5 things I Learned from Being the Mother of a “Late Bloomer”


The Bronze Award, to be placed on her Girl Scout vest.

The Bronze Award, to be placed on her Girl Scout vest.

Today, we attended a Girl Scout awards ceremony in which my middle daughter and her troop were awarded the Bronze Award, the highest honor a Junior Girl Scout can achieve. They joined other girls across the state receiving awards for community service projects ranging from collecting art supplies for the local children’s hospital to painting playground equipment to working with homeless shelters for Birthday Boxes.  Now that they’ve moved on to become Cadette Girl Scouts, they’ll be working towards the Silver Award, and then before they leave high school, the Gold Award, akin to the Eagle Scout achievement. I love Girl Scouts as it allows girls to progress at their own rate, make differences in their communities using their unique skills and ambitions, and encourages girls to accept others no matter how different they may be from “the norm.”

My middle daughter is a “late bloomer”, and definitely not “the norm.”  I can say this with certainty, looking at all the other little girls on the playground in their sassy pre-teeny bopper outfits. At 11 years old, she’s in middle school, a time that most of us look back at and shudder. Fifth grade was a rough one for both of us, but within a few weeks of the start of summer vacation away from the bullies, the happy-go-lucky girl she normally is resurfaced, and now she’s at a new school for artistically-minded children and loves it.  Academically, she is leaps and bounds ahead of all her classmates, but “less mature, in a good way” than her classmates according to her 5th grade teacher, who got that my daughter doesn’t fit any mold, and thankfully accepted her for who she is. I don’t mean late bloomer in the physical sense, though the orthodontist wants to wait for her to “grow into her teeth” and she is thinner than my mother would like.

“Are you feeding her?” she asks me, forgetting that at her age, I was also all awkward skin and bones, and in desperate need of braces.  Though she reminds me so much of myself at this age, in some ways we are very different. As a kid, I wanted so much to fit the mold. As an immigrant child with a very practical mother, I grew up wishing I didn’t have to have a bowl cut hair cut, noticing all the things others had that I did not.  I made my own path and style, mainly because I had to embrace what I had (translation:  I wore what my mom bought for me), but a little part of me always wished to have perfectly straight, well-behaved hair, Jordache jeans (yes, I know this dates me), and socks that matched my outfits.

The infamous Jordache logo

The infamous Jordache logo

My daughter has tons of cute outfits, socks in a rainbow of colors and a box full of hair bands and accoutrements, and leaves the house some mornings looking like a homeless child (as my husband laughingly says). He doesn’t get what I know to be true, that other mothers see her and judge me for letting her leave the house like that, that other kids judge her for not wearing the latest fashions, though she does not care one bit. I know I should not care, but I do–that others will see her and judge both her and I by the clothes that she wears, because that is the kind of world we live in, and I want to smooth the road ahead of her so growing up will be a little easier for my spirited little one. She has always been one to follow her own path, not caring and not understanding why others care so much about what she thinks or how she acts. She really just wants to be left alone to draw and write stories, though that doesn’t mean she will sit still and be quiet if she sees someone younger or more helpless being picked on. These are the things she knows to be true, though the bullies at her old school haven’t learned these lessons yet, and I am working on learning them, too.

Random doodling that she was going to throw in the trash

Random doodling that she was going to throw in the trash

1.What someone wears on the outside is much less important than how they look on the inside.  She asked me once if there is a rule in our house that clothing has to match.  The less fuss devoted to hair styling and brushing means more time to draw or write stories for her.  She stopped wearing skirts and dresses except for church, because she discovered it gets in the way of running around on the playground. She notes that some of the best-dressed girls at her old school are those who tormented her the most. Point taken.

2. A person’s physical age is much less important than his or her mental age.  She plays equally well with older and younger children and converses easily with adults, so long as they are willing to be kind and imaginative.  Some of her closest friends are younger than her, and partly this is because they are much better at seeing her for who she is on the inside, and she does not really care, though others laugh at her for playing with “babies.” It is also because she never talks down to those younger than her, never thinking herself better than them just because she’s older.

