Every day after the final school bell rang, I sat on the paved brick of a stranger’s front yard under an old tree. My schoolmates and I wrote our names in the dirt, picked flowers and played handball until our parents arrived, one by one. Every day our big white Tarago would arrive, my mother at the wheel.
One afternoon, the car didn’t come. The company dwindled until only I was left. Finally, the teacher on duty took me to after-school care to sit inside and wait.
While other children drew and read, I sat quietly at a desk. I screwed my eyes shut, folded my hands and began to pray under my breath, the way my mother taught me: Nam mô a di đà Phật, nam mô a di đà Phật, nam mô a di đà Phật…
‘Are you praying?’ another kid jeered, pointing and laughing. I ignored it and kept chanting softly. She always showed up for me, she would always show up for me, so if she didn’t, something must be very wrong.
As I prayed, I pictured her mangled body in a car wreck, my future life as an orphan, my snot-stained face on the front page of the newspaper: at seven years old, I would be the saddest girl who ever lived.
When my mother showed up finally, with a perfectly reasonable explanation for her lateness, I bawled inconsolably. Even as her arms enveloped me, I felt a funeral in my brain.
* * *
My lifelong preoccupation with my parents dying gnaws away at me. It’s an obsessive cocktail of morbidness and pragmatism that feels both inevitable and impossible. They’ve always been there: from our childhood road trips, singing along to The Carpenters in clumsy harmonies, to my tense teenage years, graduations, me moving interstate, visits back home. Their house, the one I can navigate hands out, eyes closed, is where they’ll always be. I punch in the ten digits that take me to their voices, and there they always are.
Over the last year, I have been interviewing my parents about their pasts as Vietnamese refugees. I tape our conversations—in person or over the phone—about their childhoods, the war, their early, frightened days in a foreign place. I marvel at how little I know about the first people I ever knew—how easily I overlooked the truths of their lives in the comfort of my own, when I selfishly lived in a state of blissful ignorance.
Sometimes we stray off course and talk about other things before coming back into focus. These fragmentary selves live on my phone, capturing who we were on the day I pressed record: all the parts, important and inconsequential, that make our wholes.
Since I began this project, the ghostly reaper that quietly sits between us feels ever more present.
I felt it in December when my father turned seventy, and a friend said ‘you’d better hurry up with your interviews—who knows how long you’ve got left?’
I felt it when I realised that if I saw him on the bus as a stranger, I’d give up my seat for him: objectively, an elderly man.
I find myself frantic when it’s been too long between interviews—it hurts as much to talk as it hurts not to. I want to find a way inside their heads, to live there and gather everything to preserve and keep. When they tell me the ugly parts, I want to become armour to protect them, even though all of this happened so long ago, and I know I can’t.
I know they’ve cheated death before: in the trenches, on the water. I know I’m lucky that they are here, that every day is a kind of tiny blessing. That it could be taken from me at any time.
I wonder how I’ll feel listening back to the recordings when my parents are gone.
* * *
My father rarely talks about his feelings, and I talk about mine constantly. Throughout my adolescence, we relied on books and music to help us relate to one another. The stilted silences of school car rides melted away as soon as he put on a tape we both loved; my bedside table was often scattered with volumes from his sprawling home library.
In high school, he gave me a worn brown copy of The Prophet, a collection of fables by the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran. I continually return to it as I become countless new versions of myself.
On death and dying, Gibran writes:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
* * *
When Bà Nội died two years ago, I exhaled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. It had been confronting to watch my whip-smart grandmother slowly slip into the folds of dementia. I only saw her every few years, separated as we were by oceans, but every time it struck harder, like I was watching a time-lapse video in slow motion: sitting in a wheelchair, vacantly playing with toys meant for babies, older and more absent each time. Once, she mistook my father for her long-dead husband. Every visit she asked our names, her eyes glazed, and her mouth formed a delicate O each time she learned, again, that many of her children had died—not that she remembered them anyway.
I pictured the inside of her brain: faded maps and photographs, the details a crude blur. I imagined her trying to navigate this place she once knew. I wonder what I would find there, if only I could look.
My mother told me that privately, late at night, my father wept with her for the impending loss of his mother. Externally he was stoic, his face impassive. But I watched his shape change at the first service we attended, as he kneeled with a white band on his head and a stick of incense clutched between his withered hands and pressed against his forehead. He stared at a framed photo of her. ‘Thưa mẹ,’ he began, addressing her directly. He became a little boy looking for his mother—a child I never knew, but wanted fiercely to protect.
To me, it felt like Bà Nội was gone before she died; that her physical form was devoid of the her I knew. It made me think about souls, if there was such a thing. I pinched my own skin and wondered whether it was me or just a casing for me. I thought about bodies in open caskets: still-life actors.
Do we count our mortality by the last beat the heart takes, or do we count it by the moment we depart our earthly selves, whatever that means?
When I began interviewing my parents for the project, my mother asked me to repeat everything my father tells me back to her. ‘He might have the details wrong,’ she said. ‘He’s old now, you know—he’s starting to forget.’
* * *
The last time I visited home, my father and I sat out in the gazebo next to the pool one day after he finished work. He took a bottle of red wine out of the cellar, filled a ramekin with mixed nuts and poured two glasses.
He returned to the house to fetch a small plastic bag, tied at the top, with a few little goldfish swimming around inside. He’d bought them to put into a big plant pot in the gazebo. It would be their new home.
