At 10:16 yesterday morning, I received an e-mail from my mother. The message was three sentences long, and only the first four words were in English: Bác Hai is dying. The rest was in Vietnamese, unaccented: Bo Me se di Montreal toi nay. May con muon qua tham Bac Hai cuoi tuan nay thi nen di. Dad and Mom are going to Montreal tonight. If you kids want to see her, you should come this weekend. Five e-mails from my siblings followed in succession, discussing the details of our trip to see our aunt. I cancelled my appointments, rearranged meetings, work, a dinner date. My sister called, and my brother soon after.
I called my mother to chia buồn, to share sadness, but all she said was to call my sister and ask whether she would be flying or driving up on Saturday. I asked my mother if she was alright. She said she had a lot to do. I said I would see her soon.
Right before dinner, she called me again to remind me to bring my passport. I said I would. After we hung up, I stood alone in my room folding laundry, anticipating the schoolwork I’d have to get out of the way before leaving for Montreal. As I smoothed the corner of a white sweater, tears hit me unexpectedly—dry, hiccupy, loud. After I put all my clothes away, I brushed my teeth and studied calculus until my eyes would not stay open.
When Ông died, my family flew out to Los Angeles where he had lived with his wife and eldest son. The day of his funeral, I didn’t wonder about any of life’s big questions: not while playing mancala with my brother at the house or while standing over the grave in my only black dress or while watching my grandmother scream into her husband’s grave that she would be with him soon. I didn’t marvel at the smoothness of the white shells or ponder the futility of our mortal days or ask my father about love. I didn’t even cry. All I did that day was turn eight.
When we returned to Los Angeles in December of the following year, it was for my grandmother’s funeral. She had been married to my grandfather since she was twelve—only three years older than I was when she died. The day of the funeral, while I stood with my older brother and sisters on one side of the casket, I watched my mother sob brokenly into a tissue, mourning the woman who had raised her since her marriage to my father and the death of her own mother over thirty years ago. My father only stood beside my mother and stared into the distance, his eyes dry. That night, as I lay next to my mother in the guest bedroom, she dreamt that she woke up and saw my grandmother’s body hanging in the closet. I have not slept with the closet door open to this day.
When I was seventeen, my mother’s father died after ninety-eight years of waking everyday and seeing the sky. While he was alive and aging, my grandfather loved the particular simplicities of sitting and walking. Inside our house he sat in an old wooden rocking chair and rocked in silence, or he sat on the floor in muted meditation. When he tired of sitting, my grandfather walked all around the house in a slow circle, from the dining room to the kitchen to the foyer and up the stairs and down again, then back through the dining room. Outside our house in Hillsborough he sat all afternoon in the same rocking chair, watching suburbia move slowly around our porch. But his favorite pastime was sitting by the water at the beach in our only folding chair, feet buried up to the ankles in sand, wearing a fisherman’s hat to block the sun, watching the rising and falling tide against the brown sugary sand.
My grandfather died in Cần Thơ, the unpaved city in South Vietnam where my mother was born. I had not seen him for six years. He had an elaborate traditional Vietnamese funeral in the house where his only son, my mother’s estranged brother, had died several years before. I looked at photographs of the ceremony when my mother brought them home weeks later.
My aunts and cousins were all dressed in white: white shirts and sheets and pointed head coverings that reminded me disconcertingly of the Klan. Dozens of glossy photos showed my grandfather’s tiny shrunken body, the crumbling, grieving faces of my mother and her sisters frozen in single frames, lying on our kitchen table. Though we were not the closest of grandfathers and granddaughters, I found myself getting sucked in as I flipped clumsily through the flimsy photographs; my vision blurred and a salty taste inched into the corners of my mouth. As I cried silently into my sweatshirt at the kitchen table, my mother stood several feet away, preparing dinner and singing an old Vietnamese love song.
We had not known each other well. I cannot say to this day what his first name was, what any of their names were. My paternal grandfather was known only to me as Ông, literally old man. They didn’t speak English or drive cars or use forks. My grandparents were as old as old school gets—ejected from a dying, weeping country overtaken by warfare, and inserted abruptly into the West. The men were scholars in their own right, once prominent members of their communities, but now old and lost in a world where faces did not match their own. Even my face, though in so many ways like theirs, was oftentimes alien. Oftentimes two generations felt like ten.
I have not been to a funeral in over nine years. I have seen them on TV, passed by a few at the Tennent Road Cemetery, viewed them in photographs. I’m eighteen now, and have not played mancala in over eight years. I own exactly nine black dresses. I saw my aunt only two and a half months ago, and I will see her again for the last time in four days. The drive will take seven hours. I will wear black at the funeral, and my mother will cry. On the way home, I will sleep for most of the way.