My sister-in-law died this past Sunday. I wasn’t very close to her but I do feel the sting of the loss. I probably wouldn’t have even known she was in a such a bad state or even dying if it hadn’t been for Facebook. My niece posted that her condition was grave and that she might not survive her scheduled surgery. After her surgery my niece posted that her mother was in a vegetative state and that they would be pulling the plug on Saturday. I have not had the chance to talk to my brother and further I really did not want to bother him during his time of mourning so I decided that I would wait.
My brother and his family live in South Carolina (about 450 miles from here) and I won’t be able to travel there to attend her services. She will be cremated and her services will be held tomorrow. At the most we will be sending a plant in remembrance. So I’m writing about this obviously because it is a huge life event and also because I feel pretty bad about not being there for my brother but I’m not totally to blame, he too has pretty much been out of my life for the last 30+ years so I’m not sure that my attending his wife’s memorial would be much of a benefit for him anyway, not to mention work obligations required me to travel this week so attending the services would cause a bit of a disruption to my organization, I’m sure they would be okay with it but I’d rather not make waves.
When anyone dies one of the first things I think about is how I could have done things differently, how I could have been closer to that person (you realize at that point there’s not going back, no recovery, no turning things around). I envision what I could have done to make their life easier and happier. I don’t really have many regrets about my lack of contact with my sister-in-law as she and my brother chose to move away from our state and family to start a life on their own, they segregated themselves to South Carolina where the only ties they had to the state was it was where they met when my brother was stationed at Fort Sumter while in the Air Force. The other thing that kept them in the state was my sister-in-law had a daughter buried there… a girl that died very young, a girl that my brother never met, nor did my niece or nephew, she was a stranger to the entire family other than my brothers wife but the location of the body of this girl was important enough to my sister-in-law to separate my family so she could be near the grave. It seemed a bit extreme for them to remain in South Carolina solely to be near the memorial of that daughter however that seems to be primarily why they made the decision to live apart from us. My brothers family have had a good life in Sumter, he raised his kids right, he was not pulled down by the poor economy we were experiencing here so he was able to buy a nice home and live comfortable, he was eventually able to send his kids to college and when they left home they too led successful lives. The part of my family that remained here did not fare so well financially or emotionally so I’m sure my brother’s decision to apart from us was the best thing they could have done.
I remember when my brother met her while he was in the Air Force and stationed in Sumter. He called home to tell us that there was someone very important in his life, a woman that he had fallen in love with. My mother was very excited he had met someone and couldn’t wait to meet her. My brother was coming home for Christmas and had anticipated that he would be bringing his lady with him but that didn’t happen, she stayed in South Carolina but sent a gift for my mother. My mother was so pleased by the gift, I remember her saying she thought woman must be a very sweet woman (the gift was a small winged cherub figurine, it remained in my mother’s German schrank (a display cabinet very popular, at least at one time, among Germans, a must have for every German home) and it remained displayed until she died).
We all looked forward in anticipation to the day we would finally meet her. Then one summer my brother brought her home and SURPRISE they were married. Wonderful news! She was a nice enough lady, at least what we could make out, you see my new sister-in-law had been born in Vietnam which in itself was no big deal but it was difficult to interact with her because she could barely speak English and what she could speak was very hard to understand. I was about 14 years old at the time and I seemed to understand her better than anyone else in the family and they (my family) would often look to me to interpret for them. My mother had the most difficult time being from Germany and she herself still had what some considered a heavy accent (I always though her English was pretty clear). My new sister-in-law despite having been in the U.S. many years sounded as if she had just arrived, it seemed she (like my mother) had married a U.S. soldier, we never did hear what happened to him, whether he died or they divorced but we were always under the perception they divorced.
