WHEN ROBERT AND I ARRIVED at the trauma center, we learned that thirteen doctors were attending to Queena. But we were not allowed to see her.
“She is in good hands, “the woman at the registration desk assured us. I didn’t argue. I knew I had lost all control over this crisis.
In the waiting area, we spoke to some of Queena’s friends and their parents. “They told us Queena is okay,” I said. “But we don’t know how much longer it will be until we can see her.” I thanked them for coming to be with us but encouraged them to go home and rest. We would update them when we could. They were just as powerless as we were.
We waited along with Anna, who had arrived with her friend, Alex, who had driven her to the library. Time moved more slowly than I’d ever experienced.
Before long, a detective approached us, asking for details about Queena’s actions that night. He escorted us into a private room. I looked straight into his eyes and answered each question with short, clear responses. I was like a robot, speaking in a stoic, matter-of-fact tone.
“Queena got off from work at the mall. She stopped by the library to return books. She was on the phone with a friend.”
He interrupted. “Does Queena have a boyfriend?”
“Never,” I answered.
My hands and feet felt so cold. My stomach was in an uproar. Yet, somehow, my voice resonated strength. I wondered if the detective could tell I wasn’t as strong as I sounded.
“Did she have any disputes with friends?”
“No, Queena is loved by everyone she knows. She is a good girl. She has excellent grades, and she volunteers for many extracurricular programs.”
He gave us his business card and told us to call him if we needed anything. He wanted us to contact him when Queena was able to talk. Then, he told me that my composure surprised him.
“You are holding yourself together very well for all you have been through tonight.”
“Not really,” I confessed. “I feel numb.”
After the detective left, we returned to the waiting room, where I tried to keep my thoughts positive. I envisioned my daughter’s face. My heart spoke to hers, even though the hospital walls separated us.
Queena, my dear daughter, you are a fighting girl. I know you are going to fight for your life. I know you have so many dreams and goals that you haven’t started yet. I know you are a winner every time. You are going to be okay. You would never leave me, or Anna. You love us too much to leave us, right? So, you are going to fight for your life. You must fight. Okay? You cannot die. You have more to do in this world than what you have already accomplished.
Still, no tears.
Around 3:00 a.m., the doctor finally emerged with news. “Queena is stable,” he said. Then he rattled off a list of injuries. Her nose was broken. Her face was bruised and swollen. Her forehead was fractured.
“She’ll be okay,” he said optimistically. There was no need for surgery. The nurses would clean her up and move her to another room, where she was expected to wake up in about two hours.
I felt puzzled. The doctor mentioned nothing of the possible brain injury that had worried the paramedics who had provided first aid behind the library. Was this list of injuries really all she had suffered? Could I allow myself to hope that everything might be right again? She could certainly heal from these injuries much faster than from a brain injury. So, Queena was not going to die, after all? She would live through this and overcome her injuries? What a relief!
The doctor turned to escort us to Queena’s room in the trauma center. Robert, Anna, and I followed anxiously. I had no idea what to expect.
When we entered the room, we found Queena in a deep sleep. The skin on her face looked raw. Her beautiful, long, dark hair was abnormally messy. I rushed toward her bedside, but a nurse stopped me, just as the deputies had done behind the library.
“Queena needs to rest,” the nurse quickly cautioned. “She has been through a lot and is exhausted. Sleep will help her heal.”
Like every other time that night, I could do nothing except comply with the latest instruction to stay away from my Queena. I sat down in a chair next to her bed. In the quiet of the room, I whispered to her, hoping she could hear
“I’m here. I won’t leave you. You survived, Queena. You’re still with us. Keep fighting. I’m here now.”
I reached over to squeeze her hand between both of mine.
The numbness that had protected me for many hours began to wear off. A sense of heaviness took its place. For the first time since Rachel had called me many hours earlier, tears welled up in my eyes.
Still, no tears fell.
Queena’s eyes, face, and neck were purple and black with bruises. My child had been beaten. She had been hit and punched so hard that she had been knocked to the ground. She’d likely writhed in pain inflicted by a cruel man. No—a beast, a monster—something less than human.
This can’t be my life. This couldn’t have happened to my daughter, the upcoming graduate who, just yesterday, was looking forward to celebrating her birthday at a beach resort with her friends. Only twelve hours earlier, I
had been lying on the sand, soaking up the sun, thinking everything was right in my world.
I tried not to imagine the horror my daughter had lived through. I tried to stop my mind from flashing back to the library. I didn’t want to envision how those bruises got on her skin. The doctor had assured us she would be okay, so I needed to focus on a full recovery. That’s what Anna and I could think about—the things to come, not what had already happened and couldn’t be undone.
We shifted our thinking.
