Nguyễn Thị Cẩm Vân

visitation hours:

Over the last 6 months, the only hours that I’ve been able to see my grandma have been roughly between the hours of midnight and seven AM. somewhere in between sleeping and dreaming. she visits sometimes in the past and sometimes in the present and I always wake up wondering when I will be able to see her again. It’s strange thinking about restricted hours in being able to see someone at all. When she entered the hospital months ago... no one was able to visit, though, there were facetime hours. Now, i’m limited to sleep and the off chance I have some free time and enough gas in my car to drive to her grave during the cemetery’s visitation hours. It’s strange that she’s come to visit me so often. Does she know how often I think of her? Look at her photos? Write about her? Is it her in my dreams or am I really just dreaming?


Every time I wake up, I can't discern what it is I feel...excitement that she visited me again or despair that I've woken up again to a world without her embrace.


I started school this week. I feel sad that she isn’t here to witness it in a material way. Like ask me how school is, when I’ll be back home to visit, and what it is I’m exactly learning or doing in school. I feel sad that any new knowledge I bear on this next passage will feel a bit less full, less opaque, without her to share it with. I have to really work to feel full these days and most days I never get there. It has been 167 days since 22-04-2020 and I wonder how many more days until I will be able to feel full again..


100 days:

It’s been 100 days since bà ngoại has passed. Predictably, there hasn’t been a day that has gone by where she hasn’t, at the very least, flitted across my mind. I cry a bit less but can still feel my body mourning her through a ceaseless tiredness, lethargy, and impressionable weight on my everyday being. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should do today for her 100 days. 40 days ago I wasn’t sure if I would still be in Pomona or in Philadelphia, again. I made the decision to fly back, so I’m currently in Philadelphia right now. My 2 weeks of isolation are over, and I’ll be here for another 4 weeks. I’ve been practicing Vietnamese with my friends and my housemate since I got back and there's this tinge of sadness that I now have this ample amount of time in this short window of opportunity to intentionally practice Vietnamese where I’m learning and picking up so much…and in this short window from her death until now.. It feels almost as if it’s just another missed moment in passing.. I’m just a few months short of being able to reach her… I guess this is what many of us live and move with when a loved one transitions from a physical presence to a spiritual one..a rush of passing of moments that Could Have Been.


Last March (2019), when ông ngoại died, I was laying in bed with her while I was still home. We were talking as we usually do and I asked her if there was a dish she hasn’t had in a long time..a dish she thought about every so often and craved. She asked me if I’ve ever heard of lạc xá, and I hadn’t, so I looked it up in my hundreds of on-going safari tabs with things I’ve googled and never closed... I told her I would try and cook lạc xá for her sometime before I left, but I didn’t. I remember during the month of ông ngoại’s death, I was flying between L.A. and Philly for various Viet and Southeast Asian organizing strategy retreats. It was an overwhelming time for me...I was simultaneously trying to think through what our political landscape was...as well as continue my ongoing project in trying to find material ways to understand and mobilize my love both personally and politically.


A couple weeks ago, while trying to migrate articles, image searches, videos, and wiki pages into are.na, I scrolled past lạc xá in my tabs again where it was wedged between sương sâm, one of bà ngoại’s favorite desserts, and Lantau Island, a (now closed) refugee camp in Hong Kong that a comrade of mine grew up in for a short period of his life…again, I felt a slow and steep wave of sadness that I never got to cook this dish for her and I felt some guilt. Another moment that Could Have Been….or maybe Not Yet materialized. According to wikipedia on Vietnamese Culture, 100 days after the death of a loved one marks lễ tốt khốc, or “the end of tears”. So today, I attempted to cook lạc xá for her...a dish I have never personally tasted and have no point of reference or anyone to call on to find out if it tastes ‘right’...I laid out a modest bowl, slice of cake, lit incense and prayed to invite her to eat and ask what she thinks of it… I can only imagine her feedback, her smile, and the sound of her eating...I’ve been sitting here wondering what her or my mom would have said about it, like if I’m missing anything, or how I can do better next time. I personally think I made it bland, but I will try to fix it later.


