In Memoriam


We hold memorials, not only to remember those we love, but also to share with others the stories of our loved ones –the tiny, idiosyncratic details which made them a unique part of our lives, the timeline of events which in their entirety sets a life apart, and the multiplicity of ways in which their lives touched ours. In this telling, we can shed light on this one beloved of our own, whose dying has left us bereft, but whose living cast our souls that much closer to heaven. I shared this memoriam when my grandmother passed away on 11/12/2006.

I’ve told the story of her passing, the privilege of being the last to hear her heart beat. This, then, is the story of her life, as told through the eyes of those who loved her.  She was born to well-to-do parents in North Vietnam in the Year of the Snake.  As was the custom of that time, she finished school at an early age. She married my grandfather at 15. She bore her first child at age 17. She had 11 children in total, though only 7 lived to adulthood.  She and my grandfather were very religious, and were respected elders of the church in her village. She fled from the Communists to South Vietnam in 1954. She became a widow in January 1970. She fled the Communists again in 1975 to come to America. She lived in Woodhaven, Michigan for the next 31 years, raising children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

That story though, leaves out the details which reveal who she really was.  The well-to-do family into which she was born was a farm with no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  She walked to mass daily, carrying her shoes and washing her feet before entering the church.  She married my grandfather, not because he was a wealthy man, but because he was known in her village to be a good man.  Though he had been orphaned, he knew his letters, and was well-respected as an honorable man who had made his own way in the world.  Two years after she married him, at age 17, she gave birth to a son, then buried him shortly thereafter.  She called each of the children who did not survive to adulthood her angels.  Though she had borne 11 children of her own, she took in two sons of a widowed cousin.  She bore all of her children but one daughter at home, often getting up the next day to work. She survived for months at a time, alone, while my grandfather sought work in South Vietnam. When she and her family fled North Vietnam, they left only with the clothing they wore, but my grandfather was able to rescue all of the holy articles from the church, to bring to the South.

Just before Saigon fell in 1975, at age 60, she made her way from her village with her two youngest daughters, first to Vung Tau to get to international waters, where she was turned away because she was a woman, and then through road barricades to Saigon, where her second daughter refused to leave Vietnam without her mother and sisters. She survived refugee camps in Guam and the Philippines before arriving in the city in which her eldest daughter had made her home. She never went back to Vietnam.  She never saw her oldest living son again, as he preceded her in death.

Though she never learned to speak more than a few words of English, she was much more Americanized than some other Vietnamese Americans who arrived at the same time who wouldn’t touch hamburgers or French fries, some of her favorite foods, and one of the few English words she could say. She loved to sing, and taught me all of my prayers.  She loved to fly on airplanes, and preferred the window seat.  She traveled to Vietnamese Catholic pilgrimages in Missouri, vacationed in Tennessee, Mackinac Island, Colorado and California.  She couldn’t wait to go to church every Sunday, and never missed mass until she became ill. She prayed constantly, rosary beads always at hand.  She loved babies, massaging their chubby legs, and kissing them in the Vietnamese tradition by inhaling that unique baby scent.  She loved her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren fiercely, and expected them all to abide by the Christian principles with which she had raised them. She died peacefully in the company of loved ones, having just received Communion.

Who is to say what one person’s passing through this world can mean?  For my grandmother, testament to her life is borne out in those of her own blood standing among you and far away in Vietnam. It is up to us, the living, to bear witness through our actions, to her courage, her love, her wisdom and her faithfulness.

Today I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived with my grandmother until I got married and moved out of the house. I am thankful that she lived long enough to have squeezed and kissed each of my children, and that I’ll always have the example of her loving kindness to guide me.

Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

                 Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

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A Lovely Day Trip


The soul needs time in open spaces, time to breathe in wide vistas, time on open roads. When I’m able to get away from the neverending bustle bound by the constricts of the hands on a clock, I can feel an almost physical expansion of my soul with every breath. It is a feeling for me like that you get when lying down in bed for the first time as each vertebrae unfurls and stretches.  I am blessed in this adopted place of mine in many places to expand the soul.

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A short drive from my home, and the topography opens up. This beautiful rock formation is intriguing in its shape, as if an enormous chisel fashioned it into these proscribed shapes.

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Autumn is showing its gorgeous colors in the golden leaves of these trees outside a small pueblo. We get much fewer reds and oranges in the foliage here as opposed to Michigan, but the colors of the Earth make up for it.

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The massive striations in these mountains always make me feel like I’m looking back into prehistoric times, looking at layers of history.

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As we drove closer to the caldera, the changes in climate are evident in the colors of the mountains and the types of greenery we saw.

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You can almost sense the presence of ancient rivers and glaciers in the cutouts revealing the hearts of these mountains.

Jemez River

We stopped at a fishing spot after we passed through Jemez Pueblo as the winding roads were making my little guy feel a little green, and found a rushing, gurgling tributary of the Jemez River bounded by large boulders and protected by 2 more bark-than-bite dogs belonging to a man who told us he’d caught a cutthroat trout about a foot long (as measured by his large hands) a bit further up.

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This formation is known as Battleship Rock. It rises majestically from the evergreens around it, surprising in its triangular shape.

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As we neared the caldera, my husband looked for the open state land where he had camped last winter for his first elk hunt. As we neared the place he had pitched his tent, a whole herd of elk appeared suddenly.  Another term for a herd of elk is a gang of elk.  This makes me giggle, thinking of West Side Story’s gangs transformed into elk.

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The gang of elk seemed unusual in that we saw many bulls as well as cows.  As soon as we approached, the whole herd began moving away, though not in a panicked stampede, just a bit offended, as if we had brought stinky cheese to the party, and they had suddenly thought of someplace else they had to be.

