Snow in Vietnam
Snow in Vietnam is my debut book as an emerging author. It is a historical fiction story set in the 1970s. The manuscript was completed in December 2018 and was a finalist in the 2018 Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest in the Historical Fiction genre.
Below is a synopsis and sample chapter.
Summary: The protagonist is a woman named Tuyet, which means “snow” in Vietnamese. The youngest of seven children, Snow is not only the most beautiful and educated among her siblings, she is also the most spoiled and least domesticated. She is a dreamer and lives a sheltered life. Her struggle begins when she marries a man who is not what he seems. The Vietnam War ravages her country, Communism takes over, and Snow finds herself alone with a young, dying daughter to care for. Life in the new Vietnam becomes unbearable and the only way out is to die or to escape. With no money and no husband, Snow faces a stark reality and learns to depend on herself to survive. She must set aside her morals and push herself to the limit emotionally, physically and mentally. Her decision to leave Vietnam takes her adrift in the South China Sea and ultimately to the island of Galang in Indonesia. Along the way, she finds strength and courage from someone unexpected, forbidden love, and renewed faith in humanity.
This story is dedicated to the boat people of Vietnam, refugees who risked their lives in desperate search for freedom, safety, and hope. Inspired by my mom’s life, Snow in Vietnam will have you laughing, crying, and embracing the many miracles that come into your life.
SAMPLE: CHAPTER 1 - ANT SPIDERS (MAY 1973)
I never intended to marry so late. Here I am a thirty-four-year-old virgin about to marry a man I hardly know. The Paris peace treaty was signed this year and the end of the war is near. Normalcy will be restored in Việt Nam once again.
As I scrutinize myself in the mirror, I see how different I am from the other women in my hometown of Vĩnh Bình. They have long, thick black manes, straight as a runway, framing their oval faces. Then there is me, with my round face and fine head of hair, naturally speckled with cinnamon highlights left by the scorching sun. The wavy locks, tamed only by water and a barrette, are now threatening to go limp. Today, I am going for the Elizabeth Taylor look, with my pixie cut and pale skin. Most women in my town, from the young school girls to my elders, appear fragile and gaunt. Not me. Despite my small frame, my fat arms still give me away.
“Eight, what are you doing standing there?” My older sister bursts into my room, panting and looking provoked. “You and Mông Dơ can be twins.” She is referring to our chicken, whose name means “Dirty Butt”.
“I do not--” She never lets me finish.
Whipping me sharply around and squeezing my chubby arm, she lectures me on how to behave today. “Do not spill any tea. Bow and smile to your future in-laws and receive their gift with both hands. Under no circumstances do you show discomfort or displeasure.” My sister is a bully and enjoys bossing everyone around. She is not the beauty or the brains of the family, nor is she an affectionate soul, but darn if she is not a great cook.
“Do not worry, Sister Six, I will not mess up as you did.” I yank my arm away. Although I am the youngest of seven children, Eight is my name, for the parental unit is always number one. With the heat and the dread of my upcoming nuptials, I have no patience with Sister Six today.
“Do not speak until you are spoken to first. And for Heaven and Earth’s sake, do something about your face!” Sister Six abruptly leaves my room.
I take a quick glance in the mirror. My skin is shiny with beads of sweat forming around my brows while the makeup is melting from the humidity. Even with all the windows open, there is no breeze. The sounds of mopeds zipping by and the familiar rasp of the old baguette lady sounding the sale of four sandwiches for twenty thousand piasters percolates through the window. From the corner of my eye, I see that Six, in her haste to exit, dropped a small photograph of my fiancé. It dances lazily to the floor, as if to convey that it, too, is in no hurry to start the day. I stare at the photo but all I can think of is Sam.
Two years ago in 1971, I met Sam. My niece, Tâm, who is twelve years younger than I, accompanied me on a holiday trip to the city of Tuy Hòa, northeast of Đà Lạt where I worked, some two hundred forty kilometers up the coast. We were parched from our travels and settled for some food and iced coffee with condensed milk.
“Chao Co,” came a disembodied voice, gruff yet pleasant. The words were Vietnamese but the pronunciation conveyed an attempt of a three-year-old. I recognized the accent was American and pretended not to hear him, hoping he would go away. He repeated himself and I feigned interest in the live music in front by the bar, using the loud guitar chords from the band as an excuse to ignore him. I felt a reluctant tap on my shoulder.
I gazed into eyes that were pennywort green with specks of black and yellow like a ripe kiwi fruit. He was tall and his skin tan, kissed golden from the blistering sun.
“My friend and I would like to sit. May we borrow this chair?” His smile was mischievous, which made me a little nervous, but his dimple soon put me at ease. I nodded and turned my attention back to my niece. It was not long before the soldier’s deep voice captivated me. Drawn in by his honeyed speech, I had to eavesdrop. My English was not bad for I had learned the language at the university.
