Breathe in the Moment | Teen Ink

Breathe in the Moment MAG

February 1, 2018
By hannah_nguyen BRONZE, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
hannah_nguyen BRONZE, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

The fingers of my left hand are buried in the wool of my gloves; my right hand tosses dry earth into the five-foot-deep pit. The sound of the chalky soil hitting the chestnut top of the urn resonates in the silence of the cemetery. Pat. Pat. Pat. As I stand, a pink rose petal gently kisses the ground before lifting into the air, carried away by the autumn breeze.

One second, it’s there. The next, it’s gone.

Should I be grateful for the beautiful roses my neighbor left? Should I be ungrateful because my mother never got to see them?

Deciding whether to see the glass as half full or half empty remains confusing. Yet regardless of whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, the passing of time is inevitable. Time has no resolution. Time is merciless.

I play with this silly metaphor in my head: If life is encapsulated by an hourglass, we are all living in the bottom half, unknowingly rejoicing in the limited amount of sand we each have. When the very last grain of sand succumbs to the bottom half, our time is up and life is over.

I guess that makes me a pessimist.

•          •          •

Memories are woven into the fabric of our beings. Sometimes we lose ourselves trying to unravel them in the present.
Eighteen months before the burial, my mother and I are adding rainbow candy and toppings to our frozen yogurt cups at Kiwi’s. Paper cylinders of heavenly goodness.

“Try some shredded coconut. It’s really good,” she says.
We find a table outside. The sun is shining, blanketing the town with warmth and brilliance. It’s strange for an April day, but we aren’t complaining.

We laugh and talk about all sorts of fun things. Our new crocheting ideas. The selfie stick we just unregretfully purchased. The success of our clearance shopping.

As a 15-year-old, it may seem easy to live a life of teenage rebellion – hanging out with friends at the mall, being annoyed by my curfew, and choosing to listen to music in my room instead of socializing with family – but this has never been the case for me. My mother and I are almost always on the same page. We like the same things. We enjoy doing things together. Because I was homeschooled for seven years, my mother is beyond my home facilitator: she has become an irreplaceable friend.

As we savor our yogurt, we talk about life. The good and bad, the ups and downs. But mostly I let my mother speak because she always has the most interesting stories.

“When I lived in Vietnam, in the aftermath of the war,” she begins, “my family was so poor we didn’t have toys. My mother was single and had to work hard to support us. Before school I would pass the shops and admire the beautiful dolls.” She smiled. “They had frilly dresses and pretty yarn hair. I said, ‘Mom, Mom, please, I want one so bad!’ She would laugh and pat me on the back, and say, ‘Maybe next time, child.’”

I always liked when my mom told stories about her childhood. Although she was a rather solemn person, a light inside her was kindled whenever she remembered her past. Her brown eyes would light up, and she would tuck her long, voluminous dark hair behind her ears.

“I never got one of those dolls,” she continues. “I grew up and moved to America. They don’t have them here.”

I point to the plastic shopping bag of colorful polymer clay blocks we had purchased. “I have an idea. We can make doll keychains that look just like them!”

“Yes. Oh my goodness, they will look so cute,” she says, smiling at the thought.

The first thing you would notice about my mother is her smile, the kind that illuminates the atmosphere and genuinely welcomes you. When she smiles really big, you can even see her missing tooth far back on her upper left row that just perfectly characterizes her childish playfulness.

She dances with joy, her arms goofily waving in the air.
“Mom, please stop,” I say, sinking into my chair, mortified. “You’re embarrassing me.”

“What? It’s fun!” She giggles and continues her octopus-like dance. I can’t hold it in anymore and burst into laughter.
“See? I’m just joking around.”

Suddenly, I feel my eyes pool up. Seconds later, tears are falling down my face.

“What’s wrong?”

The Ghirardelli chocolate suddenly tastes bitter in my mouth.
“Don’t do that. Don’t ever cry in front of me,” she says firmly. I can detect the anger in her voice, the kind that disguises motherly love.

She sighs exasperatedly, looking away. “I’m telling you now, if you keep crying like that, I’m not going to take you shopping anymore.”

We are silent.

There isn’t much more to say.

•          •          •

It’s strange when the person you love the most is suddenly diagnosed with cancer – translated directly to “the c-word.” The word became a forbidden expletive in our family.

I flip through an outdated People magazine in the waiting area of the hospital. My mother is in the bathroom. After several minutes, a smiley nurse approaches me with a manila folder.
“Are you Linda’s daughter?” she asks in a bubbly voice. “Here are the documents – let me know if you have any questions or concerns! I’ll be right over at the desk.”

Inside the folder is a collection of reports detailing my mother’s diagnosis. Non-small cell lung cancer (Stage IV; metastatic). One particular sheet catches my eye: a black and white X-ray of my mother’s lungs. They are splattered with thousands of little black dots. Cancerous nodules.
Terrifying little black dots.

That was the moment her diagnosis truly sunk in for me.
Throughout this journey – from diagnosis to the progression – I am guided along by this strange entity called denial. It interrupts me, introduces itself, and unfolds its very essence before my eyes. It’s almost like when you ridicule the idea of aliens coming to Earth in UFOs, and then the next day, boom. Aliens come down to the Earth in UFOs. You are in disbelief. You tell yourself: No way. This can’t be real.

But God has His plans, and this one is real.

