What’s that black pin?” I heard someone ask as I sat staring out the restaurant’s window.
Several conversations were happening at once and I couldn’t figure out who was talking to who. What were they saying? What pin?
My friend had to ask several times for me to realize she was referring to the pin on my shirt. It had become automatic putting on the pin as part of my daily morning routine. I had forgotten that it’s not the norm outside of Vietnam.
“Oh, it’s a symbol we wear during the mourning period of a family member,” I replied quickly, looking back outside at the rain again. I didn’t really want to say more.
A month before, our family received news that my grandmother had fallen very ill. Forty-eight hours later, we were at the airport awaiting our flight back to Vietnam. My dad had made an extra trip from Iowa to fly with me and my brother, who gave up what would have been his first trip to Hawaii. I was so happy when he told me that I jumped up and down and hugged him – we aren’t exactly hugging types. We were all risking our jobs to go on this month-long journey with very little planning.
I never liked the idea of going back to Vietnam after a loved one has already passed away, so I made sure to visit my grandmother a number of times while she was healthy. Still, I was in disbelief that this was that kind of visit.
I boarded the plane with mixed feelings, somewhat joyful for a chance to visit Vietnam again but, of course, anxious and worried for it was likely that I would see my dear grandmother for the last time. I remembered every detail about her when I last saw her three years prior. She always sat by the door, asked about my plans for the day, and then later reminded me about them.
“Con nhớ ra tiệm may lấy áo dài nghe. Họ nói hai giờ là may xong rồi đó*,” her voice ehoed clearly in my head. I had always been so impressed by her memory, which was easily better than mine. * Remember to get your dress from the tailor shop. They said it will be finished at 2 PM.
My feelings shifted to concern when we landed, uncertain if we would make it in time. I grew ever restless with each mile we had to go before we reached my grandmother. With every minute we had to stop, even to eat, I felt guilty. I did not want to waste a second. The scenery wasn’t as captivating, the food bland, everything felt different from my previous trips. I wasn’t there to enjoy, converse, connect with anyone except my grandmother.
We finally reached our home in Quảng Trị the following day and there she was, on the bed, motionless. She was not the grandmother I remembered. The one I remembered always moved around to get things and made sure I had eaten. I used to be somewhat annoyed at her repetitive questions, but now, I’d do anything for her to talk to me. She could even scold me if she wanted. I held her hand and tears raced down my cheeks; at 95, hers were still firm and rosy and beautiful.
Twelve hours. That was all I had by her side before she took her last breath.
The funeral lasted five days and was, surprisingly, filled with as much joy as there was grief. I found myself being content…for her. So many family members came, travelling from around the country to be there for her last days. Contrary to what I had anticipated, I smiled more than I cried. I smiled because I recognized that she lived a great life and left great impressions on those around her. She had four loving daughters who took great care of her, down to each meal. She raised a caring son who supported her during the last half of her life.
On the fifth day, we took her to the burial site. The weather was fair, signaling that she was ready to go. She had her wish to have my dad by her side on her last day. I said goodbye in tears, but with a happy heart, knowing that it was really “until next time.”
Xuan-Nhi Cao is a first grade teacher and the first college graduate in her family. She visits Vietnam as often as he can and gives back to the community by supporting families who are new to America and by volunteering at various charity events.