3. Boys and girls can be friends, as long as they like the same things and are nice to each other.  Some of her best friends are boys.  They like to climb trees, play in the treehouse/fort, tell each other stories, and laugh over funny animal videos. They don’t overcomplicate friendship by asking “Are you my friend friend or my best friend?” They just hang out and have a good time chasing the dog around or having Nerf gun wars.   She told me that the kids in her class with boyfriends and girlfriends are “precocious.” Wanting to make sure that she was using the word in the correct context, I asked her to explain what she meant by that.  “They all think it’s weird that Dylan and I are just friends, but I think they are doing and thinking about things that are waaay too advanced for their age, so that’s why I called them precocious.” Thank God for that!

4. Labels are for packages, not people.  In a world where marketing and spin is more important than content, packaging counts.  Packaging makes it easier for us as people to categorize, label, and move on. In medicine, we have the same tendencies, to label people with diagnoses, and then forget they are not a diagnosis, but people with a story. My little girl has been given many labels in her life, some of them by kids and adults who couldn’t look past the outside to the beautiful old soul within.  My little girl does not think like other people, so no surprise, she does not talk or act like others either, which instantly gets people’s attention.  She can talk for hours (and does) about her favorite fan fiction art, and laughs at her own inside jokes. The less polite ones want to know if there is something wrong with her, some label that can make them feel better, so they can shove her in a category, and get comfortable again with their preconceptions about gifted kids. Sometimes, I wonder if I have done her a disservice, by not teaching her how to camouflage herself except to those who understand the difference between a label and a person. And then I think, maybe the world just needs to learn how to accept her.  That doesn’t mean I think she’s the perfect kid or that we’re not continually working on manners and acceptable versus unacceptable behavior, because in the end, my job is to challenge her to get out of her comfort zone so she can become the best person that she can be.

5. It’s OK not to want to grow up.  As the oldest in my family, I always wanted to hang out with the adults and figure out what they were doing and saying as I found it so fascinating. I wanted to be an adult way before my time, something my parents encouraged–I learned to cook, clean and be responsible for my siblings and grandmother from an early age.  I thought that being adult-like would give me more control and more privileges, and traded believing in magic, Santa Claus, and fairy dust for worry, responsibility, and the lure of knowledge.  That doesn’t mean that I’m not raising her to be responsible, to work hard or to seek knowledge, but my little girl (at least for a little while longer) is very happy being a little girl. She still believes in unicorns, still believes that good will always win in the end, and that being a kid is way more fun than being a grown-up. I think she may be right, but, I’m not telling her that.

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The Final Frontier


A snapshot into the crazy world of what being married to me is like, based on an actual telephone conversation I had with my husband today:

“Ok, I need to tell you something really big,” I said.

“Big, as in I need to sit down, or maybe just lean on something? Or are you joking?” he said.

“No, I’m not joking, it’s not bad, but maybe you should lean on something,” I said excitedly.

“Okaaaay, well, what is it?”

Now keep in mind that not only was I over-the-moon excited about this news, I had also had a whole handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans which for someone like me who generally avoids caffeine, made me talk even faster than I normally do, so it came out something like this: “NASAistakingapplicationsforastronauts, and I want to apply!”

“What?! Are you serious? No way! Do you know how many space shuttles or rockets have exploded in the history of space flight?”

Silence on my end, then “I can’t believe you’re not supporting me in this.  You’re supposed to help me achieve my dreams. They’re going to go to MARS!!!”

“But, honey, don’t you know how dangerous that is?”

“Um, hello, firefighter/SWAT medic? Seriously?!”

“Uh, right. Point taken. ”

Big sigh on his end of the line, then “OK, fine. I didn’t even know you wanted to be an astronaut.” (Really, he’s such a good guy, isn’t he?)

