In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: nhớ… I miss you more than I remember you.”

-Ocean Vuong 


March 30th, 2023. 7:05 PM. 

I clicked the “View Update” link as soon as the Yale admissions portal opened. While the site was loading, my eyes were drawn to something below – Admissions Offer Reply Form. My eyes widened, and I jumped out of my seat in excitement, tearfully hugging my father before the acceptance video even played. 

Vivid memories replayed in my mind – perpetual sleepless nights, my mother bending her back tirelessly as she worked at the nail salon during my childhood, my father’s chapped hands after working long hours in a factory, my struggle with understanding why my elementary teachers yelled at me during a time I had not yet grasped the English language. 

Finally, my hard work had paid off, and at that moment, I saw a bright future where I could repay my parents for their sacrifices. However, my excitement quickly fell as the sound of a heart rate monitor brought my attention to the phone screen next to my computer. My senses dulled as if I was shaken out of a dream and thrusted back to reality. I felt myself crying harder for a different reason. 

On the other side of the screen, my grandmother laid unconscious on a hospital bed while my mother told her I had just been accepted to Yale. 

For years, I had dreamed of the moment when my hard work would pay off. I’d be accepted into a good school, and my parents and I would hug each other in celebration. Yet, when the moment of opening my decision letter came, it was nothing like I had envisioned. My mother was in Vietnam, far away from my side. My grandmother – my Ba Ngoai – was dying, and I could do nothing but watch. 

My tears were tainted with grief instead of joy during one of my most anticipated moments until my crying turned into full-blown sobs. For the rest of the evening, my eyes stayed glued to the phone screen with my grandma, the computer screen with my acceptance letter long forgotten. 

One month later, my mom returned to the U.S. once we both thought Ba Ngoai had gotten better. That summer, my family planned on visiting Vietnam, and I was excited to see Ba Ngoai and take her to an elephant sanctuary. A few weeks after Mom’s return, my grandma returned to the hospital. 


As soon as our plane to Vietnam landed, we headed straight to the hospital. My mom almost skipped donning the hospital PPE gown before rushing to her mother’s side in the ICU. Ba Ngoai opened her eyes when she heard my mom’s voice, an action that became harder for her the sicker she became. My mom’s family decided to take her home that day, where she would eventually pass away surrounded by her family and friends. As Ba Ngoai was being wheeled out into a transport car, her eyes widened and gaped at the sky. 

There were already family members and a Buddhist monk waiting at my mom’s childhood home, chanting a prayer while the home travel nurse installed my grandma’s breathing equipment. The machine consisted of a tube that essentially forced her lungs to take in air, and I could tell that it caused Ba Ngoai pain with the way her eyes scrunched with each breath. It felt like hours had passed until the monk allowed the chanting to stop, and a long pause followed. 

The air of the breathing machine cut through the silence until finally, the monk suggested that we speak to her, letting our unspoken promises, dreams and regrets be known to our dying loved one. 

I was one of the first people to talk to Ba Ngoai that night. My voice trembled when I told her about my life in the past few years, betraying my attempted optimism. I had no idea when Ba Ngoai would leave me, so any word I spoke to her could be the last. I told her that I was accepted to Yale and had just graduated high school. I told her that I would make her proud and continue my education since I knew that she couldn’t afford to learn after the fifth grade. I told her that I couldn’t have succeeded without her or my mother’s sacrifices and support. With a shuddering breath at the end of my speech, I thanked her. 

My mom was next. She glanced at me before taking a couple of seconds of silence to compose herself, seemingly trying to put on a strong appearance. “Was she doing it for me? Even now?” My eyebrows furrowed at the thought. However, her attempt crumbled a few words into her speech, tears falling and voice cracking with a certain type of pain that only grief can bring. Soon, hiccups interrupted every other word that she tried to speak. The world faded around us, and I stared at my mom in shock while her attention was on her own mother. 

My mom had never cried in front of me, so when she allowed her agony and grief to take over just this once, my heart wrenched at the sight and my attempt at staying strong became impossible as I, too, began weeping beside her. 

“What are you doing? You couldn’t even stay strong for your mom?” I inwardly scolded myself for failing to be a reliable source of comfort for my mom in one of the most depressing moments of her life. The world around me faded as my attention was drawn solely to my mom and Ba Ngoai. My mom expressed her guilt of chasing the American Dream during her lifetime while my grandma spent hers cleaning people’s homes to make a living and sleeping on staircases when guest rooms weren’t available.

And as she voiced her thoughts, I listened closely. I knew that my mother wished she spent more time with her family when she was younger, but it was only now that I could see her expressing her feelings. It made me realize that she had been holding onto these feelings, pushing them deep inside her to focus on working to make enough money to raise me. My mom’s guilt was something I understood all too well.

Sometimes, I wish I could’ve been born later. If I wasn’t born when my parents were still trying to stay afloat in a foreign country, maybe they could have found better jobs. Maybe my mom could have visited her family more instead of taking care of me. How often did I wish that I could give back to my parents? I’ll continue to shed my own sweat and tears if it means I can pay them back for their sacrifices, but I know that it will never be enough. 

So as I continued to listen to my mom’s tearful speech, I could do nothing but rub soothing circles on her back and resonate with the guilt and grief that I learned weighed heavily in both of our hearts.


