Seniors at East Bay High School donned taffeta dresses and tuxedoes. There were corsages, cummerbunds, and pictures taken by proud smiling parents. The date, May 3rd, 2008—prom night. The theme: “Red Carpet Romance.” They rode in limousines and borrowed cars to the decorations and loud music awaiting them at Raymond James Stadium.
Queena was not there. Her ticket, No. 0068, went unused. She paid sixty dollars for it three weeks earlier. The chic lavender gown with crimson beading and silver embroidery she had bought stayed on its hanger, tucked safely away in her closet., along with the matching shoes and dainty white handbag—everything except her birthday pearls.
I had never been to a high school prom; no such thing in Vietnam. I heard other adults talk about their prom nights and I embraced the tradition for my daughters. Queena would have been the first in our family to attend an American prom. My eldest daughter, Anna, had attended a private Baptist school that prohibited a prom night. Instead, she was permitted to attend a very nice dinner where she dressed up in a modest gown and listened to a special message from a faculty member. It wasn’t the same as being able to dance the night away with her friends, but Anna had made the best of it and enjoyed herself. I envisioned this night adding so many good memories to Queena’s life, too, even if she preferred to go with her girlfriends instead of a real date. Not that she had no other option. A Vietnamese boy in her class sheepishly asked her to be his date, but by that time, she already made plans with her friends.
“Thank you for asking,” she told him, “but our limo is all packed.”
Date or not, I planned to be the typical prom mother and take lots of pictures. Queena would be beautiful. I imagined her in the back of that limo with her friends, all of them giggling in their elegant clothes. I could see her on the dance floor dancing to her favorite songs.
But her legs still would not move. Her eyes would not open. She lay motionless, oblivious on a hospital bed, as the music of everyday life played on without her. I stared out of the window in her room. I needed a fresh dose of that peace I’d felt on my knees in the chapel. As if He didn’t know, I told God that it wasn’t just Queena who lost so much. “You took my life too.”
It was then that a welcome surprise entered the room, Queena’s friend Priscilla. She had gotten her hair and makeup done and she looked absolutely beautiful. She wore plain clothes, though, no prom gown.
“What happened?” I asked. “I thought you would be at prom.”
She couldn’t go, she said. “I’m staying here with Queena.” She said this with a smile on her face, as if missing her senior prom was no big deal. And there she sat throughout the night, while her classmates danced and giggled and smiled for the camera. That night Queena’s best friend sat quietly at her bed side and watched over her, like an angel.
I stared at Priscilla for a moment in disbelief. Part of me felt badly for her. She would not have a second chance to go to her high school prom. At the same time, I rejoiced that Queena had such a friend who truly loved her. It was as if God shined a light on my dark mood and revealed an example of His love.
TWO DAYS AFTER prom, the doctor told us the swelling of Queena’s brain had not receded. We agreed to keep her in a coma for a few more days, hoping for a change. But another week passed and the swelling still hadn’t gone down as much as the doctor felt necessary. Another few days, he said…
My frustration overflowed. I had spent days mostly in silent prayer, somewhat of a vigil over Queena. Still, no signs of improvement. Throughout the roughly two weeks that Queena lay in a coma, I tried not to let Anna see how discouraged I was. She put on a brave face, too, wanting to be as strong for me as I tried to be for her. Then on Sunday, May 11th, with Queena still in bed, Anna came into the room and whispered into my ear:“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.”
I’d forgotten all about the holiday. In the hospital, we didn’t look at calendars; we just counted days. Anna’s thoughtfulness touched me, but I couldn’t help crying a little inside. Usually, I would hear both her and Queena wishing me Happy Mother’s Day. The year before, Queena had called my mother in California several times, asking for advice on what gift to get for me. She had just started working at the mall and earned her first check for $150. Queena was a very thoughtful gift giver, and was very good at keeping secrets. With a big grin on her face, she handed me a gift box that morning. Inside, I found a crystal heart. Larger than any crystal I had ever seen.
Queena knew how much I believed in Feng Shui. Crystal was supposed to bring health, safety, and luck. When I opened the gift, she proudly announced that it was REAL crystal. She was beaming brighter than the crystal I held in my hands. I cherished this thoughtful gift she had given me, and proudly hung it from my rearview mirror. The next day I went to the store in the mall where she purchased the crystal heart. Judging by the brand name on the box, it seemed rather expensive, especially for a teenager on her first job. I browsed until I found a replica. When I turned over the price tag, I was stunned to see that it was $100. My sweet, thoughtful child had spent almost her entire first paycheck on something for me. . I was humbled and proud to know that I had raised such a caring and sweet daughter. This year, the best gift she could give would much simpler: to open her eyes again, to smile, to speak, to laugh, or even to cry.
