NGUYEN: Lessons from my aunt

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

There were only two pieces of lobster left on the table: a soft and meaty claw and a hard and bony head. I had been eyeballing the last claw, but felt guilty as my plate was already 3-inches high in lobster shells.

From across the table, my Aunt Quyen said, “You can have the claw. Just don’t take the head! I like that one.” I proceeded to grab the claw guilt-free as my aunt claimed the head.

When I left my aunt’s birthday dinner, I asked my grandma, “Why does Auntie Quyen like the head so much? It is so hard and bony.”

My grandma replied, “She wanted you to be happy. She doesn’t really like the head.”

At 5 years old, I was already learning a valuable lesson from my aunt: The way you frame something matters. Had she simply said, “You can have the claw,” it wouldn’t have worked.

So much of my motivation and inspiration is drawn from my aunt. At 5 years old — the age I started preschool — she had already begun working in a bakery to raise money so that her parents, brothers and sisters could leave Vietnam and come to America. Each day at six in the morning, my aunt was already preparing the dough. At eight, the store opened and until sunset, she greeted customers and occasionally slipped an extra loaf to a struggling family.

When my aunt turned 21, she had raised enough money to come to America and reunite with her family. She even found work at a nail salon she would later come to own.

My aunt did not have many possessions when she left Vietnam, but she did take her kind disposition with her. Once I saw her give a manicure to a woman who had recently lost her job. When the woman was about to pay, my aunt said, “You can just pay me with a picture of your new workplace.” At eight, my aunt taught me that life should be about improving the lives of others, not just about making money.

She would eventually become a second mom to me — each time I had a breakup, she would offer me a listening ear and a warm bowl of pho.

On Mother’s Day my senior year of high school, she told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But in the period that ensued, the most challenging time of her life, my aunt continued to be a great teacher for me.

During the last three years, my aunt underwent chemotherapy every three weeks. Even as the cancer stripped away her hair and took away her body, it could never weaken her spirit. She continued to smile and laugh. That was the first lesson she taught me: that your problems are only as big as you make them. On the days when I am most stressed, I think about my aunt and I push on. I could only imagine how she would react if I told her something like, “Planning this conference will be the death of me.” She would probably laugh.

Before she was diagnosed with cancer, my aunt made a list of places she had always wanted to visit; She had rare opportunities for travel while she was working. One of these places was the Grand Canyon, and last summer she was finally able to go. Instead of letting her illness hold her back from accomplishing her goals, she continued to seek the things that made her happy. That was the second lesson she taught me: that life is about making the most of what I am given and not wondering “what if.”

The third and final lesson I learned was that you can never say “I love you” and “Thank you” enough. After I left for college, I began to call my aunt at least once a month. Even as she got sicker and our calls got shorter, I made sure to say how thankful I was to have her in my life, to emphasize how much I loved her. I never knew if it would be our last conversation.

My aunt turned 42 last week when we had our most recent conversation. She died a few days afterwards.

My aunt won’t have a famed biography written in her honor, but her stories will continue to impact those who were lucky enough to have heard them. While I wrote this piece to describe how my aunt’s journey has impacted my own life, I did not write this article for my own sake.

I wrote this piece for my three beautiful little cousins, so that they know they had a mother who left nothing but a legacy of love, a legacy I hope they carry on. And as the impending stress of finals looms large, I wrote this as a reminder that as exams are fleeting, so too are the lives of those closest to us.

Davis Nguyen is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at davis.nguyen@yale.edu.

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