The last meal my father ate was bánh bèo. They are a specialty of Huế, in central Vietnam, where he was born and lived until he was sixteen. It’s a small, steamed rice pancake, topped with chopped shrimp, scallions, fried shallots, and served in tiny little round dishes.
It’s served with a sweetened garlic fish sauce. It is one of the specialties of Huế, the ancient royal capital of Vietnam. My cousin brought it to him in the hospital, the week before his decline began.
Vietnam is not the country of my birth. The country in which I was born is no longer extant. The Republic of Vietnam was extinguished on April 30, 1975 when a NVA tank barreled through the main gate of the Presidential Palace.
In 1987, Mr. Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who taught at my high school, told me about how he was on the deck of a boat filled with escaping South Vietnamese. The captain received word that he was to take down the flag of their country: yellow with three red horizontal stripes. As the standard was taken down, the captain told the refugees: “The Republic of Vietnam is gone.”
People began to cry. A young woman on deck jumped into the Pacific and drowned, an act of suicidal solidarity with a dead country. An anguished, ridiculous loss of life as patently fucked up as the geopolitical dick swinging that had led to that moment.
My mother upon being told this story, pragmatic: “But why? She’d gotten that far, she could have had a new start, a life!”
But she didn’t have what my mother has always had in fierce abundance: hope.
Vietnam has never been a country I’ve ever wanted to visit. It was dead to me. That simple.
My dad died on a Thursday night. He had been wavering between worlds for several days, sleeping; anticipating his departure, we had been camped out at the hospice. But I knew he was going to die that night because my sister called me and said, “We’re going to go eat [with our cousins] tonight. Do you want to go?”
“No,” I said, my throat tightening. And unsaid: Dad’s going to die tonight because we’re no longer holding vigil. We are doing what he expects us to do: we’re all moving on with the daily rhythm of life.
So my siblings left that evening to go have dinner. My mother, three uncles, two aunts were in my father’s room when I pushed my son’s stroller around the hospice ward in an effort to lull him to sleep. When I made a pass past the common area, I saw my mother and relatives having a coffee.
“Who’s with Dad?” I asked.
“The staff are changing his sheets,” my aunt said.
Now. I knew. Now.
I sprinted back to his room with Ethan. The staff were just finishing. As they left the room, I considered my sleeping father. I went to him and leaned down.
“Okay Dad,” I whispered. “If you need to go, it’s okay. There’s nothing left for you to do here. We’re all going to be fine.”
At that moment, he turned, the first conscious gesture in almost two and a half days. He eyelids fluttered, and he opened his eyes.
I ran to get my mother. “Mom,” I said. “Dad’s eyes are open.”
She followed immediately. When we returned, he stared at her, and I pulled Ethan up on my hip so my dad could see his grandson and namesake.
“He’s leaving us,” said Mom.
I called the relatives back to the room, I called my sister on her phone and told the siblings to come back because Dad was departing.
My dad’s eyes were a dark gray, rather than the typical black or light brown of those of Asian descent.
“Dad, if you could go back to Vietnam, where would you go?”
“I want to go to the mountains in Huế and visit my mom.”
He was born on August 27, 1932. His mother died on September 9, 1933. It took them seventy-seven years to be reunited; seventy-nine if you count subsequent years before my mother was able to spread his ashes over his mother’s grave.
My sister once said that going to Huế was like meeting another part of herself, the part that was all Dad; and how much she liked it.
It’s fitting that it was her (and her husband’s joint) “birthday party” in Vietnam that led to our family being reunited in this earth that is our homeland in spirit if not in letter.
When I fly into Vietnam, into the same airport from which I fled with my mother and siblings thirty-eight and a half years ago, it is not an emotional moment. It’s excitement rather than contemplation that fills me. My cousin Wendy told me to surrender to the moment. I have heeded her advice.
I've decided to allow myself the joy of experiencing Vietnam as a tourist and not an ex-pat. That will have to come later.
The first thing I ask to eat: bánh bèo.