My mother told me that the day before, he had painstakingly walked back and forth with large pails of fresh rainwater from the other end of the garden to fill up the pot, in preparation for his new aquatic friends. The hose wasn’t good enough, he said; they needed the best kind of water for their new life. I pictured his frail body hobbling up and down the stone path, lugging the metal bucket.
As my elderly father told me of his past life as a medical army officer—harrowing, often graphic stories I found difficult to reconcile with the calming scene before me—he floated the bag in the pot, like he’d read he was supposed to. While we talked and sipped, he gently opened the bag, let water in and slowly let the fish out, his brow creased with concentration: careful, caring. Finally, he released them, and beamed as he watched them swim around the tiny makeshift pond. He was so proud at how exactly he’d followed the instructions—how perfect these fishes’ lives would be.
The next morning, I woke up after he had already left for work, and asked my mother how the fish were going.
She told me they had all died overnight.
I pictured my father walking down to the gazebo at sunrise to check on them, and discovering their tiny, floating corpses. Scooping them out gently, walking back to the top of the garden and setting them free again, only differently this time. Washing and drying his hands, then driving the hour to his office alone.
I thought about love, and failure, and the strange space between.
* * *
I am scared of writing about my parents in the past tense.
* * *
My mother wants to become a monk.
She goes to the temple several times a week, donning grey robes like the rest of them. The only marker of difference is her full head of hair—thick, black locks, wavy like mine. She is a visitor, not yet permanent.
Upstairs at my parents’ house, my mother has set up an ancestral shrine. She kneels and prays every morning, lighting a stick of incense and clasping it between her hands, the air pregnant with smoke.
She talks to me about Buddhism—on the phone, in the car, anywhere and anytime we are together. She tells me that everything is suffering, but so, too, is everything impermanent. It’s transient, this life—a step to the next. She remembers the hardships of her past and openly shares them with me when I ask, but they do not define or trouble her. Let go, she says. Let go.
Her heart sings with the simple joy of it all; the weight of her existence has lifted since she found this spiritual place. Once thunderous, she has become filled with light—even the darkest parts of her are luminous, and it spreads.
When we were children, she never had a holiday for herself. Now my father drives her to the airport so she can travel to learn from Buddhist teachers interstate, even overseas. He says, see you soon. He proudly sends photos in the WhatsApp family chat of the simple meals he cooks for himself while he is home alone: burnt sticky rice, little strips of meat surrounded by cucumbers sliced into half-moons. In these weeks, she goes away to become more and more herself.
If my mother were to become a monk, she would have to leave the family. She would live full-time at the temple, shaved head and all. We would visit her, but she would not be ours anymore—the shape of her, would change.
It would be a rebirth.
When I think about my mother becoming a monk, I think: you deserve a whole kind of happiness after everything you’ve sacrificed for us, and I think, selfishly: please don’t leave me.
* * *
Do I call home often enough?
* * *
Bà Ngoại died when I was nine. She was there every day, and then suddenly she wasn’t, and the house was a living tomb with the lack of her.
For forty-nine days we mourned, visiting the temple weekly in silent masses. I saw relatives I hadn’t seen in years. No-one was hit harder than my mother. Her grief struck her wordless, then bubbled out in dribs. Grieving for the time that had slipped away from her, she kept saying she wished she had been a better daughter.
I felt the lack of Bà Ngoại too. I talked to her in my sleep, on lonely train rides and nights spent out on the brick steps under the fading stars. I told her all the things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and asked her to look out for me. Sorry, sorry, sorry; thank you, thank you, thank you.
I was raised to believe in reincarnation. My mother says that whatever we do in this life will influence the next; that when we die, we just move onto something else. Even now, I look for Bà Ngoại everywhere: in the sky, the flowers, faces I’ve never seen before. She must be somewhere, because otherwise she is nowhere.
When I was nineteen, I had my first real boyfriend: the president of the university atheist society. We marched together at anti-religious protests, spent sleepless nights talking about the lack of anything bigger than us. We were bound by disbelief. I never told him that every night, I secretly talked to my grandmother who had been dead for a decade.
I see her once a year at Tết with my other grandparents, all sitting frozen in photographs on a table that has become a shrine. We lay the food down carefully: neat mounds of white rice, jellied pork, pickled mustard greens, fleshy pink nem dotted with chilli and garlic.
We kneel before them, smoke billowing over their still faces.
In a low whisper, I ask for their guidance. Their glassy eyes gaze evenly back at me, and I feel a quiet comfort.
* * *
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
* * *
For several months, I didn’t speak to my father at all.
I was holding onto past grievances; I was reeling from things that I did not before know. They twisted in my throat like ugly vines, constricting my breathing. Whenever my phone rang, I turned it face down until it stopped.
I didn’t know how long it would go on for.
But the vines loosened, one by one, as my shape changed. The things I was angry about could not be retroactively undone; they were a product of something I didn’t understand. I looked at him, and reflected back at me I saw not only an old man, but also myself—a being who exists separate to him, yet wholly, inextricably, and gratefully, a part of him.
Now he rings just to chat. Our calls sometimes last just a few minutes and border on the perfunctory—are you eating well, how’s your mental health, how’s work, how’s writing, how are your friends, how’s the cat—but they dance with the enormity of all our worlds left unspoken.
I think about those little goldfish.
I wonder about the months when we didn’t talk at all.
I try to make up for lost time.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based Vietnamese-Australian writer and bookseller, and the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Feminist Writers Festival. She is a former Daily Life columnist and has been featured in publications including Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Rookie and frankie.