The Book of Ruth

"Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab," William Blake, 1795 (Detail)

"Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab," William Blake, 1795 (Detail)

Last night I dreamed that my mother’s death was a lie, one she told, one she staged, in order to “get out of something.” As in life, she did not elaborate. I was confused, amazed. I told her I thought it excessive to stage one’s own death. I also thought it was the best lie she’d ever told.

In the dream, I saw her as I had never seen her in life: naked, admiring herself before a mirror. She was standing. She raised her arms over her head. She glanced vaguely toward the ceiling and, smiling, said something like, “Oh yes, I was over there the whole time.”

I knew I was dreaming because she had a full head of hair, and the bones in her chest were no longer visible, and the flesh on her arms, when she raised them, was full and there were small, silken threads there that caught the light.

In the dream, I was the age I am now but my body was small as a child’s; as I sat listening to her, I saw that my feet didn’t touch the ground; they dangled. I didn’t like seeing them like that. What age was I?


My mother’s body lies between her father’s and her brother’s, in the rambling cemetery overlooking the sea in Phan Thiet.

After the funeral, my younger sister and I swam in the sea. It was raining and we were the only people in the water. Our cousins sat under beach umbrellas and watched us. Their mothers, our aunts, told me that as the oldest child, I would know three years of mourning, “Nothing but mourning!” and then, after the third year, “Happiness. Like you have never known.” I didn’t believe them.

I was happy then and there, floating on the water.


I boarded a plane and flew back to the States, alone. Whereupon I sat down and began a note to the doctors and nurses who had taken care of my mother: My name is thúy lê, my mother was My Nguyen. You may remember her-

I pushed the note aside. I wasn’t asking if they remembered her. I was saying, I grant you permission to remember her. I was saying, Will you remember her with me. I was saying, Read her name aloud, next to my name, and remember us. I continued.

I continued-I am writing to let you know that she passed away on March 23 rd , at 11:05 a.m., surrounded by family and friends, in her childhood home in Vietnam. Thank you for the kindness and the care you gave to her.


The phone call came in early December: My mother had been admitted to the emergency room. A tumor the size of a lemon. Advanced stage of colon cancer. Spread to the liver. What can be done? Painkillers. At this late stage, when the cancer is so far advanced. She’s young, only 48 years old. However at this late stage, I have to tell you. There are very effective painkillers.

I listened closely and carefully. I opened my notebook, and turning past the pages where I’d copied out a recipe for “Pear and cherry tart, serves 8” and a recipe for “Mussel and tomato soup, serves 4,” I made the following notes:

CAT scan-cancer

biopsy tomorrow

cancer in uterus

spread to liver

and then I did my laundry and packed some things

ink cartridges

letter box


denim dress

striped t-shirt

tank tops

and washed my hair.

I went to bed, woke, and boarded a plane to San Diego.


I pulled the hospital curtain aside and there she was, thinner than I had ever seen her. She sat up, and I leaned in to hug her. As I held her in my arms, all I could feel was my own panicked heart, racing.

Her doctor came by and as he spoke to me, she listened, unblinking. Whenever he looked at her, she smiled. As soon as he left, she turned to me. “What is it? What did he say?” “I’m not sure,” I said. “I’m trying to understand.”


On the plane to Singapore, en route to Vietnam, I sat beside a man from New York City. He was part of a group of people who were headed to Bali for a vacation. “Scuba diving,” he said. “Ever been?” “No,” I said, ” though I’ve always wanted to.” Outside the window: clouds and night. “What’s in Vietnam? Are you from there?” “Yes. My mother.”

Flying back from Vietnam, there was a long layover in Singapore. I floated in the swimming pool of the airport hotel. It was night and plane after plane took off over me, while a three-quarters moon hung high above, looking down as I looked up, neither of us blinking.

lê thi diem thúy is the author of a novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For. You can read some of her poems here.