|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Ma Van Khang
"The children grow up with every passing day, and I get older year in, year out, and at the end of the day, I've become an extra." Dong stood up, suddenly worried about his mother's casual words. He had been surprised when his old mother began a story about the children of Huan, her eldest son. Now he understood it. An arc of light that reflected the joy and sadness of a man's life had gleamed in mother's consciousness and finally focused on the slight sadness of human existence, a sadness of one about to leave this world. A life mingled with joy and sadness about to go, an extremely simple but sacred life.
Actually, it was a very normal, familiar story. Vy, his mother, had once said: "I have a lot of children and grandchildren and this is a god-sent gift, so I have to enjoy it to the fullest." She lived with Nam, her second son, and his family, but after every week or so, she'd go to see her youngest son's family. It was a familiar sight - the gait of a 72-year-old woman who always walked with feeble steps, but in a hurry. She carried some small bags and a plastic basket with all kinds of things for her son.
"Why do you trouble yourself, mother? What have you got here? Oh, God, even a small cat! Why don't you ask uncle Nam to phone brother Dong to come and carry you on his motorbike? Let me carry these for you," Phong took all the bags from her mother-in-law and walked briskly, and old Vy walking in a hurry behind.
"And even… what is this, mother?" Phong put down the plastic basket abruptly on the ground. The old woman smiled a toothless smile at her.
"It's braised anchovy, you see. Nam's wife asked me to bring it to you. It's delicious."
"How is brother Nam's family doing, mother?"
"Nam is now taking a political course. The two children are doing well. Tien is now able to help his mother with cooking and Khanh is going to be weaned," Vy said, taking a cup of tea from her daughter-in-law. "So Luong (Phong's daughter) is visiting her maternal grandmother? Tu Ti (Phong's son) should be home from kindergarten in the afternoon, shouldn't he? Can he speak a lot now?"
"He can speak a whole sentence, mother. But sometimes he still babbles."
"Oh, that's just like his father. ?ong was like that when was still small, you know. Does he go away on business more often these days?"
Just as she said that, her youngest son walked in with the crash helmet still on his head. He towered over his mother. He greeted her in such a joyful voice that his wife was very moved. Dong took off the heavy helmet and sat down by his mother's side.
"This morning, we had a blackout in the office, so I went to visit brother Huan's house, mother. Hong and Hai (Huan's daughters) are excellent students and so is Tuan (her son). Sister (Huan's wife) seems to be better, more relaxed. What about you, mother? Do you still get your cough often?"
"It's much better now, son. The doctor told me to be happy, to sleep and eat well. Nothing serious. I have two bowls of rice, but my teeth are not good these days. So Nam's wife has bought a pair of scissors to cut meat, even vegetables, into small pieces for me."
But in the afternoon, for dinner, she had only one bowl of rice, explaining that before she left home, she had eaten some manioc. It was already dark and Phong had left to bring Tu Ti home from the kindergarten. The little boy was delighted to see his grandmother and threw himself on her.
The situation became emotional then. "Oh, my Tu Ti, I love, I treasure you! Do you miss me?" Each question was a hiccup, as she carried the little boy in her arms. She seemed to become much younger and healthier. She was just a bag of bones, but she could still carry such a chubby boy. She kissed him time and again and told him that she'd brought him a beautiful cat, and then the refrain came, loud and clear. "Oh, my dear Tu Ti! I love you, I treasure you!"
She continued to talk to the little boy, telling him that she had bought him a lot of new clothes and a beautiful toy car and a pair of earrings for his sister Thuong. She seemed to pour her happiness onto her grandson as if she would not have another chance to see him. Finally, when the little boy leaned his head on her shoulder, she put him on her lap. Dong and Phong sat over a cup of tea by the table, and Vy, carrying her little grandson, sitting on the bed. It was very quiet in the large room. So she continued her story about her children and grandchildren:
"Your brother Nam's son Tien was a light eater, yet with my care, he began to put on weight. Every day, I asked him to eat two chicken eggs and a lot of meat. At five months, Khanh (Nam's daughter) was a good eater, so sometimes she cried when her mother could not give her enough milk." The young couple listened mother's monologue in silence.
As big as he was, Dong was a man of flabby character. He sat, leaning in the chair. His mother slept with her grandson. The kitchen was poorly lit. The cat was eating something in the bowl by the refrigerator. Phong was sorting something.
"You're going to take mother on the bike to visit brother Huan's house tomorrow, so I'm preparing groundnuts and peas so that you can take along."
When Phong spoke, Dong guessed there was something wrong. He went to this wife's side.
"What happened, dear?"
Phong stood up and went to the kitchen, took a face towel and wiped her face. In great doubt, she'd phoned Nam. Their mother had visited the doctor who later told Nam that it was no use giving her any treatment. He should take her home and let her eat what she wants, and do what she wants to do. Dong came to stand by his wife near the kitchen door. It was raining outside. They stood watching and listening to the raindrops, embracing each other.
"My dear," Phong's yes were red, "We are born to love, so why do we have to separate from each other for good in the end? I'm very scared!"
Dong was also trembling. He felt choked. His father had died when his mother was only thirty-seven. She bad brought up her kids on her own since. She worked hard and saved penny to make sure they grew up into good human beings.
"Phong, do you know when I realised how much I loved mother? When we were at the Yen Ky Cemetery for brother Huan's funeral. I understood human life is so short for living with our dearest ones."
Their conversation was cut short when they heard noises from the bed. Mother was covering the baby boy with a blanket.
"It's late. Why don't you go to bed? Don't you have to go to work tomorrow?"
"You sleep with him and I'll get more blankets for you," Phong said.
The old woman shook her head.
"It's warm. I did sleep a little, but it was a bit difficult."
Dong came to sit by his mother.
"I'll get you some traditional medicine to help you sleep tomorrow."
"Nonsense! No need! I've slept all my life, so now lying here and thinking about life, I find it ridiculous!"
"What's the story, mother?" Phong asked, coming to sit by her. Mother's eyes looked very strange now. They were like the eyes of children.
"Lying here and remembering the old days, and I find that the children have now all grown up. You know, when Huan's family moved here from Lang Son with three little children, I went to help them. It is seven years now. Oh God, their children were very playful and always being scolded by the parents. Huan was very strict and they had often received a good hiding, but it was like water off the duck's back for the boys!"
Dong and Phong laughed. Mother joined them. Out of the blue, Dong remembered what his mother once said. She said she'd had a lot of children who grew up with every passing day while she was getting old until she became an extra one.
He stood up, mother's casual words striking him deeply. He now understood everything she'd said. An arc of light that reflected the joy and sadness of a man's life gleamed in mother's consciousness and finally focused on the slight sadness of a human existence that was going to come to an end. A life mingled with joy and sadness, and extremely simple but very sacred life was about to be gone. Oh, gentle mother! A small figure full of love for her children and grandchildren. Dong turned, his eyes stingingly hot.
"It's late now. Let me carry Tu Ti to my room so that you can sleep"
"Let him sleep with me."
Death comes unexpectedly. Old Vy died at three in the morning. Right at that time, Phong woke up, feeling a presentiment. At five, the whole family, including the families of Huan, Nam and Dong had gathered. Friends and relatives came to pay tribute to the old gentle woman. The image of a very dear and near mother and grandmother was engraved deeply in the heart of her children and grandchildren. A light lit by a source of energy will shine on without dying out. An endless energy! A light that is always on!
Translated by Manh Chuong