A Soccer Mom’s Ode to Baseball & Dia de Los Muertos


I planned a post today about All Soul’s Day, a day we celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved who have passed away. Living here in the Southwest, Dia de Los Muertos is big, with festive parades and sugar skull decorations everywhere. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Day, is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, honoring the deceased with food, ofrendas, and calavera make-up.  

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It also happens to coincide tonight with Game 7 of the World Series, a tied series between the Cleveland Indians, and the underdog favorites, the Chicago Cubs.  Being from Detroit, my team is the Tigers, but I’m a sucker for the underdog, so I’ve been rooting for the Cubs. But tonight of all nights, we had no TV reception.  Though we live in the Southwest, we live in high desert, which means that November has brought cooler temperatures, and the winds were whipping over the mountain, shaking our tiny little antenna beyond its capacity. Like my dad always taught me though, “This is history!” We had to witness this, and so I dragged my husband out to the local pub to watch the game, despite a long day after soccer practice for our little guy.

As I’ve posted before, I’m not an athlete.We don’t watch a lot of sports except when my kids are playing or the Olympics are on.  My son has been playing soccer for 7 years, and I still don’t get what off sides (not even sure this is one word or two) means when the ref calls it.  But I grew up watching baseball, and the 1984 World Series Champions were my Tigers.  I can still remember the faces of the players from Sweet Lou Whitaker to Gibby, and my personal favorites, Alan Trammell and for some reason Darrell Evans. Hot Sunday afternoons we sprawled out in front of the TV, fan rotating over all of us ineffectually, or my aunt would pull the antenna up on her stereo to catch the broadcast on WJR by Ernie Harwell.

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Tonight, I wanted a little of that baseball magic back.  Watching those games made time stand still, and the game tonight did not disappoint.  I don’t know these faces like I knew my Tigers, but I recognized the same intensity in them.  That drive to win, to play at the top of your game, the agony of a strike when the count is down 3 balls, 2 strikes, and it’s the bottom of the inning, it’s still there.  We sat in the pub with complete strangers, our eyes rooted to each swing of the bat, each bounce of the ball across a rainy field, and all of our cheers and groans somehow united us.  One couple, Marshall and Jennifer, happened to be from Illinois, with long generations of die-hard Cubs fans who never had seen the Cubs get this far in the World Series.  Marshall’s grandfather died two years ago at age 88, having never had his lifelong wish to see the Cubs win the World Series fulfilled.  His wife Jennifer rubbed the back of his Cubs shirt as the score tied at 6-6, and we headed into a 10th inning with a rain delay.

I looked around the pub, at the bartenders who were kind enough to stay open past closing time, at the customers wandering in and out to stand, arms folded in front of the television, at the waitstaff expertly whisking away glasses and plates, and thought of all the other baseball fans across the world, sitting like we were, on the edge of our seats, praying and watching, jumping up with every hit, cheering every catch, holding our breaths collectively.  This, then, is what draws people to sports, though we are not all athletes.  This drama, this heightened awareness of each passing second, it makes us feel alive, makes us feel as connected as if we are all related to the players, like me on the sidelines cheering for my little guy kicking that soccer ball towards the goal.

And when the Cubs did win it, hard-fought as we watched with fingers clenched, palms sweating, Marshall raised a glass in honor of his grandfather, as fans all across the world did, for those who have passed, and didn’t get to be here celebrating with us.  We honor our dead by remembering them, by cherishing their memories, by our longing to share moments such as this with them. After the game, we lingered in the pub, savoring the atmosphere charged with the joyous aftermath of victory, then walked out into the darkness, a blessing of rain echoing that on the baseball field, a strangely fitting end to Dia de los Muertos.

