Tag Archives: writing

Dreams, departures, and the remains of the day

On a day like today, I get to be alone with my thoughts, uninterrupted. I think of my maternal grandparents who passed away while I was away for college. I think of my paternal grandfather, who still listened to my travel stories until the very end. I think of my granny, who I never thought of as my mother’s aunt-in-law and my nanny, but a third grandmother whose warmth and fairy tales always eased me, the hyperactive kid, to slumber. She left last month. Their demises were natural, a remedy to the aged pain.

On a day like today, I walked on the streets and watched people who were struggling with life. I wonder about their stories and dreams. I wonder if they already abandoned or forgot their dreams, or as the night falls, these dreams would come back to haunt them, as vivid and incorporeal as the fluorescent street light. I wonder if they cry for the broken dreams.

I think about them, the people who have come into my life, and the passers-by, and wonder if I were them, right at that moment, what I would be thinking. And I often come up blank, confused to whether if I should feel relieved or frustrated that I couldn’t feel their sufferings. Maybe the former, because I could live without knowing many things, but vicarious pain is a punitive measure.

And I feel like revisiting a piece I wrote in tribute to my late grandmother.


My grandmother had always been a beautiful and strong-willed woman until she passed away of cancer four years ago. She was the realistic version of the woman you would frequently read about in Tu Xuong’s poems and Thach Lam’s short stories: the wife of a hedonist and fallen-behind scholar, the breadwinner of the family and the responsible child-rearer. In fact, she only appeared as the heroin in my mother’s stories as one of the few person to think about life enough to struggle with it. Other than that, my knowledge of her life was little and my memories with her light. She hardly talked of herself or spent the day recalling the hardships she had been through. She didn’t have time to anyway, because her life was as never-ending as a ray of sunlight; it only shines for other people, and only drops when it touches the ground. One rare moment she ever had for herself was the late afternoon, by the Buddhist altar. That was the moment when she obviated all other noises and physical presences and keep her mind completely tranquil. That was the moment she began her “mind talk” with Buddha (or just the statue of him), the only person to whom she could convey her wishes and dreams. Nobody else, even her children, ever knew her last will.

Even though I think her strongest will was to confronted and then walk pass by cancer, with composure.

To many people, the old age is the most fulfilled time of life. They have had their saucerful of past, are taking their present and know their future. At least, to my grandmother. She filled up her present with house chores and incessant thoughts about her future. Sometimes she was tearful and caustic, sometimes calm, sometimes with a “couldn’t-care-less” attitude. Anyway. It tore me up whenever I saw her like that – always in the expecting, if not defiant position. But what was I to talk to her, given that cancer is the one-way route that varies by length and intensity, not by destination? And what else did I know about life to talk with someone who had been there longer than me, and closer to its end than me?

Yet at the same time, I felt from deep inside of her a vigorous and perennial spirit, invisible by gesture but imprinted by moment. Still, she cooked every morning, prayed every late afternoon, and prepared medicine for her bedridden husband without entrusting the duty to anybody else. As broken down as he was, my grandfather was her sole inner strength, the mere reason she forced herself to keep holding on – as if she was living for two people. After all, that was what she had done for over the past 50 years. Being the one who struggled and fought, the one who loved and lived. Being the woman.

She left for Nirvana in a peaceful sleep. She must have prepared another place down there for my grandfather, just as she did with his bed every night up here, because he came to join her just a while later. Now, in her ultimate bliss, she is free from all the worries, and simply the woman about whom, my mother, and then I, would tell stories for our kids – the stories about the eternal ray of sunlight that only drops when it touches the ground.

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Hanoi ephemera

I remember the first winter rain was the night we were together. The raindrops were light yet the air felt burdened from the mist and the Marlboro smoke. I remember the smell of the wet grass and dirt and wastes and sewage blending. I remember glasses clinking as we invincibly sipped our iced tea, our frozen beer, our frosted breath, with floaters and the futures in front of our eyes. I saw them with you.

I remember how time waltzed to the soundtrack of the clock tower. Twelve beats. Twelve movements of the eyes. I remember the way your eyes spoke to me. Sheltered, with a cluster of uncertain words. I remember the way you looked when you caught my glance. A little tense yet too much self-assured. I remember hearing nothing else but the susurrus of the breeze. Maybe there was some other sounds out there, but I obviated them, too scared to break this space between us.

I remember the night was still young, yet we lived in the constant fear that “our time” was running up. We craved not to waste our dreams in prosaic lives or get tangled in the temptation of daily blisses. I still remember to wonder where we would be, and where we are.

