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A Beautiful Dying
Phuong Nguyen has a beautiful strength that goes unnoticed because she is a quite soul. But underneath her soft silence is a calm grace that is unusual for her tender years. Now 25 with two children, one 2 1/4 year old boy, (Khang), a 14 month old daughter, (Di), and seven months into her third pregnancy, Phuong stands toe to toe with the death of her husband. Her family and friends returned a second time in two weeks to Missions Hospital in Asheville, NC, from as far away as California and Michigan, while she simply watched and listened, occasionally stroking her child-belly. Family and friends gathered in a conference room with Phuong until the chatter settled and all eyes turned to her for the decision only a wife could make with a voice only true love could know.
As Phuong began to softly speak, in those few minutes of tear-filled tender whispers, a completely different picture came to light of the past few months that led to that moment with family and friends. In January 2007, Thanh Le, (Phuong’s husband), expressed his concern to his wife that he would not outlive this feeling he was caught in. He told his wife he loved her and the kids, but if he were single he’d want to die from the pain in his head. Thanh told his wife he felt that God would take him, and that he would not be long for this world. At some point Thanh asked his wife, Phuong, what she would like from him. She said she wanted a van.
Phuong continued sharing with those gathered, how she knew something was very wrong. As a wife, she attended the many doctor visits and watched unaware that a fungus inside her husband was growing more powerful every day. She told her family and friends, how she felt trapped in a fog; taking care of two children and tired from the daily task of motherhood and pregnancy. She was overwhelmed, to the point of not being able to focus or gather enough energy to insist her husband get more medical attention. She knew she should have done more, but somehow she felt smothered in the struggle of it all. And she just took the doctors answers for granted.
Phuong shared how her husband began to sing hyms at night and pray to God to take care of his family. In February Thanh rushed out, though feeling very ill, and traded in the beautiful red truck he had purchased the year before for a family van. Thanh seemed destined to fail in his attempts to find a reason for his headaches, cough, and fever. Hospital staff chided him for coming to them complaining of headaches. Recorded theories of possible Tuberculosis or Histoplasmosis (a fungal infection) went untested and his downward spiral of health, though odd, attracted little attention from all around. Finally on March 13, 2007, the depth of Thanh’s illness could no longer be ignored, but it was too late. Three days later he would be in an unrecoverable coma.
As Phuong continued to speak, (now two weeks into her husbands comatose state), she told how on Monday, April 2, 2007, three days prior to the arrival of all present, she had spoken to her unconscious bed-ridden husband. This after the doctors along with two nurses, a chaplain, a social worker and a palliative nurse, gathered together to give her the bad news; Thanh would never return to a normal life and would be completely dependent on life support. She spoke of how she asked her husband to give her a sign by the following Wednesday, if he wanted to continue living. It could be a sign from anyone in the family, a friend, a stranger, but something she could clearly know was his wish to live or she would let him go and disconnect the life support he was currently under. As eyes turned around the room it was clear, no one had any viable answer to her prayer. So Phuong was prepared to do what was necessary.
She spoke to those gathered of how she would Cremate her spouse because she wasn’t sure how long she would stay in the Highland Mountains of North Carolina, now that her husband who had brought her here from California, was no longer to live. So wished to temporarily place his Urn in a church where he could sing with the choir until she could gather her thoughts and decide where to put his remains to rest.
Knowing her decision, the family and friends prepared to pay one more visit to Thanh before excusing themselves for the night. However, two beings had to be summoned, Khang and Di, his children. Once the children arrived from the Rathbun House, all gathered in the ICU bedroom to say goodbye to their loved one. Children aren’t generally allowed in the Intensive Care Unit, but the nurse knowing the circumstances allowed this one exception. Tearful caresses, gentle sniffles and soft skin touches were everywhere. Then Mrs. Le, (Phuong, Thanh’s beloved wife), walked around to her husband’s side as family members lowered the railing where she leaned over and sweetly began to speak to her husband. Phuong told her husband that the name of their soon-to-be child would be the one they had chosen, (whether the child be a girl or boy); Phi (Fee). That she needed his strength to be the mother-father of their children. She told him she no longer wanted to see him in pain. That she would be all right and he could stop suffering. She told him she would burn him and put his ashes in the church so he could sing with the choir until she decided where she would bury him and that it was time for him to let go and let God.