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It was much colder here than near home, and we weren’t dressed for the weather as warmly as we should have been. I felt bad for this motorcyclist with whom we were sharing the road, as he was so exposed to the biting winds, and the twisting roads were slippery enough that he was driving at about 25 mph.

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The effects of the Las Conchas fire are still evident over 4 years later. This fire was all over the news when we first moved here, threatening the homes of people we knew, causing respiratory symptoms, and spurring panic. It burned over 156,000 acres. I couldn’t capture the horizontal shadows thrown by the sunlight through the trees as well as I wanted to.

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Within minutes after this, we entered the Valles Caldera with the trees and evergreens suddenly opening into this wide open grassland with copses of trees and springs of the Jemez River suddenly appearing out of the ground.

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This is one of the newest Junior Ranger badges, as the Valles Caldera was placed under the auspices of the National Park Service about 5 weeks ago according to the park ranger at the office.  Our family made a total of 56 people whom he had seen that day, most of whom were hiking or bicycling into the caldera.  No motorized vehicles were allowed beyond the office at that point.  My little guy earned this badge by accomplishing 5 activities at the visitor center, including lassoing a (hobby) horse “like a boss”. I thought he did pretty well for a greenhorn who’d never tried it before, but the wind whipping around the corner of the building outside made us beat a hasty retreat inside.  One of the other tasks was to try to “band” the park ranger without him knowing, which consisted of trying to clip a “tag” onto his clothing, but as we were the only people in the visitor center at the time, pretty difficult to accomplish. He was very tolerant of my little guy’s attempts to sneak up on him, but gave him points for trying.  He gave credit to his partner for developing all the fun activities for the kids to do, as he was a newcomer to the park, having just recently transferred there from Yellowstone.

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As we headed out of the caldera, we could see the mountains of Santa Fe in the distance. It is amazing to me and to others that we have been skiing more here than we ever did in Michigan, partly because of my unathletic nature, but also because as my brother is always saying, “But you moved to the desert!”  My little ones are learning to snowboard, which to me looks like a lot of falling down, but they love it.

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Heading into the city to find lunch, I had a geek girl moment and had to snap a picture of this road sign.  I didn’t get a chance to get a picture of Trinity Road or Boomer Road, but think that whomever named the roads here definitely had a sense of humor.  We were so hungry that I didn’t take any pictures of our lunch, which included a crawfish po’boy, the Sidewinder reuben, cheeseburgers and truffle fries which my middle daughter practically inhaled right off my plate.  I tried a sample of a hard root beer which my husband thought was tasty, and I did not like at all as it had a chemically aftertaste. I’ll take my root beer untainted by alcohol next time.  This is not an actual picture of the dessert bowl after she got done with the crème brûlée, as it would just look like an empty bowl.  She has been growing like crazy and now is within a few inches of being taller than me (not that that’s very tall) and now can wear my shoes.

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As we drove home, sated and tired, the last rays of sunlight touched this outcropping of stone, looking to me like the perfect perch for angels to rest.

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My two little ones, now much happier now that they’d been fed more than the apples and juice boxes I’d packed for the trip, giggled and told stories to each other on the way home. I leaned my head back against the head rest, content to have been able to spend the day with loved ones in no hurry whatsoever.  I wish a day like this for all of you sometime soon.

Today I am thankful for the natural beauty of my adopted state, for a husband who loves the outdoors and suggested this trip, and for a phone camera that takes pictures that make me happy.  I have not altered any of these pictures except for cropping so you could see the true colors of this gorgeous landscape.

Go!


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Before I knew how to spell my own name, I had left the place that will always be called Saigon in my heart, staying in the Philippines, Guam, and then landing all the way across the world in the United States. Sometimes, I wonder if it is this that has given me such “itchy feet” or if the penchant for travel came from my parents. Luckily for me, my father’s “itchy feet” brought him to Vietnam when the call went out for an assistant fire chief, or I might never have been born.

As the situation in Vietnam worsened, my parents even considered moving to Saudi Arabia with some of my dad’s Korean colleagues. Once we got to the US, my parents put down roots, and have never moved from the same house they bought in 1977. Partly, this was because my grandfather moved all over Korea to find work, and thus my father had to move from school to school growing up, and so he vowed that his children would all get the chance to grow up in one school district. The other reason is that we settled in Michigan to be close to my mother’s sister, and the rest of our family eventually all did the same.

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For someone who had always lived in the same town, surrounded by family, this had the opposite effect on me than on my father. I longed to see the rest of the world, always wondering what it would be like to live somewhere else, where no one knew me. I got a little experience with this in 7th grade, when my parents decided to switch my little brother and I to a Catholic school close to my parents’ business. For the first time, I didn’t know anyone, and had to figure out a whole new school system, as the newcomer into a school where most kids had already known one another for eight years. That kind of experience in middle school, when you are still trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world was invaluable for the introspection it gave me. Then, I had my first true taste of travel in my sophomore year of high school. My social studies teacher was very interested in exposing students to other cultures, and nearly every year, took a group of students to a foreign country. We raised money selling all manner of things no one would likely buy on their own, and went to Russia by way of Kharkov, and Berlin. It was the trip of a lifetime for a kid who couldn’t remember being any farther from home than Grand Rapids, Michigan 3 hours away. And I got to go with my best friend, who had luckily been smart enough to pack all manner of goodies in her suitcase, including toilet paper and Lysol spray.

Lysol to the rescue!

Lysol to the rescue!

