Bac Thoi (center) with family. • Courtesy Photo
Bac Thoi (center) with family. • Courtesy Photo

If you ever meet my uncle Thoi, you’ll quickly learn three things about him. He loves socializing with his friends, eating Texas-size steaks, and watching football. One of my dad’s closest cousins, my Uncle Thời is humorously sarcastic. Earlier this year, he told me, “I’m rooting for your Seahawks, too … rooting for them to lose!” This was how we bonded … as rivals.

But underneath the quips and all-traditional Vietnamese bantering, my uncle held onto a weary past. Like many others from the older generation, my uncle never knew a life without war. Also like many others, he never wanted to talk about the war. His pen captured his thoughts far better than he would ever convey in speech:

“I bore an unhealing wound. I grew up with the thought of losing my seven brothers and sisters in the First Indochina War. In the unvoiced great sorrow of leaving behind my elderly parents and my good name.”

Upon graduating in 1967 from Bá Ninh High School in Nha Trang, Uncle Thời volunteered for the South Vietnamese Army. His first daughter, Thủy, was born in January 1975. However, his life as a father and husband was short-lived. He fought the war all the way to Saigon, leaving behind his parents, siblings, young wife, and infant child.

And now we are separated by the war
Now that your father is gone, will you
have another birthday?
My dearest, stop crying
The war which separated us was
equally unkind to all
Now you must care for your mother
For I can never go home again

—Excerpt from ‘To a Beloved Eldest Daughter
on Her Birthday’

Hundreds of thousands of people faced the same fateful dilemma on April 30, 1975. Staying in Vietnam after losing the war meant that they would either be executed or forced into the Communists’ “re-education camp.” Leaving meant they would have to abandon everyone and everything, and risk their life for an unknown chance of survival elsewhere.

Fortunately, Uncle Thời was able to escape on the commercial ship Trường Xuân with nearly 4,000 other people. For three days, the ship treaded into the South China Sea with bad sanitary conditions, starvation, and an overwhelming fear of dying at sea as the ship began taking on water after the engine failed.

Hope and relief came as the Clara Maersk responded to the SOS distress signal. The refugees boarded the Clara Maersk over a six-hour operation, escaping death once again before the Trường Xuân sank. Upon arriving on Hong Kong shores on May 4, refugees were treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kowloon. This would become the largest single rescue event of human lives in history.

Artwork by Bac Thoi
Artwork by Bac Thoi

Viet Nam, my native country is far away
The United States widely open its door to invite me
Civilized, hospitable Americans help me enthusiastically
Helping with meals, education and even entertainment
The world situation moves up and down, unlucky for my nation
Losing my family, I have to take refuge alone

My uncle was among the 32,000 refugees who lived at Camp Fort Indiantown for several months after the war. Through Catholic Family Services, Uncle Thời was sponsored by a family and moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he would remarry and have his second daughter, Heather, in 1978. But this marriage was broken by the war of the heart and youthful mistakes. After a bitter divorce in the early 1980s, it was evident that Heather, like Thủy, was going to grow up without her father’s presence.

With two failed marriages, each ending by its own traumatic war, Uncle Thời moved to Amarillo, Texas. This proved to be a better fit for him. He met other refugees like himself. Together, they formed a tightknit community and became heavily involved with their Catholic church. He had a job designing custom cabinets with my dad. And by this time, he was able to connect with his daughter, Thủy, back in Vietnam.

He also married again … and this time, love finally worked out for him. He raised his three sons, Qúy, Bảo, and Vinh, who he often described as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This was his sense of humor.

Though life was now seemingly stable for him, PTSD moved silently among his social group. His passion for poetry, calligraphy and painting were replaced with cigarettes and alcohol. And it didn’t stopped, even with deteriorating health conditions. Adding to injuries, heart attacks, and chronic bronchitis, Uncle Thời was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer last July. He kept this to himself for several months, even when Thủy visited the United States and reunited with him in September. And when we found out in October, it was too late for radiation therapy.

He spent the entire month of November going through chemotherapy, but it took a toll on his body. The doctors said he had six months to a year, but each meal and movement hurt him and his body was plagued with blisters. He opted to stop treatment altogether and signed a DNR.

I flew down to Amarillo to see Uncle Thời over Thanksgiving weekend and learned that my cousins were searching for their other half-sister, Heather. This was a tricky task. We didn’t know her married name, we didn’t know where she was living, and we were worried about how receptive she would be. Heather had contacted him once ten years ago, but his anger towards his ex-wife’s mistakes got the best of him, and that was the last time they spoke.

Artwork by Bac Thoi
Artwork by Bac Thoi

As we celebrated his 65th birthday on that Saturday evening, we decided to launch a social media campaign to look for Heather. Over 3,000 people “attended” this event. On Sunday morning, I checked my email to find: “It just has to be your cousin, and if not, I will eat egg and start all over again.” She gave me a link to Heather’s profile. My friend’s mother had stayed up all night scouring the internet and public records to find my cousin. I’ve never been more grateful for so many strangers’ help.

We contacted her and waited anxiously. Heather responded a few days later with such shock and grace. We all kicked ourselves for not making it happen sooner, then thanked God and lucky stars that everything had worked out smoothly and quickly. Heather took her family to meet her father the day after Christmas for the first time in over 30 years. This was the family’s Christmas miracle.

This past February, Thủy and Heather met for the first time. My uncle finally had all his children under one roof and they bonded over cultural food, Lunar New Year traditions and life in Amarillo, Texas.

Although in hospice care now, Uncle Thời gets frequent calls from his children. Thủy’s family Skypes from Vietnam to check in, and Heather shares videos and pictures of her family from Mississippi. His wife and Bảo takes cares of him while Qúy is completing his medical residency in in Los Angeles and Vinh is attending college in Arlington, both making monthly trips home.

My uncle lost everything after the war, but faith and grit kept him alive enough to reunite with all of his children. Despite the illness, there is now a greater sense of peace in his heart and each of his children’s heart.   With just a few months left, we’re truly grateful that this is our “happily-ever-after” story with him, as we know many aren’t as fortunate.

“It is as if I had been dead and suddenly awaken to new life. The sunset of an old life blended with the sunrise of a new day. Here in America.”

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