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In order to re member yourself and your mother, you examine the paper fragments of your past. Sometime before the fall of 1990, you visit your mother in what you remember as the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward. In a fitful, fragmentary journal you keep in college, you describe yourself as feeling
Your older brother, the medical student, calls your mother’s affliction a
ss=”paywall”>A dictionary calls a neurosis
a relatively mild mental illness
a radical loss of touch with reality.
Really? You perceive this ward, its patients, and your mother as
None of the patients, your mother included, appears to be a member of your reality. Seven or eight months later, while you are a sophomore at Berkeley, you try to write about the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward in a seminar led by Maxine Hong Kingston. In your essay, you describe how a woman named Trinh rolls on the floor before a ward attendant, a Black woman, gently picks her up. Then
Trinh stands in the middle of the floor before us. Her
language is a mixture of Vietnamese and baby talk and
maybe something of her own thrown in. She gapes out the
window. She begins clapping her hands and singing in a
disjointed, breathless way, like a child singing too eagerly.
You put away the essay and do not look at it again for thirty years. When you finally dare to read it again, it might as well be fiction. You have no memory now of this scene or the fact that most of the patients are Asian and Vietnamese. But you possess a vague image of the ward, because Má returns in 2005 when she embarks on her final departure from your reality. What you mostly recall from 1990 is your discomfort among these patients, your shock and terror that your mother is here. She is not herself. Or perhaps she is herself. Herself as another. As your Other.
A white patient walks by, one of the few
white people in this ward. She says, “Tell your mother not to
worry about dying. We all felt that way when we first
got here. We all get over it.” I nod at her to
recognize that she exists.
The patients do not exist for much of the world outside the ward. This is perhaps especially true for the Asian patients, coming from people, such as your own, who rarely, if ever, discuss mental illness. Embarrassing. Shameful. You do not feel this way, but you can write about Má’s voyage into surreality only now that she has died.
And what right have you to do even that?
But perhaps you tell this story so you
can recognize that your mother
existed, exists, in all her selves, and
that she was not and is not alone.
You do not recall what brought her to the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward until you read the words you wrote as a nineteen-year-old:
Someone out there—if not everyone—is trying to kill her.
They crawl through the sewer and emerge through the
toilet. She was waiting for them, locked in the bathroom,
when my father decided enough was enough and
knocked a hole in the door to reach her.
It was my bathroom.
If you cannot remember this, why do you remember the reverse, the night Má chases Ba into the other bathroom in the hallway? When Ba locks himself inside, Má smashes holes into the door with a chair, all the shouting in Vietnamese you don’t understand.
Ba, so fastidious about everything, so protective of you, never letting you hang your arm through the open car window because, he says, you will lose it in a car accident—this Ba never bothers to fix or replace the door Má has smashed. Although you remember how the gaping holes in the bathroom door reveal its hollowness for the rest of your years in that brown house, you possess no image of sitting with your mother in the ward.
She recognized me, but I was no more important in
her world than the rest of the ugly furniture. She looked
ahead at the opposite wall. Her mouth remained slightly
open, her eyes slightly glazed, but she didn’t move.
Is this the same gaze you will see years later in the memory-care unit?
She wouldn’t hug us or touch us, but instead shied away
like a timid child. She stood on the middle of the floor
and smiled vacantly as we said goodbye.
You believe that these things happened, even if you cannot re member them, including how Má ignores the grapes and orange juice Ba has brought, and, while Ba talks to a social worker,
the tears started to come from me and I got up before anybody
saw me crying, because nobody had seen me cry since the
sixth grade. I walked into the bathroom without saying
anything to her, but I don’t think she noticed anyway.
I locked myself in the bathroom stall, and
my first sob made me gasp.
You do not remember fleeing from Ban Mê Thuột and Sài Gòn because you were only four, but why can you not re member these things from your late teen years? You do not remember your (adopted) sister, twelve years your senior, who stayed to look after the house when the rest of you fled, but why can you not re member yourself? You have been dis membered and disremembered, by Hollywood and colonialism and racism, yes, but also by no one other than you.