The amazing part to me was that my parents were completely supportive of the trip.  At the time, I didn’t have the perspective I have now. All I knew then, was that I wasn’t even allowed to spend the night at my best friend’s house 3 minutes from my own or walk to the store on the other side of the busy street down the road from my house without a week-long preparation of begging, cajoling, and promises to do all my chores first, and even then, knew they might change their minds at the last minute.  And now, they were letting me leave the country?!

I know now that it was about allowing me to go on a school-sanctioned trip in an opportunity that they would never get to give me, and they wanted me to experience what they lived every day which was being in a culture that was not your own 24 hours a day for 10 days.  I’m so thankful that they let me go. There were so many firsts on that trip for me, which to others, now including my own children, might not seem like that big of a deal, but to me were. My first (remembered) airplane ride and the view of the world from an airplane with my best friend by my side made me realize that traveling the world was not only possible, but also could be a whole lot of fun.  We had friends who went with us who were homesick or wouldn’t eat the food or complained about the toilet paper, which did get worse and worse as we got farther away from the US (think the consistency of the light brown paper with pink and blue lines used in kindergarten to practice handwriting). I was never homesick and ate everything they gave us and didn’t complain about anything because I couldn’t believe I was allowed to be away from home. So I learned another valuable lesson, about being positive and open-minded with new experiences, lessons which have served me well ever since.  Since then, I’ve been blessed to travel to many more places for work and for pleasure than I ever dreamed I could, but not much tops that first trip in which we saw Red Square and the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The fall of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The Berlin Wall has long since been torn down, but my oldest daughter has spoken of wanting some day to move to Germany. When she was little, we tried to take her everywhere we went, and she traveled often with my parents including twice to Disney World. I hope I have instilled in her the same lessons I learned with my travel adventures. What I found most true though is that it is easy to travel when you know you have a home to return to, where the people you love can’t wait to welcome you back with open arms.  I hope I’ve raised my children to have the confidence to leave home and the courage to know that no matter how vast the oceans they explore, we will always be waiting for them on the shore.

“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear 

A 10 Year Old’s Guide on How to Raise Your Kids to Be Good Kids


My 10-year-old son also known as He Who Never Stops Moving, seems to think that after he goes to bed, I’m hosting wild dance parties or X-Men/Avenger/Star Wars movie marathons with candy appetizers and unlimited refills on pop.  Though he is incredibly crabby when he doesn’t get a full night’s rest, he often asks me why I”m not going to bed when he does with a distinct tone meant to convey the complete unfairness of the fact that he has to go to bed, and I get to stay awake.  I also think this is completely unfair, and so I’ve gotten in the habit of detailing a list of exciting highlights for the evening, which tonight included loading the dishwasher, putting away Halloween decorations, folding laundry, making tomorrow’s lunches, organizing coupons/receipts, and writing my next blog post.  This usually convinces him that he would indeed prefer not to be an adult tonight, and then he goes right to sleep.

Tonight, however, as I was tucking him into bed he asked, “What are you going to write about?”

Given my upbringing by parents who managed to evade capture by the Việt Cộng, I answered his question with a question: ‘What do you think I should write about?” (See, Mama, I was paying attention).

Luckily for you (and me), he had very strong views about this:

“You should tell people how to make sure their kids will be good kids.”

Curious as to what his answers would be, I asked him, “Well, what should I tell them?”

He furrowed his brow for a second, then came up with the following list reproduced nearly verbatim here and in exactly the order he stated them on how to raise your kids to be good kids. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

  1. “Make your kids take piano lessons and practice even if they don’t want to.
  2. Make your kids take karate lessons even if they don’t want to.
  3. Feed them veggies every day.
  4. Don’t let them eat too much candy, especially Halloween candy and junk.
  5. Say prayers with them every night. Because it’s important to worship God and to be thankful. Maybe you can make that part sound better. (I left it as is.)
  6. Make sure to love them a lot.

OK, you can add other stuff in if you want to, too.”

This took longer to type than it did for him to say.  I kissed him good night, turned off the light, and marveled at how quickly he came up with these suggestions. I’ll leave the term “make your kids” for him and his future therapist to work through. I’m just grateful that he thinks of himself as a good kid, and I thank God I’ve been blessed with the care and keeping of three old souls with wonderfully distinct personalities.  In terms of “other stuff” to add to this list, I think I’d only add this:

7. Make sure to really listen to your kids.

I’m glad I did.

He Who Never Stops Moving, at about age 5, dressed up as a Frenchman for no apparent reason, except perhaps so that he can say, "Wii, Wii."

He Who Never Stops Moving, at about age 5, dressed up as a Frenchman for no apparent reason, except perhaps so that he can say, “Wii, Wii.”

Hello darkness, my old friend


Steve Inskeep woke me up way too early this morning.  No, I haven’t thrown over my husband for someone new.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he sounds way too chipper to have been up for hours as the host of Morning Edition on NPR. With Daylight Savings Time this weekend, theoretically, we all got 1 more hour of sleep last night, but in reality, I spent 1 more hour awake, and started yawning as soon as darkness fell.  Now it really feels like autumn has arrived, and winter is coming ;-).

Hello darkness, my old friend

Hello darkness, my old friend.

The news is filled at this time of year with the same stories from last year about whether or not we should continue with Daylight Savings Time. As we are among those who have eschewed cable TV for streaming services and the local evening news is filled with hype-filled emptiness, I like to get my news as I get ready for the work day and on my drive in to the hospital. This morning, the words “in Detroit” made my head snap towards the radio.  Having trained in Detroit, and grown up driving “Downtown” to the RenCen and Hart Plaza, I miss my old city. I never knew it in its glory day.  The Detroit I knew was already worn around the edges.  The grand architecture which makes it an attraction for photographers, film makers, and crazy tiger owners, is crumbling and the infrastructure which has been neglected for so long is struggling to take care of the residents of my former city.

