Monday, January 12, 2009

Hey, 2008, don't let the door hit you in the...

Warm California Reindeer

This past pair of holidays, we broke with tradition and traveled. Our families live far away, but since having children we've favored off-peak visits when the weather is better and the airport lines are shorter. This Christmas was different, of course.

Ong Ngoai was there, alone, to pick us up at the San Diego airport. The air was summer-evening cool, and our East Coast clothes felt thick. I then drove us all the hour more to the smaller town and bigger house.

The house was really too big for the two of them, and seems cavernous now. Ong Ngoai has only recently gone back to staying here after weeks of sleeping on friends' couches. He had been packing, though. He'd neatly sorted Ba Ngoai's clothes and bags and shoes into clear bins that had been labeled and inventoried. She was a hair stylist for many years, and she had accumulated shears and rollers and chemicals in industrial strengths and sizes. Much of it needed to be gone through and carried, which was mainly why we were there.

Ong Ngoai now lives in a part of the first floor — a small bedroom just off the kitchen, and a bathroom just off of that. He only goes upstairs to bring food to his wife on the altar of family who have passed on, as tradition requires. (Throughout the visit, we could hear him talking sweetly to Ba Ngoai as he brought a small meal upstairs for her.) The three second-floor bedrooms had mostly been cleared out and left to themselves. We spread out into the two smaller ones, my wife sleeping with Q for the week, and I in the other one with The Boy.

We first noticed the new silence, especially since we brought Q and The Boy in from the car dreaming. Ong Ngoai was excited to have the kids come, and he had set up and decorated the Christmas tree, complete with a ring of presents for them. It looked small in the empty room. Ong Ngoai then went to bed, too, and my wife and I sat very still on the couch with our hearts in our throats. We weren't as still as the house; the quiet was so thorough. I've never heard anything like it in my 17 years of visits.

We used the week to try to help Ong Ngoai prepare for what's next, though none of us are sure what that is. He wants to move, and he should; there's no longer anything for him here. He has many friends and places to go in a Vietnamese community a little over an hour away, and he soon wants to spend a month or so in Vietnam, particularly since his sister is rather ill. 2008, as he himself said, has been a terrible year.

You wouldn't know it from the weather. It grew warmer each day until Q and The Boy were getting overheated riding their bike and scooter along the sidewalks or playing restaurant on the patio out back. We went to Sea World for most of one day, and spent a good part of another outside at a family fun park riding boats and gokarts. At night we all piled in the car and toured the neighborhood light displays, which, to Q's bottomless delight, were reliably garish. (Some store must have had a compelling sale on motorized reindeer.) Throughout the entire trip, the kids slept and ate so well and were so joyous and loving with Ong Ngoai that they deserve their own heaven.

We are generally not religious, but in these last few months we've again become puzzled. Ba Ngoai was so alive, so here, just two months ago. It's tempting to believe that if she's not here, she must be somewhere. But reasoning this way leads to more puzzles — is she scared where she is? Does she know that we think of her and miss her? That first night in California, my wife wondered when she dies, will she be with her mother? These answers are unknown and unknowable.

[to be continued]

1 comment:

teahouse said...

I can only imagine what it must be like living in that huge house all alone. He's so lucky to have you guys as family.

And those contemplations on life and death are ageless ones, that every human has wondered through the millennia. If I find out the answer, I'll let you know, ok? Ok.