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I died last night.
My mom was the one who shed the most tears for me. For my mom, all of her tears flew inward.
My dad passed last year at the age of 70. He left this world at the exact date he had entered it, quietly like an autumn leaf. 70 years old, Dad served in the military for the whole 25 years. Dad passed so unceremoniously like when he decided to take up arms heeding the call of the country at the age of 20. Dad passed peacefully like when he returned from the war, embracing mom when she asked where her gift was. Dad pointed to his graying hair touched by time and the hardship of fighting a war. Dad passed so calmly, much more so than I did, as calmly as did his compatriots who had died on the battlefields sacrificing their lives for the country.
My dad could not cry for me.
One of the people who received the news of my passing was Dang, 35 years old, a chiropractor, tall and clean cut, typical of a second generation Vietnamese American living abroad. He picked up the phone and was lost for words when he heard the news. Actually when I was alive, Dang was my best listener. Once I told him “Dang, Duong is so sad. I don’t know what to do. I miss home, friends, Hanoi.” He looked at me attentively trying to grasp what I was trying to say then replied “Then why don’t you go back to Vietnam?” I looked at him astonished. He might be right. At times, people look for faked or unattainable things in life. When I asked Dang, I was hoping to hear a consolation “Duong, don’t be sad. Time will heal all wounds. America is the best. So many people who want to come here don’t have that chance. So many people escaping by boats only to be robbed, raped, and killed on high sea. Of the people who tried to escape (for political or economic reasons), how many people got to set foot on the shore of freedom?” These are the typical reasons given to console home-sick Vietnamese here in the states. Dang, only in my death that I appreciate your simplicity, there’s some thing very real and honest about it. Yes, I wish I had not come to the states……….
Tony got the news of my passing from Dang. When I was alive, Tony was wonderful in my eyes, more accurately, Tony managed to build a great image for himself, an American citizen, worked for the FBI, had a beautiful girlfriend, about to buy a house. Once he told me he should have taken a job in Vietnam with the visa department at the United States Embassy. He would have had the power to approve or turn down visa applications of those yearning to come to the states. I heard he just bought a new house and planned to throw a housewarming party for his friends. Tony wrote a list, a gift registry of sort, of things he needed for the house so that his friends would know what to get for him. He then had a fight with the girlfriend and canceled the party. I had planned to go but now I’m dead. Sorry I couldn’t go! When I was alive, I wish I could have convinced him to quit his FBI job to take the job with the visa department because he could have granted life-long wishes to the Vietnamese yearning to come to the states. He’s a Vietnamese and also proud of what the United States has to offer everyone. Tony advised me not to be sad and look forward to building my future here in the states (unlike Dang who told me to go back). Therefore, he wouldn’t have had any reasons to deny tourist visas to the potential migrants he would have interviewed. He would have given them a chance to succeed in this land of plenty. When Tony heard of my passing, he wasn’t sad, didn’t react much, just a bit incredulous. It pained me to see that look on his face. Oh, I forgot to tell that when one died, one could float around and see things during the first 49 days after death. During that time, the soul was still on earth, hence the ritual of making offerings to the dead during the first 49 days. When I was alive, I knew Tony for a long time. I remember even paying for his haircut with my meager savings earned from my small video rental store…..
Eric, a friend of mine, an optometrist, picked up Dang’s phone. He was saddened by the news. He regretted not having finished the glasses Due and I had asked him to do. Eric was easy going, generous and diplomatic like an American with a Vietnamese heart. I heard Eric spoke to Dang in a slew of English. One of the sentences I picked up with my “popcorn” English was “God, did Duong have any relatives here? Tell me what you plan to do.” I saw in Eric more than what I had expected. Too bad, I would no longer be able to take my friends to get their eyes checked at Eric’s.
I felt a sheet of cold air wrapping around my body. It was so cold dying in the states. Had I died in Vietnam, my family and friends would have kept my corpse at home, draped the burial cloth on me, and sat around me all night. At least I still would have had my mom, a few close friends crying for me. At least I would have been in the house I built since I graduated from college. At least, my soul could have flown outside blending with the fragrances emanating from “hoang lan” and “hoa sua” trees that I planted when I bought this house. The house still had the gears my dad once possessed when he was in the military. The walls witnessed so many memories of my mom spending her young years waiting for my dad to come home from the war. And there were the ear-rings my grandma gave my mom when she got married, a scarf my mom knitted for me when I was a kid. Gosh, the mortuary in this land is frigidly cold! I wish Philip or Steve could be here. I would ask them to turn down the air-conditioner. I am cold……….
There are some noises outside. The trees surrounding the cemetery are planted in such precise fashion that it’s like a science. In this country, everything is done in such a precise manner. Mortuary’s visiting hours are rigidly set. Lying in here, I no longer have the opportunity to bend the rules to see my friends. I wish I were in Vietnam so that my friends could just slip the guard some money to come to my wake anytime they wish. Just like you can run a red light in absence of the police and not fear getting caught by the soul-less traffic cameras. Vietnamese people are flexible like that. Back to my funeral, my coffin is exactly my size, well may be I still have some wiggling room, just like a credit card payment due date still allows you a little grace period.
I miss my friend Lam, I crave so much our old friendship. He showed me how beautiful and endearing friendship could be, the brotherly friendship that I don't think I could have found anywhere when I was alive. Perhaps he's one of the friends who looks forward the most to my return. Lying in here, I miss the old time when he and I traded sweat and tears for my company's success. When I left everything behind to come to the states, he didn't try to stop me because he knew I was stubborn and always went for things I want to do. He works for a foreign consulate but still have unheralded pride for Vietnamese people. I wish he could be here. May be he would cry for me a lot. I'm craving the sacred friendship that's so Vietnamese. I'm craving the evenings we sat in outdoor restaurants chatting about life, other people, without giving a thought about leaving the country. Brother Lam, when you receive the news of my passing, please burn an incense to immortalize our memories and to let me know that in Vietnam, friendships are so sacred and noble.