A live tiger got loose in the old Packard plant during a photo shoot. (Photo: Andy Didorosi)

A live tiger got loose in the old Packard plant during a photo shoot. (Photo: Andy Didorosi)

What I heard today though wasn’t yet another mock-sad exploitation of the dark days of Detroit.  Instead it celebrated the success of a program implemented to bring suicide levels to 0%.  No, that is not a typo.  The goal of the program was actually to prevent suicides and thus bring the suicide rate down to 0.  Now anyone who’s every been at a meeting, no matter where it is, whether for work or the PTO or your local library guild, can imagine the silence that most likely followed that proposal. The thinking among a lot of health care workers and psychologists is that it is impossible to prevent every suicide.  This is a growing problem among veterans all over the country, and one that has been highlighted in the media as an example of how the VA is failing our wounded warriors.  As one of those left behind to question why, any reduction in the suicide rate is a miracle.

This is the first I’ve heard of any success stories, and this is truly a success, and has been for many years.  After embracing the idea, which must have taken a complete paradigm shift, the Henry Ford Health System, the same one that took care of my family for years, was able to achieve their goal for at least 2 years.  In 2009, the suicide rate among the high-risk mental health population was zero. Even now, it is 80% lower than before the start of the program.  And this was during the heart of the recession, when there were plenty of factors to make anyone depressed, plenty of reasons that someone might look into the heart of darkness, and decide the pain and shadows are too much to bear any longer.

Today on All Souls' Day, residents of New Orleans must show iID to be allowed to come to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to pay their respects to those who have died, following a new directive by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, prior to my visit there.

Today on All Souls’ Day residents of New Orleans (another city that has seen it’s share of darkness) must show ID to be allowed to come to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to pay their respects to those who have died, following a new directive by the Archdiocese of New Orleans (prior to my visit there).

How did this happen?  Henry Ford Health system is not situated in a rich community filled with deep pocket books.  When I trained there, most patients were on Medicaid or some type of assistance. Though the people I worked with were all hard-working, dedicated professionals, they are no different from health care providers here, or anywhere I believe. The answer, I think, lies in turning upside down the presumption that nothing can be done, and aiming for complete eradication of the problem of suicide.  And though a complete analysis of this phenomenon hasn’t occurred yet, all signs point to the possibility that the extensive work put into achieving these results has actually saved this medical system money.  While we have politicians spouting sound bites about how broken our health care system is, in Detroit, a symbol of decay and decline, some big dreamers actually are making a difference in patients’ lives, and managing not to make the bottom line worse.

Why isn’t this story all over the news at night instead of Donald Trump’s unnatural hair do?  I think it is because we have a tendency to focus on the negative and the darkness. In optical illusions, we have to train our eyes to see beyond the negative spaces.  To see what is right there in front of us waiting to be revealed, we need to let go of our preconceived notions, and be open to a new perspective.

What do you see first? The beautiful curves of the chalice, or two faces about to kiss?

What do you see first? The beautiful curves of the chalice, or two faces about to kiss?

What can we do on this Feast of All Souls, to turn away from our old familiar friend darkness and negativity? For me, I’ll start with welcoming the light of morning, instead of mourning the darkness that comes too soon.  I’m thankful today for all those in Detroit working hard to make the impossible possible, for news that manages to highlight positive stories, and for the blessing of warm covers on chilly mornings.

Novemberish


I really don’t like the month of November, and so when I learned that November’s adjectival form, Novemberish, means “dreary,” I wasn’t at all surprised.  I love autumn which symbolizes so many good things to me–the start of the school year, cooler days, and Halloween.  I didn’t get to join in the fun of Halloween much growing up, with parents who thought such American traditions odd  (“You want to dress up in strange clothes and beg for candy from our neighbors?  No.”) and so I thoroughly enjoy Halloween as an adult, with an annual Halloween costume party, dry ice in my apple cider for that spooky effect, and lots of candy.

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My little monkey

After Halloween though, I’ve always felt the sadness of having nothing to look forward to anymore. Though it is considered part of autumn, November feels bleaker, as the wind blows away the brilliance that dazzles us after the warmth of summer, stripping us down to bare branches.

Growing up in Michigan, I dreaded dreary November, knowing it would bring the Northern chill and gray skies with it.  Here in this desert place in which we’ve settled, the chill comes mainly at night.  We’ve put most of our plants to bed, and rain has been more frequent, a blessing in this arid place.  We’ve harvested the last of the first successful tomato planting for this brown-thumbed woman.

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This is All Saints’ Day which marks every first day of November, a holy day, and so I’m trying to think of November as a time of gestation, a sacred rebirth and time of building.  Though we tend to focus on the famous, better known saints such as Joan of Arc (my middle daughter’s personal favorite) or St. Francis (the pope’s namesake), saints are actually thought of as those who’ve attained heaven.   My grandma died in November, and so I think of her frequently at this time of year, missing her wisdom and the never-ending prayers she spent countless hours in, seeking peace and protection for her loved ones.

St. Joan of Arc, image from www.catholictradition.org

St. Joan of Arc, image from http://www.catholictradition.org

It is thought that originally All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day was tied together as a way to co-opt Samhain in the Scottish Highlands (as many Church holy days were all over the world)  As my fellow Outlander readers know, it is considered “a thin time” in which the links between the world and other places are more open.