What you finally re member, provoked by these paper fragments, is this:
Throughout your childhood and adolescence, Ba Má want to shape you into a moral, hardworking, upstanding, one-hundred-per-cent Vietnamese Catholic. You disagree with their intention, but you respect them. They are not hypocrites. They never deviate from their moral beliefs, their grinding work schedules at their grocery store, the SàiGòn Mới of San Jose, California, their nightly ritual of the Rosary, their weekly attendance at Mass, which, on retirement, becomes daily.
But they verge on fanaticism. During your summer working in Santa Clara on the rides at Great America, when you are sixteen, you buy a pair of gray checkered pants with your own money from the teen fashion department at Macy’s in Eastridge Mall. You roll up the hems and twist them tight around the ankle. You can never imagine wearing pants any other way, especially like those poor adults—your teachers—in their baggy chinos.
Má sees these checkered pants as the sort that delinquent Vietnamese refugee youth wear as they smoke, hang out with the opposite sex, do poorly in school, style their hair into outrageous heights, and go to night clubs and garage parties, all that is good and fun in your mind and wild and destructive in Má’s imagination. She berates you, says you are not respectable and proper, that you are dooming your future. She orders you to return the pants. You do.
The lesson you learn is the need to keep a secret life. You are already adept at secrecy and silence. In Ba Má’s house in San Jose, you are an American spying on them. Outside their house, you are a Vietnamese spying on Americans and their strange ways and customs, including the forbidden, fantastic world of dating, seen in John Hughes movies like “Pretty in Pink” and “Weird Science” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.”
Then you meet J at Great America. She lives fifty-six miles away from San Jose. To see her, you take a bus and then BART, a trip of three hours each way. You sell your beloved comic-book collection to pay your long-distance phone bill. You maintain the secrecy for three years, until you run out of money and start calling J on Ba Má’s phone bill. On January 4, 1990, Má says:
“Your father doesn’t even buy himself
ten-dollar shirts. He wears your and your brother’s
hand-me-downs. Now, every time you call, he has to
pay ten or twenty or thirty dollars.”
And she cries.
By January 9th, your parents find your letters from J and your photos with her under your bed. You never see them again. You are outraged at this violation of your possessions, your memories, your affection for J, your chance to live your life like the white teen-agers in the movies. Ba Má are incensed because, all of a sudden, they discover that their quiet, sullen, usually obedient, vulnerable boy, not yet a man in their eyes, has been lying to them. And worse—is becoming someone they don’t even know. You write:
Mom threatened to have a heart attack.
Ba Má demand that you end the relationship. You have no car, no money, no guts, and you owe your parents loyalty and love. So you tell Ba Má you will not see J again, although you keep seeing J. You have become used to living a secret life, with two faces and two selves, only one of which you reveal to Ba Má. What harm does it do them if they don’t know of your other life? You avoid thinking about what harm it does to J, who tolerates the situation. Your mother and father compromise in their own way. They offer to set you up with nice Vietnamese Catholic girls. The last thing you want is a nice Vietnamese Catholic girl.
Eventually, though, you marry a nice Vietnamese Catholic girl—Lan,
who is also so much more. But, like you, she knows how
to wear the appropriate face for certain occasions.
Not a false face. Just the right face.
Then, even though you will forget it, even though you have forgotten about it, on February 18, 1990, five weeks after learning about your secret romance with J, Má departs from reality and enters the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward, a fate arguably worse than a heart attack.
cause and effect?
You don’t know, but, in Kingston’s seminar in the fall of 1990, you try to get to the center between your two selves, try to get to the crossing between reality and surreality, try to re member what you have already begun to disremember. One of your other writing teachers, Bharati Mukherjee, reads your work and says you need to
Cut to the bone.
No one can teach you how to do that. You will have to teach yourself.
As for your journal, you will not write another entry until October 6, 1991. It will be your final entry in this belated, fitful attempt to be a writer. Its last word?