“What do you think of her, Sky?” asked the American soldier.
“C’mon, Sam. Did you see the tits on that girl?” Sam’s friend also had a deep voice but not as melodic and soothing as the green-eyed soldier. I hoped they were not referring to Tâm or me.
“I prefer my women with a bigger rack, like pomelos.” Sam demonstrated with his hands how big he liked them.
“Anything bigger than a mouthful is a waste in my opinion.” Sky gulped down the last of his beer and ordered two more.
They watched with amusement as the owner of the watering hole pulled up a dusty canvas tarp to reveal a cooler with a big block of ice in it. He chipped a couple of big pieces into glass mugs, and in robotic synchronicity, poured two cans of warm “33” beer into their mugs. The bartender, weathered and haggard with his “555” brand cigarette dangling from his lips, adroitly handed Sky their drinks.
The two of them were quite the sight, hunched over a small table with their long legs spilling out in front of their lanky bodies like ant spiders. Sporting their M-16s, newly issued steel pot helmets and flak vests, they appeared comfortable despite the onlookers.
“Say, where are you from?” Sam took a swig of his iced beer.
“From Burien, Washington.” Sky lit up a cigarette. “Born and raised in the Seattle area!”
“What?” Sam exclaimed. “Get out of here! I’m from Washington too. Bellevue, to be exact. I can’t say I’ve been to Burien though. Pretty much stuck to the eastside.”
The smell of phở brought my attention back to my table. The distinct smells of charred onions and ginger lingered in my nostrils as I took the first sip of the broth. Outside was a sweltering thirty-two degrees Celsius, but the hot soup soothed my throat.
Tâm squeezed some lime juice into her bowl. “Aunt Eight, after we eat, can we go to the beach?” I nodded as I pinched off some more basil leaves to add to my phở. “We can order more cà phê and stop to get some durian.”
Again, I nodded. I was not in the mood to talk so going to the beach to relax was appealing. I was famished and debated whether to order a second bowl. The thought of gaining weight, however, quickly crushed my impulses. While my niece ordered our iced coffees, I took the opportunity to resume eavesdropping on the American GIs.
“We better get back to the truck.” Sky stood up, standing almost two meters tall, and walked toward the sidewalk. “We were due back a half hour ago.”
Sam was right behind him. My eyes followed them and I was bewitched by Sam’s derrière. Most Vietnamese men do not have meat on them, so to see a man with a bulging behind was hypnotizing. As he walked leisurely, the fatigues wrinkled at the base of his butt, emphasizing his muscular thighs. I was so bewitched that when he turned his head to look back at me, I was paralyzed with embarrassment.
“Cam on.” He winked and gave me his thanks with a smile that showed all his perfect white teeth. What would it be like to be courted by an American?
The sound of a man’s voice, shrieking profanities, quickly jolted me back to reality. There was a lot of commotion as bystanders rushed to the street corner. Tâm and I joined them.
There was Sky, pacing back and forth, arms raised, with his rifle hitting his leg each time he pivoted to retrace his steps. “Fuck! Damn boysans stole one of our windshield wipers and ripped off our gas can!” He nodded in the direction where the thieves made their escape. His face was redder than a lychee fruit. “And this goddamn fool was asleep behind the wheel when he should have been keeping watch!” In the driver seat sat a local boy around eleven years old. Sky continued his ranting, calling the boy worthless, saying how he should have known better than to trust the “idiot”. Spit frothed at the corner of his mouth. “I paid you to watch the truck and keep it safe.” His posture stiffened. He clenched his teeth and demanded his money back.
The boy was terrified of this foreigner towering over him, no doubt worried the M-16 would be pointed at him. I held my breath. I anticipated Sam would commiserate with his comrade and yell like a lunatic as well.
“Calm down.” Even with his brow furrowed in displeasure, Sam remained composed. He reminded me of the actor, Clint Eastwood. “Who’s to say one of these faces is an unfriendly?”
During times of war, that much was true. You could never tell the “friendlies” from the “unfriendlies”. They all had the same face. While both men were temporarily distracted, the young boy took the opportunity to escape and darted down the road.
Sky roared at the boy running for his life. “Yeah, you better di di mau!”
The crowd around the two soldiers dissipated. The thrill and excitement had subsided. Yet, there I stood, motionless.
My niece startled me. “Can we go?” Tâm held our iced coffees.
“Not yet,” I stalled. There was something about Sam that had me fixated. “Excuse me, sir?” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I realized I spoke. “You have enough gasoline?”
Sam and Sky took a couple steps closer. Tâm took a half step back, looking bewildered.
“I believe so. Thank you, er, miss…?” Sam fished for my name.
