As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Sonny Nguyen

Unconditional Love

Recently, during one of our monthly visits, my sister Heather complained that mom has been nagging a lot. I thought about it and laughed. I told her, “You know what, sis? I’ve been away for so long that I even miss her scoldings.” I know that was the method my mother used to express her concerns. She would hound us until she got some kind of result. I looked at Mom over by the microwave warming up our lunch. It’s crazy how fast time passes. Mom is seventy-four years old already. Her long life has not been exactly easy; yet she always has a smile on her face. People who don’t know her would never guess from looking at her that she has had to endure much pain and suffering as well as made plenty of sacrifices. Life might be filled with uncertainties, but there is one thing I know for sure: nothing compares to a mother’s love.

After the Communists took over Vietnam, they stripped my family of everything we had because my father fought for the Southern army. He was taken to a “Re-education Camp,” which is a euphemism for prison. For years, my family struggled to survive. Mom told me that each day she longed to flee the country, but we did not have any money. She knew that for us to have any kind of future, we would have to leave. That opportunity came in 1981 when a relative offered to help finance our escape. The problem was it wasn’t enough to cover our whole family. My parents had to make the difficult decision of who goes and who stays. In the end, it was decided that my sister Ly and brother Vu (the second and third oldest) would stay behind with my grandparents until my parents could send for them. We left in the middle of the night on a small boat with the number of passengers almost doubling its capacity. Mom got so sick that even my uncle thought she was not going to make it. Luckily, on the fourth day, a Netherland commercial ship spotted us and rescued us. Two years later, when my parents were able to save up enough money, they sent for my sister and brother. Their journey, however, was met with misfortune. Their boat was stranded at sea. With limited food and water, they perished. The Vietnam War and our plight as refugees were topics that my parents never talked about. They were painful distant memories that my parents preferred to suppress.

When Heather made that comment, it transported me back to 1995. Mom was lecturing me about slacking off with my studies and going out too much. Annoyed, I told her, “Don’t worry about it mom, it’s my life.” The tone in my response was very disrespectful, and I could tell by the silence and shocked look on her face that I had hurt her feelings. Instantly, I regretted saying that. My mom is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. She is always willing to help those who are in need. She has always taught me to be humble, respectful, and kind. But something changed. Somewhere down the line, when I was picked on, harassed, and bullied by other kids, I abandoned that philosophy. I thought that her ways were no longer relevant. This is a new era. We are in another country that runs on a different belief system. I forgot all the sacrifices that my mom and dad had made and adopted the values of the street. I’m going to make others respect me instead. About a month after this argument, an associate of mine got shot. I went to retaliate, figuring I was doing the right thing. Because of me, three innocent people lost their lives.

I remember the first time my mother visited me at county jail. She was sitting in a small booth behind a dirty glass window. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She looked as though I made her age ten years over one night from worrying about me. I walked in with my legs shackled and hands chained to my waist. As soon as she saw me, she started crying. That image has forever stayed in my mind. The last thing I wanted to do was make my mother cry. That was when reality hit me. My parents struggled to get me here, so I could be free. They taught me to do well and make the most of myself, so I could help others. Somehow I turned out to be the exact opposite of how they raised me. I was filled with guilt, remorse, and shame. I couldn’t even look at her in the eyes. She could sense how I was feeling. When I picked up the phone to talk to her, she was not even angry—although she had every right to be. More than anything, she was worried about me. She told me what’s done is done. I can’t do anything about it. I have to learn from my mistakes and become a better person. That was the lowest point in my life. I felt worthless and hated myself. My mom’s words turned things around. They gave me strength and hope of redemption. After all I’ve done, my mom still believes in me, and her love endures.

Many years have passed, and we are afresh in another visiting room. I tell my sister, “Sometimes we might forget, but mom does what she does, because she wants what’s best for us.” My mom saw me looking at her and smiled. She has always been there for me. Her love is unconditional. To me, a mother’s love is the greatest blessing any child could have. Every time I see my mom, my spirit is lifted.

Sonny Nguyen is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. He has been incarcerated since he was nineteen years old. He spends his time furthering his education. Sonny tutors his peers and has helped them to earn their General Education Diplomas. His kindhearted English Instructor, Tria Andrews, encouraged him to voice his story.

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