March 29, 2018 was the last day of a fun and relaxing vacation for our family, albeit too short. Just five days before my husband and I with our teenage son Michael and his friend, drove straight through to Naples, Florida from Chicago. We’d nervously driven through a snowstorm from the beginning of the trip through Chattanooga, Tennessee. For several long hours in the night we slowly navigated through falling thick, wet and heavy snowflakes. Then shortly after we came out of that a strong rainstorm with heavy wind gust greeted us outside Atlanta and unwelcomely stayed with us for a few more nail biting hours through Georgia. Finally, our prayer was answered in the spirit of saving the best for last, we reached the state of Florida in the early morning to see the blue sky opening up and the sun coming out with its brightest greetings and welcome. The warm temperatures provided us with a jolt of energy and woke our fatigue bodies as we pulled in to the driveway of our rental house in Bonita Springs.
Hurriedly we brought our bags inside, everyone freshened up and within a short 15 minutes we were ready to meet up with friends from two other families at their hotel, already arrived a couple of days earlier. Our driving through the night efforts were rewarded with a week’s worth of the most beautiful weather the Florida sky could provide. Every day we woke up to 80 degree weather with sunshine and little wind. It was exactly what we had hoped for and more. We’d spent most of the time on the beach or at the pool in our bathing suits, soaking in the sun, eating, drinking, socializing and enjoying watching the young adults with their friends. Our biggest and most demanding decisions of the day were what to eat, where to eat and what fun activity we’d do. Life was good.
Earlier in the morning Michael’s girlfriend Natalie and her parents Tony and Traci left so the rest of us decided to spend the day at the beach. We wanted the sun to shower its warmth on our skin, to feel the soft sand under our feet and to just sit and stare in the ocean one last time. I’m pretty sure we were all thinking, “What better way to prepare ourselves for the dreary winter awaiting us back in Chicago?” While it wasn’t anything new for Michael and friends because they spend a lot of time together, John and I appreciated having the opportunity to get to know our new friends Curt and Kelly better. As the day winding down and as the saying goes, all good times must come to an end, so it did with our vacation. We packed up around dinnertime and headed back to our rental house. As soon as I opened the door, my phone beeped; a text had come through. It was from my sister PJ.
“Lee, I’m sorry to bother you while you’re on vacation, but I just got word Chanh was hit by a car.”
My heart sank. My sister Chanh lived in Ohio, and while we hadn’t historically been the best of friends, our relationship had improved considerably over the last few years. Chanh was known for her fiery temper, but she had also been our family’s backbone and lifeline—our connection to a better life in the United States. She’s been the one who had brought our mother and five siblings over from war-torn Vietnam over 40 years ago. Because of the nature of how we came over, I’m thinking she made the decision without considering all the sacrifices she and her own family would later have to make.
At this point, I was concerned but in no way imagining the worst.
While I was waiting for PJ to text back with more details, it was clear that my former mood of celebration had been dampened by visible worries and nervousness. My mind was filled with all kinds of questions and my son Michael, who had always been deeply intuitive, frowned at me and asked, “Mom, is everything OK?” Trying to not show any emotions I answered quickly, “Yes, it is.”
As I watched everyone else milled about the house trying to figure out what our plans would be for that final night, I decided to take Michael in the hallway to tell him about the news. I wasn’t really sure about my decision, but I also couldn’t hide my feelings and wanted him to know before everyone else does. “I just got word that Aunt Chanhnie has been in an accident.”
“Is she going to be OK?”
“I don’t know, but I need to figure something out.”
It was the last day of our vacation, and I had no intention of ruining it for everyone else with some news that might or might not be serious. Why unnecessarily make a mountain out of a molehill? I decided to pull Kelly aside so I could break the news to her. I asked her to go out with her family while our family process the unexpected news and make plans for what was to come. I told her, “I just got word that my sister was in an accident.”
She immediately brought her hands up to her face and exclaimed, “Oh no!”
I shook my head and tried to remain calm and positive. “Please tell everyone to wrap up—you guys go ahead and go to dinner.”
She was taken aback by the suggestion that she try to enjoy herself at a time like this. “I’m not going to just leave you here!”
I insisted. She resisted.
“I can’t do it. I just can’t,” she said.
I pleaded with her, “Please do it for me. This would be a great time for you and your family to go out to dinner and enjoy your last night here. Don’t worry about us, OK? Michael, John, and I will wait here to find out what’s going on with my sister. I don’t want anyone else to have to worry about this right now.”
She reluctantly agreed, but by the time we were back inside, everyone was aware that something was wrong and wanted to know what was going on. Since Kelly was now visibly shaken, upset and seemed to have frozen up, I decided to tell them.
Our friends quickly left the house to give us some space—after I’d done my best to reassure them that everything would be fine. And then…I waited for what I hoped would be better news.
Eventually, PJ called. Her voice was quiet, worried, and somber. “Chanh was hit by a car while crossing the street to get to her car. It happened right after work.”
Oh my god.
I sat down and my husband John immediately sat next to me, holding my hand and watching my face for a reaction. But my face felt almost immobile. And as chills ran down my spine, my body became cold…practically numb. For some reason, all I could think about was the fact that I’d assumed Chanh had been driving when she was hit.
I don’t know what I said in response but PJ went on, “They’re taking her to a hospital in Cleveland. Ha is on her way there. Bryan is also on spring break in Tennessee. Alan isn’t doing too well.”
Ha was our youngest sister. Bryan was Chanh’s older son. Alan was Chanh’s husband. I could feel my body going into shock, quickly stiffening up and becoming weak and wobbly. I ran to the bathroom just in time to flush everything out. All at once, I was emotionally and physically drained. Then panic set in and tears started to flow freely.
Please God, please God, please, be with Chanh. Please protect her and be with all of us.
