Six months before I was born, my mother, father, and sister huddled around the television and watched the Fall of Saigon. Even though they knew it would inevitably happen, they were not prepared for the reality of what was to come. My mom told me once, “I saw on tv, America, they leave Vietnam behind. My family, who live, who die? I no know.” To this day, there are still things my family doesn’t know about in terms of the aftermath of the war, like how my Vietnamese brother died or even when. And when my mother had a major psychotic breakdown last month, we couldn’t answer questions about why an MRI on her brain showed old head trauma scarred over–just that it probably happened sometime during her childhood or young adult years by a family member abusing her.
I’ve hesitated to talk about my last few weeks because even though I’m a memoirist and the reason behind my writing is to talk about things people are afraid to talk about, but to talk about them so that those who are afraid or feel isolated can at least read some stories about how they are not alone—I’ve hesitated because even though my first memoir, published 2 years ago on this day, contains stories about my family’s trauma, mental illness, and survival—I feel some very innate sense that I shouldn’t talk about my mom’s breakdown. I know she doesn’t want me to talk about it. I’m not sure I want to talk about it. But if I don’t, then, well, that’s not helping anyone, is it? It’s certainly not helping the millions of people and families who have experienced trauma from war, or who have experienced mental illness. Why are we so quick to ask for prayers and thoughts for loved ones who have just been diagnosed with cancer, but not for those who have been trapped in their suffering and delusions for decades and are unable to process it?
That brings me to today. This week. This year. As I’ve watched and try to help my mom heal from her trauma and mental illness, I’ve watched my birth country go through its own psychotic breakdown. Today, we are supposed to remember our veterans. I don’t think I need to say this but I will; I remember our veterans every day. My father did not die in Vietnam, but as survivors of PTSD know, you can come home from a war, but in reality you’ve never left. My father officially died of lung cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure. That’s on the books. He also died from a broken heart, a tortured soul, a relentless nightmare that played on in his head every night, and when he wasn’t trying to zone out by watching CSI or Law & Order, in his head every day as well. I often say that my father was a hippie who enlisted in the war. Even though his military training tried to brainwash him into thinking that the enemy he was killing were not humans, he knew otherwise. And when he killed people who looked like his wife’s family, it was another notch on his noose.
Grown-ups like to tell children and people who seem unpatriotic that we should be grateful for the freedom we have today because men and women have died for it. What men and women have died for were ideals that we are far from attaining at the moment. They died and sacrificed so that Americans–and hopefully, so that every human–could experience a life free of fear, oppression, exclusion, pain, assault, and the feeling of being valued at less-than-human. Am I incorrect in this assumption? Is this not what the United States was founded upon? At the core, the U.S. is seen as a country, worldwide, that takes in people looking for a better life for their families, their communities, their people who have experienced so much hardship in the war-torn, politically divided countries from which they came.
So we just elected a person who has been vocal about putting severe restrictions on the freedoms for which our veterans fought and died. Lots of well-meaning people, tired from the election, sick of politics, say “Move on. It happened. Suck it up.” Trust me, we are ALL sick of the election, of the politics. But for a lot of my friends, we do not have the privilege and luxury of moving on. My friends are sickened by the idea that they have to have discussions with their 5-year-old children about how to stay safe at school, or how to seek help and not be quiet when a White kid goes up to them and spews some hateful words at them because their lives aren’t viewed as a way to make America great again, but rather are viewed as a hindrance, or as a way to pull America further down. This is not right. This is not okay. And because of this, we do cannot, AT ALL, move on.
Society, politics–it’s not a football game. Trump supporters and apologists–your candidate won. Your candidate, who wanted to make America great again. Yet the day after this victory–and how many days to follow?–children were being bullied, assaulted, traumatized. No matter what religion you devote yourself to, I cannot imagine that your teachings are okay with children being brutalized in the name of nationalism or patriotism or whatever stake people feel they are protecting by oppressing groups of people. Okay, so you have a hard time humanizing these “others” that you want to deport or send back or incarcerate or beat up or kill? Can you then, please, picture these others are children? Because they are. And that’s what is happening. Please tell me you can’t be okay with knowing that your kid or a friend’s kid is going to someone else’s kid and saying stuff like “Shouldn’t you be sitting in the back of the bus?” or “Make America White Again.” When you are telling me and others who are starting to revolutionize to “get over it,” and “move on,” this is how I interpret your words—they are insensitive, inhumane, and lacking compassion. That’s the person I see you as.
I am never happy that my father is dead. My heart aches for him every day, and I have many regrets about how I didn’t listen to my father enough when he tried to speak about his pain. But today, on this Veteran’s/Remembrance Day, I am happy he is not alive to see what is going on. It would cause him even more heartbreak, and he certainly did not need anymore of that.
At the risk of turning people off or making people angry, I am going to post this poem. It’s called “Flag,” and I wrote it a year ago. Before you dismiss my words as unpatriotic and ungrateful to our military personnel, read it carefully, maybe twice, and between the lines. I love my country. I love my people. I love humanity. If I move on or get over it, then my love for everything would be dead. I don’t ever want that moment to come. So I am moving FORWARD, and I am getting ON it. What we have now, we cannot settle for. We can do better.
There it stands,
though he no longer does,
this flagpole Dad erected in our front yard, when the PTSD devil got big, and maybe he thought it could be a cure
or an offering—
to have the American flag always waving back at him even when he could not.
I hated that flag.
Mockery branded with the stars and stripes cliché, powered by the force of wind.
This flag. This fucking flag.
I watched it decay one summer when the storms were frequent and mighty. I watched from the porch swing as lightning struck
across the valley, and I knew
God hated that flag too. It makes sense.
God hates flags.
It unravelled into brutish piratedom,
its tatters reaching down like bony deathful fingers.
Its holes imploring mercy upon its fading glory. Delusional glory.
Glory holes. Fuck that flag.
Mom the Interloper bought a new one.
It was time.
Dad had let this go on too long–
luxuriating in shreds and frayed threads, an eyesore for all the neighbours to see.
Replace, renew, resign,
for the flag still stands.