My brother’s tiny bones lie in a ceramic container the size of a brick. On it is a picture of him in an orange shirt, sitting against a powder blue backdrop. Underneath the photo is his name, written from last to first in the Vietnamese tradition: “Uong Đình Thịnh.” The box sits among others of its kind in an annex of the community church my parents once frequented in Vietnam. The anniversary of my brother’s death is the only time during which I receive new layers to his story, little pieces that I sew together in my memory, a patchwork of history I have inherited from my parents.
I try not to think about his death. Instead, I imagine the absence my mother must have felt in the empty space between her arms and her chest. The seconds after she rushed down three flights of stairs to her firstborn son’s stillness. The silence between herself and my father in the nights that followed, the slow drift that took her to her parents’ house, the sense of duty that brought her back to him. I picture them holding hands before the Virgin Mary statue at their church in Saigon, heads bowed in prayer for another baby.
I’ve always wondered how much time passed before they buried my brother. How long it took for my parents to let go of their only child, how much haunting has followed them since. My father’s feet cracking against clay flower pots on the morning of my brother’s death, dirt scattered across the floor of his family’s patio, brothers and sisters looking on. There is a lifetime of mystery, details I cling to when my parents share this story with me. It happens in fleeting exchanges, shifting stories told quietly over a lunch of rice and stewed meats.
So much of what I know about us feels like folklore, a tale woven with whispers shared between my parents at 3 A.M. when they think I’m not listening. Other times, the story comes to me in bitter shouts tossed from one parent to the other, when they blame each other and the world for the life they had in Vietnam and the life they have now in America. In these moments, my little brother and I huddle silently, waiting for the eventual silence that comes when they tire themselves out, yet we can’t help but hold on to every piece of information that reaches our ears.
My most indulgent daydreams conjure up a life in which Thịnh is alive and well, working beside my father at the factory down the street, or even better, living a satisfying life with a fulfilling career, shouldering the weight that fell instead on me when my family came to this country. I close my eyes and manufacture a universe in which Thịnh handled my parents’ panic when our healthcare was pulled out from underneath us, my father’s shame when he couldn’t get a certain phrase right in English, or my mother’s heaviness when we were evicted from our first apartment in Los Angeles. Some days, when I leave work and find my mother’s voicemails asking for me to call back about a mysteriously high phone bill or a strange government notification in the mail, I wish Thịnh could be here to help me answer those questions.
For my mother, it all happened in a blur. The pregnancy, the birth, the death. But the marriage came first, a plan designed between their parents to join the two families from neighboring towns. The ceremony was simple. After rumors of my father’s failed first marriage—circulating stories of a new bride running away in the night to escape hostile in-laws—there was no need for extravagance. In pictures, my parents stand rigid under palm leaves draped over the entryway of my mother’s childhood house. Her lips are painted a deep red and the slightest periwinkle sits above her lashes. A crown of baby’s breath and daisies encircle her pinned up ‘80s curls.
My father is scrawny, with an angular face swallowed by the wide collar of his white button-down. The gray suit he wears hangs off his shoulders and between his thin fingers there’s a cigarette, smoke curling in sunlight. He squints into the camera with an expression I’ve never been able to read, even when I see it today every time I catch him staring off into the distance.
“Leaving home,” a sign above them says. My parents’ siblings surround them, each holding a platter of food and gifts covered in red fabric trimmed with gold. It’s hard to imagine what a luxurious wedding must have looked like if their humble ceremony was still littered with armfuls of presents. When I look at these photos, I think I see fear in my mother’s eyes, but she always tells me, “I was prepared to break that family down.”
She was going to charge in with sleeves rolled up and arms ready for battle. Knowing her now, the way she bargains in Chinatown, never taking no for an answer, even the way she yells at my father, with power pummeling outward and upward from the bottom of her gut, I wouldn’t have ever thought that my father’s family broke her instead. At first, it was just the day-to-day chores. “No big deal,” she said to me once.
“I never cooked though. That was something the other daughter-in-law did. She was better at it.” The bitterness in her voice cut through each word. “But she told me once that she put a drop of period blood in their food. That’s why they all liked her so much. I could have done it easily, and wanted to sometimes. But I didn’t.” Years later she would tell me that she made up the story, that the other daughter-in-law did no such thing. But something in her quiet whisper betrayed her; perhaps it was shame in considering the act that made her take it back. It wasn’t until then that I realized my mother has lived a life of half-truths, passing on translucent stories as fleeting as her first born’s death, and I’m trying my best to grasp at them.
“One day,” is how she starts most of her tales, drawing from jagged moments that she carries deep within her. “One day, your aunts started telling me to wash their period rags. I knew then that they hated me.” Day-to-day chores quickly became heavy loads of physical labor and emotional battering. When she talks to me about her duties, I imagine her on hands and knees washing the floor, back arched, belly round with child, right arm scrubbing at tiles.