“Tuyết,” I responded. “It means ‘snow’. This is my niece, Tâm.”
“Well shit, so there is snow in Vietnam!” Sky grinned from ear to ear.
“Tuy-yet! That sounds beautiful. I’m Corporal Sam Hammond of the U.S. Army, 180th Assault Support Helicopter Company. And this is Sergeant Skyler Herrington.”
After a few pleasantries, Sky insisted they head back to base. We parted ways and I did not think I would see Sam again. Tâm and I were in Tuy Hòa for a short stay. Soon, we were expected back to Đà Lạt and back to work at the bank. Sam and Sky, the American ant spiders, had a war to win and a tunnel to infiltrate.
I analyze my reflection in the mirror and worry my eyes will betray my true age. The face that peers back at me can still be mistaken for a twenty-something year old. The naiveté and insecurities are still there despite my thirty-four-year-old eyes. Sister Six is right; I do look like our disheveled chicken, Dirty Butt. At least my áo dài, the traditional silk dress of Việt Nam, is not wrinkled. Sister Six insisted my dress be red and gold, colors of our country’s flag. The baguette lady makes her loop again, chirping four “bánh mì” for twenty thousand piasters, which is less than a U.S. dollar. I walk to the top of the staircase and grip the railing. It has been two years since I first met Sam and Sky at that watering hole in Tuy Hòa. There is no time to dwell on the past now. I make my descent down the stairs.
Everyone is outside. I peek into the dining room. A cloth, red as a betel nut, adorns the long dinner table. Three chairs stand on either side, like centurions waiting for instructions, or perhaps more like the Việt Cộng, waiting for their next move. The cushions are re-upholstered in yellow silk; images of dragons carved on the backs of the chairs symbolize life and prosperity. I imagine myself sitting there and blending in, becoming invisible. Out of the kitchen window, I see poor Dirty Butt confined to her dome-shaped wire cage. I, too, am soon to be caged myself.
My nephew appears and takes my hand. “They are almost here.” He leads me into the family room.
“Tree, wait with me.” We sit together on the bench. Tree is not his real name, but we call him that because he is always climbing things. He is my eleven-year-old nephew, although he appears much younger. He is small, fast, and has a baby face. Despite his youthful appearance, he is muscular from years of running and scaling coconut trees to get away from my brother Seven’s whipping. One time, I found him on top of a tall cabinet, out of his mother’s reach. He squatted on top, knees and hips bent, with all his weight on the heels of his feet. What a funny sight to see him hunkered down, half crying and half taunting, while his mother jumped up and down trying to swat him with a broom handle.
From the window, I see the road leading to our home. I feel as if I am transported to another world. Sounds, smells, and colors beyond the house overwhelm me. Scooters zip by in disorderly fashion, their drivers honking at fellow riders who do not adhere to their side of the unmarked roads. Pedestrians yell as they jump out of the way to avoid getting hit while crossing to the other side. Babies are crying, no doubt hungry and uncomfortable with the heat. On typical days when there is not a wedding procession to gawk at, the view outside is drab. My neighbors, who usually wear the same boring polyester pants and tunic, in flat colors of brown or mustard yellow, now loiter around the front of their home drinking coffee or smoking a cigarette, and complain about losing a hand of cards. Today though, their animation shows off their youthful gait and toothless grins. Most flaunt their finest clothes and exchange the monochromatic for the loud, multi-colored patterns.
“Aunt Eight, let me know if you need anything.” Tree is so many things I am not. He does not ask questions. He makes statements. He hates confinement; prefers the education learned on the streets to the teachings in school; he does not care much for anything except being one with nature. The boy does have a strong sense of family though and in the end, always comes home.
“I do not want to be alone. How is school?” I pat his head.
“School is for kids who do not know what they want in life.”
“And you have your life figured out?”
“The American soldiers,” Tree starts, “I hear them talk about their adventures. If it was not for my mom and dad, I would leave Vĩnh Bình, but someone has to take care of them.”
“Yes, that is your responsibility.” The faint smell of a roasted pig reminds me I have not eaten all morning. The anticipation of tasting the savory, juicy meat makes my mouth water. “Run along and fetch me some yogurt. It will be a couple of hours before we eat.”
Tree quietly dismisses himself. I rarely have conversations with my nephew. Kids are here to work and do as we adults tell them to do. My interactions with Tree have been limited to fetch me this or tell your mom that. While I wait for Tree, I spy on my family standing in front of our house, looking magnificent in their tailored suits and dresses. It is the first time I smile all week.
