I'm at a dock on Lake Washington and it’s a calm evening. I’m with my "ba" – dad in Vietnamese – Quang Adam Nguyen.
Ba is handy and loving. According to my mom, he’s “a little chubbier” than the “handsome, buff” man she married 25 years ago. My brother Andy calls him a “fixer,” and my sister Kristy says he’s “stubborn.”
He's always thinking and forgetting, about too much, if you ask me. He remodeled the house I’ve lived in my whole life but still hasn’t finished the gazebo. He did finish a waterfall in the yard, however.
Because to Ba, water is the sound of freedom.
'We're Going To Escape'
He fled from his home in Vietnam at about age 14 on June 26, 1978. That night, he snuck into his friend’s house, woke him up and said, “We’re going to escape. We have to look for freedom.”
On the coast of Central Vietnam, there’s a small fishermen’s village called Lăng Cô, Ba’s hometown. It was taken over by communists, and as a child his days were cut short from working in the fields to grow crops for the North Vietnamese. When Ba was five, his dad was shot dead by the Viet Cong.
That's why, after the war, Ba planned his escape. Out of seven siblings, he didn’t tell anyone except for his older brother. He didn’t even tell his mom.
“If I tell her, then she [would] cry and she might not let me go,” he explained. “And I can not live to see her not want her kid to escape.”
Ba went with eight of his friends on the journey. The oldest was about 21. Ba, who was the youngest and the leader, assigned them all different tasks: stealing a boat, getting food, fuel, water, destroying lights, preventing anything that would get in their way.
His job was to get the two guards on the beach drunk.
At 1 a.m., the tide pulled the 28-foot boat into the ocean. But there was a problem: the boy in charge of destroying the light overlooking the water didn’t do his job. “So stupid!” Ba said.
The nose of the boat was about to drift into the light for everyone to see. But then, there was darkness. Without explanation, the light had gone off. The boys saw that as a good sign. They were free.
“All day we ride in the boat,” Ba said. “Beautiful weather. Very calm. I see thousands and thousands and miles and miles of whales,” headed in the same direction they were going – another good sign.
When Ba looked back and saw a small mountain on his homeland. That’s when he started getting homesick.
As the journey continued, food got low. Gas started to run out. And on top of that, the boys faced any fishermen’s nightmare: a typhoon.
After four days and four nights on the water, they landed in Hong Kong on July 1, 1978. Two years later, Ba and my uncle were adopted and moved to the United States.
"Away From The Mom"
On the boat, Ba wore a small, white shirt. The boys used it as their SOS flag and he’s kept it for 36 years – and hasn’t washed it since.
Ba keeps a lot of things, but like his thoughts, they’re scattered. And I think sometimes he doesn’t keep his promises.
"I'll come to your game" – late. "I'll be home to eat" – late. "I'll build you a tree house" – still waiting.
I’ve grown tired of his excuses. But I’m leaving soon for college and I don’t want to be late for opportunities to understand who Ba is.
I’m realizing I take my parents for granted, him especially. He couldn’t take his parents for granted because he left his mom in Vietnam.
There’s a Vietnamese song called “Mua Xuan Cua Me” meaning "My Mother’s Spring." Ba loves this song. We sat down and listened to it together.
“That song talks about exactly what I am,” he said. “Away from the mom.”
His eyes are closed. He’s smiling, and I can tell he’s thinking about her.
I hear him breathe quickly, and now I’m looking at the man who I’ve known all my life, crying. I no longer see a forgetful father. I simply see a boy who misses his mother.
“[For] many years I promised to come home and see her, but didn’t make it,” he said, weeping. Fourteen years after leaving Vietnam, he and my uncle finally made a trip to visit their mother.
“I met her for two weeks, and we have to go back to [the] United States, and our future, our education,” he said. “Soon as we get back here, she passed away. My mom passed away.”
We all live our lives wishing we had more time to get close to that one person. For Ba, it’s his mom. And for me, it’s Ba.