To Kuv Niam
I get ahead of myself with ideas swirling in my head. I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Do I write them, or do they write me? Sometimes I feel guilty when life happens and I find myself with revel in my eyes, saying, ooh that would be a good story. My sisters, your other five daughters, often caution me with, “Don’t be writing this into one of your little stories,” before sharing their juicy memories and thoughts.
In truth, it’s hard starting at the beginning, but I will try my best to write this letter, to give you a chance to hear the details if you should ever ask, if you should ever want to know the story from my eyes, if you ever make it past this mysterious virus.
When you first experienced the symptoms of coughing, congestion and sore throat in early April of 2020, I wrote in my journal how surreal it was. It could not be COVID-19. You still had a sense of taste and smell. I also wrote, if this were a novel, I would skip to the end so I would know what happens before I begin. I just wanted to know if you had COVID or not, whether you’d live or die. But my life is not a novel!!! I scribbled down in large capital letters, still confined in between the light blue lines.
Afterwards, I called you because I was worried. You had been sick for three days and went to work anyway because you were essential. “You should’ve stayed home!,” I said when you picked up.
In an upbeat tone, you replied, “I’m already feeling better.” Your voice fought through the congestion.
“That’s good to hear,” I said. “Let me know if you lose your sense of smell because that would mean it is COVID.”
“I will, I’ll let you know,” you responded.
“And stay home.”
You told me you would because you had nowhere to go. You said you were fine and getting better. But later on, Hnub, my youngest sister would tell me you left the house to buy some opium for your coughing because a couple on the Hmong Radio swore their recovery on the substance.
There are some losses we experience in this world without even knowing what we were missing all along. Do you remember in the fall of 2008 when we moved into our first house that would later fall to foreclosure status due to the housing market crash? You asked Hnub to grab a bowl and she emerged from the low kitchen cabinet with a wooden stirring spoon instead. There was also the time in the summer of 2015 when you and my other younger sister, Kaj, babysat my son. She made a comment. “He is molding, tuaj pwm,” and you replied with, “Hah?! Do you mean tawm fws? As in sweating?” Or the time we were making one hundred egg rolls just so we could use up all the carrots, and another sister said, “We need more Yawm Saub.”
You responded, “We need more “god” for the eggrolls?” We didn’t catch on until you enlightened us, “are you trying to say sawm sauv, the noodles? Yawm Saub is a god in the heavens.”
We had a good laugh about it. But reflecting back, it’s sad, really. In those situations, your responses gently poked fun at us. “Oh yo, you don’t practice, you won’t know Hmong. What will you do when your mother is not here to help?”
Hmong is traditionally an oral language and Hmong children born in America are not fluent. How does a whole group of people lose their language? The answer might be just as simple as the influences of dominant white culture. However, the ways are complex in which shame and self-hate manifests for Hmong Americans, along with an erased history, unwritten odyssey, and experiences of trauma and tradition.
I can’t remember the exact moment I forgot how to speak Hmong. Whether my first word was niam or mom essentially doesn’t mean too much when the fact is for the majority of our lives, my siblings and I would not know enough Hmong to properly speak to you. But when words fail, love speaks and somehow through the years you came to understand our broken Hmong, like when a mother can understand their toddler’s gibberish. Meanwhile other Hmong people struggled to decipher our words.
In Hmong, there is no I loved you or I missed you. There is no past tense, and even the things that happened yesterday or a long time ago are told like it is happening right now. There’s no proper future tense either; instead we combine adverbs like tomorrow or later to indicate what is upcoming. Could this be why Hmong people can’t move forward? Instead we are only constantly surviving in the present moment.
A long time ago, I was ten and we were putting on Hmong clothes for the New Year celebration at the Xcel Rivercenter. You were in an argument with my oldest sister, Ying, although I don’t recall what it was about. When we got in the car, you lectured for the whole ride. I remembered you cried, something you didn’t do in front of your children very often.
“None of you children love your mother,” you said. I was in my own world and not fully listening, playing with the coins hanging from the stringed mini pearl beads on the front of my shirt. Suddenly, what started as Ying’s lecture became a public service announcement to everyone in the car when you said, “You are all black-hearted. Just like your dad.” I know being married to my dad all these years was not easy. He was mean, selfish and never present, but I like to think we have more of you than him within us.
