We had blue roses at my dad’s funeral. For some reason, he liked this made-up flower, so my mom asked the florist to make one bouquet of food-coloring-stained blue roses for my mom, my sister, and I to lay on top of his casket.
That was 15 years ago. It is insane to me how fast the years have whizzed by. I’ve been dreading this death anniversary in particular, because it marks the threshold of when dad will have been gone for as many years as he was alive for Vickie; she was only 15 when he died. And that means that my threshold — 17 years — will be here in a few short breaths. He was our hero, and he was gone in an instant. As I approach my mid-30s, I realize just how unfairly young he died — 48 years old. I have no idea how it will feel to surpass my dad in age, but I know that year will creep up on me faster than I am prepared for as well.
Ironically or coincidentally, as we honor my dad today, our whole Duong family is gathered around my Ongie, my dad’s dad, who just went home on hospice care. And just like that, the day that I was so worried would floor me has floored me in an entirely different way. And just like 15 years ago, I am watching my mom move with untold strength, grace, poise, and tact as she navigates an impossible situation while still watching out for me and Vickie. I am literally amazed by her each and every day, and am so grateful for her guidance, presence, and spirit. I am witnessing the true depths of a mother’s and wife’s love, and I am just in awe. After my dad died, she made sure that his dad, my Ongie, became an even bigger part of our life. Ong was with us on every family vacation, came to holiday parties (whether a Duong family gathering or a Nguyen one), and enjoyed more random, casual dinners together than I can remember. I joined him on many of his photography expeditions — trips with his Vietnamese grandpa’s photography club — to take pictures of the fall foliage in New Hampshire, to the flower fields in Lompoc, to the sand dunes in death valley. We fulfilled his lifelong dream to go see Paris, and to his dismay, the streets were not actually made of gold. Vickie and Ong had a standing weekly date to watch Dancing with the Stars together. I am so grateful that mom created the opportunities for me and Vickie to love and know Ong as a proxy for dad. As a result, Ong became the closet thing we’ve have to dad for the last 15 years: aside from looking amazingly identical and giving me an idea of what my dad would’ve looked like as a cute old grandpa, they share that same characteristic Duong disposition: quiet and reserved, but playful and loving underneath. I like to think dad would have been a lot like Ong if he had aged, and through Ong, I feel like we got to know dad a little better.
And now more than ever, in this difficult time, I am reminded even more of mom’s greatest lesson to us: be good to those you love while they are alive. Life is short, time is precious, and nobody is promised tomorrow. I am thankful that instead of wishing that we had taken Ong to more places, that I can sit at his bedside and talk about all the cool things we’ve done and memories we’ve shared together. I’m thankful that we took him on so many trips that he didn’t feel the need to travel anymore. And I’m thankful that I had so many beautiful years with him, getting to know and love him in the way that I never got to know my dad.
So today, instead of mourning dad, I am also celebrating my Ong, and expressing eternal gratitude for the most amazing woman I know, without whom I never could have made it through the last 15 years.