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Oenomel


Today I awoke to a symphony of birds outside my window. I’d fallen asleep with the door to my balcony open as it had been uncomfortably warm when I finally got home from the sloping streets of Santa Fe, and though I’d hoped to sleep in, I highly recommend this over the blaring siren call of an alarm clock. Yesterday felt like spring, a day for wearing shorts and strolling to nowhere particular. If you are anything like me, you’re saying, “I can’t believe it’s May already!” My good friends with green thumbs were bemoaning the hail, sleet, snow and rain we got on May 1: “But it’s May Day!” which led me to think of the real meaning of the phrase Mayday. A derivation of the French “Aidez-moi!” which means “help me!”, this international sign of distress was born in 1927, based on an Italian guy’s take on M’aider. This is improper French (take it from someone with entirely too little French retained in my head for the number of French classes in high school and college I’ve taken). To distinguish it from a casual mention in radio chatter of May Day (for which there are any number of celebrations, pagan and Christian) it must be repeated 3 times to be considered a valid distress call. This brings to mind scenes from all kinds of stories in which an incantation or phrase must be said 3 times in order for magic to occur.

Because I love words so much, I have daily deliverings of words of the day and daily prompts regarding words, most of which I read and tuck away in some obscure fold in my brain, but sometimes the confluence of the words makes it feel like there is some greater theme or scheme not obvious to the oblivious like me that demands to be written about. Today’s word of the day is oenomel, which means “something combining strength and sweetness.” The daily prompt when I began writing this post was the word Hope. In my strangely wired brain, a cry of mayday is a signal of hope.  It means we believe that our cry for deliverance from that which threatens us will be answered.  To ask for help is to believe in some small way that someone or something will save us.  Said 3 times, it is an incantation of hope, a belief in a stronger power to come to our aid in times of distress.  And, today, of all days, a day to celebrate mothers and motherhood seemed an appropriate day to celebrate hope.  If you have been blessed as I have been with a mother who has always been able to offer hope and strength in equal measure during times most dire and full of confusion, or with other strong women who stood in a mother’s stead to be present for you, count yourself among those who have always known hope, always known that any maydays would not need to be said 3 times, as the magic of the cry for mother needs only be said once.

Today I wish for you a day filled with birdsong and brightness, a day made for strolling with those you love, and a life in which you can be for others, an oenomel. I am thankful for my mother and all the strong women I’ve been surrounded by. I pray to honor their example.  Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers by every definition of the word, everywhere, from your local dragon mama!

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.”

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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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.

My Self


Being both Vietnamese and Korean, but having grown up in America, I have a strange relationship with the English language and my mother-tongue Vietnamese.  Because I was blessed to grow up with my grandmother who knew only enough English to order some of her favorite foods (i.e., hamburger–preferably a Big Mac), I learned enough Vietnamese to allow me to understand the gist of most stories told around the dinner table, but not enough to ever allow me to be a diplomat (unless said diplomat was being asked to take out the garbage).  I never learned to read Vietnamese until I went to college, and it was there that I discovered several things.
#1. The reason I had such a difficult time understanding my newly arrived cousins wasn’t because there was something wrong with me (though some might disagree), but because they had a Southern Vietnamese accent, and I had been raised with my grandmother’s Northern Vietnamese dialect.  My grandmother survived not only the emigration from Vietnam to America (see my previous post Flight), but also a harrowing escape from northern Vietnam to southern Vietnam because of the Communists.

#2. The other revelation to me was how I even came to be born. Now, normally, taking a language class does not prompt a discussion regarding existentialism, however, having now learned the proper pronunciation for words and phrases that I had heard all of my life, I realized how poor my father’s Vietnamese is, which led me to wonder how my mother and father managed to have a conversation in those early years, let alone fall in love.  Their mutual language had to have been English, which was obviously a 2nd language for both.  One phrase which I had heard all my life, and realized later was being mangled every day was the phrase “Mình ơi”.   This is a term of endearment similar to honey or sweetheart, and primarily used between husbands and wives.   My father pronounces it “Me-noy”, which explains why it took me so long to figure out exactly what he was saying all these years to my mother.  When I learned the literal meaning behind the phrase, it made me take a closer look at my family.  You see, growing up in a fairly traditional Asian family, compliments and positive feedback are not the norm.  We don’t “hug it out” in our family.  Children are given nicknames based on practical descriptions: “Little brother, big sister, etc.”  And so, when I learned the meaning of “Me-noy”, I was taken aback by how beautiful it is.  Mình ơi literally translates into “my self” or “my body”.  I was instantly reminded of this verse:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be as one flesh.” Genesis 2:24.