Sometimes a loss takes more than one can ever imagine. It would take almost three decades before I understood that losing the Hmong language had me walking around for years not knowing my identity, my family, my culture and my history. I could not arrive to my full self without recovering what I’d lost.
“I just ask that you love me a little,” you said as you dropped us off those years ago.
Or were you asking?
Before I knew it, I was sitting at the very top of the Roy Wikins auditorium away from my siblings. I remember an elder Hmong woman singing kwv txhiaj, a folktale poetry-like song. My throat tightened even though I didn’t understand what she was singing about. Because the thing about losing something without knowing is getting hit with reminders that never come out to clearly say: Hey, you forgot me! Instead people just get moments that overwhelm the whole body. I didn’t know what the woman was singing about, but the elongated words and high tones made me cry as I thought to myself Mom, I, love you. I love you so much.
And if you saw me then, you might’ve laughed because the woman could’ve been singing about plates and spoons, and I wouldn’t have even known.
Around the fifth day of your symptoms, Kaj advised you not to take any more opium as she worried about the unpredictable effects of drugs mixed with COVID-19, if you had it. You told her not to worry, that you didn’t even have much left anyway and couldn’t get more because “even drug dealers struggle in a pandemic.”
Hnub set up three telehealth appointments for you, each appointment resulted with diagnosis of ambiguous respiratory illness. No one dared to say it was COVID-19. Your symptoms worsened in the following days. You called Kaj and said you couldn’t breathe, begging her to call the ambulance. She asked if you were sure, but you stopped talking. Kaj could only hear your staggered breathing. Your daughters texted in the group chat, discussing what to do and how the Emergency Room might not admit you as they were saving the beds for the severely sick. We decided to try anyway. My oldest sister Ying called the ambulance and I drove over to your house so I could interpret to the paramedics since I lived the closest.
When I drove up the block to your house, through my windshield I saw you leaning on the tree with one hand out to hold you steady, yet you were swaying. A female paramedic with a mask and shield stood a few feet from you and asked questions. Then two other male paramedics stepped out to the sidewalk. They were all white.
When I got out of the car, I saw just how skinny you had gotten in about six short days. Your face was white. It looked like blood no longer traveled in those veins. I wasn’t wearing a mask but I walked up next to you and asked how you were doing, I can’t remember what you said. I only remember you gasping for air and your stuttering breath, something that stayed with me for many nights after.
I asked the paramedics, “How is she?” They told me your stats: oxygen level at 90% and no fever. She said based on the numbers, they couldn’t take you to the hospital. I told them about your diabetes as an underlying health condition.
The male paramedic jumped in and said, “The ER won’t take her.” I listed your age as a health risk. He laughed at me. It felt like ants were sprawling to the outer edges of my face. But, I held composure because world experiences had taught me that white people did not care to help people like me and you. I feared if I acted out, they might be even less likely to help.
“That doesn’t change anything,” he said, shaking his head slightly to the right.
I calmly said, “Well I’d like to know what we can do,” because I heard once that using “we” creates a sense of togetherness and shared accountability versus the single “I.”
The female paramedic told me to let you rest for now because that was the only thing that could be done until you felt much worse. But that wasn’t enough for me, so again, I gently pleaded, “What if this is really bad already?”
She responded, “You could try to take your mom to the hospital yourself.” With that, they were done with the emergency call as they climbed into the ambulance.
My dad came out and asked if they were taking you. I shook my head. He called the paramedics yeeb ncuab, a word he used throughout my childhood which meant enemy. Oftentimes he used it as an insult to people who discriminated and mistreated us. I didn’t say much, just asked you to get in my car.
You sat in the back, and I didn’t know where to take you. If the ER wasn’t going to admit you based on what the paramedics had said, I thought someone at the clinic might help us. I looked online for locations accepting patients with COVID-19 symptoms. I couldn’t find any information. So I just drove to your regular clinic. Your breathing made me hasty, unnatural to the overplanning and overthinking I usually did. On the drive, I felt terrible for swerving too much. I kept thinking about how I was making you feel worse.
When we got to the clinic, I asked you to stay in the car and I would check first. When I got to the door, there was a tiny yellow sign that said they were not admitting any patients with respiratory symptoms. I was so defeated. When I went back in the car, I didn’t want you to know. Instead I tried calling another clinic. They gave me a telehealth nurse. She told me that because you’d had three telehealth appointments already and because the paramedics saw you in person and decided not to take you, I should just let you rest. I WILL NOT LET YOU REST, I thought, as the nurse continued talking.