“I’ve only wanted to be an astronaut my whole life.  It’s SPACE!  Who wouldn’t want to go to space?  How cool would that be?!”  Actually, it was one of several things I’d considered.  Almost a year ago, I posted my dream list of future occupations when I was a kid which included “Supreme court justice, Shirley Temple stand-in, crime-fighting assassin/journalist, astronaut, and finally, Nobel Prize-winning brain researcher.”

As I was talking to him, I had been scrolling through NASA’s website, looking at the requirements in more detail.  The article I’d read said only a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) field (CHECK!), at least 3 years of experience in that field (CHECK!), and the ability to pass the astronaut physical (Well, going to have to investigate that further). What I was looking for specifically was the one thing I knew I couldn’t overcome based on will alone:  The height requirement.

“Oh no! It says 62 inches, ” I said despairingly.

“Well, that’s probably based on–”

“Hah! Wait, that’s only if I want to be a pilot or commander, plus they need over 1000 flight hours as pilot-in-command.  But I only have to be 58.5 inches tall if I want to be a mission specialist, and I’ve got that beat by a whole inch and a half! I could be a mission specialist.”

“A whole inch and a half, huh?”

I was so elated, I pretended not to hear the gently sarcastic tone in his voice. Then, as I continued to read the requirements to him, I dropped back down to Earth. Vision was another requirement, and I’m famous in my family for having horrendously thick glasses starting from age 8, until the miracle of contact lenses came along.  I had been told by one well-known eye surgeon, “We have no surgical options for you. Perhaps you’ll develop cataracts early.”

“Oh no, there’s a minimum vision requirement. 20/200 or better uncorrected. Hmm, maybe I should look into getting Lasik done anyway. Oh wait! It says correctable to 20/20, each eye. Ok, I’ve still got a chance. Or I could be a payload specialist.”

He quietly listened to me as I continued on in this vein for another 5 minutes, up and down the spectrum of excitement, as I came to the realization as I read further, that the likelihood of actually getting picked to go to astronaut candidate school was only about 0.6 %.

“Well, it would be cool just to get a rejection letter from NASA, right? I’m going to apply anyway. You never know! I could be the first PA in space. My collaborating physician would be available. . .on Earth!”

My son’s reaction when I told him NASA was taking applications for astronauts, and that I was going to apply, was even cooler.

“You’re going to be an astronaut?  Wait, how?  Can you take me with you?  I want to go to Mars, too!”

“Sweetie, you’re not old enough yet.  But if you want to be an astronaut, see how important it is to get a college degree in one of the STEM fields?” (I know, I know, not everyone needs to go to college, but seriously, Tiger Mama training dies hard.)

We surfed the NASA website together, and oohed and aahed over pictures of rockets and astronauts.

“Do you think they get to keep the blue jumpsuits?”

“Yep, pretty sure they do.”

“I want one.”

“Me too, buddy.”

We read more in depth about the physical requirements with him saying “I could do that!” and me saying, “Hmm, not sure if I can pass the swimming test (I have this horrible fear of drowning) and my little guy saying “I can though!” and right there, I watched the dream blossom in his eyes, and saw the final frontier open up for him. No limits here on Earth.  Not if you think you can be an astronaut.  And who doesn’t want that for their kids?

NASAlogo

Here’s the actual description of astronaut requirements if you’re interested in one of those blue jumpsuits, too:

http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Astronaut_Requirements.html

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.

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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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.

Holding Hands


My father has hands like bricks, reddened and hard, fired through years of tilling Michigan clay, lifting dirty tires in February winds on the narrow shoulders of freeways, and sanding smooth the doorways of the house in which he has lived since 1977. I never thought much about his hands, except as a kid when I’d done something wrong and feared his wrath. In the days before time-outs and worrying about self-esteem, my father’s hands were scarier than a belt or a “wisdom stick”. My grandmother and mother used switches we had to pick ourselves from the two oak trees in the front yard, but my father’s hands were tough enough to make us think twice. Punishment meted was swift and painful which we earned often enough between the four of us, mischievous and curious as we were. We didn’t view it as abuse, given the nature of corporal punishment at the time, in fact, preferring a swat on the behind to being grounded or other non-corporal punishments.

