I recently submitted this piece to my school’s English department awards and received the Nonfiction Award. I am absolutely ecstatic about this accomplishment, and my parents are also proud of me too 🙂
Thank you to my mother for her courage and to my aunt for being there. After receiving the news, I called my mother and emailed her a copy. I’m a bit scared and nervous of her reaction. I just hope she likes it. Thanks to other people who probably don’t know that I’m thanking them: Amber Nowak for copy editing the piece, Benjamin Chapman, a friend from Figment, for reading through the essay and giving me really nice comments, and lastly, my whole Memoir Writing class for ‘workshopping’ this essay. The class was taught by the amazing and knowledgeable Sonya Huber.
For this assignment, the class had to write a spiritual essay, meaning we had to discuss something that moves us in ways that we never tried to verbalize before. Of course, this was a hard task for me, since I had never spoken to anyone about this particular topic. One, because they might convince me to think otherwise. Two, because the idea might seem weird to someone who doesn’t know me. However, I felt like the resulting product was definitely worth the trouble and procrastination. I am immensely proud of the finished product.
As with many of my pieces I couldn’t think of a good enough title, so right now, this story is nameless!
I stared at my dead aunt’s photo that hung in the living room, noting, as my insides twisted, that I looked quite similar to her.
In summer of 2011, I had returned to my mom’s childhood home in Vietnam after ten years. When we arrived, my mom told me to explore the house and take pictures.
I came across the living room that had its doors and windows wide open. Any person or dog could have roamed into the room. Just outside, the motorcycles roared as they drove through the narrow street next to our house. In the early morning, the rays of the sun that couldn’t be blocked by the coconut and banana trees trickled into the room. The homely smell of star anise and cinnamon, from the phở sold on the streets, wafted on a summer breeze.
In the middle of the room was a small shrine. Two giant candles sat on top of a tall mahogany table. A vase of flowers and a plate of fresh pineapple and mangosteen flanked a large framed slate engraved with Chinese characters. In front of it was a ceramic bowl filled with rice and a forest of burnt joss sticks. A floor fan lazily twisted left and right. The walls that enclosed the shrine displayed my mother’s past through grainy photos which captured her father and mother and siblings – all of whom passed too early in life. I knew my aunt’s photo would be there.
I immediately found her because her face was the most youthful one out of all the pictures – and the one that was eerily like mine.
My vision shrunk for a moment when I saw my aunt for the first time, and the room disappeared. Even though I’ve heard about her so often as a child, I never saw her face. I wasn’t born yet when she was alive, so I can only learn about her from stories told in the family. When my relatives speak of her, they get hazy eyes and the ghosts of sad smiles appear on their faces.
She was 18 when she died.
I liked her eyes. Even though she stared back at me in faded black and white color I saw life in her eyes. I wished that she smiled in her photo, because I always thought she’d have a pretty smile. My mother often tells me that my aunt was very bright. She liked to sew her own clothes. She volunteered at summer schools for kids who didn’t have any money because she loved children.
She was the youngest of the family, and in moments when I felt so fed up with being the youngest of my siblings, I talked to her in my mind. I used to ask her how she dealt with so many people treating you like you weren’t old enough to understand anything. Even though she was never physically there for me she still managed to comfort me.
In the past, I’ve thought about the idea of reincarnation, how the spirit of a dead person can come back in another form. I don’t have a particular religious belief, but I’ve always liked the idea of living again in a different form. Perhaps my aunt was reincarnated into me. Maybe her spirit waited for so long at the threshold between pre-existence and birth, that when my time came, she sensed me somehow, and maybe she decided to go along for the ride. That might explain why, out of my siblings, I’m the closest to my mother. I like that thought a lot. Then, I realize, what a conceited thought to have! To think that I might be worthy enough for my aunt to pick me? I can never replace my mother’s sister. I don’t want to.
I can’t pinpoint how I see myself in her. Is it our eyes? Our mouths? Our cheeks? When my eyes first took in her face, I felt like the breath was sucked out of me, and sorrow crept up behind me. My aunt never reached my age.
But my sorrow can never amount to my mother’s, for my aunt’s death left an intangible mark on her. My grandfather passed away in 1980. Forty-eight days later, my grandmother died of a broken heart. Nine months later, my mom lost my aunt. Within a year, God, or fate, or whoever is in charge, snatched away the three most important people from her life.
As my eyes focused on my aunt’s photo, my mind flashed back to that Sunday when my mother told me something that she never told my brother and my sister before, something I’ve only started to think about now.
She blames herself for her sister’s death.
