The day we left the village of Da Me in Vietnam was tearful and sad for a number of reasons. Kin was leaving again, for the seventh time in fifty years.
I had told Kin that he should go see his mother alone that morning. He needed to spend as much time as he could with her before we left for the airport later that afternoon. I would be fine reading by myself quietly in my room. Kin wasn’t looking forward to the goodbyes that were about to take place. He knew that this might be the last time he would see his mother. They were all getting older, who would know what the future as in store for any of them.
When Kin arrived to his sister’s house, around the block from where we were staying, his mother was in bed sleeping and he looked in on her. The sisters told Kin his mother had fallen again that morning and was resting. Kin’s mother started losing her balance and fainting more often over the last two days. She wasn’t eating or drinking very much. She had stopped eating regularly a few month earlier and was encouraged to keep up her strength by drinking Ensure, “Because Kin was coming home.” Now, people were staying close to her to brace for a fall, but she wasn’t one to settle down, or listen to anyone. She was used to doing her own thing like getting on the back of a motor bike and going to a wedding ceremony, the day we arrived.
Kin’s ninety-eight year old mother was restless. She jump up quickly to pour tea into small glasses, then yelled at you for not drinking, “her tea”. She slapped, pinched and pulled people with her strong hands. Her strength and ability to inflict quick pain brought tears to grown men’s eyes. I had seen her pull her legs up over the arm of the chair and tuck her long black skirt under her bottom in one swift motion while the knit baby blue hat sat on her small head. I have never witness an elderly person, with such a tiny frame move so fast and with such agility. She was like one of those birds you see at the beach, a Sandpiper I believe, quickly moving, always doing, never settling down. She paid attention to the conversation in the room and gave her approval or disapproval with forceful grunts of a gravelly, “Ahah!!” A truly engaged person with an opinion. I noticed she could hear things from across the room and respond when she wanted to. Although most of the time her adult children would grab her head forcefully and turn it to speak loudly in her ear so she could hear them. They believed she was hard of hearing. I believed it was selective hearing. I suspected she could hear most things and enjoyed the close interaction of communication, mouth to ear, skin to skin, her “deftness” required of her children.
Every person, be it the smallest grandchild or the oldest son would sit near to her. What struck me was the intimate way they touched each other, caressed each other, held hands. Where they always like this or did they sense something was coming?
When I got to Grandmother’s house, Kin was outside playing the guitar with his two brothers and brother-in-law. There was an empty box of beers at Ha’Lin’s feet and a few empty cans of beers sitting on the small table and plastic red chairs. They were melancholy and singing Beatles ballots about love and redemption.
Kin looked up at me as I came off the motor bike with glassy eyes and I knew they had been drinking for some time.
“Hello. What are you guys doing?” I said trying to sound chipper sensing something was going on or was this just the start of the “goodbyes”? I felt guilty because I was sitting back in my room in the pastor’s house waiting to leave. I was ready to go home and see my own children.
“Eileen, my mother fell again this morning. Her hip began to swell so they took her to the hospital in De Lat in a taxi. She may have broken her hip.” Kin said as tears started to well-up in his brown eyes. He didn’t stop playing the melody of the song as he told me this. He held on to the guitar and the song like a child with a security blanket as he looked up at me trying to soothe his soul.
“I’m so sorry Kin.” I said as I reached out to stroke his arm and matching his tears in my own eyes. I was remembering my own father’s passing a few months before at that moment. This was a goodbye, perhaps the last one. “Did you get to see her? When did this happen?”
“I thought she was just sleeping comfortably when I first arrived, so let her sleep. Then my sister came out of my mother’s room a while later and said she needed to go to the hospital because her hip was swollen. I got to see my mother as my nephew carried her to the taxi. She wasn’t in any pain. She said to me, ‘My son’ and touched my cheek as they put her into the taxi and drove away. She was very calm and wasn’t in any pain. It really was amazing.” explained Kin.
