When my mother’s late husband passed away due to chemotherapy complications upon his leukemia diagnosis years ago, she kept the single voicemail recording left on our telephone answering machine, a mainstay from the pre-cell phone era that we had no reason to toss away.
"Coucou," he begins the message, or "hey/hi/hello" in French, and then the rest of the message was in Vietnamese to an effect saying he was dropping a hello and would call back later to catch my mom another time. My brother and I knew to never delete that message, for although we weren’t as close to him as our mother was, it wasn’t our place to decide when to let go of his memory.
He and my mother were of similar age; he actually grew up in Belgium following the end of the war in Vietnam. In the late 1990s, he and my mother became acquainted through a Vietnamese poetry group, and I think over the course of time, the two agreed to get married. Of course that meant sponsoring him over to the United States. He was an artist, or more precisely an industrial designer, and so when he came over to California during his extended visits, it was both a chance for him to look for employment opportunities as well as getting acquainted to life here in the United States. One remark he made that stuck with me:
"In America, I feel there’s a difference with how one carries himself. There is a distance between people here."
I think he was talking about how here in America, we have this kind of social contact zone and, on the average, tend to keep people out of that space more so than our European counterparts. Perhaps he was just with the wrong crowd, or maybe didn’t really have a crowd while he was here in the U.S. If his basis for this observation was our [lack of] interaction with our neighbors, then it’s kind of true; in our neighborhood, everyone household tends to keep to themselves.
And then one year, he didn’t come to visit. He was diagnosed with leukemia. I don’t remember how far along it was, but in order to treat it, he had to rely on Belgium’s health care system, and so he remained in Belgium for chemotherapy. My mother tried to continue working here in the U.S., but you can probably imagine the helplessness one feels at being so far away from your loved one at the end of each evening and hoping he is doing well.
And, well, I suppose one evening she wasn’t home, and my brother and I don’t like picking up the phone to our main line because most of the time they are unwanted solicitations, and he left a message on the answering machine. And several months later, we got word from his family that his health collapsed; his body was unable to endure the chemotherapy, and he passed away. Needless to say that my mom quickly booked a flight to Belgium to attend the funeral and mourn with his family.
And so through the years that voicemail remained. We would listen to home security scams, political outreach, environmental hazard notifications, and telemarketing solicitations, pressing the delete button on voicemails that didn’t interest us. But when we heard the coucou, it was like hearing the alarm of a cuckoo clock that alerted us that we had reached the end of all the voicemails. I suppose there is a kind of dark humor, a kind of laughter with a tinge of pain, in realizing your deceased loved one is your ringtone.
One day, I’d say about 5 years after his passing, as I played through the voicemails, I noticed there was no more coucou. I asked my mom about this, and she said that a power outage recently happened and, because the battery on the machine hasn’t been replaced in awhile, the recording was lost.
"Oh well, it’s okay," she remarked. We all know that such memories remains with us always, even if they are not readily visible (or in our case, audible). I can still hear that coucou even now.
Even though we’re a Vietnamese family, unlike many other Vietnamese families that have their own family altar to commemorate their ancestors, my family doesn’t have an altar. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have our own ways of remembering. Rather than incense candles, pictures of deceased ancestors, and food offerings (as in the example below), as practiced by many Vietnamese families, I think our altar was just a little different: it came in the form of an answering machine.
Last Saturday, two days after the Mid-Autumn Festival, my benefactor, Hung Phi Tieu, passed away due to cancer. He sponsored my trip to the Vietnamese American Summit, believing in the hope of a Vietnam that respects human rights, a strong, capable, and prosperous Vietnamese American community, a belief in the power of youth, and volunteering to support the downtrodden.
I put a lot of respect with his spirit; it’s not easy to continue to hold onto altruistic ideals when the daily demands of life chips away at your capacity for charity. But because of him, I owe it to him to pay it forward by supporting someone younger than me hold onto the precious notion of philanthropy.