My father died one year ago and I’ve struggled to write about it.
I hear that grief is different for each person; different for each loss. But when the grief is your own and it holds no shape, how do you engage it? I tried to write about it. I started and stopped twice, trying to capture the complicated feelings that his death produced–feelings that ebbed and flowed as daily life took up my brain space. I don’t know how to finish these essays, so I present them unfinished… perhaps the best metaphor for grief.
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Technically, my father didn’t leave us, we left him. We walked away onto a boat to face the unknown and started life anew. But for all intents and purposes, his refusal to join us was the same as leaving. I saw my father several times since our initial separation, and each time, I walked away, returning to my home in America. Each time I left I could understand a little better the conflict he must have felt back in 1980. Each time I left I believed that there was nothing else I could do, that we had each made our decisions and just had to live with the consequences. Each time I left I believed my decision was the right one. I don’t regret any of those trips and returns; I have done all that was within my capacity for forgiveness and empathy. But in the process I did understand him just a little better.
We all make choices that affect those around us, some big, some small, most without really thinking. My decision to leave each time, though bound by plane tickets and other responsibilities, was always a choice. I see now that each choice brought me a little bit closer to forgiving him, letting anger and resentment go. I see now the strange parallel between us and how my decisions helped me to make peace with his decision. I hope he understood that in the end we were at peace with each other.
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If you’ve kept up with this blog you know by now that my relationship with my father was unusual, complicated by time, place, distance, and the long shadows of memories that are not my own. In many ways I never really had a relationship with him, certainly not the kind where we really knew each other’s tendencies, likes, dislikes. Whatever it was that we had was based on blood and duty. His blood runs through me and for that we both felt a strong sense of duty that manifested in small acts now flashing through my mind like postcards from a trip long ago. There are fleeting sepia images of my first trip back to Vietnam 20 years ago, awkward embraces, quiet meals. More recent images in vivid color of his brief visits with his grandchildren; less awkward, more bittersweet. Beyond these images I have no access to the simple memories of his daily life or important milestones.
The few times I visited, my father and I would inhabit the same physical space but very different emotional and psychological spaces. In fact, for the whole of my life, I do not know if we have ever shared the same thoughts or feelings, but I sensed that my internal conflicts had a parallel in his. And now that he has passed, there is a void not in me but in the space between father and daughter. My grief, amorphous and unbound to the usual bonds between father and child, has no counterpart and feels unmoored. So I leave it to float about in my mind, trying my best to not lock it into a box or contain it. But it does not feel real, resisting my attempts to acknowledge and engage.
One year after his passing and I still do not know how to feel or what to feel. There are times when I wonder if I have subconsciously avoided the grief, worried about what lies underneath. Perhaps my feelings aren’t resolved as I think them to be. Perhaps I have deluded myself and now when further reconciliation is impossible I will have to deal with guilt and regret. At other times I wonder if perhaps I fear that there is really nothing underneath at all. Perhaps the reconciliation is complete and there is nothing left to resolve and no true feelings to profess. The former would mean that I will have to live with regret. The later would mean that I had no true relationship with my father, outside of duty and compassion. I am not sure which scenario is preferable.
But enough about me. My father died and his life was full of challenges and difficult choices.
Le Thanh Son was born on March 20, 1941 and died on July 21, 2018, he was 77 years old. He is survived by his estranged wife, Rosette Le, daughter, Kathy Le, and son, Joseph Le, as well as 3 sisters and 1 brother. He leaves behind an extended family and loyal friends. He spent his entire life in the same house that his parents built. Le Thanh Son was a dutiful eldest son; he remembered all family anniversaries and tracked extended family relationships. He served in the South Vietnamese Army during the American War and afterwards, survived several years in a re-education camp. He never spoke of his experience in the war or the re-education camps but he never forgot them either. War and its aftermath ultimately separated him from his wife and children.
The most important memory of my father that I take with me is the belief that he always tried to do the right thing and didn’t always succeed. In this, we are the same.