You try to “be positive,” but that merely fabricates a bubble of temporary good feelings around you. It doesn’t last forever; a single confrontation with truth can pop it in seconds.

•          •          •

Almost a year later, and it is the last day of sophomore year. After a bittersweet morning of exchanging yearbook signatures with my classmates and teachers, I leave school.
My Uber driver, Nathaniel, meets me in the lot. As he drives, we talk about school.

“What do you want to study in college?” he asks.
“I’m not sure yet,” I reply. “I graduate next year, so hopefully by then I’ll know for sure.”

“Well, you’ve got a lot of time to figure it out. You’re still young.”

I sigh. “I guess. Sometimes I feel like I’m having a midlife crisis.”

He laughs heartily. “Look at me. I’m 54, and I studied accounting in college. But ever since I was little, I’ve had a heart for writing. So last year, I quit my job, and here I am, starting on my second novel, after publishing my first a few weeks ago.”

“Wow,” I say. “That’s amazing!”

He nods. “You’re 16, right? You’ve got a long road ahead of you to figure out your passions. You take one day at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be where you want to be.”
On the way home, I think about Nathaniel’s words: You’ve got a long road ahead of you to figure out your passions.
We all visualize this road of life as a long, ongoing road stretching toward the horizon. We create road stops and signs at different points along the way with our grand dreams. One day, I’ll be wealthy. One day, I’ll be an artist. One day, this. One day, that.

But what if you know where your road ends? Do all your plans and daydreams evaporate into thin air, just like that?

•          •          •

Jesus, I Trust In You!
The large print stands out on the poster taped in front of my mother’s bed. Jesus’s deep brown eyes stare cordially into mine. His hand is placed over His heart, with golden rays of light diverting in all directions.

I trust in You, I think.

I sit before Mom as she sleeps on her blanketed recliner.
Her head is tilted back with her mouth slightly ajar. She moans with every breath. The dark circles under her eyes make them appear hollow against her transparent skin. Her stringy grayish-brown hair covers her forehead. Her bony arms lay beside her small body, her palms weakly open – one is holding a crystal rosary. The cross of Jesus rests in her palm.

I pray silently. The prayers are written harmonically, yet the words slip from my lips dryly, emptily.

The buzzing oxygen machine pumps air through long tubes fitted into my mother’s nostrils. Her failing lungs rhythmically press against her chest, rattling audibly.

Jesus, can I trust in you?

The next entity that greets me is doubt.

Doubt is different from denial. Doubt is a thief, perpetually robbing you of hope. You try to argue that things will get better, but doubt speaks over you with striking audacity. It cuts you off. It shuts you down.

My mother’s eyes open slightly as she awakens.

“Pray for Jesus to take me,” she whispers in Vietnamese.
I hesitate, considering her request. I can’t. “No, Mom.”
Her eyes widen. “Why? Why aren’t you praying for that?”
“I … I can’t, Mom. I love you.” My voice quivers. “I can’t. I don’t want you to go.”

Her eyes are piercing, firm.

“Look at me, Hannah. What is life worth living if I can’t do anything I like? I can’t take walks with you at the park anymore. I can’t eat the foods I like anymore. I just want to see my mom and dad again. End the pain. Why don’t you want that for me?”

Her voice softens. The nostalgia of her sweet, loving voice rushes through my mind, and for a few seconds, everything seems normal again.

“I do love you, too.”

The tears fall down my cheeks. It’s too late. Fulfilling my promise to her, I close my eyes, stand up from my seat, and I walk away.

•          •          •

My mother died on October 24, 2017, at 6:34 p.m.

The seconds after she took her last breath were incomprehensible. I was caught in a blurry storm of fear. I vaguely remember my dad saying something about “magnet” and “emergency.” I remember 8695 – the last four digits of the Hospice emergency magnet on our refrigerator. I rapidly dialed those numbers, just to be slapped with rejection by orchestra music on the waiting line.

“Please hold as we reach a representative to assist you.”
I heard my father’s voice praying fervently.

“Dad, we should just call 911. Why don’t we just call 911? Dad, please.”

“No. It’s too late.”

“Thank you for your patience. A representative will speak with you shortly.”

It’s strange how four random digits become the very last fragments of hope.

I prayed fervently on my knees while I waited. In between shaky Our Fathers and Hail Marys, I experienced a series of flashbacks. I saw that the latex blue gloves on the nightstand beside my mother’s bed were the same color as the hair bands my mother used to tie up my pigtails in second grade. The flower petals of the bouquet resembled the soft kisses she would place on my cheeks before bed.

An eternal 15 minutes passed, then my prayers were interrupted by a click as my father turned off the oxygen machine. The click was the sound of my heart, snapping in two.

One second, you’re here.

The next second, you’re gone.

•          •          •


When I reflect on the metaphor of life being an hourglass, I realize an error in the resemblance. Time is not a number of days left in our lives. Time is immeasurable; no matter how much we try, we cannot figure out how much of it we have left.

But we can make the most of it.

I had the great honor of sharing beautiful, invaluable moments with my mother. Whether we spent it enjoying frozen yogurt together or reading Bible passages to her as she drifted off to sleep, time isn’t the sand in the hourglass of life.
It’s the space. The air.

It’s the very breaths we take as we walk in procession with the ones we love, traveling down an unforeseeable road. 

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