Trang's Blog: My Dad's Longest Goodbye

Trang's dad at work at his studio.
Trang's dad at work at his studio.
Trang's father walks her down the aisle on her wedding day in 1993.
Trang's father walks her down the aisle on her wedding day in 1993.
Trang's extended family, Christmas 2005
Trang's extended family, Christmas 2005

Editor's Note: WLOX Reporter Trang Pham-Bui recently lost her beloved father. As we approach Father's Day this Sunday, she shares a very personal story about how he taught everyone around him the real meaning of a father's love.

Dad woke up from his Morphine induced slumber and groaned as though he wanted to tell us something. He was too weak to speak. His frail body was just skin and bones. Dad suddenly clutched Mom's hands tightly. He turned and smiled at us, then closed his eyes. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he took his last breath.

Dad went so beautifully. So peacefully. What a contrast to the countless sleepless nights and excruciating pain he endured for much of his life. My dear dad had been dying a slow, agonizing death for the past 20 years.

Dad suffered from Cold Agglutinin Hemolytic Anemia, a rare blood disorder that caused his own body to destroy his red blood cells. Basically, his blood would mysteriously disappear.

The winter months were the worst, because the cold temperatures stimulated more blood destruction. I remember days when Dad would scream, begging for an end to the extreme fatigue, migraine headaches, and pain that ravaged his body. Simply stepping outside to see his vegetable garden would wear him out for the rest of the day. Dad ended up a prisoner in his own home.

Dad's condition went undiagnosed for years, until a special young lady came into our lives.

Her name is Ngoc Nguyen. About ten years ago, she was dating my younger brother Toan and was going through medical school. During her residency, Ngoc began to question why doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with Dad.

Ngoc studied Dad's health closely and began to notice that his blood levels fluctuated. Her persistence paid off. Finally, we had the answers we were desperately searching for.

Ngoc helped diagnose dad's rare anemia and she even wrote her thesis paper on it. Dad's disorder caught the attention of the medical community, and Ngoc was invited to present her findings at a national medical conference.

After Ngoc and Toan married and they both continued to monitor dad's health over the years. Dad started getting blood transfusions to help with his anemia. But he suffered from a host of other health problems, including prostate and bladder disease, Hepatitis C, an iron overload, headaches, and restless leg syndrome.

In 2009, Dad's body started rejecting the blood transfusions. Doctors gave him only six months to live. The news sent our family into an emotional tailspin.

Many WLOX viewers met my dad, Tue Pham, from my 2008 documentary "Vietnam: The home I Left Behind." Dad showed such courage and sacrifice when he helped our family escape from Vietnam when the war ended in 1975.

Mom said that was one of dad's proudest achievements as a father -- that he was able to bring all five of his young children safely to America, without losing a single child. So many other children were killed, drowned at sea, or got separated from their families during the chaos of war.

When our family settled in Rockford, Illinois, Dad couldn't take the bitter winters. At the time, he didn't realize that his body was already under attack. That was one of the reasons he decided to move our family to a warmer city, New Orleans.

Despite his illness, Dad had to do all sorts of odd jobs to support our family. He pushed carts at the local grocery store and worked at a dry cleaning business. In Vietnam, Dad operated a successful photography studio and his skills helped him land a full time job at a photography business in New Orleans.

To make some extra money, every night, dad would be huddled over his retouching machine, working on pictures he had brought home from work.

On weekends, Dad would shoot weddings or portraits, work on photographs, even cut hair for both men and women. When Dad married Mom 46-years ago, he promised her that she would never have to work in her life. He kept his word.

Dad worked hard, because he wanted his seven children to graduate from college and have a career. That's why it was so heart breaking, watching his body slowly break down. Dad's kidneys were so weak, he would wake up about two dozen times every night to use the rest room.

Dad told us his restless legs felt like stings from ant bites, so he had to beat them against the wall at night to relieve the pain. My siblings and I never had to use our alarm clocks, because dad was always awake. We also couldn't get away with sneaking in late at night, because we knew Dad was waiting up for us. I'm sure Mom didn't sleep much either.

Even though doctors told dad there was nothing else they could do, we didn't want to sit and watch him die. So we frantically searched the Internet, hoping to find a miracle cure.

That's when Ngoc learned about RITUXAN, an experimental drug that could possibly help patients rebuild their blood supply. Ngoc convinced dad's doctor to try it. Amazingly, the drug worked!

Suddenly, Dad was craving all sorts of food. The drug boosted his appetite and stabilized his blood count. But once again, our joy was short-lived.

After a year of weekly drug injections and blood transfusions, Dad's body began to deteriorate. His organs began to fail as more toxins built up in his body. He lost his appetite, he was prone to urinary tract infections, and his digestive tract started to lose its function. Rashes broke out all over his body.

We all knew our time with Dad was coming to an end, but we didn't know exactly when. So every Christmas together was merrier. Every birthday was a milestone. Every Father's Day was more reason to celebrate.

Dad didn't have any control over the disorder that was robbing him of his quality of life, but he was determined to control how and exactly when he was going to leave this earth. About a year ago, dad started planning his own funeral. Dad wanted the cheapest casket, because he didn't want to burden us with the cost. When my older brother Tuan built the family mausoleum, Dad got a chance to inspect his final resting place, down to the vase color and design.

Dad also told us how many priests to invite to the funeral and what I should say to each of them. He wrote his goodbye speech for Tuan to read after mass. Dad even chose the kind of clothes we were to wear and who should be in charge of the musical arrangements.

Dad was a talented musician himself. He played just about every instrument you put in his hands, from drums to the accordion. Dad decided to play the banjo and sang an emotional song, bidding farewell to all of his family and friends. He recorded that song and wanted it played at his funeral.

Dad also made sure Mom was well taken care of before he left. When Mom turned 65 in early May, Dad arranged a surprise birthday/Mother's Day party for her. He had never done that before. Dad also made sure I came home to get my mom's health care paperwork in order.

Dad also wanted a more secure home for mom. He somehow used his broken English to hire a contractor to fix their storm-damaged roof.

Dad stepped outside with his walker to inspect the work. Within hours of paying the contractor, dad felt extremely ill and was taken to the hospital. But he told the medical staff he was tired of all the needles. He wanted to go home.

That was Memorial Day weekend. All my brothers and sisters, their spouses, and children came home to visit dad that Saturday. We all took turns massaging Dad's tired body, while reminiscing about our lives growing up.

Dad shared memories of each one of us and imparted some advice too. He told me to take mom to see Vietnam, because she had been by his side for the past 46 years. He also told me to take care of my younger sister Teresa. She was always there to tend to dad's medical needs, like driving him to numerous doctor visits and waiting for hours with him in the ER.

Dad also expressed some regrets. Because he was so frail three years ago, Dad wasn't there to walk my youngest sister Tuyen down the aisle at her wedding. And now, he will not get to see her first baby, a girl due in July.

And he will not be around to see Ngoc and Toan's second baby, due in November. Ngoc asked dad what she should name her baby boy. Dad blurted out "Chinh", which means "righteous." That's the name they chose.

Dad and Mom took care of my younger sister Tram's two adorable daughters when they were babies. Dad will not get to see them, or his nine other grandchildren, grow up. He told them to study hard now and they will reap the benefits later.

Education was a huge priority in our household. Dad always told us to appreciate our life in America and its endless opportunities. He encouraged us to pursue our dreams, and that's why all seven of us chose different career paths.

Everything we did, we did it to make Mom and Dad proud. They were the reason my sister Tuyen graduated valedictorian of her high school class and my younger brother Tu was salutatorian of his class. And when Tu was appointed U.S. Magistrate in Memphis eight years ago, he mentioned how moved he was that Dad mustered enough strength to come to the historic ceremony. When I won an Emmy for my Vietnam documentary, Dad was the first person I called.

But Dad didn't mention any of those accomplishments as he was lying on his death bed. He said his greatest joy was seeing all of his seven children loving and supporting each other. Dad grew up a culture in which parents don't believe in saying "I love you" to their children. For the first time, Dad told us he loved us. He also told us how blessed he was to have such wonderful sons and daughters-in-law.

We all said our final goodbyes to Dad that Saturday. I told him: "You have more than fulfilled your responsibilities as a father. Don't worry anymore. You have suffered long enough. Sleep in peace."

Dad closed his eyes for the last time on May 31, 2011. He was 82.

Now, two weeks later, I am facing my first Father's Day without Dad. There will be no happy greetings, cards, or gifts. Only a huge void at Mom's house. Dad won't be sitting at the head of the dinner table or resting in his chair. Dad was always too tired to do anything with us, but his presence filled the entire room. He was a small man, weighing less than 100-pounds. But he was a powerful force in our lives.

I find comfort knowing that Dad is no longer in pain and he lived an extraordinary life. He challenged us, guided us, and disciplined us. He taught us many valuable lessons about honor, respect, responsibility, sacrifice, and faith in God. Most of all, he taught us the real meaning of a father's love. Dad didn't just preach it. He lived it.

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