Diem picked up the phone. I saw that she was emotionally frazzled for the first time. May be I was wrong to think Diem was a cold-hearted person when I was alive. Sometimes we joked around, I told her “Perhaps Diem took away all of my masculinity.” As sensitive as I was, Diem was equally tough. I never saw her cry. I wasn’t wrong to have expected a long silence from her rather than quiet sobbing. I know she’s in a lot of pain even though she doesn’t shed one tear. In this land, it’s not easy to have a friend like her. At the age of 33, she has everything, a career, money, family. It seems her life is perfect. I suddenly realize that may be it is she who will take care of my funeral, but it will have to be on a weekend because she’s very busy caring for her three young children and running her business. Whichever private matter that needs to be taken care of, people here have to do it on the weekend. It’s very different than how things work in Vietnam. People can just drop whatever they do during the work week because their loved ones’ funerals are more important. It’s quite different in this land, it’s completely different in this country. Hello, it’s America!
Nhi cries a lot. She cries with Peter, her boyfriend. Does Peter feel the same? Somehow I don’t think so. She and I were life-long friends. We used to tell each other everything. But sometimes, I didn’t seem to understand her. Life in the states made her into a distant and cold person. I wanted to shout to her “Don’t cry!” but that seemed to make her cry even louder. I understand that she didn’t cry only for me, but for all her other losses also. Her life has been a struggle also. She’s been in the states for 7 years. She works, goes to school, pays the bills, and supports her parents. I just want to find Due, take his hand and say “Please try to understand Nhi more. However she is, the way she lives her life is a result of dealing with a hard life in the states.” When one get so stressed out, having to worry about so many things, then the respite is finding someone to love wholeheartedly, give it all.
Philip, Diem, and Nhi came to visit me Sunday morning. This is the third day I lie here. They allowed friends and relatives to come pay respect. I didn’t have any relatives in this land aside from these three. I wish my mom could be able to come here and bring my coffin home. If she could not do that, they would bury me in this land. Speaking of interment, I worry even more. Without money, how do I buy a plot of land for my burial? My credit line only goes to $5000 and a plot of land costs at least $20000. That reminds me, I haven’t yet paid my bills this month. Oops!.... One can’t get away from debt even in death. People in America fulfill their materialistic desires first, then worry about paying for them later. I remember a Buddhist philosophy, when one is born, one is already in debt. Living is just to pay your debt. So far, that philosophy is proven true in this land. Paying off debt is a stressful thing. If one misses a payment, one risk getting bad credit ratings. Are three millions of my compatriots paying their debt to this country? What do they owe the United States? I want to spring up from my coffin to embrace my three friends as I do the three millions. How do I do it when I’m already dead? How did I die so young? I figure ever since I came here, I went to bars and clubbing may be 10 times. How many times did I sleep until 8 in the morning? If I saved a little bit of all that wasted time to be with the people I love, I wouldn’t feel so guilty as I do right now. My three millions compatriots! How much time do you waste frivolously? I wish you save a little bit of your time to pay your little debt to your poor motherland where they still miss the hearts and souls of the Vietnamese expats.
My mom will come tomorrow as planned. Can my mom secure her entry visa? I’m a bit worried. I’m thinking of Tony. I’m craving for a Vietnamese home cooked meal, craving to read my dad diary entries he wrote during the war. How simple do young people think about life and death! May be I’m a bit like them.
Oh, that’s right! My passing is very different from my dad’s. I died in a peaceful time, in a free and democratic land but I still feel lonely. My dad passed way surrounding by his comrades. Sometimes I wish I were a soldier to have the privilege to live and die for my country as did my dad. I try to wiggle a few times. Suddenly I heard the voice of the lady lying next to me. She just died yesterday. She said hello to me and let me know she would be interred tomorrow. Her children decided to bury her here in the states. She said I was luckier than her to be brought back to Vietnam. That’s right! I’m very lucky. I get to come back to Vietnam.
My mom finally comes. She doesn’t cry or maybe she did when knowing my passing. That fact doesn’t bother me, I love my mom more than ever. My mom never cries. So many times my mom saw her dad off to war, her brothers to the battlefields. So many times my mom said goodbye to my dad not knowing if she would see him again. My mom never cries. My mom brought me the old hat my dad had worn during the war. It’s frayed with time, stained with smoke and explosion yet emanates a scent of victory. She wanted me to wear it. The people at the mortuary would not let her touch the corpse. I know my mom wants to hold my hand or embrace me very much. She can’t. She can’t do every thing she wants to like in Vietnam.
The United States of America fades away. They’re bringing my corpse home. I see the people whom I love and with whom I shared my all life while I was here. Diem’s standing there devastated. Nhi and Philip sob quietly. My mom is silent. My mom’s sad because of my untimely passing, because I left her for the states. But she finds consolation in the fact that she can now bring me home. Children of Vietnam! Wherever in the world you go to, you can always come home like I do. Lost in thought, I suddenly saw a figure dressed in US Marines uniform running toward me. He gave me a military salute. I couldn’t salute him back because I was dead. But I understood the full meaning of his salute. He’s saying goodbye to a friend, a brother who chose for himself a different path unlike many other Vietnamese Americans. The path I was going down only he could understand and he’s putting it all in his salute and I’m proud to be taking it home with me.
tôi là một nguời sống xa hanoịnhưng lúc nào hanoi cũng thầm hát trong tôi