Leave-taking is the natural rhythm of my family. It’s the way of refugees, which we four became after the Vietnam War ended.
The first place we land is the first place we leave in the United States is California because we don’t know anyone there. Then we leave Houma, a town so tiny in Louisiana that I still describe it as “near New Orleans.” Dad barely made a living on the shrimping boats and came home reeking every night.
We settled in Florida for a bit because we could grow the same bitter melon and milkfruit there that we did in Vietnam, but the leaving never stopped.
This leave-taking is the natural rhythm of my family. It’s the way of mothers, which I never understood until I became my own mother.
Mom had periods every few years when she went silent. She was a storm we couldn’t forecast. She did not make any announcements but acted like she was going to run an errand or go to Ba Noi’s house. Then she just didn’t come home for a few days.
Did I worry about her when she was gone? Did I miss her? Did I know, somewhere beyond knowing, that she was going to come back? She did not have to come back. She was always beautiful, and she was the one who knew how to do the important things: the caring, the laundering, the feeding, the sheltering. She could have made a new family, or she could have gone it alone, not have to hand her weekly paycheck to any man, slice apples for children to snack on, or pretend to smile when our restaurant customers complimented her on her English. She could have been gloriously invisible, untethered.
I can’t distinguish these fantasies I have for her from my own.
I learned from my parents that you leave to survive. I don’t think I will leave my children or my husband, but how can I know for sure? What do I really know of disaster?
My leaving is less significant than theirs in every way, but it is also how I survive. When I am 17, I move out of my parents’ house. I don’t speak to my father for a few years, not until I am financially independent.
And every couple of weeks, when I speak to my mom on the phone, I hang up on her in the middle of a conversation. I am 41 years old, and I am still having to find a way out. During one particularly circuitous and brutal conversation recently, she asked me, “why do you have to be this way?” My response: This is what you’ve taught me.
But now I am in my 20th year in Maryland. I have taught in schools here, my children were born here. We were refugees who have finally found refuge here. I could leave at any minute, but I am still here, and maybe that choice makes all the difference.