Má recovers. Comes home. Returns to work at the SàiGòn Mới, open every day of the week, nearly every day of the year. Does not return to the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward for another fifteen years. You continue keeping secrets from her and Ba, a double life not atypical of immigrant and refugee children, or so you tell yourself.
Ba Má want to protect you from dangers you do not see; you want to protect them from knowledge they do not need. And they must own secrets you do not even know about. Isn’t a true secret, by definition, something whose existence is not known? As for you, which secrets are worst? Being an atheist? Reading Marxist theory? Getting arrested? Seeing J for ten more years until the relationship ends?
in other words,
she dumps your sorry ass.
J refuses to be your secret any longer. She doesn’t need to be with a person too weak to stand up on her behalf, content to live a double life that she did not ask for. When does duality become duplicitousness? When does having two selves lead not to double vision but to self-deception? The last time you see her is at her wedding to a Vietnamese groom. At least you did not ruin all Vietnamese people for her.
You marry Lan. Although the most important thing about her to Ba Má is that she is a Vietnamese Catholic from a good family, the most important thing about Lan is that she is a poet, as well as beautiful. Your delighted parents pay for the very loud wedding, held in a Chinese banquet hall with the same elaborate ten-course Chinese meal served at every Vietnamese wedding, a bottle of Hennessy cognac on every table for the four hundred guests, most of whom you do not know. No one expects you to enjoy your own wedding. What a Western idea!
For seven months in 2003, from summer to winter, you and Lan stay in the Eleventh Arrondissement of Paris, where English is rarely heard and Americans are rarely seen, a few steps from Métro Voltaire. You are newly married, and you have just been tenured. You cannot be fired, short of committing a crime, and so you are here not to write another scholarly book—
your best friend from high school tells
you he keeps your academic book
by his bedside to help him
—but to write your book of short stories while living in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of an unadorned building on the unfashionable Rue Richard Lenoir. No Haussmannian splendor and no elevator, but you and Lan are young and in love, with only one suitcase each.
If going to Paris, a city famous for its writers, is a literary pilgrimage for you, Ba Má visit you in Paris that fall intent on a religious pilgrimage. They have retired from the brutal schedule of the SàiGòn Mới, and this is their idea of a good time: visiting the major Catholic shrines of Western Europe. Over five days, you escort them to Lourdes in southwestern France and Fátima in Portugal, with a stop in London. You pack a bottle of whiskey to relieve the stress, but are proud of yourself for orchestrating this vacation of a lifetime for Ba Má.
This is their fourth international voyage. Their first was fleeing their homeland. If forced migrations make a person cosmopolitan, then refugees and migrants would be considered some of the world’s best-travelled people. They are far worldlier than those who never leave their country of birth and yet look down on these voyagers whose odds of surviving their journey are as bad as or worse than those of astronauts.
Astronauts eventually return to Earth. But cosmonauts like Ba Má permanently escape the gravity of home.
Is this the root of your own willingness to leave home?
San Jose too small for you?
Nostalgia is, literally, homesickness,
with those afflicted yearning for
their home. But what to call
being sick of home?
For devout Catholics, the real home is not Earth but Heaven, their longing for it perpetual. How else to ascend and fulfill that desire but by becoming a one-way cosmonaut, voyager, risktaker? Nothing riskier than faith in what cannot be seen, heard, touched.
Your parents call their object of faith God.
You call yours justice. All of you, in
your own ways, are true believers.
The bright colors of the architecture in Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl, remind you of Disneyland. Tourist shops sell crucifixes of every size, plates adorned with the Pope, Virgin Mary statues, snow globes, and lockets. You buy a cologne-size bottle of holy water for your father-in-law. Your parents bathe in this holy water while you wait outside the baths.