As Phuong was speaking I noticed the breathing apparatus next to Thanh’s bed. I was told “S” equals spontaneous breathing, or that the breath is actually that of the person lying there. “A” equals assisted breathing and “C” equals Controlled breathing. Controlled breathing is when the air is being provided by the machine to the recipient. On this night, April 4, 2007, in the lower left hand corner of the device was the number 14. It turns out humans breathe anywhere from 12 to 16 times a minute, so the machine was set to automatically infuse air into Thanh’s lungs 14 times per minute.
Having visited Thanh almost daily over the past three weeks, I had asked various nurses and technicians how to interpret the many devices surrounding Thanh. As I listened to Phuong’s speaking to her husband in Vietnamese, my eyes began to concentrate on the breathing device. I noticed the “S” or spontaneous breathe had decreased to once or two times a minute. Something I had never seen before. And then as Phuong kissed her husband and stopped speaking the “S” disappeared. I watched for several minutes as the “C” – Controlled breathing rhythmically, in equal measurements, filled Thanh’s body with air, and I cried. The mechanics of this whole illusion were simple props in the unveiling of a beautiful dying.
A few weeks prior to these decisions I heard a voice referring to Thanh in a dream that said “he’s not going to make it”, but I didn’t say anything to my wife or family . Around the same time Thanh’s uncle Hai (Henry) had a dream in which Thanh told him he wanted to die, and like me he held it back. One evening Henry and I were talking and for some reason the dreams we had came out. We both sighed and wondered what they could mean. Thanh’s aunt “Michelle” Nga had a dream also about Thanh, telling her he was hungry. He always loved her cooking. That same evening Tony, Thanh’s step father, Tony dreamt his was looking out a window when he noticed on the wooden window sill Thanh’s nick name Bo being carved in the wood several times “Bo Bo Bo Bo Bo I Love You”. Then Tony felt a sensation of heat in his chest and rested his head on the sill. As he rested his head on the wooden sill Tony became aware of Thanh’s body in the hospital; in a coma. As Thanh’s spirit started to leave Tony’s dream body, Tony grabbed Thanh in his dream and told him everybody loved him and he should go back to his body and get well. Then Tony woke up.
A week later I was talking to a woman who swore she saw a shadow drop past her window at the Rathbun House where we were both staying while nursing our loved ones. I shared with her, in Vietnam a vision of a shadow crossing a window is a significant image of the soul or spirit of a loved one letting you know that they were moving on. Now I had never had a “shadow vision” myself, but that same night I dreamt a dark shadow passing by the windows of the Rathbun House room my wife and I were sharing. I called out to my wife in my dream not to go near the window and woke myself with a moan.
The same night Thanh went into a coma, his aunt Hue in Vietnam, which is 14 hours ahead of our time in the U.S., says she saw Thanh in a picture frame wearing a black suit. Hue had a second dream, days later, in which she saw Thanh hunched over, weak, skinny and shaking. She asked Thanh in her dream what was wrong, and he replied, my mother keeps moving my head. I’m just here to say hello, I have to go back and lay down soon. Indeed Thanh’s mother was adjusting Thanh’s head after the feeding tube was removed and applying lotion to his face. Both his wife and mother applied lotion to his body while another uncle, Huy, shaved the mustache that had grown under the bandages that kept his breathing tube in place. I guess Thanh just wasn’t comfortable with all the attention he was getting, so he visited his Aunt in Vietnam.