Mình ơi is at once beautiful and archaic.  It describes what one writer calls “the transcendent unity of husband and wife”, in which you become so much a part of one another, their body is yours and vice versa, while also describing the possessiveness that is inherent in marriage.  It pales in comparison to honey or sweetheart in terms of its depth of meaning.  Love thyself, or love one another, it is all the same if the true meaning of the phrase is felt.

In one passage from Scripture, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers “Yes, I love you” in 3 different ways.   What limits us in our understanding of this passage, and why I find the scholarship of the Church’s teaching so helpful, is that in translation from Greek or Latin, the words used for love differ in each sentence.   Love of God has a different word from love of neighbor or friend.  When translated to English, that meaning is lost as we have only 1 word for love, and thus the subtle nuances of the exchange between Jesus and Peter are lost on us.  In the same way, “Me-noy” went from “honey” to something much more meaningful once I understood the significance.  There is power in naming something, as it allows us to truly see its nature.  When we are able to name an unfamiliar noise as the knocking of a shutter in the wind, it changes our reality and our emotional response.  Understanding Mình ơi showed me the depth beneath a life in which sweet words are seldom said.  I love you is the dinner my mother cooks for all of us on our birthdays, planned for days in advance.  It is the shoveling of the driveway on yet another snowy day, and hours spent knitting socks for feet that grow cold at night.  It is that which withstands illness, death, and heartache and transcends the boundaries of our self.

Today I am thankful for languages, spoken and otherwise. I am grateful to have grown up bilingual and multicultural, as it has given me the ability to appreciate all that is unique and wonderful in each world.

Because I love words so much, I wonder what the phrases lovers use in other countries reveals about their culture?  I’ve shared a link to an article which lists a few, but please feel free to comment if you have an example of one used in your family or culture:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/55564/15-delightful-foreign-terms-endearment-english-should-adopt

This article is a lovely one which discusses the meaning of the word “ơi”:

http://diacritics.org/2011/erin-ninh-an-ode-to-%C6%A1i

And in response to yesterday’s post about Pi Day, a video response to Pi Day by Vihart, which because it is equally nerdy and snarky, manages not to make me like Pi Day less:

Flight


“I’m not leaving without my mother.”  Each time I hear those words in this story, the hairs on my arms stand up.  It is the story of the day we left Vietnam.  My brother says we are doomed to lead less interesting lives then our parents.  I think instead we are blessed. Recognizing these blessings is part of this burning away of all that drags us into the mire of living the unexamined life.

I am grateful today not to live in a country where we are in fear of bombs blowing up our homes, where we have to decide what country we should flee to, or worry about never seeing family members again.  This was what passed for normal for my mother and father in Saigon in 1975.  My parents worked for the American military at Tan Son Nhut airbase.  It was a dangerous position to be in, a liability if the wrong side won the war, a risk that could put my parents, and my mother’s family in danger for supporting the cause of freedom from Communism.

The fall of Saigon is officially April 30, 1975. A few days prior, my father came to work and was told to return to Tan Son Nhut Airport with only his immediate family–my mother and me, and one suitcase within a few hours time to insure a safe departure from Saigon.  My grandmother and my mother’s 2 young sisters had come to stay in my mother’s apartment in Saigon after they could not board a boat in Vung Tau to leave the country.  No one knew what would happen next, but my mother insisted that she would not leave Vietnam without her mother.  And so, all of us made it onto that airplane through the grace of God and sheer force of will.

Because of this, I have always been surrounded by strong women–women who have survived war, cancer, and heartbreak.  Because of this, I have always had the example of how to be a good mother, sister, daughter, and wife.  Because of this, I have seen the saving power of grace and forgiveness. For all of these things, I am grateful for a mother who knows how to bend with change, who has been broken and made whole again, and is still beautiful.  She is the woman who has always told me that she gave me wings so that I could fly.

My mother leading the way.

My mother leading the way.

As we start this 40 day journey into leaving behind fear, I’m joining others across the country who are keeping gratitude journals, and invite you to do the same.  The benefits of counting our blessings, so to speak, are manifold:  increased feelings of happiness, better relationships, more energy. . .The trick lies in making this a habit, of course.  Let’s hope that 40 days is enough.