Fátima impresses you with its severity. Nestled in green mountains and supposedly named after a Moorish princess kidnapped by a Christian knight, Fátima commemorates other Virgin Mary sightings. Visitors approach a grand basilica with a towering spire by crossing an expansive square. Those desperate for the Virgin Mary’s help shuffle across the square on their knees. In grimmer days, the knees of the faithful would be bloody and bruised. Now the pilgrims can wear kneepads. Ba Má pray at Fátima but do not crawl. They do not need a miracle. They have already saved themselves, with the aid of the U.S. government and God.
You never tell Ba Má you are an atheist because you do not want to upset them. Protecting Ba Má is how you show you love them, even if they do not know it, even as you do not remember all the unspoken ways they love you. Being their tour guide is another way of showing love. Ba Má put themselves in your care as someone finally an adult. Getting married is the first real sign of your adulthood. Grandchildren are what they want next, but fatherhood terrifies you.
You buy yourself time with this pilgrimage. Surprisingly, you enjoy yourself, happy to see Ba Má delighted as you escort them to the Eiffel Tower and Versailles, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. Ba Má prefer the cleanliness of London over the dirtiness of Paris. In the Paris Métro, Má laughs recalling how, as a girl, she rode the bus without a fare, hiding underneath a seat.
Years later, you will understand this memory when
you take an oversold night train through central
Việt Nam, third class, kids sleeping under your wooden
bench, a stranger dozing on a stool in the aisle,
forehead against your chest.
Your terror of fatherhood comes partly from seeing what motherhood inflicts on Má. The mother of your childhood wields a beautiful smile. She loves to adorn herself. She is statuesque and elegant, authoritative and powerful. The SàiGòn Mới exhausts her, ages her, diminishes her.
But this pilgrimage signals the end of
sacrifice. The war years, long past.
SàiGòn Mới, no more.
You will take them to all the Catholic shrines in the world. You might even go back with them to Việt Nam, to re member.
It is the fall of 2003. Má is healthy.
Neither of you know that in two years
nothing will be the same, ever again,
for her. Or you. Or me.
You. And me. Such an odd couple.
The only way I have been able to write about myself is through writing about you. You are me, but seen from a slight distance, or the greatest distance, which is the space between one and one’s self.
You are my excuse to write about me, because I find myself too boring to go on about and also too frightening to think about.
Only through writing about you can I attempt to re member not only you but also myself. And, perhaps, in writing and re membering, you and me, engaged in this delicate dialectic, can become something greater than the sum of our disjointed parts.
Ba no longer remembers Fátima and Lourdes, visits I now seize on as cherished memories of a time when Má inhabited this reality and I was a good son.
What he does remember: Paris and London. And what he remembers most:
Those curtains in that hotel room, he says wistfully.
The Marriott hotel where we stayed, near Big Ben, with its conjoining suites for Ba Má and for me, had floor-to-ceiling gold curtains.
I modelled the curtains in the living room on them.
A tailor in his youth, Ba cut and sewed the curtains himself upon his return from London. Now, every morning and afternoon, he sits and naps on the plush brown leather sofa, hands clasped on his chest, illuminated by the soft golden light filtering through the closed curtains.
Sitting on that sofa, one sees on the opposite white wall the photos of Ba Má’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, in 2004, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the partition of Việt Nam, of the beginning of their refugee life together.
Even as a country is divided, a future of blood
foretold, marriage brings together two families
and two lovers—a great detail for a novel!
During this anniversary, Ba wears a tan suit; Má, a golden áo dài. The presiding plump, pink-cheeked bishop of San Jose is ornately robed in his chasuble, bedecked with a mitre, and wielding a tall staff over his Vietnamese sheep.
A year later, in December, 2005, during the Christmas holiday, I sit on this sofa, stunned. Something in Má has suddenly broken.
There is no visible cause for this crack between our reality and her surreality. She was retired, enjoying her life: perfecting a handful of recipes, picking something different each day from her extensive wardrobe for the daily Mass she attended with Ba, taking pictures with her grandchildren. Now she is in a hospital, detained against her will and ours. I learn that doctors can put patients in a seventy-two-hour hold from which their loved ones cannot rescue them. This is one of the few facts I remember.
