2020 kicked off just fine. I started skiing for the first time in my life. I loved it. I spent 12 hours almost every Saturday in the winter with my sons, Đạo and Đán. We bonded over skiing, Gatorade, and sushi.
As we wrapped up the winter, the pandemic hit the U.S. Each day, the numbers of COVID-19’s cases and deaths escalated. The lockdown began. Although we struggled, we managed to keep ourselves isolated and safe. My wife and I worked 100 percent of our time from home. Both of our jobs were even more productive at home. Our two older sons, Đạo and Đán, switched to online school. We pulled our third son, Xuân, out of daycare. Our mother-in-law and our fourth son, Vương, already stayed home. The house was always chaotic, but filled with love.
To keep us and the kids active, we started doing more outdoor activities like biking and boating. My sister-in-law and her husband bought four kayaks and a canoe. We went boating three or four times a week. Then we started rollerblading, which had become my favorite exercise. I often dragged the kids out with me to the skate parks or bike trails to rollerblade. When we went out, we maintained social distance and enforced masking for all of our kids. Although we made a drastic change in our lives, we adjusted just fine. I thought we could ride this out until 2021.
In the summer, I spent my vacation redoing our deck. The woods had been in bad shape for years, but I knew it would cost a fortune to hire the professionals. With my wife’s meticulous planning and calculating, we replaced wooden boards with composite boards within three weeks and saved ourselves $12,000 or more.
One of the positive outcomes of the lockdown was that I spent lots of time with my kids, particularly the younger ones, Xuân and Vương. It was fascinating to witness their growing and progressing day by day. Because I didn’t have to get up early to get the kids ready for school and to drive to work, I spent early mornings and late nights reading and blogging, my two personal passion activities that kept sane during the lockdown.
June rolled around and my mother fell while taking a shower. She broke her bones and was hospitalized. Mid July she came home after being in rehab for a week. Everything seemed fine. I spent a few days with her. We talked, reconnected, and did some physical therapy to help her walk again. The outside world continued to collapse with the staggering increases of COVID-19’s new cases and death tolls. We were disheartening, but our family members were still safe.
Then one early morning in August, I received a phone call from one of my sisters in Việt Nam informing me that our father had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The doctors said nothing they could do for him. My brother and sisters in Việt Nam took him home and cared for him. I wanted to go back to Việt Nam to see him, but the Vietnamese government had suspended entry into Việt Nam to all foreigners. I was hoping that he could hold on until 2021 so I could see him in person, but he didn’t make it past November, 2020.
When he passed, I spent time with my mother and we watched his funeral service together through live steam. We were devastated, but we still had each other. We talked about his life and his legacy. As much as I loved my father, I didn’t have a strong connection with him because I had become accustomed to being away from him for so long. Although he was gone, his place in my heart remained the same. My mother probably felt the same way about him.
Because of his absence in our lives, my mother and I meant the whole world to each other. We consoled each other and tried to move forward. Even though my mother had trouble walking, she was still strong, both her mind and her appetite. We enjoyed eating sweet sticky rice together every morning. We even split up a bottle of Starbucks’ Frappuccino and filled up our halves with whole milk. We lay in bed and talked to each other. When she fell asleep, I read. I treasured those moments together. Before I went back home, I told her that I wouldn’t bring the kids to see her this Thanksgiving because of the pandemic and she understood.Thanks goodness, we weren’t here for Thanksgiving. I can’t even imagine if our family also got infected.
Although I lost my father, somehow I had a feeling that 2020 was far from over. When COVID-19 could not reach us, it touched the person closest to us. My mother tested positive on December 9, 2020. December 10, 2020 kicked off the darkest days of my entire life up to this point. I lived through guilt, pain, frustration, disappointment, rage, fear, regret, distress, shame, uncertainty, and hopelessness. On December 28, just three days away from the end of 2020, COVID-19 took away the love of my life. I was beyond devastated. I lost both of my parents within 42 days.
Without the strong support from family and friends, I didn’t know how I could keep myself together. When I hit rock bottom, true friends and family lifted me up. They showed up when I needed them the most. I learned the value of relationships beyond my little world. No matter what I had done or said in the past, no matter how little we interacted with each other, no matter how long I had neglected our friendships, they came through to lend their support. I made a promise to myself that I will become a better friend in 2021 and forward. I will do what they had done for me when I had to face the toughest challenges in my life.
As much as I wanted to move on and to forget, 2020 will forever burn into my brain. It has changed me in a profound way up to this point of my life. I don’t think I can ever go back to the old me prior to December 10, 2020. I now look at life from a different angle.
In my mother’s obituary, I wrote that she loved to live in America because she believed the U.S. has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. It might have the best medical technologies in the world, but it failed her on the level of compassion. Even though the outcome came out the same, it played by the codes instead of the cares.
I also wrote about her cooking process, which took so long because she washed everything over and over again. Washing hands for 20 seconds was not a problem for her. I watched her wash her hands for two minutes. She even rinsed clean bowls and utensils with hot water before each use. How ironic was that she had been so careful all her life, and yet she died from contracting the virus?
Life was unexpected and unpredictable. The line between living and dying was so thin at the critical moment. I hope I won’t ever have to make another life-and-death decision for the rest of my life. I read about death, wrote about death, understood the inescapable part of death, and yet, I could not deal with death when the person I have loved all my life was facing death. I could not imagine not hearing her voice over the telephone asking me if I ate already. I could not imagine not seeing her hugging my children and letting them kiss her on her cheeks. I could not imagine life without her.
Last night, I woke up around midnight and felt hungry. I went downstairs to grab some cereal and milk without turning on the lights. I glanced over to her room. The night light was glowing. Her pillows and blankets were still there. Her clothes and her walker were still there. She was not. I broke down and cried in silence. She will never return to this room. She will never return to the bed that I lay next to her just a month ago when we both grieved for the man in our lives we just lost. I held her hand and told her that everything will be OK because we still had each other. She stopped crying and squeezed my hand. The last time I held her hand, water seeped out of her swollen fingers. I told her everything will be OK. She didn’t squeeze me this time. Only a teardrop rolled down her right eye. Her heartbeat slowed way down until it stopped. She did not make it past 2020.
That was how my 2020 ended. I had been through hell and not quite back yet. So, to hell with 2020.