In the distance, a procession of people from the groom’s side of the family walks up the road toward us. A weathered, eighty-year-old man leads the procession. He represents the family. Next in line strides the groom’s father, whom I had met once. He is still handsome for his age despite his stern and stoic appearance. I spot my future husband next. There he is, all 1.7 meters of him. He walks confidently like a dignitary, with his head held high, commanding respect, and his blue silk tunic clinging to his lean, muscular body. His legs are bowed, but on this day, it is not noticeable. The trousers underneath his ceremonial costume fit loosely and march in rhythm with his swagger. He looks sharp. Nine men, similarly dressed, follow him. Each carries a black lacquered box, adorned with a red embroidered cloth. My anxiety gets a hold of me. With each step they make, I feel a layer of independence being stripped from me.
The procession appears to go on and on. Two men carry a roasted pig hung from a spit. A group of women, young and old, cluck animatedly as they walk toward my family’s house. All around the women are the “littles”, each child oblivious to the etiquette preached to them minutes before the walk. At least thirty people approach the house.
A loud pop explodes through the air, followed by alternating crackles and pops in rapid succession. I smell smoke. Screams filter through the window. Dirty Butt flaps her wings, frantically squawking in protest. I stiffen and quickly drop to my knees. My headdress tumbles to the floor. I cover my face with my clammy hands as I kneel. My heart thumps loudly. I wish I had my rosary. The Việt Cộng is raiding the village!
“Here is your yog—” Tree’s small hand wraps around my wrist. “Do not be afraid. Firecrackers were lit.” He hands me my headdress and I carefully place it on my head. “You should fix your hair.”
It takes a second to register I am not in danger. I hear laughter. My future husband and his family are inside the house. I stand up with a sigh of relief and muster the strength to hold back the tears. Not today, I tell myself. There will be no crying.
“Do I look like Mông Dơ?” I take a deep breath and an exaggerated exhale. Tree’s silence confirms it. “There is no time. Maybe he will call off the wedding after he sees how ruffled I look.”
Tree hands me the homemade yogurt that Sister Six made. After inhaling two big spoonfuls, I step into the dining room. I am overwhelmed with all the faces looking at me, but it is my father’s that makes me cringe.
Father smiles but his eyes are stern and glaring. “Mr. and Mrs. Vương, may I present to you my daughter, Tuyết.”
I bow to my future in-laws and greet them. “Chào bác.”
“Your daughter is lovely, Mr. Lê.” My future father-in-law clasps his warm hands around mine. “She indeed is as beautiful and light-skinned as snow.”
“Please, do not be so formal. Call me Sáng. We will be family soon.”
“Very well, Sáng. You can call me Bình. This is my father, Ngạn, my wife, Hương, and you know our son, Tý.”
“Please, sit down.” My father pulls out his chair and the rest follow suit. I remain standing. Bình and Hương smile at me with kind, empathetic eyes.
Sister Six floats into the dining room with the tea tray. One look at me and her smile disappears. I sense the disapproval of my appearance. She takes her seat in the matriarch chair beside Father.
All eyes are on me as I pick up the steaming hot teapot. It is heavier than I anticipated. Sister Six brewed a large pot and must have filled it to the top. I hold my breath and slowly pour my grandfather-in-law his tea. As the eldest, he receives his tea first. Why do the cups have to be so small? One splash and my marriage will be doomed. Next, I pour for my father.
I draw my attention to my in-laws. They are wealthier than my family. Mrs. Hương is plump. Any woman who has such a round face clearly is not starving or working hard in the rice fields. Her skin is flawless, stretched tight from the layers of fat beneath her cheeks and neck. She has on every piece of jewelry. Jade bracelets, the shade of cilantro, decorate both wrists; matching emerald stones dangle from her long earlobes and a marquise-cut emerald, eighteen-carat gold ring, show off her pudgy ring finger. Her green silk áo dài barely hold in the rolls of fat above her pants.
Her husband is the direct opposite. Mr. Bình is not ostentatious and is quite skinny. His only accessories are his wedding band and the flesh on his face that sags loosely. It is as if all the nutrients have been siphoned by Mrs. Hương. Still, he is a handsome man. I think of my in-laws as couple number ten because he is slender like the number one and she is round like the number zero. I smile at my private joke as I carefully pour the hot artichoke tea into their cups. Not a drop escapes onto the table.
With one finger pressed onto the lid of the ceramic teapot, I continue pouring flawlessly for Sister Six and my fiancé. I feel relief. Not a single drop of tea spilled. Our marriage should be a happy and lasting one.
Tý stands up and presses his hand against the small of my back. “A toast.” It is the first time we have stood this close to one another. He smells like grease, sweat, and the narcissus plant. His presence catches me off guard and surprisingly excites me. “May we be blessed with many sons!”
We all raise our teacups and sip the sweet soothing liquid. Mrs. Hương presents me with a gift. Inside the velvet box is the most exquisite twenty-four karat gold necklace I have ever seen. The chain cradles a golden phoenix with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies. “For strength and courage to always rise above.” She winks at me and helps me put it on.