“The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down and down in absolute silence…This is the thin time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mystery. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.” –Diana Gabaldon, A Breath of Snow and Ashes

In the Southwestern tradition, we celebrate Dia de los Muertos, which recognizes that death is a part of life, and honors it, instead of fearing it or indulging in sadness, with parades and make-up featuring calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls). Though this is a fact I deal with in my work as a physician assistant, this November I’m going to try to celebrate the lives of those who have died instead of mourning their loss in my life, thinking instead of what I’ve learned from having been blessed to have them in my life. In Mexico, it coincides with the Dia de los Innocentes, a day dedicated to deceased children, making it even more fitting that we think of November as a month pregnant with possibilities.

Some paint only half the face with calaveras, to demonstrate the continual duality of life and death.

I’m challenging myself to write a little every day, or a lot if the Spirit moves me, and to remember all the brilliance that precedes this month and using it to light my way through to the hope of heaven and rebirth.  I invite you to rethink November as well, to try to redefine Novemberish in your own way.  What will you do to push back the grayness that threatens overhead? What can you build in this month that rewrites Novemberish into the 9th month again?

Today I am thankful for a sunshine-filled All Saints’ Day, for a faith that does not shy away from honoring our dead, and for writers that inspire me to keep reaching for heaven.

Waiting for Patience


My office door is always closed and locked, remnants of a day when an angry man stood over me and yelled words filled with hurt, anger, and frustration, flinging his arms out as if to grab me and shake the understanding into me.

“Why are my dreams so vivid?” they ask me.

“Why does it still feel like I’m there, fighting all over again, when it happened so many years ago?”

“Why am I still here?”

The brain never forgets, unless the insult is so severe that the parenchyma itself is damaged then dies off, or if we don’t feed it the oxygen it needs. Hypoxia we call it, but those memories don’t just need oxygen.  They need light in all its forms.  The soft rays of sunlight that come in the early dawn of a dreamless night.  The probing surgical intensity that exposes every forgotten detail of curved hair on bloodied arms. The incandescent glow of the faces of loved ones holding back the shadows.

Some injuries to life and limb are obvious. Every day when I walk into this hospital, I see veterans in wheelchairs, leaning on canes or walkers, arms and legs in braces or scarred, but the hurt that comes from post-traumatic stress disorder is not so apparent.  We are confronted with stories on the internet of people leaving nasty notes on the windshields of people using handicapped parking spots whom they judge to be unworthy of the designation and of what they consider a privilege.  Though I’m sure there are those who abuse these “privileges”, for every one of them, there are countless others who would gladly give back the parking placard for pain-free days and nights.  And for those for whom the wounds are invisible, there is no parking placard.

PTSD is real. The patients who seem to have the best grip on this have good support networks–spouses willing to tough it out, family open to seeing it, or friends willing to listen.  When my husband calls me in the middle of the day, it’s frequently to talk about a tough case or to hash out the best way to have handled a patient or incident. Because I don’t know anything about being a paramedic or firefighter, most of the time, I’m just listening or offering a “That’s terrible.” I know it is a way of debriefing for him, just like what he does when he first gets home, and what I do when I’ve had a bad case. He has people he can talk to at his firehouse, but I’m glad he chooses to talk to me, too.  This week was his first shift on call as a SWAT medic.  Luckily, he did not get called in, but every time his phone rang or he received a text, I could see him tense up.  I understand his reasons for wanting to do this work.  How could I not? But I also know that my job as his wife is to look for the signs that he needs help.  We have an increased awareness now about PTSD with social media and trending tweets, and the focus on our military has helped to bring the issue to the forefront, but still too many first responders and veterans are dying off the battlefield, and after the trauma, from suicide and the effects of substance abuse.  It can be difficult for these men and women who are held up as heroes to admit they are struggling.

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All of us need to recognize the concept of sonder, which in my mind should rhyme with wonder.  It means the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. If you have been lucky enough to escape sorrow, tragedy, hurt, and pain in the years that make up your time on this earth, count yourself among the lucky few.  We all have been through the fire at some point.  The trick is looking past our own wounds to see the scars that everyone carries after the flames have passed, and recognizing those who are struggling to carry on.

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June is National PTSD Awareness month, and June 27 has been designated National PTSD Awareness Day.  In the days before we knew better, they called it by a variety of names: shellshock, nervousness, hysteria. Those who have served in our military, first-responders, and survivors of any catastrophe from rape to hurricanes are at risk for developing this. It affects men, women and children.  Know the risks, learn the signs and triggers, and most of all, please try to develop the patience with humanity that comes from sonder. Today as we honor those veterans who gave everything on the beaches of Normandy, let us not forget those who came home with invisible burdens that had not yet been given names, or forget those who risk their lives every day.

http://www.frsn.org/Resources/web-links

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/public-awareness/national-ptsd-awareness-day

Turning into My Mother


All of my life, people have commented on how much I look like my father.  When I was very young, it was confusing to me because I absolutely did not want anyone mistaking me for a boy, especially with the requisite Asian bowl cut I suffered with, and given the unnatural planes of my unusually square head, it was not a good look.  I would frown and refute these statements, preferring to believe instead that I looked like my mother. As I grew older, this did not really change except that I inherited my mother’s naturally thick and voluminous hair which in combination with my father’s wavy hair and Michigan humidity made for freakishly bad frizzy lion-head days.  Looking back at pictures of my mother when I was a teenager cursed with heavy brown plastic-framed glasses and never-ending adjustments at the orthodontist, I was always amazed at her perfectly straight teeth and glowing skin despite never having medical or dental care growing up poor in Vietnam. Most of her pictures were taken in the time after she met my father, given that pictures were a luxury then. In these pictures, she always looks steadily at the camera, beautiful smile captured perfectly, without a hint of the awkwardness I feel whenever the camera lens is turned towards me.