“How would I know?” I asked the nurse. “At what point will the ER admit her?” Or do I just have to let her die? I asked in my head.
The nurse responded, “I’m not saying you can’t take her to the ER, just based on what the paramedics had recommended….” At that moment, I stopped listening because a phrase you used to say to me throughout my childhood rang in my head: In this world, you are truly alone.
You then took all your energy just to tell me in a breathy sentence, “If they won’t help, I’ll just go die at home.”
“You’re not going to die,” I said, as I turned on the ignition and began driving. I called my older sister Suav. When she answered, “Hello,” I cried. After all the composure, my voice felt so heavy in my throat. “No one is willing to help mom. So I am just going to take her home and make her comfortable.” Sauv asked me what I needed.
Bring Tylenol. Bring Pedialyte. Bring humidifier… bring everything. I texted.
I wiped my blurry eyes which began burning from the lotion that was on my hand. I tried to blink the pain away but could not.
Once we got in the house, you were so tired, you just sat on the bottom of the stairs. I tried to get you to go to your bed. You said you’d go, but needed to sit first. The walk from the car into the house was too harsh on your body. I let you sit but then worried if I didn’t get you moving, you’d literally rest right there. I lifted you up and supported you on the walk up the stairs. I wasn’t wearing a mask, and I knew better. I was exposing myself, even though nobody wanted to actually say it was COVID-19, myself included. We couldn’t confirm since tests were not available to the public. But even with the knowledge, the flaw of the human condition is that love will beat logic every time. I hugged you. I thought about all the times I was a sick kid, gross with a gooey nose, vomiting, the fevers, chills and body aches. You were never too scared to touch me, to remind me that I was still alive.
When I helped you into bed, I saw your calves were half their regular size. They resembled your forearms. I set up your room, putting the lemongrass in the water kettle underneath the blanket, imitating the effects of a sauna. I was not wearing a mask and I know you didn’t mean to, but you exhaled into my face. Your breath was hot and chalky. When I left to go home, I felt like I was getting you comfortable for death, but I didn’t let myself say it.
I want to tell you what it is like being a writer, but before I do, let me first count the ways in which language has failed me. Maybe I was eight when we went to the red-brick church in St. Paul where we picked up free stuff like long sleeve flower printed dresses with swooping collars and fringes in the front, household items crusted over with sticky yellow residue that no one questioned. My cousin, I can’t remember her name, but she has this sleepy look and curly hair all along her face, she was also there with her mom. As we pulled into the small parking lot in the minivan, a woman tailed in behind us.
In the time you took to turn the keys, the lady was already outside yelling against your window. I worried I had done something wrong. You were unbothered as we slowly got out of the car.
“I got here before you. I’m first in line.” The lady said.
“What’s she saying?” You asked me.
I heard you, but as your third youngest daughter, interpreting for you was not my regular role as that fell on my older sisters, Ying, Nag and Suav. You asked me again. I froze. I looked at you and the lady looking back at me. I felt out of place. Then, my sleepy looking cousin slowly appeared from the other side of the van.
“Ohhh,” you responded, then turned directly to the lady with your best English and said, “That’s okay, you go first.” You were so nice and friendly, suddenly the two of you were laughing like old friends. You were so nice, then you were so mean to me. You said, I didn’t know anything and I was useless because I couldn’t even interpret. Then, you told my cousin’s mom that compared to her daughter, I was not equal, not capable, not enough.
You were the shaming type.
Mom, I’m a writer now, am I enough?
On April 22nd, 2020 at 3:47am, Hnub sent several texts:
I really need some help…
Can anybody please help…
I’m shaking and can’t sleep and when I try to sleep, there is no noise.
I keep hearing her struggling to breathe. It is not just because her room is above mine.
Eventually when I finally woke at six am, I saw that Suav responded that she’d go over. I called to check in on Hnub. You were so sick, you could not control your bodily functions anymore. This part is hard to write because I want to shield you from readers, from others who don’t truly understand because they’ve never experienced seeing someone slowly die and no one helped. Writing about you makes me feel like the mother, creating an image of you for strangers. I want to do it well. But regardless of how I do, people will still misunderstand. There are not enough pages for me to tell your whole story as an individual human. I don’t want to showcase your most vulnerable moments to the world, but I also have no grace to cover up the injustices you’ve endured.