My wedding day goes by in a blur.
My wedding night is lasting forever. Tonight I lose my virtue. Other than Sam, no man has ever kissed me. As I lie here with my husband, who is grunting and fondling my body like he is prying apart a jackfruit, I recall my argument with Sister Six two winters ago.
She warned me true love did not exist. “Love is a concept for dreamers. If you do not marry soon, your shriveled prunes will do you no good.”
“Sam and I are in love. He is going to marry me when his tour ends.”
“You are foolish to believe your soldier will take you to America. Father will accept the first proposal he gets. You need to start a family before it is too late.”
I believed arranged marriages were not for me. I was convinced life began and ended in Sam’s arms. However, Sister Six was right. Love is for dreamers. I am married now.
My husband finally rolls over. “We will try again tomorrow night.” His gaze wraps me in tenderness. I feel guilty for not trying to please him. In time, I know I can love him.
The Greatest Gift
A short narrative that was submitted to Guideposts Magazine in June 2016 for their October Guideposts Writers Workshop contest. This is a personal story about my mom's illness. She was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in March 2016. In February 2017, my mom lost her battle with cancer.
When I was young, my mom would tell me how she envisioned life would be in this place called America, a place where roads were paved with gold and no one worried about their next meal. She fancied what it would be like to carry around a “Santa belly” full of food, a leather bag heavy with money, driving a Cadillac into a long driveway that spilled into our fancy million dollar house, lined with horse statues and lush green hedges. She would paint the most picturesque vision of her American dream.
The year was 1980 and I was turning six years old. My mom and I had been in Seattle for two months, “fresh off the boat” as the saying goes, when reality in America presented anything but the American dream she replayed over and over in her mind. At every turn there seemed to be people ready to exploit the underprivileged and weak. It seemed like everyone we met had a hidden agenda and fed off those who were powerless to effect their own change. We had no money. We had no home. What we did have was our faith that we could still have a piece of that dream.
We trusted in God and we knew that escaping Vietnam was His blessing. Despite our misconceptions of what the future held, my mom asked me to pray that she would find a good job to support us. She was 41 then. She had always been, in the eyes of a young six year old girl, the most beautiful, independent, smart, and brave woman in the world. It was a jolt to my naiveté to see her suddenly turn into an inexperienced and insecure girl, confused and without answers. She was my hero and “my everything” that was safe and sugary sweet in the world. How could she seem so lost? One thing remained the same though. Her nightingale voice made my birthdays ethereal and every year, she always sang me a sweet Happy Birthday melody.
My birthday gift that year when Mount St Helens erupted, was her song and a promise that life would get better. As the months went by, time seemed to stand still. It was her belief in God that kept us optimistic. It was her love that was infectious and her obstinacy that was the foundation upon which we pursued our goals. I prayed each night. I asked that Mom would find a job to take care of us, and just for added measure, in case He was feeling eccentric, I prayed for a car and the ability to understand English. In time, Mom got that great job at the Seattle Times, we got a Honda Civic, we learned English, and all was right with the world.
Fast forward to today and I am now a mother myself of a seven year old child. My mom, now 77 years old, my hero and “my everything” is no longer like the legends I glamorized on the big screen. I hardly recognize the small, frail woman in front of me, but when I do get a glimpse of the magic she once held, that feeling of safety and sweetness just envelops me, and I am six years old once again. I sometimes can smell the faint aroma of Liz Taylor’s Passion perfume that she used to wear, and I’m nostalgic of the younger years.
My mom always had the fighter spirit in her. In Vietnam, she defied tradition and refused to get married until she was ready, not when Grandpa (Ong Ngoai) told her she was ready! When she was 18 she left her small hometown of Tra Vinh to go to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to get a proper education at a university. She was a trailblazer and at every corner, she left young suiters pining for her hand in marriage. They all believed they’d be the one to sweep her off her feet, yet they all were left with the demise of their own idiocy. After college she came home not as the demurring Buddhist that Ong Ngoai raised her to be, but a bold Catholic who knew men and greed would slow her down. She had two desires, to have a daughter and to go to America. Mom got through the Vietnam war by riding her scooter from Tra Vinh to Saigon every day and sold medicine to anyone willing to pay top dollar for Western medicine. It was an eight hour roundtrip journey she made every day, just to earn enough money to take care of her ailing parents, six uneducated siblings, and me, a very sick baby treading between the realm of life and death due to a heart murmur. Caffeine was my mom’s only addiction and was always on the menu. If she was on death row, her last supper would be a can of ground coffee, a side of condensed milk, and tiramisu for dessert.
