I've had to deal with three losses in my life -- all major. The first was the loss of the country I never knew: Vietnam. And that loss -- that emptiness -- sat at the center of my life. It was a loss I could never quite understand but it was present in unsuspected ways: the fact that I could never visit my grandparents who had been left behind and separated by an embargo -- that was one aspect of losing. Such loss, it is accepted as a matter of course when it occurs so young. This is exactly as it should be... because that is how it has always been. That's what is going on in a child's mind.
The second major loss in my life came in the suicide of my little sister. She hung herself with a telephone cord and I cut her down from the staircase railing. It occurred at the end of my time in grad school. Lucy was a beautiful girl: a broadcast journalist. She had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder -- a psychological condition that makes you feel extremely manic and, later, morbidly depressed. I took her in. But even before she killed herself, I was dealing with a great loss: she was disappearing before my eyes. She was not the little sister that I had known.
The final loss came only a few years ago. I was writing a great book -- an academic tome -- and had even secured funding to finish it. This book was going to revolutionize the way we think about everything... in my humble opinion. But when I was away doing research in wonderful Seattle, someone broke into my corner office in Iowa and threw away all my papers. Years of research: down the tubes.
I'm not sharing this to make you feel sorry for me. I'm sharing this with you because I have been thinking much about loss lately -- how it gives you fortitude, tensile strength, humanity. And I'm realizing that all the characters I write -- all the characters that mean anything to me -- suffer loss on some level.
There is a game that kids used to play growing up. It was a party game based on this premise: if your house is burning down, what do you grab? Kids often offered up ideas that ranged from the practical to sentimental: photo albums, dolls, jewelry, cash. It was clear to me, though, that my peers had never experienced a catastrophic event like a fire. If your house is burning down, you should take nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I knew that by instinct.
Once, while walking to high school, a woman almost ran me over. I was jaywalking: it was totally my fault. This occurred right in front of my high school. When the woman pulled into the student parking lot and got out of her car, I thought she was going to confront me. She had grey frizzy hair and wore a suit jacket, slacks and heels -- the uniform of authority. But she said, "Aren't you Khanh Ho?" It turned out she had taught me how to read English in first grade. She was a student teacher then.
The woman told me that I had drawn a picture of my house burning down. I was sticking my crayon head out of the second story window. It was a moving picture for her -- a defining moment for a student teacher. And she carried the memory of it as if it were a cherished object: a locket on a delicate chain, connecting her to a sense of purpose that got her into the classroom every morning. She was now teaching at my high school. "I always think of you," she said. And it must be true: how else would she remember my face after all these years?
I didn't have the heart to tell her that I was skeptical. I couldn't recall having experienced such a great and terrible loss. Memory is tricky: I didn't actually believe that she was remembering me at all--that perhaps she had gotten me mixed up with some other Vietnamese kid at the school. I was raised to be polite, so I let her blabber on.
But now, after so many years becoming expert at loss, I wonder if I was not merely adept; I wonder if I was born with a prodigious talent, like those piano geniuses whose feet barely reach the pedals but, nonetheless, bang away at a glistening Steinway. Perhaps I was destined to grow into an expert -- an expert of loss. Perhaps that is why I even managed to lose, at such a tender age, something that another human being found unforgettable, so much so, that she kept it to her breast.