Our flight was at 5:00 p.m. that afternoon which would take us back to Ho Chi Minh city for the night. Our journey home would take us through Hong Kong and then to New York. I stayed and a drank beer with the brothers, sang songs and tearfully said our goodbyes to the sisters, nieces and extended family knowing Grandmother was in the hospital. I thought, Wow, we are having an Irish wake right here, in Vietnam. It wasn’t very different from past experiences I shared with my Irish family when we knew the last goodbye would happen in the near future. We shared stories, we laughed through tears, sang songs and reminisced about fun times, recalling a life that was about to make it’s transition.
We embrace family, I take his sister’s hand and bring it to my chest as I sob. The flood gates open and I can’t stop, nor do I want to. We comfort each other. Kin and I were given more beads, which were heavy and hung around our necks with red, black and yellow glass beads, reminders of the hugs that accompanied the gift. One after another asked if I will come back for a visit. I truly don’t think I ever will. I told them I had many more places to visit in the world. I was honest and didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but explained that I have my own family to visit in Ireland, Scotland, Dubi and Cairo. I wanted to see the world. It may have seemed cold in this situation, but I didn’t feel the need to lie either. I wanted them to know that I came to Vietnam for Kin, for the book, because he asked me, because he is my brother.
I tried to impart my sense of life and death with Ruth, who was very close to her grandmother and very distraught. I told her my grandmother had also lived until the age of ninety-eight. She was also spirited and had good life, and we had to learn to live without her.
I asked, “If you had a choice about they way you would want to die, would you raise your hand and choose this type of ending for yourself? Yes, you would. Your Grandmother has lived a full life right to the very end with good health and a wonderful loving family. Her body is no longer able to hold her powerful spirit. We should celebrate. She will rejoined with her husband and children who have gone before her. We should feel happy that she gets to meet Jesus, which she had devoted her life to. It’s kind of selfish of us to think we can hold them here forever, for our own sake.” With a wet round face full of tears, she nodded in agreement. I wonder if I said too much.
That night back in Ho Chi Minh city, Kin received a phone call from Ruth at the hotel. Ruth was at the hospital and visiting with Grandmother. She relayed the information that Grandmother was doing well, eating and was comfortable. Ruth said Grandmother didn’t like the I.V. in her hand, that her hip was in fact broken. I said a prayer for all the nurses who were taking care of Grandmother and to have patience with this strong matriarch, and her strong hands. I imagined the nurses having to strap her to the bed to keep her from pulling out the tubes. Kin was able to speak with her in Koho over the phone. I don’t know what was said. Kin explained it was hard for him to understand her. She must have been on some pain medication.
The next morning Kin’s two solemn nieces and nephew, young adults who live in the city met us at the hotel lobby for an early breakfast. They relayed the info about the plan to cast Grandmother’s hip and send her home. The news sounded good for her recovery, maybe not as bad as we thought. When we landed in New York twenty hours later, and became connected to our phone carriers again, we received a message that Grandmother was home in bed and resting comfortably. Both Kin and I gave a sigh of relief that everyone had fared well during our journey as we waiting for the Long Island Rail Road cars to approach filled with commuters leaving the city and heading east.
Three days later, I was snug in my warm bed back on Long Island with a chilled nose and the polar vortex pushing it’s way into the cracks of the windows with a whistle. I received a text from Kin…
Great, big sad news Eileen my mother passed away yesterday in her sleep I feel so sad, I am glad we got to see her.
I was startled and pulled back to all those family members on the front porch of Grandmother’s house in Vietnam saying our tearful goodbyes. I felt their sorrow. I recalled a fierce, devout women who raised eleven children and who still owned her power until the day she died. I remember the pink marble grave of Kin’s father we visited high on a hill overlooking the green valley and then thought of the hard ground, full of rocks they would need to dig-up in order to bury their mother. The story Ha’Lin retold at the grave that day about a villager seeing a bolt of lightening that came down from the sky and struck the metal gate and sent up a plume of smoke at the grave site just after they had buried his father three years before.
But most of all, I was filled with the belonging to a larger story, one that was orchestrated by a force larger other than our own. Kin and I were meant to travel back to Vietnam at that time. We did our part.
Was she just waiting for her son to return before she passed on? Was God putting the pieces in place for our return in order to call her home?
Either scenario is Love.
The relationship between parent and child is one of God’s best creations.
You are going to be O.K. – Eileen