Two years ago, my mom suffered a minor stroke. A year went by and she began showing signs of Alzheimer’s. My husband and I moved Mom into our home seven months ago. Adjustments had to be made to our autonomous, independent life, which eventually lead to a new normalcy. The Liz that I grew up with was still mostly present. She enjoyed shopping for trendy clothes, handbags or shoes. She loved to eat and have a good time. She got a kick out of telling you the same handful of jokes she managed to deposit into her memory bank over the years. When the mood struck, she would dance the cha cha, hum an upbeat tune, and cook traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Aging was a part of life and I theoretically knew that. What I didn’t know, what I was ill-equipped to handle and emotionally too stunted to take on, was witnessing a vibrant woman suddenly becoming forgetful, dependent, and very resistant to change. Growing older was vandalizing her spirit.
Three months after moving in with us, just when we all were getting accustomed to being accountable to a new schedule, my mom complained of a persistent neck pain that was haunting her for weeks. Off to the doctors we went for consultations, exams, pain meds, and scans. Pain had a name. Cancer.
I remember it was a comfortably cold Friday night. The slight chill reminded me I was alive and the bright moon reminded me to be grateful of the many storms I had weathered triumphantly. It had been awhile since my husband and I had a date night. I was eager to take him to this new restaurant on the eastside and my heart did cartwheels when we finally got seated by a middle aged fellow who seemed to have Slinkies inserted under his shoes. He zigzagged through patrons, bounced over to our table for two by the window, and teetered forward and back as he awaited for further instructions. I was happy to dismiss him and send him on a mission of wine and cocktails. We were famished and excited for the night that we must have ordered an entrée from every section of the menu! When the food arrived, it was steaming hot in colors of orange, green, and earthy brown. I took my first savory bite and for a split second, I was in heaven. My mouth became the tent for a Cirque du Soleil show. I was happy. Life was really good. I had a handsome, loving husband who was in love with me and was a devoted father to our effervescent son. I had a doting mother who was still enamored with what Life had bestowed on her. I had a son who was funny, healthy, and curious, with classic good looks and a vocabulary beyond his years. I was happy because I had my family.
Then, just like that, the warm sensation of love and peacefulness abruptly became derailed. My cell phone rang. It was Mom’s doctor. My stomach was overtaken by gnarled thorns. The stabbing news seized our date night and large heavy tears began to hijack my carefully applied makeup. What do you mean fourth stage lung cancer? She never smoked in her life! What do you mean she had a year, maybe less, to be with me? I started to compartmentalize the 12 months I had left to hear my mom sing, to laugh at her jokes, to fight over how much sugar or salt or jalapenos she should put in her cooking…Funny thing was, I didn’t think about the pain that was awaiting her or how she would take the news. A part of me dismissed the gravity of it all by relying on her Alzheimer’s disease to ensure she forgot she had cancer and was dying. I didn’t think about how my son would grasp this stark reality or how my husband, my selfless husband, could absorb any more responsibilities. All I could think about was poor little ole me and how I’d have to miss work and take her to chemotherapy or radiation appointments, how I was not going to benefit from her cooking anymore, how I was going to have to cut up my own mangos now that I wouldn’t have Mom to do all these things for me!
That night I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for patience and strength. I prayed for more jokes, more mangos, more jalapenos and melodies. It was like I was on a marathon to reach God and His angels before the prayer quotas were reached that night. For awhile, I lost my faith that my prayers would be answered. I lamented on having to get used to a new normal. I thought, “This is it. Mom’s time is approaching and one day, I’ll walk into her room to find her not breathing.”
In one month, my beautiful mom lost nearly 20 pounds. She was in pain. She couldn’t eat or sleep. She was always cold. She lost a lot of fluids from vomiting or diarrhea. Cancer was not kind or pretty. Mom lost interest in her grandson, in shopping, in entertainment, even in me. She was ready to move on, ready to give up, and ready for eternal peace in Heaven.
All that mattered to me now was the quality of life she would have while left here on Earth. I asked Him to let me know how I could get her through this. I asked Him to be my eyes and ears so that I didn’t overlook any possibilities. The more I prayed the more my faith was restored that God will help us find the answers we were looking for. It took ten days before I saw the first sign that He heard my call for help. A friend had tagged me on Facebook about a docuseries on cancer. I watched all nine episodes, spoke to my mom, listened to what she wanted, and with renewed hope, we decided to cancel all of Mom’s radiation and chemotherapy treatments. We believed it was in God’s hands, not the oncologist’s, to heal her. We began juicing a few days a week, diffusing frankincense oil in her room, preparing essiac and dandelion root teas, and taking cannabidiol (CBD) and turmeric capsules. In ten days, I saw such a dramatic change in Mom!
Today, my mom still peels my mangos, tells horrible jokes, and complains the food is too spicy. She regained some weight, is pain-free, and eats like a champ. The greatest gift of all, I’ve come to realize, is having faith. My faith in God gave me strength to help fight cancer alongside my mom. It gave me courage to explore a natural alternative to chemotherapy. It allowed me to let others share our burden and lighten our load. Faith in God restored tranquility, healed our weary heart and helped us to understand that we can be the catalyst for change.
