“Can you please come back home to clean out your room this summer?” my mother asked me over the phone. Approaching her late 60s, she contemplates moving into a senior living community to ease the burden of maintaining a house and my father’s progressing dementia. Two weeks after I finished my doctoral qualifying exam in the summer of 2018, I drove the 600 miles from Indiana to Maryland to begin the process of downsizing our family home.
Cleaning out my childhood room is one part of an ongoing conversation of how to deal with my father’s dementia. His diagnosis was a major life change for our family, creating a sense of urgency to downsize our possessions and reprioritize our family’s future to take care of him. Yet my mother and I have different responses to his diagnosis. She’s focused her energy on taking care of him — reminding him of his appointments, keeping track of his medications, or managing the house. During our long-distance phone calls, she rarely expresses the emotional toll that my father’s dementia has on her, but I can sense it. As she recounts his doctor’s visits, medications, and his daily exercise regimen, I can always recognize the timbre of each feeling. Her panic when she recalls how my dad has misplaced his car keys again. Her frustration when he retells the same story. Her sadness when she tells me that there is no medical treatment to cure his dementia.
I’ve dealt with my father’s dementia differently than my mother. Because of the long distance, I don’t experience the daily frustration and anxiety he or my mom feels. Instead, I worry about the mortality of our family memories. Growing up, my father was the unofficial family historian, recounting stories of his childhood and my parents’ evacuation from Vietnam. He never told his stories chronologically; they were haphazardly weaved into our daily routine. As he was picking me up from daycare, he would tell me about walking to school through the palm tree groves, a book tucked under his arm and banana-leaf shoes strapped to his feet. While helping me with my math homework, he recounted time spent with his father — my grandfather — reciting multiplication tables until bedtime.
He was the most reflective at the kitchen table. As he pages through the daily newspaper, a particular news story or advertisement will trigger his memory. The beginning of the Iraq War reminds him of his first migration from North to South Vietnam during the First Indochina War when his extended family chose sides: communists or nationalists. An ad for a cruise liner prompts him to reveal his fear of enclosed boats developed when he and his two siblings crammed into an American Navy vessel departing to an unknown refugee camp in one of the Pacific Rim countries a few days before the 1975 Fall of Saigon. Sometimes, it’s the after-dinner silence that prompts him to share some of the most intimate stories, like meeting my mother at a Catholic-singles event in Saigon or my parents’ evacuation just days apart before the Fall.
Because of my father, I knew my parents’ evacuation story as well as the Pledge of Allegiance I recited daily in grade school. Because of my father, I know our family history that is deeply rooted in the agricultural fields of southern China until my paternal great-great-grandfather stowed away into a train headed to North Vietnam. Or my maternal grandfather, a cartographer for the French government, arranged to marry my grandmother with only a fifth-grade education. Because of my father, I know the historical context of who I am and where I came from. “You’re not only an American, you’re a Vietnamese-American,” I remember my father saying as I grew up. He never wanted me to forget the journey that my parents took to get to and survive in the U.S. as Vietnamese refugees turned American citizens.
Growing up, I never thought to write down our family stories. Our stories aren’t written, but rather passed down from one generation to another. Over the years, as my father retold me our stories, they became a part of my identity. My father’s stories have become a part of my introduction when people meet me for the first time and inquire about my ethnicity. “Yes, I’m Vietnamese-American. My parents are Vietnamese refugees.” Every day, I have a chance to share my father’s stories with other people and tell our version of Vietnamese-American history that is not told in American history books.
Five years ago, I began to understand the mortality of human memories. I was sitting in a university parking lot when my mom told me over the phone that my father was diagnosed with dementia. It was not really a diagnosis so much as a discovery: the neurologist said that my father’s dementia started almost ten years ago when I started high school. Naturally, at that moment, I began to question the longevity of my own memory. Is dementia genetic? If it is, do I have it? When will my dementia begin to progress? As my anxiety subsided, a sense of urgency and regret emerged instead. I should have recorded my father’s stories.
As his dementia progresses, I am not sure if my father will be able to remember his stories, let alone tell them to my children — his future grandchildren. My father’s dementia has created a sense of urgency to capture his stories within this limited time span. When I am back in Maryland, I press him to retell his stories, hoping to extract additional details that he missed the last time he told them. I’ve also begun collecting written documents of our family history, including family photos as well as correspondences between my parents and their siblings during the 20-year time span our family was not permitted to enter communist Vietnam. Joining in my efforts, my mother began writing down their stories in hopes of keeping a written record for my future children to read. This urgency to curate and preserve our own family archive pushed me to find meaning in the limited time that we have while my father’s memories are still retrievable, still present.
- 6th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- 1st Place: “Mendelssohn on the beach," Edward Jacobson '13
- 2nd Place: “Rodent," Gretel Kauffman '16
- 2nd Place: “I just happened to be there," Rachel Plassmeyer Bené '10
- HM: "Playspace," Laura Andrews '10
- HM: "Wherever we are," Jacqueline Cassidy '15, '16MSM
- HM: "A love letter to the internet," Johanna Kirsch Wilson '10
- HM: "Summer magic," Victoria McQuarrie '12
- HM: "Father-daughter time," Stephanie Nguyen '09
In my attempt to capture every detail of my family’s history, though, I forgot the most important aspect of my father’s storytelling: time with him. My father’s stories were not about the historical facts or timelines. Rather, they were a shared experience that bonded us together. Growing up, it was just us three — my parents and I — living in the U.S., our extended family living nearly an ocean away. Without the emotional and social support of an extended family, my father’s stories helped my parents and I navigate and adjust to this new and unfamiliar culture. When I couldn’t bring my grandparents to Grandparents’ Day at elementary school, my father placated me with fishing stories of him and his father on the car ride home. Before my first high school prom, my father laughed over dance lessons he and my mother took during Catholic singles night in Vietnam. The intention of my father’s story time was simpler than I thought it would be. To him, it was simply father-daughter time.
Perhaps the lesson here is remembering to live in our present life. We know that time is a precious commodity, but we shouldn’t fixate on it either. For the last five years, my mother and I have been fixated on my father’s declining memory, hoping to capture his life story before it’s gone. Yet the best advice I’ve received is to honor a person by living their values, not by plaques on the wall or engravings in stone monuments. Those who have lived with us become a part of us. Our choices and actions are a living memorial to their memory.
Rather than living with the regret of lost memories and the urgency to immortalize my father for my future children, I’ve learned to enjoy the time that I have with my father. He reminded me of that the last time I visited Maryland. One night after dinner, I sat at the kitchen table with him and watched as he thumbed through the newspaper, hoping that he would launch into one of his stories again. Sitting at the table with him for nearly two hours, he never did. Though old traces of regret, fear, and urgency bubbled up, I pushed them away, not wanting to cloud this special moment. I sat in the silence that enveloped both of us, simply enjoying his presence and appreciating our time. Father-daughter time.
Stephanie Nguyen's essay received an honorable mention in this magazine's 2018 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Nyugen resides in Bloomington, Indiana, and is a doctoral student in higher education at Indiana University, Bloomington, where her research and dissertation focus on the history of Asian American student activism on college campuses.