I always loved Sundays. When we were little, my parents would sleep in. To wake them up, my sister and I would crawl under the covers and burrow ourselves against their bodies. My brother, though he now denies us any physical contact, used to come in and sprawl his body horizontally across the bed, and I, being the annoying little sister, would try to kick him off. I used to bury my nose in my dad’s pillow, breathing in the scent of his sweat, Head & Shoulder, and Gillete aftershave. He would wake up, snorting, then he’d complain like a spoiled child that we took up all the room on the bed. My mom would wake up groggy, but laughing. She’d plant a nose kiss on my cheek; she never gives me lip kisses, she’d only press her nose against my cheek and sniff it, as if testing the scent. When she was ‘hungry,’ she’d playfully bite my chin and say I was delicious and in her arms, I’d try to squirm away from her morning breath.
One morning in my freshman year of college, my mother and I sat at the breakfast table. Because of school, it had been a while since we spent a Sunday together. We’d just finished eating my mother’s overdone eggs and burnt sausages, and I was watching the fallen leaves outside the window as they seemed to dance along our deck. The branches of the trees swayed, naked, in an unheard symphony. A movement pulled me from my reverie and I turned, my eyes meeting my mom’s. She looked dazed, probably looked very much like I did a few minutes ago. I poked her in the arm. My mom smiled slightly then glanced down at my hand.
Sometimes she did that. Anyone who knew her well could tell that she had something to say. If she doesn’t voluntarily speak, something must be wrong. I asked her if she was okay.
“I was thinking about my sister,” she told me quietly in Vietnamese.
I didn’t think it was strange. Her past is always, in some ways, in her mind. The past made her into the person she is today. She tells us all the time about how she escaped Vietnam with her sister and nieces and nephew. How hard she worked to provide food and shelter for us. How much she sacrificed.
As a teenager, like all stupid teenagers, I took my parents for granted. Every time I did something wrong, like get a bad grade on my biology test or stayed out too late one night without calling them, my mom reminded me of her story. I used to wave her off, calling it her ‘sob story,’ and then I’d slam the door in her face. I still don’t know what she thought when I did this. I don’t want to know. I already hate myself enough for the way I acted as a naïve, selfish, and privileged 13-year-old. That Sunday, I was an adult.
“Is her birthday coming up?” I asked her. I never keep track of these dates, but my mom always offered prayers to honor her family in some ways.
“It’s her death anniversary.”
Her lips trembled, and she turned her head, trying to hide the oncoming tears, and I couldn’t help but watch her. It’s always hard to see a strong person break down like that. At the same time, the breaking down of these walls can provide the most fascinating display. Broken beauty. That’s what I think when I see my mother in moments like these.
“I remember being in the hospital, sitting next to her bed,” she said, her eyes looking beyond me. “She was always sick. Her white cells kept killing her red ones.”
I suspect that my aunt might have had anemia, but I’m not completely sure. It was hard – still is – to keep track of medical records in Vietnam, because the hospitals were poorly run and understaffed.
My mom began to tear her napkin apart, bit by bit. “She asked me to take her home. She didn’t want to die in a hospital.” It was just her and her sister in the hospital that night. Her sisters were home, taking care of the house and trying to hold together the remnants of their happy times amidst the war and the pressures of the communist government.
“But I told her –” my mom laughed, and I knew what she was thinking of couldn’t be funny “– I told she wasn’t going to die. Then she said that she wanted to die, because it took too much of her to live.”
Mom glanced at me.
“I should have taken her home. She wanted to be home, so why didn’t I just bring her back? She could have died in peace, knowing she was back where she belonged.”
People sometimes say that their “hearts go out” for others who are less fortunate. I’ve only learned to understand that phrase after applying it to my mother. My mother loved her sister. She was her favorite, and while her older sisters protected her, my mother took care of my aunt.
It’s hard to imagine such a time. I have An, my sister, who’s one year older, and though she’s at another college, she’s still just a text message away. But what would happen if—
I can’t even think of that now. She – and I – are too young to die.
Then I think about my aunt, whose time came too soon. It makes me want to hold An tighter the next time we have to leave each other again.
Four weeks after the first time I laid eyes on my aunt’s face, I went with my parents to the site where my aunt was buried.
It’s a shame to think that her youngest sister couldn’t be buried alongside her parents. Her grave had to be in some backyard of a stranger, because back then, the area was actually a rice field, a special place to be buried. But times had changed, and the rice fields gave way to houses and train tracks. It’s a shame to see that my aunt’s grave is the dumping site for dogs, cows, and hens. My mom didn’t say anything when she spotted the feces in the grass. She tightened her grip on the bundle of joss sticks in her hands.
She ignored the curious stares of people looking out from the houses as she stood in front of the tomb. They probably weren’t used to people visiting it.
I should have memorized the name on that grave, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know my aunt’s name until now: Pham Thi Mai Thương. It sounds like the singing wind. It makes me sad to know that I can never truly know anything beyond her beautiful name.