“Mi naib… Help me put this on,” you told Hnub as you pointed to the adult diaper.
Hnub cried as she told me this over the phone.
Suav got to your house and brought her laptop to set up her day for work, so I went back to sleep until I received a text message around nine from Hnub, telling me you were doing really bad and Suav was going to drive you to the ER.
Hnub picked up my phone call. I didn’t even let her say hello first.“Call the ambulance. See if they will take her. I’m also driving over right now and can take mom in my car if they won’t,” I said.
The second time around, I knew how to prepare a bit more. I combed and split my hair in half, making two braids, one on each side because pulling a ponytail or bun together felt too tight on my head. I put on two layers of clothes, rubber gloves and my mask. I wanted to care for you better and not worry too much about protection.
When I got to your house, a five minute drive from mine, I saw the ambulance parked in front of our house. I walked to the front door where two middle-aged white male paramedics stood. Hnub was there too.
“They’re probably not going to take her,” was the first thing Hnub said.
“What? Why?” I asked as I inhaled.
“That’s what they said when they got here,” she responded.
“Before they even saw her?” I asked.
I was ready to confront the paramedics more aggressively, but then, a young white man with blond hair came to the door frame from inside your house.
“Her oxygen level is at 75,” he said, his eyes were on the tablet he was holding.
The two older men looked at one another. I remember their faces looked like they didn’t want to take you. The paramedics must have worked together for some time as they communicated nonverbally. Probably because there were some messages that simply couldn’t be said in front of loved ones.
Please take her, I begged in my head. My hands were in my pockets, and I could feel my fingers cross, something I did a lot as a kid whenever I wanted something really bad.
“How does she seem?” the older one said.
They’re not going to take her, I cried to myself.
The young paramedic raised his eyebrows and curled his lips to the side. Not good, is what I took the look to mean. It was the look people gave when they wanted to be careful.
“How’s her breath?” the older one asked again.
“Very faint,” the young paramedic said, looking right at the older paramedic, eyes avoiding me and Hnub.
The two older men looked at each other, exhaling.
They’re going to take her, I thought, interpreting their nonverbals.
The other paramedic walked to the ambulance.
“Are they taking her?” Hnub asked.
“They’re going to take her,” I said.
Then I turned to the older paramedic and asked to make sure. He replied, “yes.”
The other paramedic at the ambulance began rolling out a gurney.
The young paramedic went back into the house and I followed, feeling like I would need to interpret. Suav was at the top of the stairs and asked if they were going to take you. I nodded. I grabbed your keys, wallet and phone from the couch where my dad was sitting. He had never been helpful, especially in times of crisis. He asked if they were going to take you this time. “Yes,” I responded. On my way down the hall, I was going to tell you, too, but Suav had already let you know.
You walked toward me like you were going to collapse. The young paramedic stood erected against the wall, which I questioned but it didn’t make me stall. I stepped up to you just in case you needed me, but you were able to find balance.
I spread my arms around you without touching, probably because my body knew better from the last time. You turned to descend the stairs, and I followed with my hands still out.
As you sat on the gurney and laid down, the older paramedic told me that we couldn’t see you at the emergency room. You were shaking so much, I only wanted to lay your jacket on you.
“She can’t have any personal items. Only her medical cards,” the paramedic said.
“Will there be an interpreter? She speaks Hmong, she needs a Hmong interpreter,” I said following them as they rolled you down the sidewalk.
“Yes,” he responded.
Hnub came back to my side with your keys and cards in a ziploc bag. As the paramedics lifted you into the back of the ambulance, the words just came out of me and, to my surprise, in Hmong. “Niam, lawv coj koj mus. Txhob ntshai. Yuav muaj ib tug neeg txhais lus hmoob,” I yelled out. Only then, I began to cry.
You didn’t respond or move. I followed behind, repeating myself, “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared. There will be someone to interpret for you at the hospital.”
The two medics settled in the back of the vehicle and shut the doors. The third one walked to the driver’s side.
“Thank you so much,” I told him, with the intention of being overly appreciative so they would treat you well.