I do not keep a journal of this time.
And I call myself a writer?
In the absence of words, my memory is blank. A space as white as
Almost no memories, because you choose to forget and I am not willing to remember. Partly to protect you and me. Partly because remembering what I cannot remember would be an act of fiction rather than fact.
Fact: I am unable to recall what happened to Má, whether I was even there for her breakdown, what she looked like, how long she was in the hospital, or its name, or how she eventually returned to the same Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward from so long ago.
The fact is that I also refuse to re member. I do not call my brother to ask for his help in sharpening my memory and my prose, the better to saw against
I reject memory. I accept my amnesia. Because—fact—the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward is the most terrifying place I have ever been, and my mother’s seventy-two-hour detention in that hospital is the most unsettling time of my life. I would trade parts of my body, even shorten my life, rather than be afflicted like the patients of that ward, like the people undergoing that detention.
Forgetting the painful things is necessary for some
of us. As long as we eventually simmer that
bone that we cannot cut through. Have I
simmered that bone enough? Can
I taste that marrow of
After the doctors release my mother from detention, after she leaves the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward, after we gather the legal documents Ba needs to control Má’s fate, we deliver my mother to a nursing facility.
My memory resumes at this halfway house between the surrealism of the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward and the realism of life with Má at home where she belongs. The nursing facility, neither luxurious nor cheap, resembles a hospital but is mostly a refrigerator to keep human beings alive until they are ready to die.
If a quiet library with towering walls of books and hushed patrons and my own leather armchair is my vision of eternal bliss, this refrigerator is, if not Hell, then a purgatory with tiled floors, brightly lit hallways, bland meals under plastic covers, incapacitated patients, the constant bustle of nurses, therapists, visitors, the buzz of televisions.
I have never seen anyone
reading a book in
Most of the staff, clad in nursing scrubs or polo shirts and chinos, are Filipinas. American colonization in the Philippines created this route for nurses to come to the United States, while draining the Philippines of its own medical professionals and depriving the children left behind of their mothers, exported to take care of others around the world.
Where is the televised dramatic comedy about these
women? Call it “Filipinas.” Or “Feelings.” All those
Filipina actors and dancers who worked in
“Miss Saigon” are waiting.
As I numbly watch the patients, they lie numbly in their beds or sit numbly in wheelchairs in the hallways. Old and ill, or old and dying. Occasionally, someone screams. I do not want to end up here.
My mother stays for days, or weeks, or months. I can’t remember.
What I do re member is that this time is different from the other times.
While driving my brother and father away from one visit with Má, I realize that Má will not get better. As they discuss Má’s condition, I understand that Má will never descend from her surreality to our reality, except for occasional, brief visits. I am ambushed by myself, sobs and tears rupturing the wall that separates you and me, me and myself. It has been fourteen years since I was so waylaid by myself, when Má was in the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward the first time.
Neither my father nor brother says a word as I grip the wheel and struggle to see through tears.
I recover. I get hold of myself. I put you back where you belong.
My father and brother resume their conversation. I
We never speak of this moment.
After the nursing facility releases Má, Ba brings her body home. But not her mind. Not fully. Her thoughts travel most of the time through a different, parallel universe. Still, she sometimes returns to our reality, enough to notice how Ba, beginning at age seventy-two, when he should be circumnavigating the world via Boeing, remains earthbound. Homebound. He cares for Má without complaint for the next ten years, ignoring entreaties from my brother and me to hire the help that he can easily afford.
As a child, I watched Ba cook dinner, shop for groceries, vacuum the house. The typical Vietnamese man is allergic to these chores. This routine of mundane deeds, I understand later, is love.
In 2012, the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke,
whose work I admire, makes “Amour,” about a
loving husband and wife in their eighties.
A stroke disables the wife, leaving her
helpless and in her husband’s care. Out of
deep love, he suffocates her, and he is
then alone, perhaps even dead,
in their Parisian apartment.
Haneke. Always a crowd-pleaser.