My mama is second from the left in the second row.

My mama is second from the left in the second row.

Recently though, a family member posted a picture of her on Facebook from what looks like sometime in her teenage years.  She’s in the back row, tentative smile on her face, and I was struck by how much daughter #2 looks like her in this picture.  I realized then that though I don’t look like my mother, I’ve managed to pass some pretty awesome genes on.  And though people always joke that they are turning into their mothers, here are the ways I would love to be considered to be like her:

1.My mother is generous, giving of her time and talents freely.  People I didn’t even know would show up at her garden and she would give away bushels of vegetables.  When our next-door neighbor was ill, she was there helping to care for the lady we called Grandma, though she was not blood-related.  Family members call her all the time to take them to doctor appointments, to help them negotiate vehicles, or navigate government bureaucracy.  She’s held the hands of two sisters as they got the same diagnosis of breast cancer she received years before.  When my uncles came over from Vietnam, they stayed with her, and another aunt until they found a house of their own, adding their family of 9 kids and 5 kids respectively to a house with 8 of us already living there. When her sister was doing the flowers for a cousin’s wedding, my mother ran to get flowers and vases, and helped with arrangements late into the night before the wedding with my aunt, sister, and I. When family calls from Vietnam asking for help for sickness or a death in the family or even helping to build a new church, she responds without hesitation, remembering what it was like to be in need.  She loves to volunteer at church, and hopes someday to volunteer with Catholic orphanages overseas.

2.My mother is patient. My grandmother lived for years with us, and I can’t recall her ever losing her temper or raising her voice in anger to her.  Grandma was kind and loving, but it must have been difficult for my mother not to be the boss in her own home, as my grandmother ruled the roost as is the way in most Asian households where deference to elders is the norm. Caught between a very traditional Korean husband, and her own mother’s traditional views, it must have been a difficult place to try to raise 4 rascally, mischievous kids in a new country.  She has always taught me to honor where I came from and to respect others through her example. By watching how she lovingly and respectfully cared for my grandmother, and my father’s mother when she lived with us for a few months, I learned the true meaning of patience.

3. My mother is practical.  She knows how to stretch a dollar better than anyone I know.  She has always been a savvy saver, which enabled her and my father to buy a house shortly after we arrived here in America, and put 4 kids through college.  We didn’t have a lot of toys growing up, but we always had good food, and we all ended up with a good education, and that could not have been accomplished without her hard work and ability to save money.  I know she went without a lot of things to sacrifice for her children, and I’m grateful to have learned the value of a dollar from her.

4.My mother is an incredible cook.  She cooks by smell, unable to stomach some of the spicy foods my father and the rest of the family loves. I am forever grateful that she parked me at the stove at age 11, telling me:  “This is how it should smell.  Food should look good, too, because it makes it taste better,” and countless other nuggets of wisdom which she picked up through the years.  When they were dating, my dad marveled at her ability to go to restaurants and then come home and recreate what she had tried, especially because she hadn’t been exposed to a lot of fancy cooking growing up poor.  To this day, she continues to try new recipes, and learn how to make new dishes.  Some of my best memories are of cooking new foods with her. I think her love language is cooking for others, and so as soon as she walks into the door at my house, she is already planning what she wants to make for us.

Bánh da lợn, a traditional Vietnamese dessert that we learned how to make together from watching YouTube videos.

Bánh da lợn, a traditional Vietnamese dessert that we learned how to make together from watching YouTube videos.

5.My mother is fearless.  She left her home and everything she knew because she had to, and was successful here in a completely foreign country which I dare anyone of us to try. She has always encouraged us to try new things, move to new places, and not to be afraid to spread our wings a little further.  And at a very young 62 (soon to be 63, as her birthday is tomorrow), she is still game for new experiences.  We recently went to Disneyland, and though she is definitely not a fan of roller coasters, she went on 2 different roller coasters with her grandbabies, including Space Mountain, which scared me!  I don’t think she’ll ever do it again, but her and my dad were the only senior citizens on that roller coaster, and they deserve credit for that.

6.My mother is a wonderful gardener.  She knows plants, and I always say that if I had to be stuck with anyone on a desert island, it would be her, because she can spot edible plants anywhere.  She has green hands, not just a green thumb, and is able to coax plants into growing anywhere.  She has always been grounded, literally and figuratively, and we have had a garden since we had enough room to plant one. I grew up with organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables before it was a thing, and can thank my mother for my love of both.  My kids grew up with baby food lovingly harvested by her hands from her gardens.

7.My mother is funny.  You might not know it if you don’t know her well, but she has a silly sense of humor, which balances out my father’s seriousness.  She loves to laugh, and play jokes on people , and some of the best memories of growing up are of watching her laugh until she falls down, tears streaming down her face, that beautiful smile wide and effortless. Just a warning–one of her favorite pranks is boxing up a large squash from her garden to give to you at Christmas, hidden beneath layers of newspaper.

My mama and baby brother giggling like mad over a program on the Ipad that alters pictures of people by giving them squished or enlarged heads, eyes or bodies.

My mama and baby brother giggling like mad over a program on the Ipad that alters pictures of people by giving them squished or enlarged heads, eyes or bodies.