The Copper Phoenix
The Copper Phoenix is my second book and is in progress. I began writing the manuscript in March 2019 and hope to complete it by end of year. It is a women’s fiction novel based on a true story of surviving sexual and physical abuse. Below is the synopsis and sample chapter.
Summary: The Copper Phoenix spans thirty years, from 1974 to 2004. Claire Anne Baker was a precocious redhead whose early childhood was full of adventure. Her father was her world and they spent four years together going on road trips, meeting interesting people, and performing gigs at various establishments. The older she got, however, the darker her world became. Claire discovered she was kidnapped by her father before her first birthday and her parents, collectively, had thirty children with multiple partners. Growing up in an abusive, dysfunctional home turned Claire’s life upside down. At age twelve, her innocence was ripped from her and less than a year later, it was stripped again. She was convinced every man had ulterior motives. Gone was the carefree, trusting little girl who could talk to strangers and win their heart with her smile and wit. Her dad had a rotating door of female visitors, abusive wives, and dangerous male predators who wreaked havoc on Claire’s struggle to be a normal kid. She became withdrawn, turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, hung out with misfits, and was in and out of foster homes. The downward spiral lead her ultimately to Walter, her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Their friendship beautifully blossomed and with Walter’s love, support, and encouragement, Claire learned to let go, to breathe, and to end the habitual cycle of shame and self-destruction that plagued her. This story is dedicated to the men and women who survived sexual abuse, who continue to reconcile what happened to them, and who are working to take control of their life again. The Copper Phoenix is based on a true story and written as a tribute to a dear friend of the author’s. It is meant to give others strength and courage to heal.
SAMPLE: CHAPTER 1 - LITTLE SUNSHINE (WINTER 1974)
When I was eleven months old, my father kidnapped me from my mother. We were always on the move and lived all over the United States. Dad was my world until he wasn’t, and I was his sunshine until I wasn’t.
Born the only child to Janet Landon and Bryant Baker, I was their special little redhead, the cute and precocious daughter Dad used to tote around everywhere. He’d show me off every chance he got at bars and truck stops, and I loved the attention. It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that I understood just how messed up my family life really was and how cruel the world can be. And when I found out I was one of thirty children, I knew there was nothing special about me.
My earliest memory was when I was three years old, screaming for my dad as he was wheeled into the emergency room at a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. It was a clear November day in 1974, but with wind speeds reaching thirty miles per hour that afternoon, the biting cold stung less than the fear of losing Dad.
“That’s my daddy! Daddy!” I cried.
The room was dim. A nurse with a long face, big eyes and long flowing hair scooped me up into her strong arms. Her grip was tight and her fingers dug into my thighs. Her features made me think of a horse and despite her kind face, there was nothing she could do to soothe me. The warmth of her bosom could not comfort me and all I could do was rest my head on her shoulder in defeat. Dad lay flat on the gurney, writhing in pain and clutching his chest as the doctors wheeled him through heavy double doors. The nurse carried me to the doors and with my face pressed against the round window, I watched the medical staff turn the corner and disappear.
“Don’t take Daddy!” I kicked my nurse demanding that she follow and was upset when my mare did not gallop on demand. Instead, she took me in the opposite direction. It was the first of many hospital visits. Dad frequently had angina spells and on that particular day, he convinced the doctor to give him nitroglycerin.
Two hours after Dad was wheeled into the emergency room, he left Olmsted Medical Center against medical advice, and life went back to normal. We continued our travels, road tripping from one city to another, just the two of us on the open highway, singing our hearts out to Dad’s favorite country songs.
“How about some music, Claire Anne?” My dad tapped his big hands on my shoulder.
“OK, Daddy!” I watched him put the eight-track tape into the deck of his 1970 GMC Jimmy 4x4. Dad loved his GMCs. He bought that one used. It was the smell of the black vinyl bucket seats and the roar of the V8 engine that hooked him. Dad paid no never mind to the rust. Battle scars, he said. I loved it because it had a fully removable convertible hard top and a manual transmission. He looked like he was dancing the cha-cha whenever he shifted and stepped on the clutch.
Kenny Rogers’ commanding voice sang out strong. “Your smile is sweeter than the morning. And here it comes.”
Dad’s deep voice joined in. “Can you feel it baby? Can you feel it? Here it comes! Baby! Feel it! Fire!”
I couldn’t resist and jumped in at the chorus. “Something's burning.”
Dad felt the pull of the lyrics. “Sing it, Claire darlin’.”
“Something’s burning. Something’s burning,” I sang and bounced up and down with joy.