There is a saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its’ cover”. And so it is with Thanh. Thanh appears to be rather wild as his body is covered with a few large tattoos and yes, he smoked; a common tradition in Vietnam. But at closer glance, one sees a deeper meaning to the choices Thanh made. His Aunt River, my wife, tells me the dragons he chose represented the power of God. In the crook of his left hand where the web of flesh rests between the thumb and forefinger he wrote “don’t cry” and just above on his wrist, two hearts with the word love written beneath. Thanh had mentioned to his wife he was a son of God and he would soon be joining him. Phuong understood her husband because they were both Catholic. I learned that a while ago when Phuong’s uncle passed on Easter Sunday she told Thanh how wonderful that was, and Thanh asked her why that day was particularly special. So, Phuong explained the significance of Easter to her husband. How Christ arose on the third day, a ball of light. How today Catholics celebrate that event On Easter Sunday, with Cries of “Christ is risen!” to announce Jesus’ victory over death.
Very early Thursday morning, On April 5, 2007, just before removing the life support, Father Tien (a Vietnamese Priest who conducts services in Highlands and Cashiers, N.C.), came to see Thanh. He had to be there early because there were preparations to be made for Easter. Before starting, Father Tien explained to the family that he wanted them to know that the Church didn’t want Thanh to die of malnutrition and if they felt Thanh would die within a few days he would perform the last rites. In Father Tien’s estimation, Thanh’s condition looked very severe indeed. Although no one could guarantee the exact date, it looked like it wouldn’t be too long before Thanh would transition to another form. So we gathered around, Buddhists, Catholics, and Metaphysicians and dutifully echoed Father Tien’s prayers. Shortly thereafter the life support was removed. That afternoon, Father Boyd, from an Asheville congregation, showed up and again we joined in prayer for Thanh. Father Boyd assured us he and Father Tien had done all that they could for Thanh’s Soul and now it was up to Thanh and the Lord Jesus Christ.
During a study on cigarette addiction, Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, found what he called the God gene. The researchers took DNA samples from hundreds of siblings. Hamer realized from this database a possible link between genetics and spirituality. It was a surprising discovery. As a metaphysician it is interesting to think that somehow our genetic make-up influences our spiritual proclivities. I think the difference between an Atheist and a Theist is the letter A. Both have a relationship to God, even those that claim no such relationship, that is a relationship. In Thanh’s case I found personal confirmation and example after example of the existence of a spiritual presence. Thanh certainly carried the God gene, if not many God genes.
The Doctors weren’t sure how long it would take Thanh to expire, but by the looks of things it wouldn’t be long. Thinking about the breathing machine I silently agreed. So, we patiently waited. I’d never witnessed the love of a mother and wife like I did in those coming days. When they were through cleaning up their loved one he looked more handsome than I had ever seen him. A family vigil had to be established in order to have someone with Thanh every hour of ever day. Shifts were established with a randomness met by an unconscious group knowing. Now the fourth day after Thanh had been freed of his mechanical assistance, Thanh’s father arrived from Vietnam. It was Easter Sunday. Thanh’s labored breathing seemed worse than ever. The anticipation of Thanh’s fathers’ arrival was palpable. As his father entered Thanh’s room his Grandmother and Aunt cried uncontrollably. Being that Thanh was a Catholic and in such a sorrowful state, I thought to myself, yes, this is the day Thanh will choose to die. It seemed appropriate that his father should arrive on Easter Sunday to say goodbye and that Thanh would be satisfied. But that was not to be the case.
Boys love their mothers more than Mother’s sometimes know. And Thanh is no exception. Though they sometimes disobey, they will man the guns in their mother’s defense. Under the extreme pressure of a dying loved one, siblings can say things that are harsh. Unexpected outbursts of anger pop out like hot grease on a griddle, from lips that would remain neutral under different circumstances. It seems a few barbs were unfortunately pointed at Thanh’s mother that Easter and she cried. My wife having heard what happened, also cried, and expressed how she wished her family would just stop being so picky. The next morning, River, my wife, woke with a greater understanding of what was holding Thanh back. She immediately picked up the phone and started calling her siblings and her mother. She told them Thanh doesn’t want you to talk to his mother that way. He doesn’t want you to blame her for his death. You have to go to his bed and tell him you’re sorry. Ask him to forgive you and tell him you love his mom too.