Not the right director to make
a movie about Ba Má.
Their amour is about endurance. Both know how to suffer and sacrifice, without the reward of recognition from anyone but their sons, without the drama of a murder-suicide or a crucifixion.
Má’s many medications, arrayed in a repurposed cookie tin, prevent such theatrics. The meds calm her. Reduce the chance of self-harm. Keep her from breaking fully free from our reality. So tightly is she leashed in orbit that Má is very quiet, moves slowly, does little. But she recognizes me and Ellison, my son, and her other grandchildren, even if the glow of recognition quickly fades.
Unlike Haneke’s two-hour, seven-minute movie,
this quiet play, as slow and puzzling as
“Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett,
goes on for a decade.
Beckett also wrote, in “The Unnamable,”
You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
How appropriate for refugees, of whom
Beckett was one. As for Ba Má,
they have only ever gone on
and on and on.
Má will not count as one of war’s casualties, but what do you call someone who loses her country, much of her wealth, her family, her parents, her (adopted) daughter, and her peace of mind because of the war?
So many of war’s casualties are never counted. Never commemorated, never named on walls, never written about in novels and plays, never featured in movies. The refugees, the suicides, the disabled, the unsheltered, the traumatized, the ones who have departed this reality. The ones never known.
Vietnamese people, how do you separate what is unique to you from the trauma of war, colonization, the division and reunification of the country?
from becoming a refugee or staying behind?
from being the child of refugees, soldiers, survivors?
from being the child of those who didn’t survive?
from being Vietnamese?
How do you separate yourself and your memories from History?
How do you separate your presence from so many absences?
Questions I can only
ask, never answer.
In 2015, after a decade of taking care of Má by himself, my then eighty-two-year-old father surrenders. Ba moves Má to the kind of benevolent nursing home seen in movies or soap operas, hushed and carpeted, a piano in the common room that my father plays for my mother when he visits. He taught himself to play the piano as an adult and the mandolin in his old age.
Sometimes I wonder what he could have become if he had
the education my son has, with his private piano teacher.
But then he would not be the father he became, and
I would not be the person I am.
My mother stays in the nursing home’s memory-care unit, again staffed almost wholly by Filipinas, where residents eat together in a sunlit dining room with silverware, plates, table service, and bland food with very little salt. She is as still as water in a plugged sink. Her pills don’t always work. One day I learn that she has broken her arm by jumping on and then falling off her bed, or so the staff says. A doctor, whom I never see, adjusts her meds. Her arm, permanently injured, huddles against her body or floats by her side, useless.
I cannot now re member if it is her left or right arm.
In 2018, Má’s condition worsens. She needs X-rays, MRIs. The memory-care unit can no longer attend to her. She returns to the nursing facility, the setting for a horror movie more frightening than anything Hollywood can dream up. A Hollywood drama is finished in a couple of hours, but finishing off a human being can take much longer than that. In Má’s case, thirteen years of slow erosion, a death inflicted cell by cell on her body and mind.
Ba calls for a priest. A middle-aged one with graying hair soon arrives in his black uniform with its white collar. He stands over Má’s bed to bestow last rites, delivers the words in Vietnamese. I don’t understand the words. Má doesn’t open her eyes.
The rites are done in a few seconds, the priest present for a few minutes. I expect solemnity from the Vietnamese holy man, a pat on the shoulder for Ba, but the man offers no words of care, not even pretending to share in the sorrow of my father. The priest could have been washing dishes for all the feeling he exhibits as he makes the sign of the cross.
Father. Son. Holy Ghost.
Ba. Me. And this—
memory, history, memorial—
this spectral thing I was already thinking of as
Má lay dying, my art the closest I come to the
spiritual. Or the ghoulish. I looked at Má then,
as I had many times earlier, and thought:
How will I write about this?
About her? And
I expect more from this Vietnamese priest. But I say nothing. Ba is thankful, shakes the priest’s hand, bows a little. If my father is grateful, who am I, the ingrate, to say anything. Perhaps when I am aged and shaky and vulnerable like Ba, I, too, will be grateful.
