Goodbye, Dad

My phone rang around 2:15 in the morning on Sunday. It was my sister in Vietnam. I knew something was bad. She cried and informed me that our dad was not doing well. She turned on the camera and pointed to our dad. He was on the ventilator and his skin already turned gray. Fifteen minutes later, he stopped breathing. My heart sank. My sister kept her camera on while everyone did something for him. My brother-in-law gave him a wash. My other sister changed his clothes. I was totally helpless from the other side of the world. My sister told me she needed to do something so we hung up.

I tried to catch some sleep but I just tossed and turned. Around five in morning, my sister called again and asked me to break the news to my mom. I called her to tell her about her husband’s passing and guided my nephew to help her make a video call so she could see his face for the last time before they placed him in his casket. I told my wife I needed to drive to Lancaster to be with my mother during this difficult time. I listened to Khánh Ly’s pre-1975 recording of Trịnh Công Sơn music the whole time I was on the road. I always turned to this special collection when I needed to console my own soul. Through his philosophical lyricism, he writes about death eloquently.

I stayed with her and we talked about my father a bit. We both were grieving in silence. I bought some lunch and we ate together. Her emotion was stronger than I thought. She had been through so much and weathered many storms that came her way. After she went to bed to rest, I went to the skatepark near my sister’s house. It was a windy, cloudy Sunday evening. The entire park was empty. I rollerbladed a few rounds in the beginner bowl then just reclined myself against the curved wall watching the dead leaves blowing and gray clouds floating. I reminisced about my father. I can only recall glimpses of him in my childhood memories. The time he made me a kite and we flew it together on the top balcony of our house. The time when I inserted a wire into an electrical outlet, which nearly shocked myself to death, and he saved me. The time when I sat at the front of the motorbike and shook the steering wheel, which caused the bike to swerve, and he saved me again.

The clearest memories were the two weeks in 2017 when I came back to Vietnam for a conference. Except for the two days I had to be at the conference, the rest of the time I spent with him. He was in such great health at the time. Each morning, we biked to his favorite Mỹ Tho noodle soup stalls then his favorite coffees shops. Then we relaxed by the river talking about life. He was much more expressive and communicative in person than through phone or video. Each night, we went out to different restaurants with our big family drinking and enjoying all the great food my hometown had to offer. I had such wonderful times and memories.

The day he took me back to the airport, he felt sad but didn’t want to show his emotion. He was quiet the entire ride. He didn’t want to eat. At the drop-off, he said goodbye and walked away quickly. I was shocked. I ran after him, hugged him tight, and kissed him on his rough cheek. Tears rolled down my eyes and I could not say a word. That might be the last time I would see him and it turned out to be the last time I saw him in person.

I kept staring at the dark clouds at the skatepark thinking about him. The physical distance between us in the past forty years of my life has shaped my relationship with my father. In my heart and mind, he will always be around as long as I live. I looked up and I could still hear his words and feel his spirit. I smiled at him as the rain started to drizzle. I packed and headed home. My sister called and invited us over for dinner. I picked up my mom and some liquors. I wanted to drink with my dad.

Bonjour Vietnam