For some inexplicable reason, Thanh’s step-father, Tony and mother Julie felt suddenly drawn away to Highlands to pay some bills that Monday morning. This was unusual as they had been so steadfast in their vigil over their son. But in their absence they left Thanh with his wife. Meanwhile, Thanh’s Uncle, Aunt and Grandmother were preparing to visit Thanh in his room that Monday afternoon, the day after Easter Sunday. When they arrived they began to take turns talking to what appeared to be Thanh’s unconscious body. His aunt asked Thanh to forgive her for being mean to his mother and explained that she loved her sister and she loved him. His Uncle tried to explain to Thanh that he loved his mother too, but sometimes he just couldn’t help but say things to her in a mean way and that he would try to change. Finally, Thanh’s Grandmother began to speak to Thanh in a way that only a Grandmother can. She reassured Thanh that they would all do their best to help take care of his children and wife, while gently patting his hand. Then, to their amazement, Thanh started to cry. Thanh’s wife and family gathered around him and wiped the unexpected volumes of tears from Thanh’s face as his breath slowed, his lungs relaxed and he let go. It was 2:10 in the afternoon, Monday, April 9, 2007.
Almost as soon as Thanh passed, calls went out to family members and they all started to gather around Thanh. One call to his father-in-law in Cashiers, NC was notable, in that, as the news was delivered, Thanh’s daughter Di, who was in a deep sleep, now barely over a year old, began to cry loudly in the background. When I arrived I noticed that Thanh’s lucky earrings were gone and asked what happened to them. My wife explained that Thanh had told his wife to take them when he died and give them to his daughter Di. Perhaps she was removing his lucky earrings the very moment Di began to cry.
One may never prove Thanh somehow connected to his relatives and family through their dreams and thoughts, but the timing and frequency seem to point to no other conclusion. Although I don’t know many Vietnamese, my family by marriage has taught me how connected the Vietnamese feel to spiritual realms. Perhaps this understanding of spirit is a result of the years of war and oppression they have suffered. Whatever the reason, God is a living palpable presence in their daily lives. It is hard to believe, that my family of nine siblings, under the direction of their mother, during all of the Vietnam crisis, never lost a member, which is why the loss of Thanh at the young age of 24 has been such a crushing blow.
When my son Matt, of a previous marriage, was three, we were sitting on the front porch and he pointed up in the air and exclaimed, “Kiss Butterfly”. Now I’m beginning to understand, a butterfly, in an unexpected place, could be a loved one watching over me. The butterfly that appeared at the home alter of Thanh’s aunt must have been Thanh. How else would a butterfly have come to rest in such a place? Yes, Thanh was on the wings of that butterfly, a subtle whisper, reminding her that he was there, somewhere, just in a different form.
Early the same evening after Thanh had passed, I was driving home from Missions Hospital in Asheville to Sapphire with my wife River. During our ride home she shared another story about Thanh. It seems when Thanh first arrived here in the United States, he called his Grandmother in Vietnam and told her, “Grandma, I call you from heaven”. Seven years later Thanh unknowingly inhaled spores that were in the dust around him, while visiting his family in California. On that trip Thanh told his Aunt’s boyfriend Thien, that he would live forever in North Carolina. Little did he know Heaven would take him to a place in the Blueridge Mountains of North Carolina where he would defend his love for his mother with his last dying breath before moving on to his beloved heavenly father.
The veil of this telling is not exact and I’m sure many details have been left out, but if you read between the lines you will understand as I, that Thanh Cong Le was a very special young man. Rest in peace my friend and nephew, I still hear your voice and I’m so honored when I hear you call me, Uncle Buddy.
For those interested a memorial fund has been set up at any Macon Bank in North Carolina. Funds can be sent to Macon Bank for the “Thanh Cong Li Memorial Fund”. An ISN number with receipt will be drawn up for tax purposes.
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