I liked her despite the language barrier, we were closer in age than she was my mother so she and I bonded more so than anyone else in my family did but I started noticing some tensions which were largely due to people not being able to understand, I guess over the years because people couldn’t understand her she developed a habit of repeating what she was trying to say without being asked so she would say things two or three times, the constant repeat and chirping inflections that come naturally with the Vietnamese accent just seemed to frustrate everyone. She was also a bit (being kind here) aggressive or pushy in nature… she wanted what she wanted and when she wanted it she wanted it now… no waiting. She was so proud (and rightly so) of her Vietnamese heritage and would constantly refer to “her country” comparing it with the U.S. always implying that her former country was much better than here in the U.S., or at least that’s they way my mother perceived it. It didn’t bother be as much as my mother but I did notice those words “my country”…”my country”…”my country”…. uttered 10 to 20 times per day at nausea.
Despite the misunderstandings and tensions I have some fond memories of her and one in particular is a story I often tell people and refers to the title of my posting “It Dog”. Aside from her very strong Vietnamese accent and I discovered one afternoon that she also had a sense of humor….and this I loved, with all her flaws it made her seem more human because no matter how much we tried, despite all the years that passed there was always this cultural divide, a divide that would have only been overcome if either she learned better English or we learned to speak Vietnamese.
So I came home from school this one day and she was cooking at the stove. No one else was home, my brother and mother had gone somewhere together and my father and younger brother weren’t home from work and school. When I entered the kitchen she called me over to the stove and using a fork produced a piece of meat from the pot… she said “You try! You try” (again in her manner of repeating her statements, I believe for clarification). So I tried the meat that she was proffering…, I chewed and swallowed. She asked “You like?” I said yes, that it was very good and to my horror she responded “It Dog!” I know she could see the shock on my face and she laughed… “I kid! I kid”… RELIEF! And once I realized it was a joke, it was funny and I laughed along with her. She took this awful stereotype and used it to kid with me in a way she would never kid with the rest of my family. I believe that this little encounter solidified our relationship which and I had become her favorite brother-in-law.
Shortly after there came the incident that drove a wedge between my mother and sister-in-law. As I mentioned she (my sister-in-law) would refer to her country quite frequently, actually constantly. The air was better, the trees were green, the sky was bluer, the people were nicer, just on and on and on. One particular afternoon my mother had enough of it and right in the middle of my sister-in-law’s rant and the “Great Vietnam” my mother spat that maybe she should go back to her country. There was never a closeness between them, the closest they had ever been was before they met when my mother received the Cherub from her for Christmas, never again would they have the opportunity to become close and in fact after this incident the would argue almost every time they would get together. I’m not going to into any of their arguments in detail because depending on the perspective one could take the side of one or the other. I will say though that the worst of their fights resulted in Kim insisting they leave immediately. My brother refused because he wanted to continue his visit with my family however I could see that there was no good coming from this visit and I remember standing in the driveway outside of my parent’s house telling my brother that he should take his wife and leave. I told him that I loved him but he had to realize that he was with his wife now and she was more important in regards to his life and future than my mother (and by the way I was totally on my brother and sister-in-law’s side during this conversation because being in my teens I too was having tensions with my mother (not to mention I was fighting with my own internal “gay” feelings that I was totally not understanding). My brother packed that night and he and his wife left the next day. I like to think that they left because of my advice and that I offered good advice but he never credited me for this decision and I guess I really can’t assume that it was because of me, but like I said I really like thinking that my older brother took my advice.
My poor sister-in-law had a very hard life and I think that so much of her difficulties were caused because she never totally learned how to speak English clearly and I honestly believed that many people chose not to speak with her or would avoid her altogether, I wish so much my brother would have had the sense to talk her into English as a second language class because despite having lived more of her life in America in Vietnam if you met her for the first time you would have thought she had only just arrived. I know that from my interaction with her at the stove all those years back I think that she may have been a wonderful person to get to know but the difficulty of the language divide, the tensions between our family, and the fact that she and my brother chose her dead daughter over his living family we never did get to know her, I think having a real family would have done her good, they might not have ended up as well off, her kids may not have gone to college, but I think they would have had a much happier life, but who knows, they may have been the happiest of all of us, I just think that she was very lonely.
So I just want to say good-bye to my dear sweet sister-in-law and say that I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know you better. I’m sorry I didn’t do more to help make things easier between you and my mother and the rest of the family. At least now those tensions and other challenges you experienced in all the years I’ve known you are finally at an end. Good-bye my sweet sister.