I am blessed to have my mother in my life still, watching over me and her precious grandchildren. I’ve also been blessed to grow up with the loving influence of my grandmother,  and aunts who have mothered me through all kinds of ups and downs. Heaven knows I have not been a perfect daughter, but the day someone tells me, “You’re just like your mother,” I’ll take it as a compliment, and thank my mama and all those who have mothered me for the wonderful examples they have set for me.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers I know and love, of babies and fur babies, of babies here on Earth and in our hearts,  and especially to my mama.  And happy early birthday, Mama! Wish we could be there to celebrate with you!

Liberation


Forty years ago today, Saigon fell.  It is a date engraved upon the hearts of many Vietnamese people, as well as many veterans. If you were old enough to remember, the images of helicopters, crying people with outreached hands, and flames are forever linked to this date. It is thought of as a symbol of leaving, of endings, and for some, of failure.  It has been called Black April and rebranded by those in power in Vietnam as National Liberation Day or Reunification Day. My veterans express regret and sorrow about leaving Vietnam like this, mixed with the relief of being able to go home. Some remain haunted by the images of those left behind, bound by the ghosts of the past, while the diaspora are reconciling the Vietnam they left in 1975 with the changes time, politics and money has wrought.

I am too young to remember leaving my birth country. I was a baby in my mother’s arms when we hurriedly boarded the C-130 that would take us to the refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam.  As with all immigrant stories,  ours is both the same and different from the thousands of other Vietnamese families that came to the US.  The date our family left Vietnam was actually April 26, 1975. My parents, grandmother, aunts and I were blessed to leave on an airplane, compared to so many others at the mercy of the seas who fled on boats, though this airplane had been stripped of all of its seats in order to fit as many people on board as possible.

My baby boy descending the ramp of a C-130.

My baby boy descending the ramp of a C-130.

When we finally arrived in the US, my parents set about making a life for all of us, though they had little resources.  My father’s first jobs were working for RCA as a repairman, and for a steel mill where he worked until he retired in his late 70s.  Because they had only 1 vehicle, my father would drop her off before the bakery opened before the sun rose, recalling today how hard it was to leave her there in the cold darkness alone so that he could make it to his 2 jobs.  She made so many pies, that to this day she refuses to make pies from scratch.

A pie made by me, and not my mother.

A pie made by me, and not my mother.

She then did back-breaking work in a nursing home, enormously pregnant with my little brother, lifting and bathing patients.  Under the watchful eyes of my grandmother and my mother’s two younger sisters, I learned English from watching Shirley Temple movies and Underdog cartoons, and reading Little Golden Books about Cinderella.

Eventually, our family saved enough money to bring my mother’s two brothers and their families here to the US, but not until almost 20 years later, after reeducation camps and deprivation at the hands of the Communists.  I had the advantage of growing up in America, with the constant reminder that I had cousins in Vietnam who were not as lucky, and so I, like so many other Generation 1.5 children, was pushed to succeed though hard work and education by my parents, who had left all they knew and loved behind with the hope for a better future for their children. Exactly 22 years later, surrounded by the entire reunited family, I was married on April 26, the date my wedding was changed to through a series of unplanned and unexpected events.  Now 40 years later, as a physician assistant, I am serving some of those same veterans without whom I would not have existed.  If not for the war in Vietnam, there would have been no need for a Korean firefighter to come to Vietnam.  If not for the American army base where my parents worked and met, there would not have been any seats for us on a C-130 to fly us all away from Vietnam.

Today, as we look back on this date, I was struck by the photos of this baby miraculously unearthed from the rubble of the earthquake in Nepal.  Pictures of helicopters, outreached hands, and flames are featured on news stories across the internet. Thousands of families have been separated, lost loved ones and their homes, and the date of the earthquake will forever separate their lives into before and after. And in the midst of all of this tragedy, we focus on the life of one small baby, liberated from the dust and ashes, surviving despite the tremendous odds against it.

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http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/25/world/gallery/nepal-earthquake/?sr=fb042915nepalbaby1030aGalPhotos

We rejoice in this story of life arising from the rubble and ruins because we all share stories of liberation, some more dramatic than others, but no less important in the way that they link us all–from the ashes of a fallen city, to a road not taken, a life left behind, and still we learn to build again.  True healing begins with that first turning towards the light of home, which is wherever we make it. This then is the true meaning of liberation, not that spun by those who would have us forget the struggles and the sacrifices of those who reached down and pulled us from darkness to true freedom.

Today I am grateful for my parents’ bravery and courage in the face of overwhelming chaos and tremendous odds.  I would not be who I am or where I am if not for all of their sacrifices. I am thankful for all of my family and for the astonishing grace of not having lost a single family member to the war.  And I pray for all those in Nepal, that someday, they will look back on these days, and be able to say they are stronger for having survived.

Please pray for the many medical and relief workers as they work tirelessly for all those affected by the earthquake, as well as the family members of Marisa Eve Girawong, a physician assistant who was killed there.  If you would like to donate, check out the Better Business Bureau’s website which has a list of charities providing aid to Nepal that meet the BBB’s standards of accountability, as well as InterAction Nepal’s website which can allow you to direct your donations to specific needs, such as medicine, food, or shelter.

His Great-Grandfathers’ Boy


“Why in the world would you let your son buy a book about war?” This was the question posed to me at a thrift store by the well-meaning woman behind the counter.  I looked down at my son, then seven years old, gamely clutching his pick with two hands.  The World War II Encyclopedia cover was graced with black and white pictures of tanks, uniformed men, and flags, and looked heavier than my son, skin and bones that he is.  His large brown eyes looked back at me, unblinking, sure that his mother would persevere in buying him a book, because when had I ever refused any child of mine a book?