We began to wonder how Queena might feel once she woke up. The senior prom was just one week away. She had spent months planning for it. She’d bought a dress, some accessories, and matching shoes. She’d also rented a limousine to chauffeur her and a group of her girlfriends. Queena was in the prime of her young life—a time when everything is possible and opportunities are endless. Now, she would need to deal with a broken nose and bruises on her face when getting ready for the prom.
The contusions were the visible injuries. Queena likely would need professional counseling to cope with the psychological trauma. She also would have invisible injuries—the kind of emotional pain that would stay with her long after the bruises healed.
While gazing at Queena, my thoughts circled back to the mysterious attacker. I couldn’t help but wonder if this beast had done anything else when he’d had her under his control. Had there been time to rape her, too?
No! Please, God—no.
Detectives eventually came to Queena’s room to take pictures of various parts of her body. They asked us to identify a bag of clothing and a few other items to confirm they were hers. Anna agreed to identify the items. My oldest daughter knew me so well. On top of everything I’d been forced to see, I couldn’t bear to look at Queena’s belongings that had been scattered around the library grounds during the attack. I was barely holding myself together.
When Anna returned from identifying Queena’s things, her eyes were red. She’d confirmed the items were Queena’s, but the depth of her sadness came from a different place. Deputies had given Anna more details about the attack.
“He sexually violated her,” Anna said sorrowfully.
I didn’t want to know the details behind her words. I couldn’t know. Not then.
All that I had held inside until that moment could no longer be contained. The tears finally came streaming down my face, and soon I was sobbing out my grief.
Why did this happen? Why Queena?
She had been such a shy girl, never bold enough even to flirt with a boy. Now, her sweet innocence was lost. My beautiful child had been robbed of her right to say no. Her most intimate sense of self, now sunken and buried forever in the marshy ground behind a library.
This new picture of reality looked nothing like the journey I’d envisioned for my baby girl. Oh, believe me, I was fully aware that life seldom goes as planned. Many obstacles, detours, and bad things stand in the way of everyone’s dreams. I was far from naïve.
I was Queena’s age when I left my family in Vietnam to flee to the United States by myself. Leaving Vietnam certainly wasn’t part of my plan. I’d faced serious challenges along the way, but future opportunities always appeared with the roadblocks. These were the unexpected bumps in the road of life that I thought my daughters would experience—the typical struggles that led to something better than they could ever imagine.
But a violent beating and a rape? What good could ever come from this?
I knew my questions had no answers. Yet as Queena’s mother, it was my job to make things all better again, as I had always done. I had applied the healing balm on all her childhood scrapes and scabs. I had soothed her disappointments and wiped away her tears. Now, I would need to treat these new injuries. But how? What type of bandage binds a wounded soul?
Maybe I could absorb the pain and horror for her. Yes. If I could feel the torment, I would be able to empathize. I might not be able to erase the pain, but somehow, I could soften the unspeakable trauma. At least, I could try. Her life had changed. Mine had to change, too.
I will be more courageous than I was during my escape from Vietnam. I will be stronger than I was when I became a single mother. Queena will need me to be strong. She will need hope and encouragement.
To start, I could hope that the details of her attack would not be remembered.
With this newfound conviction in mind, I finally stopped sobbing and looked over at Anna. “We will overcome this together—all three of us.”
Anna and I continued to sit in Queena’s room, watching and waiting. Five hours passed, and Queena was still unconscious. I grew increasingly concerned. Every couple of hours, I asked the nurse why Queena wasn’t waking up, but I was told not to worry. The nurse encouraged me to get some sleep in a nearby room for visitors, but I couldn’t leave Queena’s side. Anna couldn’t leave either. It wasn’t only my pain that I felt so deeply. I felt Anna’s pain, too, as we kept vigil together into the early morning hours.
Queena still showed no signs of waking, even as the afternoon wore on. The time passed so slowly as we waited by her side, hoping to see any sign of her coming back to life.
At 3:00 p.m., Queena finally awoke. It was now twenty-four hours since she’d told me she would eat something and head to work at Abercrombie & Fitch. I thought it would be a relief when she woke up, but I was terribly wrong. Her waking state was even more disconcerting than her prolonged sleep. Queena’s body began to move in small, fitful motions. Then the movements became more pronounced. Her arms and fists started swinging as if she were in a struggle.
We immediately called the nurses. Laura, a female deputy, joined us inside Queena’s room. She had been posted outside at the door due to the open criminal case.
Queena’s movements grew fierce. Her eyes were closed, but she fought hard, as if she were battling a lion. All of us—Robert, Anna, Laura, the nurses, and I—tried to hold her down, but it was difficult. Her entire body lurched randomly. We called out her name in an attempt to soothe her, but nothing worked.
I stared at my daughter in disbelief. Queena thinks she is still under attack.She is struggling to defend herself!
