a 12 year old girl in a shiny green coat who felt very tired of life. Hope. Home. Truth. All wrapped in a smile like a thin curl on a distinct face and this way of seeing with eyes that know mercy because they have needed it too.