We all cooked her favorite dishes today and even though I am here and somewhat alone today.. I don’t feel as sad as I thought I would be. I obviously can’t say the tears have formally ended or if they ever will...but maybe today I can at least celebrate the lengths I’ve reached so far in learning to continue living and moving in my life where her impressions have transitioned into embodiments...maybe possessing me to keep creating the moments in passing that Could Have Been.


a eulogy:

I’ve been back in California since 05-04-2020. Our bà ngoại (maternal grandma) was admitted into the hospital with no visitation allowance on 25-03-2020 and came home from the hospital on 12-04-2020. She was home and back in her room for 10 days. We, as in mostly my little brother, re-learned her new needs. Food, changing, cleaning, times, dosages...hospice care. She died on 22-04-2020; it’s been 8 days since the incense we lit each day finally carried bà ngoại back to ông ngoại (maternal grandpa) and our aunt, dì Trúc. A lot of things have been drifting and cycling through my mind over the last week. Things I've repeated to myself so I don’t forget, things I told myself I should have written down but haven’t...a lot of things slipping in and out of consciousness. For the 10 days bà ngoại was home, it felt like everyday was like that...like quietly slipping in and out of grasp. I was never sure how to proceed with each day because, although I knew each day would grow harder, it felt like the second I went to sleep...I reset. I didn't know how each day would unravel but I knew that by the end of it...we would be exhausted and sorrowful. Every single night felt like it was her last while the last 5 weeks felt like I was already grieving. I think I cried everyday for 4 weeks..fearing that my resentment towards home hurt me more than I could have possibly imagined….fearing that the last time I saw bà ngoại 8 months ago was my last...fearing that deciding not to return for christmas was a selfish mistake….ocean vuong said something about “calcified fear” in reference to fire escape structures. This was my fire escape.


I’ve thought about this day for a long time. I’ve feared it, reconciled it, then accepted it...then feared it again. I’ve written essays, researched, and theorized about the way she speaks, the way she moves, the way she loves, the way she historicizes....I’ve thought endlessly, nearly everyday, about her for the last 5 years. I never called to speak to her as often as I should have. I always told myself I would do so more often, again and again, but I’ve never held myself accountable to it. I made excuses like...I was tired, working too much, my vietnamese hasn’t improved (even though it was, but not in ways I felt I could share with her). I’ve recorded her laughing, talking, snoring, and cooking but, to this day, still have not been able to fully understand or transcribe any of these recordings. Every time I return to them I understand a little more and more, but never fully. One day, I will see her again and I will be able to speak to her in ways that are most comfortable for her. Today is not that day, but I will keep on trying.


Every time I have gone home in the last 4 years, I've chosen to share her bed with her even though there was limited space on that twin sized mattress. Every time I have gone home in the last 4 years, I have listened to her tell and retell the same stories over and over with slightly different details, or maybe slightly less vividly. Her memory wavers. Every time I have thought about this day, especially on days when her sadness interlocked with her mortality…. Lingering in her voice, her stories, her trailing thoughts...she would taunt death and tell me she has lived a wondrous and naïve life...and she has. She went on dates, she loved christmas, she thought babies were conceived by holding hands, she was cathlolic, she believed in miracles, she was imprisoned when seeking refuge in a war she had no control over, she’s cooked for probably hundreds of people, she read more books with each passing day... she took care of 4 children, 6 grandchildren, and was always in awe of children in our family amongst several generations. There is so much more...and if you know me, you know how much I have sat with and close-read and re-listened and re-recorded and re-read each of her stories…


Grieving is...has been..will be..confusing and disjunctive...I’ve been writing this eulogy in different drafts for what feels like years….I’m not sure I will ever finish but at the same time...I don’t think I’m meant to. The memory work I started with my grandmother(s) over 5 years ago is work I will be doing for the rest of my life. Her moments in passing have become key points in my everyday process towards understanding a mosaic of womanhood, history, caretaking, cooking, intelligence, and patience.


My home in California will not feel the same without her. I laid my head on her bedside everyday for those 10 days knowing it may be the last time I feel the wrinkles on her hand, the jade bangle tightly bound to her left wrist with speckles of oil splattered scars, the curve of her fingernails, the indents around her finger where her rings were...these small sensations that I will only ever know through touch...


To bà ngoại: I promise your story will be written down for someone else to read so they can know how good the seafood in Vũng Tàu is, so they can know what growing up in Sài Gòn was like in the 1950-60s, so they can know that history can be written by a Vietnamese woman who simply lived it. I love you bà ngoại and thank you for breathing life into all the stories to come after you….không có ai thương con bằng bà ngoại nhe?