We bring Má back to her suburban house. The vast, verdant lawn is now an expanse of dirt, Ba too tired and distracted to maintain it. I sleep in an upstairs bedroom, the same one I slept in the last two years of high school. It’s December. The house is cool, especially the downstairs bedroom where Má sleeps. We wheel her rented hospital bed into the family room, with its television that has barely been watched since Má fell ill and the stereo system no one listened to even when Má was well. Background music is not a part of family life. The house is usually as silent as an empty church. There is no soundtrack as I watch December 22nd turn to December 23rd while Má takes her last breaths, thirteen years almost to the day from her final breakdown. Ba, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I are the only witnesses.
Má was born in 1937 as Nguyễn Thị Bãy, a poor girl in a poor northern Vietnamese village. She dies in 2018 as Linda Kim Nguyen, American citizen, traveller of a life both ordinary and epic.
At seventeen, she married and became a refugee for the first time.
At seventeen, I almost did not
graduate from high school
because I nearly failed
At thirty-eight, a mother of two biological sons and one adopted daughter, Má became a refugee for the second time, her sequel starting in an alien country.
At thirty-eight, I, with
no children, struggled
with writing a short
story about Má.
Má’s first name is Bãy. Giving children numbers as names was common in rural Việt Nam. Families often had so many children. Some would not survive. Why give a girl a real name?
As a girl, the seventh child, she deserved no more.
Má hated this birth name. In her last decades, she wanted to be called by her American name, Linda. But both her names feel alien on my tongue. I never called her by her name, only Mẹ as a child, Má as an adult. Her refugee path shaped even what I called her. Northerners say Mẹ, southerners say Má, and I, as always, am somewhere in between.
Most Americans who met Má probably saw only her mortal, unextraordinary coil. If they knew anything about her, they might know she had been a shopkeeper, businesswoman, refugee. If they knew nothing about her, she was another Asian woman who did not speak good English. Mẹ, or Má, never wanted to mention that she had received only a grade-school education. I am telling on her, and yet she should be told on, even if it is not my secret to tell. Look at what Má accomplished with just a grade-school education, overcoming everything—almost everything—except her mind.
Defeated, like so many
heroes, not by others
but by herself.
A hero but not a soldier. People like Má who will not be remembered by History are also a part of History, drafted as reluctant players in horrific wars. And the wars of the twentieth century—including the ones in Việt Nam—killed at least as many civilians as soldiers.
Civilian stories can be war stories, too.
Perhaps what happened to my mother was simply her body and mind’s fate. But History and war took their turns hammering Má. Unnerving her. Breaking her.
My mother, child
Also the child of Ba Má, who chose each other. For all that Má was lost to us for so many years, my father’s love was not lost to her. She saw this reality from the orbit of her surreality. I know because the last words Má says on her hospital bed in the family room before she says the Lord’s Prayer with my father are for my father, to my father:
Em yêu anh.
This I will translate, even if the
translation is not enough:
I love you.
After the Lord’s Prayer, silence.
My brother the doctor gives Má morphine
while my sister-in-law the doctor watches.
Má’s eyes are long closed. Her breathing
I lean close to tell Má in Vietnamese that I love her.
She lived a good life. A life of hard work and
sacrifice. A heroic life. A life that
demanded so much strength,
devotion, and love.
I don’t know where Má
found those qualities. But I am
the beneficiary. These words, this faith
in her, this betrayal of her, are the outcome.
Má’s eyes do not open. She gives no sign of hearing.
Her breathing finally stops. It is midnight.
Her journey on this earth, complete.
My mother is mine and my
mother is also Other to me.
My brother makes a phone call. In an hour,
a courteous stranger who might be Filipino arrives
with a gurney, fills out a form, takes away my mother,
leaves the empty hospital bed in the family room,
and drives my mother into the night.
I remember Má loved me.
I can forget. ♦
This is drawn from “A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, a History, a Memorial.”