The slight sense of disturbance that had been there before PJ’s call was now an urgent, ringing alarm. I sat down on the bed and cried aloud. I tried to control my hysteria from Michael by burying my face in my hands, coming up for air every now and then. Then I stood up. Is this really happening? What are we going to do? I continued to cry, softly now and began to pace back and forth between one end of the bed to the other. I really did not know what to do. After a few minutes I returned to the living room and immediately went into problem-solving mode. What could I do? I decided to text Cindy, Bryan’s wife. I didn’t know if they had been contacted. Cindy told me Bryan was getting information from Ha and they were trying to figure out their next steps.
I turned to my son, whose face was drawn with worry after all he’d heard. I calmly said, “Michael, what I want you to do is pray for Aunt Chanhnie’s safety, and Mom and Dad will do the same.” There was little else to say; we simply held hands and prayed. The next several hours went by in a blur between trying to process the news, moving between optimism and panic and cleaning and packing our belongings to leave early the next morning.
Ha, who didn’t live too far from Chanh, became the primary disseminator of information, texting updates to PJ, who in turn passed them on to everyone in our family, including me, my sister Kay and my younger brother Liem. The most definitive and devastating news came at 10:30 p.m. Ha notified us that the trauma surgeon on duty had told them that their team had worked very hard for Chanh and now because there was no detectable brain activity they were simply doing their best to keep her comfortable. There were no other details beyond that. No, no, no. Please God. Please keep her here. Chanh has been a good disciple of yours. She’s done so much for us. She’s so young and vibrant and full of life. I started to feel dizzy and off balanced. My body was shaking; my voice trembled. This is not happening. This just can’t be happening. I was now hyperventilating. John was trying to be helpful but didn’t really know what to do. He busied himself with cleaning and packing and offering to be there for me if I needed him for anything.
Before I’d received Ha’s text, I’d held onto the hope that Chanh might still make it. I envisioned myself at the hospital with her, holding her hand and stroking her hair and comforting her.
Rest. Just rest. You’re in God’s hands now Chanh. You don’t have to fight anymore. God is with you and He will take care of you.
But my sister was a born fighter, as everyone knew it. We were all counting on her making it because of her resolve and resilience and strength.
Ha would tell me later, “I kept asking the surgeons, ‘What’s next?’ over and over. What were we supposed to do from here? They told me it was just a matter of time.”
Just a matter of time? But there’s ALWAYS hope. A miracle. I’m praying for a miracle.
After all, we have been no strangers to miracles. When our family was separated during the Tet Offensive, my two older sisters and I were trying to cross a bridge to the other side where we could reunite with our parents and younger sister with the North Vietnamese soldiers shooting at us. On April 26, 1975, just days before the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon our family was part of the first wave of refugees to be entered the United States, jammed into a C130 military cargo plane not knowing if we’d be able to make it out alive or reach our first destination. In 2004 my oldest son Tag was diagnosed with cancer at the tender age of 6 1/2, he went through 5 heavy duty chemo treatments and was declared cancer free six months later. Through our faith and the love and support of our family and friends we had miraculously survived these events. So yes, I do believe in miracles. I do. I’m praying for a miracle for Chanh.
Naturally, in the thick of it all, John and I couldn’t sleep. Finally, at 3:21 in the morning, we received another update: There was no brain activity and Chanh was now on full life support.
That news still didn’t register, as I refused to believe and was determined to hold on to the hope of a miracle. John suggested we get up, shower, and load up the car because we had to get to Ohio as quickly as possible. It made more sense to spend our time this way than to toss and turn and wait for the morning to come.
I felt numb as I moved around aimlessly, not knowing what to do first. Then after a couple of minutes, as if someone had turned on the switch, I snapped into action and jumped in the shower. I packed quickly and went to the kitchen.
I would never see my sister again. Just a week ago I was exchanging text messages with her. Now I thought I should have called her instead. I thought of my reason for not calling: I had just spent an hour on the phone with PJ so now I needed to get some chores done. I couldn’t afford any more time chit chatting on the phone again. My body shivered. With that thought I had opened the door and invited guilt in.
I was sobbing uncontrollably now even though I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I was simultaneously numb and overcome with emotions: weak and empty, and a raging mass of grief and regret. It reminded me of when we first received Tag’s cancer diagnosis. I had felt everything and nothing all at once.
Everything after that was a blur. John reached for my hand and we simply had to do what needed to be done. We packed the car, woke the kids up and as we pulled out of the driveway at six in the morning, Ha texted me once more. It was official. They’d turned off life support right after Bryan got there and said his goodbye. And just like that, my sister Chanh was gone.
The numbness evaporated, but it was quickly replaced by the strange sensation of my body melting away. Michael and his friend were asleep in the back seats while John held my hand. And we drove off into the morning.
That was when the onslaught began.
Shock. Guilt . Regret. An overwhelming sense of Sadness. They were moving in and out amongst themselves, vying to be the center of attention. There was no question in my mind that I had wanted to do and probably could have done so much more for Chanh and all the time that I could have been there for her. My thoughts became louder and louder:
Oh my God, I should have talked to her before this! I should have called her that Thursday before we left for Florida! But we did exchange some pleasant text messages. Didn’t we? I think we left it on a good note. I regret not calling her. I regret letting go of the opportunity to talk to her one last time.
I was like a child playing a game with myself—considering the many gestures and actions I could have taken that might have prevented this tragedy. But I had to surrender to the fact that I didn’t have any control over the situation. Life was proverbially unpredictable. One moment, I was enjoying my vacation. And the next, I was driving to Cleveland to pay my respects to my dead sister. Holding the complexity of all that had happened in the last several hours was overwhelming. I had the sensation of life raining all its experiences down upon me at once.