My hands look more like my mother’s, slim with longish fingers for the small hands that I have. I always wanted bigger hands with longer fingers, thinking them elegant and more agile for things like playing piano or building things. Having small hands can be advantageous though, as I discovered the first time I participated in an exploratory abdominal surgery. Surgeons will frequently talk and joke during surgery, but during this one, as I stood very still trying not to contaminate the sterile field while holding retractors, one of them asked who had the smallest hands in the room. Surgical gloves are sized from 5.5 to 9 and specific to right and left. OR techs and nurses know what size and type a surgeon prefers to wear and everything is set out prior to the procedure. If you are new, they will ask you what size glove you wear, then help you to put them on to maintain sterile fields. I wear a 5.5 or 6 depending on what is available, and so the nurses pointed to me. Because I had the smallest hands, they asked me to insert my hands into the patient’s abdominal cavity to break up adhesions around the liver. The feeling of sliding my hand around someone’s liver was incredible, smooth and strangely slick, and thrilling to me.

I never thought much about anyone’s hands until the day my future husband asked to hold mine. When I was young and dreamed about the man I might someday marry, I never thought much about what he would look like, let alone what his hands would look like. As little girls, my next door friend Amy and I would hum the marriage song as we processed across the family room, holding a worn bunch of plastic flowers. The husbands we married were incidental, a necessary part of the process to get to the next step which was stuffing a baby doll up our shirts to pretend we were going to be mothers. This would be followed by pretending to be Princess Leia or Lady Jane from GI Joe. Our summers were filled with acting out fanciful scenarios of heroines and heroes with our brothers. I never pretended to hold hands with anyone though, never realizing what a lovely part of being with someone that it is.

In romance novels, a lot of the descriptions center on kisses between the main characters. Rarely do they talk about the sweetness of holding hands.  It is said that the handshake evolved from the ancient custom of a showing of hands empty of weapons. I think the knowledge ascertained from holding another’s hand in yours can be greater than just knowing they do not hold weapons. In my present work, I check hand-grip strength on patients regularly. It is a part of our diagnostic tool set, telling us if there is weakness or tremor, but patients will look at my hands, concerned that they will squeeze too hard.  I’m learning not only about grip strength though when I hold their hands. I can tell what kind of work or hobbies they do, if there are lesions that haven’t healed, if they bite their fingernails, or if nerve damage is present, among other things.

When I held hands with my husband for the first time, I was struck by the similarities between his hands and those of my father’s.  Though we were largely strangers to one another, his hands were familiar to me.  I understood instinctively what kind of person he was, though I could not have put it into words at that moment as young as I was.  Once while we were dating, he apologized for the state of his hands, rough from the work he had been doing.  I told him what I still believe today, that there is no shame in hard work.  His hands are never raised in anger to our little ones, though they are just as mischievous as I ever was.

The church in which we worship holds hands during the Lord’s Prayer, an act which always makes my children a little wary.  They don’t want to hold hands with someone who is not part of our family, and I never force them to, but they are frequently rewarded with a smile from an elderly person who might be sitting near our less-than-angelic children.  Some might call this practice unhygienic, and in fact, there are times when they are ill or someone else is that we don’t hold hands, but in that there is still a lesson about how we care for others in the community by respectfully declining.   They are learning too what it is to be connected, to know the feel of someone else’s hand, to be gentle in the way they grip arthritic fingers, and not to fear the unknown.

There is something powerful in the act of holding hands. It is an act that literally and figuratively connects us. As mothers we have known the secret feeling of children dancing within our wombs, like stars slowly spinning within the nebulae of our own personal gravity, but for our men, it is the grip of their baby’s tiny hand around their finger which shifts time and space.  As I watch my children grip their grandfather’s hand walking with him on a mountain hike, his other hand gripping the walking stick shaped with loving care by my husband’s hands, it occurs to me that I stopped holding my father’s hands after childhood, when I no longer needed his help to walk.  I remember the feeling of my hand in the crook of his arm as he walked me down the aisle of our church and the way it felt when he put my hand in my husband’s, like a blessing and an absence all at once, and I know it is too soon to let go.

