Dear Mẹ,

It’s been only six days since you came into my life and I keep replaying those 20 minutes the hospital gave us to breath in the same air.

Once I learned the news that for certain you and the rest of my immediate family were alive, I wrote to myself that I was scared. I kept projecting and fantasizing about the visit. I began layering moments and expectations of what my imagination could drum up. Then, I realized that there was nothing imaginable that would prepare me for the physical, mental and emotional shouldering this would bear. It wasn’t until a few days before my flight where I chose to just be during my visit. The U.S. has gotten me into this habit of always going and while in Vietnam, I needed to just be. Yet the consequences of that decision have been overwhelming these past couple of days as I continue this cycle of emotional pushing and pulling.

Before I left for my flight, I had to steady myself. So, I did simple things — I cut my hair short, I bought contacts, I packed plain T-shirts. I’m not sure if it was more for you or more for me, but I did it to push away what America gave me. Growing up, I’ve always had to negotiate which parts of my identity I bring in and which parts I suppress. So, for our visit, I did these simple things just to get closer and to make myself more accessible to you.

Recollecting my arrival, I didn’t realize the immense weight of my visit. It was filled with jubilation and celebration, but also, with the unpeeling of an emotional scar. I was meeting family member after family member. I was posing for photos, people were feeling my face and my brother referred to me only as “baby.” There was a living narrative in the town that I had returned home and that the family had been unified. I remember being asked by my sister-in-law if I was going to come home after school to work here and take care of you. I had a hard time articulating the many emotions pulling me in that moment, because I hadn’t even begun to think about visiting again and if I did, I knew it would only be temporary.

Mẹ, this visit was unfair to you. Of the 14 hours I was in Thái Bình, the circumstances of our lives only gave us 20 minutes to fit an entirety of a life. The security nearly didn’t let me in, if it hadn’t been for the desperation in my family’s voice. I began to juggle what I wanted to ask you. I became anxious to tell you about my American life. I wanted to tell you about my mother in America who is so strong and raised me to be the person you met. I wanted to tell you what American air felt like. I wanted to tell you about the homes I grew up in and about my two siblings I love.  There was no way to satisfy the many thoughts I had with the slight time we got to share. While I had this running list of questions, you managed to encompass so much of it with the motherly wisdom I had always lived without. You only asked me three things: was I married, was I in school and did I eat every day. And to you, these three questions would just confirm the one thing you wanted to know — if I had happiness.

When I walked into the room, I didn’t mean to make you cry. Dad had prefaced that you were very ill and in physical pain so the last thing I wanted was to add a layer of emotional pain. You had so much trouble looking at me. The emotional scar I left you began to bleed again. The interpreter told me that you were having difficulty speaking to me, because it brought back the painful moment when you decided you couldn’t keep me. You told me how difficult it was because you were physically too weak to take care of me and that at the time, you didn’t have the means to feed me either. You named me, “Ocean,” because I was so big.

You told me you could only care for me for 10 days.

I just want to let you know that you didn’t fail, mom. Giving me up was the most courageous and profound decision that any mother ever has to make. I will never be able to suffice for the life you gave me. I can never even conceive the process of emotionally detaching yourself just enough to let me go.

I do want to let you know that I am happy. Because of you, I have the immeasurable privilege of being happy.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Yours with all the love I have,

Nguyễn Đại Dương

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