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What she didn’t know was that unlike his sisters, for whom words are the keys to Neverland, incantations to the spell of transformation that leaves you blinking not to see wings when you stretch out your arms, for him books were still mysteries.  For me, reading meant figuring out how to get my constant-motion machine to sit still long enough for the magic to enmesh him.  That he had picked a book, instead of a gadget with moving parts or a brightly colored toy was a revelation to me, at least until I saw the title of the book.

You see, though my husband was one of three brothers, thusfar the weight of carrying on the family name rests solely on my baby boy. He has always known of the meaning of his first name, which is actually my mother-in-law’s maiden name, just as my name echoes my mother’s maiden name. I believe strongly in the power of names, and the legacy bestowed by the double burden of carrying both of his great-grandfather’s names (and his father’s) is one I think was worth passing on.

I never knew the benevolent gaze only grandfathers can give until I met my husband’s.  Our family is blessed with strong-willed women, and my mother’s mother is ever-present in my earliest memories, but the towering legends of my grandfathers were passed down in bits and pieces through stories of their fierceness.  My father’s father was stoic, unsmiling in black and white photos, a patriarch in war when his sons were pursued by Japanese soldiers through the mountains of Korea.  My mother’s father was a religious man felled by a stroke, then lifted up by inner strength and determination to walk again to the church the Communists worked to take away from him.  I never met either of these brave men, dead long before I drew my first breath.

My husband’s grandfathers though, were kindly, white-haired men who patted my hand, accepting me into their families without a word.  The Vietnamese word for grandpa was not even in my immediate lexicon, and my husband had a nickname for one of his–his PaPap.  He was a quiet man, one who never spoke of his service until shortly before he died, of landing on the beaches of Normandy the day after, of being part of the “clean-up crew.” I knew him only as the very quiet man who opened his home on Christmas Eve. I always felt comfortable with him, as he was reserved like me, an oasis in the maelstrom of preternaturally good-looking cousins whipping quips and insults with equal wit and precision at one another.  I cherish especially 2 memories of him, one of dancing with him at my wedding, and the last in which I was able to bring my baby boy to him at the nursing home before he died, so my husband and I could tell him that our little boy shared his name.

In my everyday work, I meet veterans who have served all over the world in many different wars, but I have a special place in my heart for World War II veterans.  This is because of my husband’s PaPap, but also because they are a special breed.  One veteran who was in the Battle of the Bulge spoke of being lucky because he was able to get a warm jacket from one of his Air Force flying buddies, while everyone else had summer gear in the brutal winter that ensued.  He was seeing me for frostbite 70 years afterwards, being treated for the first time ever for the residual effects.  He had mentioned it in passing to his primary provider that perhaps the numbness and tingling might be from the frozen toes he had suffered while in Germany by way of explanation, and not complaint. I was mesmerized by his stories, of men and boys unprepared for the long battle. Seeking words of wisdom, I asked him, “How did you do it?  How did you survive?” His answer, like so many other WWII vets, underscores what sets them apart:  “We endured.” There was no drama, no entitlement, just a simple, succinct statement in which he counted himself as part of the whole, doing what had to be done.

When the boy who would become my husband told me that if he could be like anyone, he would like to be like his grandfathers, impeccable in actions and words, I wondered what it would be like to have flesh and blood heroes.  I wanted that for my son.  And knowing this, knowing that he chose this book to learn more about what his great-grandfathers had experienced, I would not have spared him a “a book about war.”  My girlfriend’s first child is a boy. In the way all mothers have, she wished to protect him from the evils of the world, and so asked family and friends to refrain from giving him any toy guns or weapons. In the mysterious way of many boys, he fashioned guns out of paper and ran around the house shooting at imaginary enemies despite minimal exposure to these things. Neither her son nor mine are brutes or sociopaths, both of them animal-loving, gentle souls who love to be snuggled by their mothers.

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My little guy standing in the back of a C130, the plane in which we fled Vietnam.

As I looked at this woman, I considered all of these stories, trying to figure out how best to answer her.  How did I tell her that if not for one war, I would never have existed? How to tell her that my parents grew up in war time, their parents figuring out how best to protect their families, and perhaps her parents doing the same, so that one day I might have the chance to stand here and debate with her about the appropriateness of reading material for my son? How to tell her that though peace is what we all crave and would wish for our loved ones, the reality is that war exists, and to pretend that I could shield him from this is to deny the sacrifices that better people than she and I had made?  How did I show her that though we have been blessed since the Civil War not to have war in the United States, it is through the remembrance of those battles and those veterans, that we can hopefully prevent bloodshed here?  Did I tell her that though I would never want my son to have to know what it is to spill the blood of another, I would proudly call myself the mother of a soldier if he so chose to follow that path?

Unfortunately, I did not. As is always true for me, the words sat in my mouth, angled edges weighing down my tongue. Instead, I said only, “His great-grandfather served in World War II.” She frowned disapprovingly at me, and reluctantly took it from my son’s hands to wrap it.  Today you can find this book on my son’s bookshelf. The pages are bent in some places where he has stopped to bookmark something compelling to his little boy brain. When he reads it, his brows furrow in concentration as he pores over the black and white pictures, and I can see the generations of men in the lines of those furrows, stretching far back into the past.

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Today I am thankful to live in a country where little girls like myself can grow up to carry on their father’s names, for grandfathers and great-grandfathers living and dead who inspire us to be impeccable and fierce, and for the unique gift of being the mother of a son who has been blessed to grow up under the loving eyes of both his grandfathers and grandmothers.

Has a stranger ever questioned your parenting choices? How did you respond? Have you had qualms about what is and isn’t appropriate reading material for your children? Do you have a story about your grandfather or great-grandfather that you’d like to share?  If so, I’d love to hear it.