Check out these other blogs for help with your gratitude journal:

http://www.aholyexperience.com/joy-dares/

http://momastery.com/blog/2014/03/06/gratitude-experiment/

And check out this research on forming habits (because I’m still a nerd):

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/02/how-long-it-takes-to-form-a-new-habit/

A Heart Like No Other


I had the privilege of being the last to hear my grandmother’s heart beat.  When you pronounce someone in a hospital, there are usually heart monitors and other machines to confirm their passing.  A host of other medical professionals are usually standing by, and a curious stillness after the cacophony of chest compressions and beeping machines enters the room.  It is like a held breath, just long enough for the exact hour and minute to be noted, and then everything begins again, the clock restarted, time marching onward.  Gloves snap, charts close, trays rattle, and all the people melt away, on to the next pressing task.

In hospitals, signs of holidays are everywhere to keep patients oriented to time and place, and to cheer up staff and visitors.  Valentine’s Day is no different, red and pink hearts decorating hallways and doors.  Perhaps because my work was in cardiology, Valentine’s Day always carries a different meaning for me, all the emphasis on hearts reminding me of the steady beats I listen to every day.

The night my grandmother passed away, the rhythmic rise and fall of soft, sad voices in prayer filled the spaces between each beat and breath.  I knelt beside her bed, my fingers on her pulse, feeling the erratic beats slow.  Without a monitor, I had to trust my trembling hands to lay my stethoscope on her chest.

Absence of sound is a funny thing.  You have to listen longer, to the in-between spaces that stretch out, a ribbon of silence, and it is you that pulls away, weighing the likelihood of sound against your willingness to listen further.  I bend my neck, a prayer, the blessing of this moment heavy on my head.

In that moment, I am a child again, kneeling at my grandmother’s bedside, hesitantly echoing her words, the air in the darkened room heavy and still, time marked not by the ticking of a clock, but by decades of Hail Marys.  In those hours at her feet, the sounds of my mother’s country molded my tongue, and I say the Sign of the Cross in Vietnamese, joining my family in benediction and intercession.  I look at my watch, unable to see the numbers through my tears.

My grandmother was born in the Year of the Snake. Like clocks, a calendar in those days wasn’t important, the tasks of the day tied to the setting of the sun and the turning of the seasons from wet to dry, harvest to sowing, and so we don’t know her exact birth date.   It seems wrong somehow, that instead of honoring the date she came into this world, we observe the date of her death.  She was not sad, but ready, longing to be in Heaven with her angels, two little boys who died in childhood, in the days before vaccines or antibiotics.  I learned about the power of grief from her, as she told me stories about her clever little boys, rheumy eyes still wet with memories from decades long before, when she was a young mother losing her sons.

I grew up under those watchful eyes, her hands always slightly gnarled, but soft and smooth, as if the years of running rosary beads between her fingers had transferred the smoothness to them.  My earliest memories are of being with her, eating crusty French bread dipped in Borden’s condensed milk, or walking around our apartment complex through early morning dew.  She never really seemed to age, until after I moved out into my own home, married with children of my own, carrying my stethoscope like a talisman as I made my way through the world.

In the year before she died, my grandmother was hospitalized where I frequently did rounds.  In that hospital bed, surrounded by those beeping machines, she was so much smaller than I remembered, and so much less herself.  The nurses and physicians would comment on what a sweet patient she was, and how attentive my family was, as she was never left alone.  Though she received excellent care from the staff, I am grateful that she did not die in that hospital bed.  Instead she died at home in her own bed, surrounded by family.  The oxygen saturation of her last breath was not measured, her arms lay untouched by IVs or needles, my stethoscope the only foreign thing in her room.  Hers was the most peaceful death I have ever witnessed.

There were no machines, no trays, no gloves, just the soft touch of loving hands folded in prayer.  I do not know the hour or the minute of her passing, and it is not noted in anyone’s chart. I know it was the year of the Dog, and that my grandmother finally went home to be with her angels.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/writing-challenge-valentine/