I envision scenes from the brief details she’s given me over the years: My mother rubbing detergent into their dirty clothes, a recurrence so constant that her fingertips are scarred with cracks and cuts; my mother standing on her tiptoes to polish the family altar, blowing away dust from stern faces within the frames; my mother and father sleeping on the ground of the bottom floor, barred from staying in the upstairs bedroom because of Thịnh’s midnight cries. I imagine their tired bodies curved around their newborn son. I’ve inherited a grudge so deep that I force myself to picture my parents’ pain, if only as evidence that it existed and continues to exist today. At family gatherings, my aunts and uncles might approach me with smiles and condescension veiled with cordiality, but I see through them into a past that caused my parents so much hurt.
“One day,” my mother started to say over a breakfast of eggs and toast. It was a brisk morning during my seventh-grade winter break and as I hunched over homework I could feel a story making its way out from within my mother’s depths. It was Thịnh’s birthday and he would’ve turned thirty had he been alive. “I had a basket full of laundry,” she continued, “that I needed to hang up on the third-floor balcony. Thịnh was a little over a year old.”
It was a sunny morning, she told me. My father was out delivering packages of straws to cafes, a side job he picked up to save some money while they still lived in his family’s house. The aunts and uncles were elsewhere, running their own errands. At one and a few months, Thịnh was developing a mischievous side, finding ways to escape eyesight so he could freely roam the nooks and crannies of my grandparents’ house—three floors of exciting adventure to a child that age. It had been a struggle for my mother since his birth. Before, she was responsible for all the chores of the household. Now, she was responsible for all of that in addition to the well-being and happiness of a small, living, breathing human with her cheekbones and her smile.
She constantly had one eye on her task and one eye on his bobbing head, soft with thin black wisps of baby hair. That morning, she was home alone with Thịnh and my grandfather, a stoic man with sharp eyes and, from what my mom has said, a jarring yell. Though he treated my mother with the same lack of respect and kindness that came from everyone else in the family, he could acknowledge that she gave birth to a boy, and by his standards, that was without dispute a job well-done. And so, when she asked him to watch Thịnh so that she could hang up clothes with some peace of mind, he nodded silently from behind his newspaper instead of launching into criticism. But he must have been a man immersed in his own thoughts that day.
From the second floor, my mother ascended the last flight of stairs to the top, wet clothes in a plastic bin between her hips and her hands. She could see far into the distance from the balcony, over shining tin roofs and zipping motorbikes. Under the bright blue of the sky, she hung up pants and shirts with a gentle breeze blowing through her traditional Vietnamese pajamas. I imagine her wearing her favorite ones, a pair she still wears today: light blue pants with small specks of white flowers and a flowing blouse in the same fabric.
Perhaps in the removed quiet of the balcony, a moment that granted her some distance between herself and her life with my father’s family, my mother’s thoughts drifted off and into the bustle of the neighborhood below, where vendors were making deals with customers and women were talking about the latest show they caught on television the night before. She must have breathed a deep sigh that only escaped when she was in solitude. Possibly, she wondered why her husband wouldn’t stick up for her more often, but maybe it was because when he did, he was ridiculed anyway for being the only son who pedaled straws at cafes and glued soles to shoes for money instead of pursuing bigger dreams and higher education.
It couldn’t have been long before my brother slipped free of my grandfather’s oversight. Thịnh pulled himself up the steps, one at a time, body tumbling forward and upward towards his mother, an inner compass always pointing at her worn but warm face. Ever patiently, he worked his way to her. In the fleeting handful of seconds when mother and son shared a peaceful silence on the balcony of a home that bound them, the story slips, blurs, and breaks itself apart.
My mother’s memory can only pull so much out and over the tangle that tightens her chest every time she speaks or thinks about it. In the thirty and more years since Thịnh’s death, my mother has returned to the moment time and time again in her dreams, vanishing images that leave her calling out, “Con ơi, con ơi” My child. My child. Hand over heart, she twists as I lie next to her in our family’s shared bedroom, watching her closed eyes squint in a phantom pain I can only feel from afar.
In her memory, his light-footed steps went unnoticed until it was too late. When she turned away from the clothesline to grab another garment from her tub, my mother caught a brief glimpse of Thịnh. Staggering between dresses and bed sheets in that little kid way, then slipping through the just-too-far-apart railing that encircled them on the balcony, a butterfly drifting in and out of eyesight.
My brother had turned one a few months before, a day they celebrated at the beach. In faded pictures my mom squats with him where waves meet sand, holding onto his round body. It looks as if he had just learned how to walk on his own. My mother is in shorts and a white t-shirt while Thịnh is in striped swimming trunks, his smiling face shaded by a khaki bucket hat. She smiles through the hair that’s blown into her mouth; he squints at the camera and holds up his tiny plump hands.
The only other photo that we have of the beach gathering shows my father with Thịnh balanced on his left knee. They’re sitting under an umbrella that casts a large shadow over them and a couple of friends who have shown up for the party. My father is smiling with soft eyes and an open mouth, a phenomenon I last saw in a photo of him carrying my little brother Kenny.
These two washed-out pictures along with the framed headshot on our altar are all that we have in America as evidence to Thịnh’s existence. That, and the butterflies that my mother points to every time one finds its way to us. “Look, look! It’s Thịnh visiting us,” she says, pointing at the quickly beating wings that swirl over us during our early-evening walks around the neighborhood. In the dim pink-blue light of dusk, I squeeze her cracked hand in mine as we watch his tiny soul flutter by.