A few days later, my family decided to take Ba Ngoai’s breathing tube out. The following day, her remaining friends and family came to visit, and when I practically forced my mom to leave Ba Ngoai’s side to eat or sleep, I kept watch over the visits. Over and over, I heard the same phrases: “I’m sorry…”, “I wish…”, “I love you…”

With each visit, I learned something new about my grandma. I learned that seven of the visitors were adopted by Ba Ngoai after they lost their parents. I stood to the side and watched my adopted aunts and uncles sob as they expressed their sorrow and gratitude to the mother that took them in. The next visitors were Ba Ngoai’s sisters. Ba Ngoai was the youngest sibling in her family, so when her older sisters saw her in her dying state, they wept and reminisced on their childhood. I couldn’t help but let a few tears escape after they wistfully talked about taking care of each other after their parents died when they were still young kids. Once they were done, one of the sisters grasped onto Ba Ngoai’s hands, wailing that her baby sister was too young to die. 

The next day, I entered Ba Ngoai’s room in the morning only to find my mom already there. Ever since we took Ba Ngoai home, my mom had been glued to Ba Ngoai’s side. Her pronounced eyebags conveyed her exhaustion, so I volunteered to keep watch over Ba Ngoai. While my mom slept on a floor mattress, I sat next to my grandma and monitored her oxygen levels. 

As I watched each rise and fall of her chest, a moment of nostalgia overwhelmed my senses. I remembered catching a whiff of tea leaves and incense, scents that I learned to associate with her, after she placed me on her lap when I was a toddler and taught me how to say her favorite phrase – thở và cười, or breathe and smile. She explained that if I could do those two things mindfully, I would be happy. But how could I smile when she’s no longer with me?

All of a sudden, my grandma pried her eyes open with much effort, gazing into mine. I could tell that the simple feat exhausted her and was about to wake my mom up before deciding against it. She hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, and it would be hard for her to relax again. I maintained eye contact, chocolate meeting obsidian, and squeezed my grandma’s hand, feeling the paper-thin texture of her skin. My grandma slowly shifted her eyes to look at something across the room, and I turned my head to where her attention lingered. Her eyes were glued onto a Buddha painting my family had hung across from her until they eventually moved to something beyond it. Behind the painting was a window, and I quickly realized what she was focused on – the sky. 

The pulse oximeter started beeping, and my eyes quickly darted to the pixelated numbers on its screen. Her oxygen levels were lower than usual, and I abruptly woke my mom up. We summoned a prayer circle, chanting for hours until her oxygen levels returned to normal again. Ba Ngoai’s arrhythmia occurred numerous times after her breathing tube was taken out, so my family had to treat every drop in her oxygen levels as if it were her last moment. 

In the middle of that night, I watched my grandma take her last breath. 


A week after Ba Ngoai’s funeral, my parents and I visited Huế, my dad’s birthplace. My mom seemed numb after Ba Ngoai’s death, so I suggested that we explore the city. 

At nightfall, my dad’s family took me and my parents to a river that was famous for its boat tours. When we arrived, a woman chased us around, pushing us to buy a tour ticket on her boat. I got increasingly irritated with the boatwoman, as all I wanted at the moment was to get my mom on a sightseeing boat that promised breathtaking views to briefly distract her from her grief. Surely, she could sell her tickets to another group of unsuspecting tourists. 

My family eventually accepted the woman’s offer, her cheap tickets making us cave in. It looked tiny and plain compared to the other vibrantly decorated tour boats that surrounded it along the deck. As we boarded, two young children grabbed my attention as they scrambled to place plastic chairs down for us before the river tour started. I decided to sit on the deck of the boat, while the rest of my family sat inside the roofed part. When the boat engine finally started and we were transported along the flowing water current, I became awed by the twinkling city lights that littered the horizon and the moon’s pale glow on the clear waters.

As I was taking pictures, my attention was drawn to the floor. Soda cans littered the deck of the boat, and tiny sandals accompanied wooden oars. My eyes drifted back to my family, and I saw that while everyone’s eyes were on the view, my mom’s were on the boatchildren. Their mother – the woman I was angry about for refusing to leave us alone – was changing her kids into their nighttime clothes. I realized that this tour boat was also their home and that the woman’s persistence was just a mother’s desperation. 

Gosh, I felt like crying.

It was then that I understood that parents stand still so their children can look back to see how far they’ve progressed, but how are we supposed to leave them behind after all their sacrifices?

The boatchildren’s experience, along with the visits to Ba Ngoai from both young and elderly loved ones as they shared their poignant last words with her made me wonder:

“We may grow older, but do we ever grow up?”

Our most intense moments of joy, sorrow, grief and regret can transcend time and age. Our parents may want us to become happy and successful, but don’t we wish the same for them? A child’s wish is for their parents to be healthy and content. A child’s wish is for their parents to follow them on their journey to success after all the sacrifices that they have made. It is a child’s wish for their parents to live comfortable lives and to “remember” their legacies. 


Dear Ba Ngoai,

Thinking about your death sends a sharp squeeze to my heart. The grip of loss and grief is still fresh even after almost a year has passed. Last summer, I wish I could have caught up about my life with you under different circumstances, preferably over a bowl of steaming white rice and tea on your porch swing like you’d have wanted. In another life, I’ll take you to the elephant sanctuary just as we had planned. In another life, I hope to still be my mother’s child so that I can be close to you once more. In another life, I hope that my mom can spend more time with hers. 

In this life, I will remember you, Ba Ngoai. Although the thought that you are no longer physically around fills me with profound sadness, I will remember you more than I miss you. 

You live through my memory, my smiles and the sky. As I walk to class during the dawn of spring, basking in the sun’s warmth along my skin and welcoming the fresh scent of blooming flowers, I remember. I remember that it feels like the lap I slept on when I was three, the arms that held me when I was four, the soft kisses against my temple when I was six, the warm hands that cupped my cheeks when I was ten and the life that departed when I turned eighteen followed by the promise of a new one.

For you, my parents and my family, I promise to move forward surrounded by the scents of tea leaves and incense entwined.