“And I think it’s love,” sang Dad.
Yup, when it was me and Daddy on that stretch of road, the smile never left my face.
We passed through Jamestown, North Dakota that December of ’74 and stopped at a truck stop to fuel up and get some food. Inside the brightly lit diner, Dad ordered coffee right off the bat.
“And what will the little lady have?” Our waitress was pretty but she had on too much makeup.
“Macaroni and cheese, please.” I had to order my favorite. It wasn’t every day that Dad spoiled me.
The waitress sat down next to my dad. “Hello Bryant. What can I get you, Sugar, other than coffee?”
“Your special for today.” Dad lit up a cigarette and put his hand on her lap. He was happy that day because he had a gig coming up. I was going to sing too.
If she was Dad’s friend then she was mine as well. I wanted to get to know her. “I’m Claire. What’s your name?”
“Why, aren’t you cute. I’m Cindy. How old are you?”
“Three!” I volunteered. “How old are you?”
Cindy laughed. She stood up and took out a sucker from her pocket. “Here’s a treat for you, for when you get back on the road.”
“Bring her a slice of key lime pie too. I’m going to celebrate my little sunshine. It’s her belated birthday.”
I saw Dad and Cindy kissing later that night when they thought I was asleep in the back of our car. All the rocking and grunting sounds woke me up, but with my belly full of pasta and pie, I quickly dozed off again.
The gig was in Montana that weekend so we said goodbye to Cindy early in the morning right after breakfast and got back on Interstate 94. We drove for eight hours straight along the stretch of highway, stopping only to get gas and a snack or to use the toilet. Sometimes Dad didn’t wait until we got to a respectable bathroom so he’d pull over on the side of the road and take a leak. The long drive didn’t bother me. I had my sucker and we’d talk to truckers on Dad’s CB radio. The best part was singing outlaw country songs while we cruised the distance.
By nightfall, we pulled into a parking lot next to an Exxon station and Dad was exhausted. “We’re going to rest our heads here in Miles City, Darlin’, before heading to Butte tomorrow.”
I yawned and didn’t fight him when he carried me to the motel room. It was nice not sleeping in the car. By morning, I was well rested and full of energy. We drove another five hours on Interstate 90 and it was 3 p.m. when we rolled up to the Town Pump in Butte.
The owner came out to welcome us. “Hi there. Minnesota plates, huh? What brings you to Montana?”
“Just exploring the country with my favorite girl.” Dad gave me a wink. “I’m playing a few sets tonight--”
“We are playing a few sets.” I corrected Dad. “I’m going to sing with Daddy.”
The owner bent down to get a good look at me. “Well aren’t you the prettiest redhead I’ve ever seen. What’s your name little lady?”
“Claire Anne Baker.” I liked him right away. He had kind eyes.
“Well isn’t that something. My wife’s name, before she married me, was Mary Ann Baker, but I bet you’re the better singer.”
“You should come see us tonight, at the ‘ole M&M.” My dad lifted the handle to the fuel pump. “Self-service I see.”
The owner grinned with pride. “Wouldn’t you rather pump your own gas if it meant cheaper prices?”
Dad agreed. “Every penny counts especially with the gas shortage.”
“The Missus and I opened the first Town Pump twenty years ago. Now, we have to cut back our hours of operation to make the gas last longer.”
“It’s a damn shame. I remember when gas was thirty cents a gallon.” My dad looked at the clouds like he was daydreaming.
The owner offered Dad an oil change and pointed to the service bay. “You have a long ways to go if you’re heading back to Minnesota after your gig. Why don’t you pull her into the garage for an oil change. I can do it in three minutes or else it’s free.”
Of course Dad couldn’t resist the chance for a free oil change. We pulled in and both of us hopped out. The owner handed Dad his wristwatch to time him. And just like that, he was done in less than three minutes.
“I’ll be damned.” Dad leaned in and extended his hand. “Impressive, Mr…?”
“Kenneally.” The owner offered Dad his hand. “Tom Kenneally.”
“Bryant Baker.” Dad shook Mr. Kenneally’s hand. “Good luck with the business.”
“Thanks. I reckon I’m goin’ to have to see about importing gas from outside of the states now. This fuel crisis is hurtin’ my business.”
We waved goodbye to Mr. Kenneally. He and Mary never did make it out to the M&M Bar that night. We had a grand old time just the same and I got to sing two songs on stage. Dad played his guitar and sang some Merle Haggard songs, my favorite being If We Make It Through December. He closed the evening by serenading You Are My Sunshine to me. Dad had my whole heart then and he was my world.
Standing five feet eleven inches tall and weighing just over two hundred pounds, Dad was bigger than life to me. His dirty blond hair was attracting silver dustings but at age forty-three, the gray hair made him look established and refined. If only I still saw him in that light.