You have clairvoyant powers. I am a vivid dreamer. My sister Suav is like you, that’s what you’ve said before. When you fell sick, I talked to spirits and ancestors, begging them to guide your soul back home. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just talking and praying with strong beliefs that I was heard. There were so many things I still needed to learn from you. As an afterthought, I wondered to myself, what if my prayers could not be heard because I could not speak your tongue, did not know the names of those in your spiritual house, did not have a direct line to your ancestors because I am a daughter of another house?
During your first day at the hospital, I dreamt of myself as a small, sparkly, silver fairy flying around. Then a voice told me I was not the pearl, I didn’t have the power and between all of my sisters, Suav was the one. I didn’t flutter my wings around and stir with jealousy. Instead I waited patiently for Suav to find me so we could complete a mission. When she finally arrived, she gave me her journal where she had recorded all of her dreams, which felt important to our task.
You were in the hospital on April 22nd, 2020, finally diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia. My sisters and I video called you everyday, and we didn’t know for sure but hoped you could hear our voices. We joked, we recounted the events that led up to the moment, and we shared about our non-well-being. I told them that if they dreamt of you dying, it meant you would beat COVID-19, because you had once told me that to dream of someone dying meant that the sickness died and therefore the person would recover.
Then Suav said to me, “Speaking of dreams, I had a dream about you. Nothing really happened, but someone said I should tell you about the dreams I’d been having.” At that moment I understood that perhaps I was not the pearl, the one chosen to communicate with our ancestors or gifted to connect with spirits, but maybe I was the one to craft the peepholes and help others see the inner workings of other worlds and everything in between. Because although I had vivid dreams, it was only my interpretation and critical analysis which uncovered messages. While you and Suav, your dreams were direct communications and premonitions from spiritual guides.
You have a reputation for being a great soul caller. Many people seek you out when their loved ones’ souls have fallen. When this happens, their mannerisms change from joyful to sad and angry, much like depression. Usually, they get severely sick. When a soul has fallen, a ceremony called hu plig must be performed, where the soul caller coaxes the soul to come back to the body. Similar to writing, it is carefully crafting words to win over readers.
Often the soul caller has a bowl of rice grains, yellow incense sticks and an egg. The soul caller also needs to know about the person’s life, such as what could’ve happened to make the person’s soul fall, an event that frightened them so much that their soul fled. Not everyone can call a soul back as not everyone has the calling to be a writer.
When you immigrated to America, you got really good at calling souls back from evil spirits. If a hu plig is successful, the soul returns to the body and the person recovers from their sickness. While you were in the hospital, I tried to mimic your sing-song chant to call you back to your body. I left my door open to let the soul into the home, just like how I’d seen you do it when I was a kid.
“Stand up and come on back,” I sang. It was the only line I knew. As I told your soul to come home, I realized that the Hmong word tsev for house, sounds exactly like cev, for body. As the body is the soul’s home, as writing is the act that lets me know my soul is intact.
I told Kaj about my attempt and she told me to stop playing around as I didn’t know what I might’ve just called into my home.
For seven days you were sedated on a ventilator. We didn’t know if you’d wake up again to be our niam. During one video call, my aunt joined in to tell you, “Ib sim neej no, tsuas muaj koj thiab kuv xwb. Koj hlub kuv zoo ua los. Koj yog tus hlub kuv ntau tshaj… Tiam sis, kuv twb tsis tau hlub koj.” And even though my Hmong was limited, I understood because in this life there is only you and me. You’ve loved me well. You’re the one who has loved me the most…. But I have not loved you yet.
On April 28th, the doctors said they would ask you a series of questions after they turned off the ventilator. I was elected among your daughters to speak to you when you woke up because I knew the most Hmong—the main criteria which qualified me was that I married a Hmong man. I wrote out a script to prepare. Hmong is written in the Roman Popular Alphabet (RPA), developed in the 1950s by Protestant missionaries and Hmong people in Laos. A majority of people can’t read or write in Hmong. Only those who have studied RPA are able to. I asked my husband how to say specific sentences in Hmong, then I wrote it down phonetically so I could ask you.
“It’s me, it’s your daughter. Right now you can’t talk. So don’t try. There’s a plastic tube in your throat. It is helping you. The doctors and nurses are also here to help you and they’re going to ask you some questions.” On the day I spoke these sentences to you, my words stumbled and I missed several tones even with my script.
If you know where you are, squeeze my hand. If you know your name, then wiggle your toes. If you recognize your mother’s tongue, wipe away the tears from your eyes.