I replayed the horror of the library scene. Thoughts flashed in my mind like a newsreel. The blood-spattered pavement, the sound of the open-door signal in her car, the radio playing, and her absence—her mysterious absence. I shuddered to imagine the scenes playing in her mind in that moment.
What terror she must have felt as she was dragged into the woods. Seeing her fighting now, I became convinced that she hadn’t given in to the beast.
She’d fought back with every ounce of her being.
Queena had always been a fighter, even as a little girl. We’d lived in Los Angeles when she’d started preschool. She had made it quite clear back then that she wanted to stay with her grandmother, who took care of her while I worked. My mother, who’d joined me from Vietnam, and I had expected Queena to be upset when I took her to school; but she’d cried so hard, she vomited. The preschool teacher had told us how Queena had refused to get down on the floor to play with the other kids. She’d clung to the teacher’s lap the entire time school was in session. Despite our daily efforts to reassure her that she was safe, that determined little girl kicked and screamed every day. We finally removed her from preschool in favor of staying at home with Grandma.
The fear Queena had felt at preschool was baseless. No one wanted to hurt her. She was in a safe environment. Yet, she couldn’t comprehend those truths as a small child. Now that she was a young woman, someone had hurt my Queena. Even though she was safe in a hospital room surrounded by the people who loved her, her fear was no longer baseless.
Queena’s body relaxed after about fifteen minutes. Her eyes opened slowly. Then, she started to sob. These were not gentle sobs. They were angry ones—full of pain and fear and frustration.
“Why can’t I see?” Queena asked.
Anna and I just stood there, stunned and confused.
Again, Queena cried out, “Why can’t I see?”
The doctor had not mentioned the possibility of injury to her eyes. With this new information, my tears gushed like a waterfall.
“Stay calm, Queena,” I said. “The blindness may be temporary. You are waking up after a long sleep. Later, you will see again.”
Queena began screaming questions at us. “Where am I?”
Laura, the deputy, stood beside the bed and spoke calmly. “You are safe. You are in the hospital, and your family is here with you.”
Anna and I both held Queena’s hands and spoke encouraging words to her.
“Don’t worry, Queena. It is over. You are safe. We are safe here.”
“What happened to me?” she asked.
Queena spoke more softly now, as if she had run out of energy. Laura asked Queena if she remembered talking on the phone with Rachel while driving to the library.
“I remember being at the library, trying to return my books. I was talking to Rachel. That’s all I remember.”
Laura told Queena that she’d been “beaten up by a big guy.” She assured her that the authorities were staying with her at the hospital to protect her
around the clock.
“We will catch him,” she said confidently.
“What did he want from me?” Queena asked, sounding like a curious child. She had no recollection of the brutality she had endured, and now wasn’t the time to spell it all out.
“Maybe he wanted your money?” Laura asked, hoping to get some details that might help the criminal investigation.
“I only had five dollars in my wallet for lunch,” Queena said. She began to cry again.
The doctor came in and examined Queena briefly. He said he would send an optometrist to test her vision, as well as a neurologist.
After the doctor left, I noticed that Queena’s shoulders were swollen, blistered, and red with what looked like a million small bites. Queena told us she felt painful and itchy. Later, a nurse mentioned that the doctors were aware of the problem—ant bites. She’d been lying on an anthill during the attack. The bites had already been sanitized, and the nurse planned an intravenous
administration of an antibiotic soon.
Throughout the remainder of the day, my girls talked quietly with one another. In those moments, I thought Queena needed a sister more than a mother. Later, Anna told me she had reassured Queena that her bruises would go away and the swelling would subside. Any scars would be covered with makeup, so she would still look beautiful for the senior prom the following weekend.
Queena asked Anna who did this to her and why. She asked if she would be okay. Anna didn’t tell her about the rape, just that Queena would be fine and that she needed to stay in the hospital for a little while to heal. Based on what the doctors said, we believed this was true. Queena would be all right, and we would be prepping for the prom in a week’s time.
Queena complained of thirst, so Anna put pieces of crushed ice into her mouth. The doctors didn’t want her to drink anything because she might throw up.
Later, an optometrist arrived to test Queena’s vision. She began by shining a light into Queena’s eyes, which Queena was able see. But when the doctor put two fingers in front of her face, Queena saw only a blurry shadow. Outside the room, I asked the optometrist for more information. She thought a portion of Queena’s brain might have been damaged. Her eyes and optic nerve were still good, but her occipital lobe didn’t seem to be interpreting visual images or pictures. This could have been due to a lack of oxygen to the brain during the attack. If there were such an injury, Queena’s vision would hopefully improve as her brain healed.
When the neurologist came, he asked Queena to move parts of her body, one at a time. She succeeded until he asked her to lift her left leg. She couldn’t. The same thing happened with her left arm. She could not move the entire left side of her body. Determined to think positively, I reasoned that her body was still too weak after her long sleep.
