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  • My grandma raised me in Oceanside, CA until I was five because my parents couldn't juggle chasing the American Dream as newly acquired U.S. Citizens and raising the family's prized first grandchild, their eight-year-old daughter. My mom never shied away from letting me know that I was completely unplanned, which would explain the circumstances.

    The onset of my childhood already sounds like a breeding ground for resentment and abandonment issues, which I'm certain subconsciously worked it's way into the many misguided decisions I've made in my life, but that's another story. This story, rather, is about my gratitude and love for a woman who lived at my grandparent's house in the shadows.

    Her name is U Coi (meaning loud horn in Vietnamese). We never actually knew her real name, or birthdate for that matter. My parents told me she came with our family on the helicopter that my grandpa got during the war in 1975. She lost her own family in the chaos and asked to come to America with them since they lived in the same village where she was known as the resident loudmouth. My grandparents accepted her proposal and offered her a place to live, food to eat, and a new family in exchange for her to essentially live as a maid.

    As long as I can remember, U Coi would wash the dishes in her black polyester country pants after every meal as the grandkids playfully teased her. She didn't need or ask for much. She was older than my grandparents, but still addressed them with superior honorifics. She practically had no hobbies or activities outside of her duties, and rarely even left the house (except for the few times she tried to unsuccessfully run away and didn't make it far because she couldn't speak English). We would include her in family gatherings, giving her presents at Christmas and money during Tết (Vietnamese New Year) against her will. I even convinced the family to throw her a faux birthday party one year. She wasn't too amused. U Coi meticulously saved the money she received under her mattress every year for decades. I can only imagine the fortune she amassed and the dreams that flourished, inspiring her to live yet another day with the hopes she would soon be free to navigate life on her own reunited with her missing husband and son.

    As a child, I took pity on her. The feeling of inherent guilt grew in my stomach with each passing year as I saw her inevitably deteriorate. We eventually had to put U Coi in a nursing home, alone, just as she was when my family met her. She's now too old to walk, talk, eat, or remember, and everyone else is too busy or incapable of taking care of a senile old woman. My aunt, the eldest child, is the only one who visits her everyday. That feeling of guilt has now turned into regret. The last time I visited her, she was still wearing that gold wedding band on her finger. She doesn't recognize me anymore, but she still carries that optimism with her.

    Every time I look at that ring, I remember the perseverance of her spirit and the inspiration she's unknowingly given to me to have survived a life that was seemingly so disappointing. A woman with such humble and quiet strength, she is a constant reminder that forces me to reflect on my very being and the manner in which I choose to live my own life. I'm thankful she is oblivious to feeling pain any longer, but I'm even more grateful to have bared witness to her grace that will be engrained in my memory forever.
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