30: The One Who Was Chosen to Go

30: The One Who Was Chosen to Go

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The One Who Was Chosen to Go

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.

~Joanna Macy

This is the story of a mother. Her name was Tiep Du Huynh. She grew up in Vietnam during the war with four sisters and a brother. After the war, her brother, who had been in the navy, was asked to help a group of people escape by boat. His payment was that he could bring one family member along. They had to choose one sister and choose fast. Tiep was the youngest. She would go. She placed her life in her brother’s hands and said goodbye to her family and her home.

After a harrowing journey, which is a story in itself, she found a home in Portland, Oregon. Tiep married and had one child—a son, Dan.

As Dan grew up, it was clear that something was different about him. He had autism. Tiep did the best she could, but it was hard. She became isolated in her community because of the stigma of having a disabled child. Her limited English prevented her from connecting with other support for herself, and from getting needed services for Dan. But life got harder still. Her husband developed severe diabetes and became an invalid. So she cared for both of them.

I used to see Tiep standing on the sidewalk waiting for Dan after school. I waited, too. My son, James, is also autistic. He and Dan were in the same special education class in middle school. Tiep stood away from others, looking small and sad. We never spoke.

Then, one Friday after school, the teacher brought the kids out and came over to me. Her eyes were big, and her hands fluttered. She blurted out that a terrible thing was happening to another student. Dan’s father had died. But that wasn’t all. His mother, Tiep, had just been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. What would happen to Dan? There was no family to take him. Social Services was now involved, but there was no foster family qualified to care for him because of his disability.

I felt the ground shift under my feet. Somehow, I knew this story was meant for me. I tried not to listen. In my mind, I covered my ears with my hands and started singing, “La la la, I can’t hear you!” But I did hear.

I thought and prayed all weekend. And then, on Monday morning, I did one of the craziest things I have ever done. I called the teacher and said I would take Dan. A few days later, I sat down across the table from Tiep. She was bone-thin. Her skin and the whites of her eyes were yellow. Her eyes were full of fear.

We had an interpreter, but I didn’t need an interpreter to understand Tiep. I understood her better than I understood most people who shared my language and culture. I knew that every time she looked at her son, her heart filled up with love beyond measure and broke into a million pieces with grief and worry. I knew that she couldn’t sleep at night, terrified about what would happen to her son when she was gone, picturing him all alone in the world with no one to love him or care for him. I knew Tiep like I knew myself. She was living my worst nightmare.

I looked into her desperate eyes and promised I would take care of her son. She cried. I cried, too. She had to trust a stranger with what she loved more than anything in the world.

We thought we had a few months to help Dan prepare to transition. The social worker helped us make a plan to begin with some short visits and gradually move to longer and overnight visits. But less than two weeks later, I got a call to pick Dan up from school because Tiep had been taken to the hospital for her final hours. So my first experience with Dan was to take him to a dimly lit hospital room and stand by his side as he said goodbye to his mother. And then I brought him home. He was 14 years old and had just lost his whole world.

That first night was chaos. I was not yet prepared for his arrival. I had no bed for him, not even a toothbrush. I didn’t know what he would eat. His language skills were very limited, and he couldn’t communicate his wants or needs. He became frantic and kept trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand until he suddenly stood still, and I saw the dark spot on the front of his pants and the urine pooling around his feet.

The social worker came over that evening and certified me as a foster parent on an emergency basis. I made a bed for Dan on the floor of James’s room. I sat with him and sang lullabies until he fell asleep.

I bought bunk beds the next day for him and James, and went by his house to get his clothes and things. I called the highest-up person I knew in the special ed department and listed the services I needed for Dan.

A few days later, I took Dan to his mother’s memorial service. He said his final goodbyes. And life settled down into the new normal. Because of their autism, Dan and James were not really friends, but they became brothers. And we became a family. We honored Tiep on special days with prayers and offerings of incense.

So now I was a single mother with two autistic sons. What had happened to Tiep could happen to me, so I began to plan for their future. I wanted them to have a full and rich adult life that was not dependent solely on me, so that when the day came that I was gone, their lives would not be totally destroyed. After years of searching, I found a wonderful organization—Edwards Center—that provides lifelong care with various levels and categories of services to meet each person’s individual needs.

Dan and James are now adult men. They share an apartment supervised by Edwards Center. They work at an Edwards Center work site. They take tae kwon do lessons and art lessons. James loves to go to the library and the zoo. Dan loves to cook and make origami.

They have such busy lives that they are sometimes too busy for me to see them on the weekends. I was taking them home once after a family dinner, and as I turned onto their street, James looked at me and said, “This is the treasurest place on earth.” When I asked him what he meant, he thought for a second, and then said, “I have everything I want.” I think Dan would agree.

Dan was able to go to Vietnam last fall. He met his aging grandmother and other relatives for the first time. And he completed a quest he had waited years for. He took his mother’s ashes back to the country of her birth so she could take her place with the ancestors.

I hope that Tiep rests in peace now, peace she never knew in life. I hope I have honored and continue to honor my promise to her to care for her son. And I hope that when it is Dan’s turn to take his place with the ancestors, she will be there to welcome him back into her loving embrace.

~Galen Pearl

More stories from our partners