The neurologist didn’t speculate about the cause. He immediately ordered a CT scan and an MRI to examine Queena’s brain. Soon, a radiologist wheeled Queena out of the room for testing. We waited eagerly for the results.
The tests brought more troubling news.
Queena had suffered a stroke in the right part of her brain, which controls the left side of her body. The neurologist told us that she could undergo physical therapy at home to retrain the left side of her body. It was one more unexpected consequence of her injuries, but it sounded doable. We could overcome this latest blow.
It became clear at this point that Queena would not make it to the prom in a week. But in my mind, she could still become the young woman she had been before this ordeal. A little therapy, and she would be back on track toward achieving her goals.
I was wrong.
Recovery would not be swift. In fact, it would be a long, long road to healing, and we hadn’t yet begun.
Queena grew weaker as the hours passed. Her voice softened to a whisper that we could barely hear. Her thirst continued, so Anna frequently put ice chips in her mouth as they talked.
At one point, I promised to take Queena to the Cheesecake Factory when all of this ended. She smiled. It was one of her favorite restaurants. I reminded my girls of something funny that happened just after Queena obtained her driver’s license. To celebrate her newfound independence, she’d driven Anna to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner. Queena had parked the car, got out, locked the door, and instantly realized the keys were in the ignition—the engine still running. A little embarrassed, they had called me to ask, “Could you please bring us a spare key?”
For the first time since arriving at the hospital, we laughed.
I will always cherish that moment—the three of us laughing in spite of it all. In the past, we had taken the simple, poignant times for granted. Not anymore. We could no longer afford to forget the bonds between us. The memories, the smiles, and the love that we feel for one another are the treasures no one can ever snatch from us. Not even the beast.
The good feelings that filled the hospital room quickly vanished when Anna gently stretched Queena’s left arm, as the nurse had demonstrated earlier. She’d told Anna not to be alarmed if she saw Queena’s muscles reflex or “jump” while stretching them. That was to be expected. So, we didn’t become
concerned as her muscles jumped slightly, time and again.
By midnight, however, while Queena slept, I saw what looked like quaking motions in her left leg. These were involuntary movements that migrated up her legs to her arms and, finally, throughout her whole body. Surely, these were no ordinary reflexes.
I called to the night doctor as he was making rounds to tell him Queena might be having seizures. He checked on her and said, “No, just routine muscle reflexes.”
Queena’s muscles continued jerking with increasing intensity throughout the night. Her face continued to twitch as well. I knew she was experiencing seizures. Again, I asked for help. This time, another physician took a closer look and immediately ordered an electroencephalogram, or EEG. By then, Queena was no longer responding when we spoke to her. She just kept twitching and growing weaker.
An EEG technician brought a large monitor, electrodes, and wires into the room. He attached the electrodes to Queena’s scalp with a glue-like substance. Squiggly lines appeared in haphazard directions on the monitor, representing Queena’s brain activity.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s possible she had a seizure, but we need to confirm this with the neurologist.”
It was now Saturday morning, April 26. The neurologist wouldn’t be back until Monday, so we were forced to wait again.
We later referred to the events that unfolded that weekend as Queena’s “second injury.”
Even today, I wonder if things would have turned out differently if the night doctor had paid more attention to me—his patient’s mother. Would he have been able to stop the seizure and, perhaps, lessen the long-term damage to Queena’s brain?
For a while, I felt anger toward him. I saw his face in my mind many times. I recalled his casual tone, assuring us that Queena’s movements amounted to normal muscle reflexes. I even looked up his name in case we wanted to sue him someday. We never did.
I also questioned why a brain specialist hadn’t evaluated Queena immediately upon her arrival. I thought back to the paramedics who had met us behind the library. Hadn’t they been concerned about a brain injury? My daughter had been severely beaten and raped. Her nose was broken. Her skull was fractured. Why were we in a trauma center without a brain specialist?
On top of that list of injuries, she had suffered a stroke while in the trauma center! She couldn’t move her left limbs. All of these symptoms were followed by a surprise seizure, while her body deteriorated in front of our eyes. Yet, we were told to wait until Monday, when the neurologist started his regular workweek?
It all seemed so unacceptable.
Perhaps there were logical reasons for the deterioration in Queena’s condition that we didn’t understand at the time. Regardless, we couldn’t afford the added heartache and stress that accompanies feelings of doubt, mistrust, anger, or bitterness.
We couldn’t keep looking back in time. What happened . . . happened.
After the second injury, I regretted not spending more time talking with Queena during her waking hours. I realized that I hadn’t made the most of a brief window of time when my daughter could still speak clearly and laugh with me.
Now, I feared we might never have the chance to talk like mother and daughter again.