I remember when it was 10 Celcius degree and we insisted on the slimmest clothes. Our bikes racked up to 80, and we drifted under the yellow lights. Sometimes we drifted apart, sometimes closer. But I remember how we never left each other behind. The only thing we were racing was the wind, and the only one we were letting down were our guards. I remember how the cold penetrated through our shirts and crawled onto our skins like hungry ants. I remember the consequences belonged to tomorrow, yet the feelings were in the now. And I remember knowing I would not regret it any bit.

And goddammit I remember the music. I remember you sitting across from me, humming to even the oldest and most instrumental songs. I remember the way you smiled when you looked over and saw me swaying to the same melodies (oh please! I was goode long before Johnny ever was). Some people know how to wink, and you’re definitely better than them. This city is not the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but I remember it always being the musical spirits in me.

I remember your timidity and my awkwardness when we tried not to touch. I remember the way our intimacy wasn’t physical, and our romance didn’t mean love. I remember not wanting any of that to change, ever.

You don’t remember the stories. Me neither. I think some day I’ll forget about the feelings, too. But if there is anything left in this blurred memory, it’ll be you. I remember you.

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Broken scenery, packed minds, relinquished memories.

There are always that many steps in packing. First comes that dreadful noise of cardboards scratching against one another, which sounds like an out-of-tune violin. Then I look around for bigger, sturdier possessions to fill the newly empty space, believing I can always tuck the tiny things amidst the layers of clothes and books and what-nots later.

I must be unlucky, because I have too many of these little unnamed things to bury them all away. A few of those, which I thought were lost or discarded along the past 8 years, somehow find a way right back to my face. The high-school yearbook covered by flakes of glitter, the oversized Metallica t-shirt, the set of woolen scarf gifted to me on a summer’s night, a Conn memorabilia here and there, an overdue postcard. Despite the wrong assumption, I still remember them well – all of the whos, whens, wheres were as transparent as a bus window. Blurred and dusted, yet it shows me just what I need to see – the movements, the sounds, the affairs that passed by and lingered within it.

Memories are emotionally constructed. As Julian Barnes said in his The Sense of an Ending, “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” People like to venture into their own twists and turns on that trip down memory lane. That inexpensive scarf suddenly represented embrace and warmth. The glance that happened for two seconds suddenly became a mamihlapinatapai that lasted a decade. Likewise, traces of devastation and heartbreaks are repressed the same way we kicked trash under the fridge hoping it will just “evaporate”. Many times we force ourselves to pretend it’s gone. Some other times, we just forget about its existence. But the moment we decide to move on we end up finding it in our baggage. And no matter how much we try to compress that baggage, we would never escape its burden.

And of course, there are things I believe are always there, just because. The finger-sized ekeka that I used to carry everywhere not for good luck, but for the comfort that somebody “came to Peru and thought of” me. The mixed tapes that sing songs about love, youth and changes. All of the pictures from summer camps. Every greeting card whose way to get to me is a story itself. Now I kept them in the bottom of a plastic box, but at some point in life, each and every of them has managed to keep me steady, even if just for a minute or two. The past looks lighter, the future easier when simple pleasures and sentiments stay the same.

I remember (un)packing a few years ago and missing one of these “simple pleasures.” An mp3 CD with the full discography of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Doors. I couldn’t recall who made it for me, but I remember when. It was the same time disc trays were obviated from laptops and PCs. Needless to say, it ended up a memento for “that time when I was a wild, passion, young, guitarist-wannabe girl.” I dug through every corner and niche of the room for the next few days, but only ended up with more souvenirs to lump the cardboards. It didn’t take me any longer than that to call of the search, but I’m still not convinced that CD, that apocalypically-flat donut of plastic, is not somewhere around the house. It might be bookmarking an unopened book or stuck in the pocket of an ugly coat, and  that if I look one step further, it might just as well be within my reach again.

Don’t we all have some kind of token that we hold on to like that – never to be exhibited, only kept for occasional nostalgia? And aren’t we all hauling some kind of baggage in our lives? In retrospect, how much have they held us back from moving faster, or further, or onto other directions, or from dancing as if our hands are falling off, or from swirling in the rain?

Sometimes, the strongest thing we can do is to let some memories and their corporeal illustrations go so we can be freer and lighter. Who knows, your baggage might not be spacious and your heart as empty as you believed them to be.

So, in the middle of an empty room, I can hear my breath echo against the white walls like farewell whispers. A part of my past is in its place, ready to be present in the future.

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