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My little guy hanging onto his grandpa.

Today I am thankful for all the hands that shaped my life along the way. I am grateful for silly internet pictures of otters holding hands to remind us that we are all connected, and pray for the strength to hold on, for as long as we are blessed to have those we love in our lives.  I’m wishing my father a blessed 80th birthday, and praying for many more birthdays like this.

Love, Despite


 

Before I married my husband, I told him to make sure that he was marrying me for who I was that day, and not for any future changes he hoped to have wrought in me through the “transforming” power of marriage. Though we were both young, I had seen enough unhappy marriages to make me wary of the institution, and who wants to be institutionalized, really?  I had no question that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, but I wanted us to start off with as little illusion as possible.  I wanted to know that he saw me, and not some airbrushed version of a girl to be placed on a pedestal.  It is easy to fall in love if you believe all the fairy tales and movies.  Beautiful women with flowing hair and flawless skin meet muscled men with pure hearts and chivalrous intentions and they ride off to his manor with servants aplenty to watch the perfectly well-behaved children gambol across the lawn.

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Real life, though, is grittier.  The muscled boy that you met at 18 will have to help you get to the bathroom after giving birth to an almost 9 lb baby, change that baby’s first meconium-filled diaper, and not comment on all the broken blood vessels across your face from pushing to get that giant-headed child out. Those flowing locks that you used to have time to tame into submission, will subside into their normal frizzy state, then fall out during pregnancy so you look like an alien who accidentally swallowed a giant watermelon.  The manor will actually be a tiny little starter home surrounded by other tiny little starter homes where you can hear your neighbors argue and flush their toilets. Those perfectly well-behaved children will kick a soccer ball right through your basement window after being sent outside so you can think in silence for 2 blessed minutes before you erupt into acid-spewing dragon mama mode, yet again.

What is not easy, is staying in love, loving, actually choosing to love, when face it, there are times when we are not lovable.  When we are angry at the burned beef stew and there is not a single, flipping thing ready to eat in the house and everyone is hungry.  When we are frustrated at piles of bills and broken car innards, and then the dentist says your child needs braces and it’s going to cost you exactly what you planned to spend on the car repairs.  When we are already late to church for the umpteenth time, and we scream hurry up at the child who has to go to the bathroom right now.  When we slam the phone down multiple times, because once is just not enough.  And does anyone else agree that hitting the end button on our cell phones multiple times is just not the same?!  We are so often not at our best, so often not that serene  image of our best self that we aspire to, and carry around in our heads.  And yet, and yet, we continue to love one another, despite. We continue to hold on, in a world that does not value the sanctity of marriage or family or friendship.

Last Sunday’s Gospel described Jesus’ tranfiguration on the mountain.  Every time I hear this passage, I giggle a little to myself at Peter’s response to the incredible change he is witness to, but then wonder myself at what I might have said or done in his shoes. In reality, though, we see one another every day transformed. We see past the imperfections and flaws–frizzy hair, receding hairlines, extra pounds, impatience, frustration, and love one another.  That is the tranfigurative power of love, and we do not have to look to the mountaintops, or what others refer to as those thin places where the divine is closer to us mortals, to see that transfiguration.  We see it everyday when we choose to love despite and not because. We do it everyday, when we call one another Mình ơi, or sweetheart, when we are definitely not being sweet nor acting like the best reflection of our selves.

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Today I am thankful for love that echoes the divine, that transforms us into our most ideal selves. I pray for the fortitude to keep trying to love despite and not because.  I am grateful for the lack of illusions that makes marriage a safe harbor despite all my fears to the contrary, and for books which not only enthrall us, but also give us inspiration through words of wisdom which are gifts unto themselves.

“It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear