year in [grief] review & forgiveness

February 11th marks one year of my father’s passing, and a little under one year since I’ve published a blog post. I would love to say that this was intentional, but it wasn’t. I was just dealing with a lot of shit and spending too much time away from what feeds my soul (more on that in another post that’s been fermenting).


I love the momentum of a “new year” whether it’s literally a new year or a turn around the sun (birthdays) which is why I mark significant dates as anniversaries during which we are “starting anew.”

February 11th marks one year of my father’s passing, and a little under one year since I’ve published a blog post. I would love to say that this was intentional, but it wasn’t. I was just dealing with a lot of shit and spending too much time away from what feeds my soul (more on that in another post that’s been fermenting).

When you lose someone as significant to your life as a parent, you’re transformed. This is something I found myself declaring in the early days to my therapist and anyone who would listen post-father loss. I felt a seismic shift within myself but didn’t know what that would look like. But there are some earth shattering experiences that you can’t go through without unlocking a part of yourself that needed to be let loose at some point so you can become your whole self.

So here’s my year-in-grief-review, picking moments that stood out to me and felt connected to my father-loss.

  • I told a friend that I felt like I could “kick doors down” and that I “wasn’t afraid of anything!” and I think it was the adrenaline from the shock of my dad’s death speaking at the time. But little things started taking shape and manifesting.
  • In the wake of anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes, I took my very Asian name back o f f i c i a l l y, the one given to me by my parents: Lasamee Kettavong.
  • I embodied the “kick doors down” power and somehow no longer gave a fuck whether someone liked me or not. I began to let all of my colors show, wherever I went and with whomever I spoke. Life is short and the unexpected will happen (which you CAN expect, ha. ha.).
  • I’ve thought about what my epitaph would be and what my tombstone would look like since the time I learned what an epitaph was (probably in high school english class). My tombstone sure as hell will NOT read “Laci” because that’s not who I am. My name means something synonymous with “celestial light” and I can’t live with myself avoiding embodying that brilliance that my mother gave me, so here I am, nice and shiny (read: oily, lol) for ya.
  • Throwing myself into learning more about the motherland and connecting with other Lao folx has helped me feel like part of a community and that I belong and am accepted. That’s mind-blowingly heartwarming for me. For some reason, my dad didn’t really help the family become a part of the Lao community when we were younger, and that’s a shame; my mom is a social creature and extrovert.
  • Blake and I finally got married this past year, which we were planning on doing anyway, but … now I actually had an easy reason to tell people why my dad wasn’t present. Before, it was “My father has complex PTSD and can’t be around people” with a big, fat, loaded silence following it. “He’s dead,” is a much easier to digest and say reason, plus, no one wants to upset the bride the day of the wedding and bring up dead dad, right? (Sorry, this is my sense of humor and how I talk … dark and maybe a little blasphemous?) My sweet mama walked me down the aisle.

Me, trying not to let fat tears roll down my face during a moment of silence for the people who couldn’t be with us on our wedding day
  • As the day of the dead/Dia de los Muertos rolled around, I’d planned to read a letter to my dad at an open mic but ultimately that didn’t happen. It’s okay though – I wrote one to him anyway, and now it exists in the world and has helped me do some healing. My therapist was excited for me to take this major step (publicly announcing my father), but that will have to wait.
  • What else did I accomplish? Finishing a podcast, The Untitled Dad Project, which for me is monumental. I’ve only finished listening to one audio book in my lifetime because I can’t stay focused on longer audio pieces.
  • And last but not least, my partner and I started our small business, Good and Golden, which aims to share Lao food and culture (lookin’ for partners here!) with people who don’t know what or where Laos is!

And, I learned a little more about what forgiveness looks like for me.

I hope that he didn’t suffer

January 20, 2019 was the last day that I saw my father in-person at his care facility. My brother and sister went with me. We’d had brunch and mimosas. We pulled in, parked, and my brother and I shared a cigarette, while my sister climbed a nearby crepe myrtle. She gets her anxious energy out in weird ways; my brother and I have our own coping methods.

Samout, climbing a tree and being silly before seeing our dad for the first time in years

I noted the automatic sliding door, the decorated entryway, the fake plants, the office-like feel to the environment, and the front desk person greeted us, asking what we needed and who we were there to see. I was in family historian mode. “Nai Kettavong,” we said, as she searched up where he might be and on what floor. We got on an elevator.

“Oh no one ever visits Nai,” the staff person on the second floor responded. I cringed. The place didn’t feel real. It felt like a dream where you know that you’re asleep and intuitively, you know where you are and feel like you’ve been there before. This was the first time I’d ever stepped foot in this facility.

We were lead to my father’s room, and it was empty. I panicked a little inside.

“He might be watching TV in the common room,” our guide said, and we followed him, completely silent.

There he was. My dad. The man who I had feared for most of my life and felt some dutiful love towards as his daughter. He was alone. There were chairs here and there in the room and a lonely couch, a couple of small cafe-sized tables along the wall. At least there was a window, wall to wall, behind him. We pulled up a couple chairs to the round table that he was seated at, a walker nearby.

Playing on the television was some mundane show about wildlife or something that I didn’t particularly care about but was glad there was something for all of us to look at when we needed to look away from one another.

He looked so much grayer, pale, and older than I remembered. He had the same smile though, somewhat sheepish and shy. Perhaps he felt as if he were dreaming too. His children were actually there to see him. Chasms of guilt rippled through me.

“Do you remember me?” my sister asked.

“Yes,” he replied calmly.

I’d suspected that the language barrier between my father and staff contributed to my father’s diagnosis of early dementia. I would observe a little more closely, I thought to myself.

“How are you?” my brother asked. “I’m fine here. I get a little cold,” he responded.

Later, my brother would take the scarf that he was wearing and give it my dad because of the comment about being cold, which I’d notice in all of his photos in the years following. Our oldest sister would become his caretaker in Texas City, where he would be moved to in just a few months following this visit.

The conversation was slow. The three of us assessed the situation, asking questions here and there. Speaking Lao out loud to our estranged father was quite the task. And we were electrified by being in his presence again, I think.

I asked him if I could ask him some questions for a project that I was working on, and he said, “Go ahead, ask, and I’ll tell you everything.” That was the last time we spoke. I didn’t get to ask him any questions again.

Gray is how I feel when I think about this. Like hand torn paper pieces that have been mixed with water to become pulp and and then pressed, to live a different life. Lumps. Speckles. Wet. Shapeless until the next step. Amorphous and gray. Lacking any brightness, any warmth.


Recently, I realized that a confident sign that you have forgiven someone who abused and terrorized you and your family (even if it was their own family) is that you pray that they did not suffer during their last days. That hot, boiling rage that you used to feel when you cursed them into oblivion turns into just your body temperature as you sigh and think about them.

The ‘rona finally got me after two years of the pandemic, and it was days of body aches, fever dreams, sinus pressure, sneezing, coughing, and mucus. The first night, I rolled over and said to Blake, “I hope my dad didn’t suffer,” and tried to get a good cry out. It didn’t work. I finally cried typing “He was alone,” in the above paragraph.

It took another couple of days for me to think to myself, “Ah. Yes. I did the work. I have forgiven.”

My father died of COVID complications last year, and we still have not been able to take his ashes to his final resting place. For Lao folks, this is usually the temple in the community. I know that this is the case for too many at this point in the pandemic. I am so sorry.

It’s been nearly an entire year since I’ve published anything on this blog, and it somewhat symbolizes where I’ve been with my grief: in the in-between. Which, I suppose, is where we could say my father’s physical being is too.

If you are in the in-between, I will meet you where you are. If you need help, please let yourself shoot that text, make a call, send an email, or call an anonymous hotline. It’s worth it; you’re worth it.

cross that river.

thud-thud-thud-scrape

thud-thud-thud-scrape


I’ve made this spicy, funky, sour, mortar-ed and pestle-ed shredded, green papaya salad (thum makhoong) dozens of times. Sometimes if the Thai chilies and garlic that I’m crushing pops out of the mortar and gets into my eyes, I’ll cry.

This time, I’m crying because I’m remembering how my dad used to make thum makhoong for family meals: very sour, not too sweet, little bit of funk from the padaek (fermented fish sauce) and extremely spicy. Lao people eat thum something (papaya, cucumber, carrots, so on) with nearly every meal.

“Am I going to do this every time?” I ask my partner, as he gives my arm a squeeze, and I scrub at my face. It was day nine post-my father’s passing, and we were managing to stay warm and survive during the worst winter storm of my life, exacerbated by Texas’ energy grid failings (but that’s another story), and I have been moving through the days in a blur. I had consistently been able to cry while listening to “Live Forever” by Billy Joe Shaver to avoid emotional constipation. For whatever reason, the lyrics “I’m going to live forever, I’m going to cross that river” magically floated to the front of my mind on the day of his death. But other moments lately, I’m quite unsure what will bring tears to my eyes.

Mostly memories make my eyes sting but the pain is moving more toward thinking about what could have been and never was. What can now only be dreamed.


On hot summer days, when pa would water the herb and plant garden in the backyard, fragrant with spearmint and Thai basil, vibrant with giant green gourds and adorably wrinkly looking bitter melon, I’d play in the shower of the garden hose water, always hoping the sun would gift us a rainbow.

When pa smoked a cigarette after dinner, I’d bat at the plumes of smoke that he exhaled. Summer nights outside feeding june bugs to the chickens and feeling the sticky heat of the day slowly leaving.

I am comforted by the scents of mint and tobacco to this day.

I used to run into my father’s arms after pre-k and kindergarten classes. How I hated to be away from home in a foreign place those days, away from my caretaker and the family pets, and the creature comforts that a 5 year-old has, no matter how sparse they were.

Pa had a temper, but he also had tenderness for growing, living beings.


I questioned him here and there, perhaps foolishly, but when you’re young, you’re naive.

“Why do you get to watch your Lao comedy shows, but you don’t let mom watch her Thai soap operas?”

Crickets.

“Why won’t you let me participate in academic clubs and sports?”

“Why can’t we visit our friends’ houses?”

The concerns of a little girl, of course.


I never got to ask him certain questions that I was sure would help us repair our relationship, someday.

“Why won’t you tell your sons and daughters that you’re proud of them?”

“Do you love us?”

“What happened in the war?”

“Where were you born?”

“What was your relationship with your parents like?”

“Do you feel any remorse for what you did to your own flesh and blood? The woman you married?”

“What happened during the interrogation by the Thai police?”

“Would you ever want to visit Laos?”

“What do you miss about Laos?”

“What’s your favorite meal?”


The Saturday before my dad’s death, my siblings and I had a Zoom call for the first time, ever. We don’t talk much but do try to stay in touch and check in every now and then. We have a group chat but somehow managed to avoid Zoom even during the pandemic that burns slowly on.

The last time we had a call with all five of us was when my mother had a minor stroke in November 2016. Our parents somehow always bring us together even if one of them (my father) tried to drive us apart.

We arranged this Zoom call because our father had COVID. He was in a care facility in Texas City where my oldest sister lives.


He’s “okay but not great” is what the woman on the phone told me when I called to check on him. She hesitated. I felt the silence.

I asked if we could arrange a time to FaceTime.

She told me that would be “hit or miss.”

That it’s her and one other person taking care of the COVID unit. Her and Laura.

I asked for her name. Nicole.

Said “Thank you. Take care.”

Hung up.

Hours later, my sister told the family “Dad just passed away!” Time slowed down and sped up. Chaos ensued. Calls missed, FaceTimes urgently popping up, having to tell mom. Having to figure out how to breathe. Having to persevere. Having to hurt. Grieve.


Everything feels fragmented and disjointed when I try to think about the reality of what is happening right now. Like I don’t know how to use words and form sentences properly. Like I have brain fog, but I’m not the one infected.

Have I done all that I could? Probably not.

Would it be enough for me even if I did? Never.


Many things have come of this upheaval of life.

For one, I trust my cards, and I trust my intuition. The two times that I have felt a deep calling from the universe the way that I have regarding my mother’s health and my father’s death will remain distinct, incomparable, and telling.

This sense of urgency and inexplicable connection to them, to the universe, to some web of our collective unconscious, that struck me as “something profound is happening” comforts me, even if historically it has been a harbinger of bad news. In the future, should this sense overtake me again, I will know that I need to act.

I have to believe in the power of this sense and its source. Or else I can’t believe that my father knows that I forgive him, can hear me tell him that I love him, and I’m sorry. And that he loves me still, too.

My siblings and I have talked more than we ever have in the past few weeks, the five of us, as far as I can remember. We’ve shared emotions and tears that we never did when our father was alive. This has to mean something too. Thanks dad.

Kettavong family

when it matters : the dream wears off

WordPress records tell me that I first drafted a version of this blog on October 22, 2018. It has taken me two years and 8 days to finally release this into the world in its “final” form. 


One of my partner’s pet peeves is hearing people talk about their dreams. Not their ambition-type dreams, but the dreams that you wake up out of. The kind where you’ve just cracked open your crusty, itchy eyes and you’re still trying to shake off the residual feelings that you were just mentally steeped in and just HAVE to tell someone about it.


I recently had one of those bizarre, captivating dreams. In this dream, my childhood best friend (hey, Mirna) and I were in her little sister’s apartment (a place I’ve never actually been and am not sure it exists) and one of our best friends from teenager-dom was there. He was hanging out in the spare bedroom and I noticed him from the corner of my eye.It wasn’t strange that he was there; when we were young and all hangin’ out, we were always taking over our friends’ homes (sorry parents and relatives). It was strange because he’s been dead for ten years. Mirna tells me that maybe I shouldn’t go into the room to talk to dead friend, and of course I ignore her.I approach, all dream-state-like and question said dead friend, “Hey, uhhhm, I thought you were dead? Where have you been the past ten years? What’s going on?” But I don’t wait for him to answer.Instead, I tell him, “Okay, wait, I have to pee, hold on,” (even in dreams, I have a tiny bladder) and his response is “Wait, we only have so much time before the dream wears off!” And then, I guess I’m snapped out of that dream and into another one.


But that’s it. That’s all that fucking happened. Thanks, dream-dead-friend. Was there a message you needed to relay to me from the other side that you just didn’t get to?Yeah, maybe I’m mad at him still, for his sudden departure from this plane of existence. I don’t know. Ask my therapist.


Shortly after said friend’s sudden death, I’d wake up with my dreams and reality swiftly blending. Just upon waking up, it was as if nothing had changed, until I remembered. One of my closest friends had died in a bizarre accident, days before, and his departure was saturating every waking and sleeping moment of my life. He had been part of many firsts in my life, and I loved him deeply, as any 16 year old would love a person who they spent most days out of the week with. Funny, how you can be suspended in feelings like that, right upon regaining consciousness and reality hits. 


My mother had been watching over me during those long days and long nights, when friends had left for home, and even when they were asleep on the floor rolled in blankets and sleeping bags or next to me. This particular morning, I was alone with her. I wiped at my eyes and sat up to look at my mother. Her hands were crossed on the arm of the armchair beside my bed, and she began to tell me a story of her life that she’d never spoken aloud to me before.“When I was young and about to be married, my fiancé died.” She said quietly, simply, frankly. I sat up quickly to lean in and listen, resting my pillows against the window

“…What?”


I wanted to ask more questions, but that was all I could get out. In the nearly two decades of my fragile little life (teenagers, so dramatic and bursting with emotion, am I right? That was me), I had no idea about this part of her life and that she had gone through something like this. Her warm brown eyes, graying around the edges of her irises, responded first. With empathy, with wisdom, and with love, remembering. Oh boy. Gear up. Grab the tissues.


“He was hit by a car. He didn’t make it. The neighbors were gathered at my mother’s house as I was walking home from the market.” I imagined a dusty, rural road and a young Lao man with messy hair crossing it, wearing leather sandals and whistling, without a worry. I couldn’t come up with a face. I could only see my mom, right then.“I’m sorry mom.” I began crying again. There was no doubt I was skipping whatever the fuck was supposed to happen that day.


“Don’t be sorry.It’s been a long time since.It was his time to go.I’m fine now.”


She let these words come out slowly and certainly. I looked more closely at my mother and measured the lines of worry across her forehead, and wondered when they had first begun to appear and to settle in.We were both quiet for a long while, morning sunlight streaming in through the battered windows of our aging family home.“Why didn’t you ever tell us this mom?” I asked, after the tightness in my throat had lessened enough to speak.Her response:“It didn’t matter that I told you. Until now.”


Lately, I’ve been thinking about how trauma and depression can have you floating through life as if you were asleep. How many dreams do you fully remember? How many days do you fully remember?I’m sure many of us have experienced the familiar inability to scream, to run, to punch, to fight, in a dream. (Have you ever had all of your teeth fall out in a dream? Yea, it’s awful. Do not recommend.) Your motor skills don’t work. You can’t function like you intend to. Things are fuzzy. Things are dark. Things are bizarre.Either you feel pain when you’re struck or shot or stabbed in a dream, immensely, or you feel nothing at all, and you wonder “WTF?”


I want to feel. I don’t want to feel. This is what my wrestling match with depression is like.When I feel nothing at all, despite every reason to be happy, to be sad, to be excited, to be joyous, I know that a depressive episode is at my doorstep.When I can acknowledge and really feel my senses and clarify my feelings and put reason behind why I want to explode or break down and feel alive (in all the ugly and beautiful ways)… the depression has worn off. I’ve done whatever it is that I needed to do to take care of myself, or enough time has passed or … I’m not certain what it takes but pretty sure that it matters when the dream wears off and what it takes to get there.


Mom and me in Hawaii, summer 2010, just a couple months before the conversation mentioned in this blog. …we all had our phases, didn’t we?…
Drake, Preston, Mirna, me. RIP Preston Ray. Yeeeaaa we all wrote music together; we were teenagers. That’s another story.

what a shame

it me

I’ve deliberated about a project that I’ve thought about for most of my lifetime: telling the story that my family carried with them away from the mountains of Laos across the Mekong River through the skies and to Texas. But I’ve mostly been still, immobile, glued to my spot, and unable to move. And I’ve been silent, afraid, pensive, anxious, sad, playing memories over and over, thinking about how best to paint these pictures as genuinely and honestly as possible and to honor the people within them.

“Why does it feel so wrong to be me? Why am I afraid for people to know who I am and where I come from?”

“The long-term consequences of trauma?” offers my counselor*, a couple of years after we’ve started digging in and doing the work that might enable me to speak. In 2018, he recommended a few books to me that I’m still working through. How on earth did I get through grad school?

True, but maybe not entirely the reason. I realize that a lot of it is shame, for things out of my control.


When I was a child, I was ashamed of being different from everyone else. Different in the sense that I was isolated and couldn’t visit with friends after school or attend the countless birthday parties and hangouts. Different because no one had ever heard of Laos. Different because I didn’t know certain American cultural references. I didn’t meet another Lao child out in the world serendipitously until college. And even then, we were legally adults. Magically thrown together as roommates at the university. I have a feeling we might have been the only 2 Lao girls in that freshman class that year. 

Growing up, I was ashamed of being poor. My refugee parents tried their hardest, and we always had food on the table and our basic needs met. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t have to pick through bags of donated clothing to find “new” shirts and pants that would fit me. (And with my tiny, southeast Asian frame, hand-me-downs, especially from strangers, never fit me correctly.) That didn’t mean that I could afford to participate in any extracurriculars that might cost anything to the family, including time for my little hands to work and help at home.

I was ashamed that people would know that my father was traumatized by the war, traumatized by so much else he couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about, and belittled in a country in which he thought he would be welcomed as a hero. And because of these things, he traumatized his entire family, the ones from whom I wish he could have sought solace. Shame for being my father’s daughter; I am sorry.

I was ashamed of my name even. Moving from grade level to grade level, class to class, apologizing that it was “hard to say” (it’s only 3 syllables), raising my hand to pronounce it correctly and feeling a burning sensation in my throat. Until I finally adopted “Laci” which doesn’t even honor the way you say my real name; it just has similar phonetics. La-suh-me. Lasamee Kettavong. Now, my heart swells when people learn my name and work to say it correctly. To me that is an act of love.

Me and my sweet mother, who gave me my name.

Shame prevents you from doing a lot. Fear eats the soul and paralyzes you. But we only have so much time to really get to know ourselves in this realm of living, so I’m shedding the shame and swallowing the fear.


I’m not certain but pretty sure that I have taken on this project because I am the last child in my family and the one born in America a few years after my family’s arrival on Halloween Day, 1989. No one’s asking for this story, but it’s one that threatens to have me implode if I let it simmer and leave it alone. There’s no pressure from any of my siblings or my mother; just support, happily scanning papers that arrived with my family in their International Refugee Committee bag of official documents when I ask for them. I feel that our family’s story is not so different from immigrant families stories today, and that we have a lot of work to do. Together, with, and for others. 

I can’t imagine the agony that my mother and father would have felt having arrived as refugees and asylum seekers only to have their children ripped away from them and kept in detention centers. It is horrendous that this has happened to so many. 

I’m not certain but pretty sure that there’s no better time than right now to do something about the horrendous things, shed the shame, and swallow the fear that maybe has kept you from moving. 

—-

*Important to note: I started going to therapy after a shitty breakup in 2013 and on the advice of a dear friend who’d also recently started therapy and it improved their life immensely. I’ve gone from counselor to counselor, for various reasons, and finally really dug in to working on childhood trauma with this particular counselor. Don’t give up if you feel like therapy will help you/your mental health but you’re not clicking with someone. Search around. It can change your life.

Continue reading “what a shame”