Anna’s gift this year had been a beautiful purple framed picture taken of the three of us on our cruise the prior summer.The frame had the letters M-O-M on it with phrases from two inscribed Bible verses lined the side the frame: “Your love has given me great joy” and “for you have a special place in my heart.” That title, “Mom,” I had cherished it since the day my first daughter emerged into the world. I wanted nothing more than to be the most loving, caring, attentive mother who ever lived. I determined that my girls would lack nothing they needed. Now I realized that some needs, I didn’t have the power to supply.
DURING THE COMA, spirituality filtered into our family in ways I never imagined. The hospital chaplain and I grew well-acquainted. Every day I stopped by the chapel and he said special prayers for Queena’s healing and for my strength. Also, a woman from India came to our room almost daily. She stood beside Queena’s bed and made certain flowing motions with her hands around my daughter’s body, coming close but never actually touching her. Then she placed a gemstone by the window. I later came to understand that this was the practice of “Reiki” or “healing touch.” Whatever it was, I was open to anything that may help heal my baby. I allowed her to carry on in the hopes that something, anything would encourage her healing.
On one occasion, while walking down the hallway, I came across a group of people I did not know that were gathered together. I just nodded and said hello as I walked by, but one woman in the group stood up, walked toward me, and asked if they could pray for me and my loved one. For some reason, I did not hesitate. The power of prayer hadbeen foreign to me in the past, but now I saw these spiritual offerings as opportunities tobring heaing to Queena. By this time, I felt that my daughter needed prayers, no matter the religion of those who offered them up. Everyone in the group stood, formed a circle, and held hands. Their prayers washed over me like a warm blanket. They lifted up cries for healing, for strength and for wisdom. They prayed in the name of Jesus, and told me there was power in His name. Each prayer encounter, from people in the garden, to the chaplain, to the group in the hallway, I learned something new about God. Judging from how others prayed, I realized that the most important thing was not that my words were perfect, but that they were sincere and from my heart.
I wished I could talk with Queena about all of this. Even though she was the daughter, I knew she could teach her mother so much when it came to faith. She had long been more in tune with her spirituality than I was, even as a child. Once, when Queena was eleven and we lived in Maryland, she sat in the car with me on my way home from work. Snow covered the ground, and I drove slowly, fearing for our safety. I remember, during this particular drive, reaching over to assure Queena. “Queena, you are a good daughter. I want you to be my daughter again when we are in heaven. We can be a family again up there,” I said. I didn’t expect her reaction. She responded by saying “Mom, how can you be sure you will be in heaven? You cannot go to heaven just by being a good person." Her expression turned serious. You need to believe Jesus is God’s son and accept Him is your Savior.”
I was truly aghast at this response. I had never known that being “good” wasn’t enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Years later, the praying strangers at the hospital helped me understand my daughter’s devout commitment to Christianity and why it was so important to her. I sat in her room and prayed. I made sure to end my prayer with “in Jesus’s name,” like the group in the hallway. I spent my days and my nights beseeching the Lord on Queena’s behalf. Praying for her healing, petitioning him for strength and wisdom.
ONE MORNING, I came upon a group of teenagers in the hallway. I recognized at least one face from Queena’s school. I asked her why they were there, and she said another student was injured in a car accident on his way to football practice. His friends all gathered at the hospital, just like Queena’s friends had done for her.
There were so many teenagers. He must be popular, I thought, probably a nice young man well-liked by everyone. I asked the girl to show me his parents, and she pointed to a woman nearby. I walked over to her and briefly introduced myself. Then I hugged her tight and whispered into her ear, “He will be okay,” I said. “He is in God's hands.”
My heart felt heavy as I identified with this mother’s pain, a grief so deep and so painfulthat no parent should ever have to experience. The next morning, as I saw students milling about with red eyes and saw the football player’s mother crying hard against her husband’s chest. From my experience with Queena, I knew that sometimes words were useless. I left them alone and went away to pray for them by myself. Later, the boy was placed in the room next to Queena’s. Like the others who had gathered for him, I peered at him through the viewing window, just like the one in Queena’s room. He did not look like he would recover. I closed the curtains to the window in Queena’s room, so none of the students from her school would see her and want to visit, since she couldn’t have visitors anyway.
The next day, the boy’s parents agreed with doctors to take their son off of life support. I had just witnessed the bravest mother, as she watched her son go away forever. I cried for her. It took unimaginable strength to let him go. I refused to leave Queena’s side and clung to her more tightly that day. I never told that mother, but in her grief she inspired me. She made me even more grateful to have Queena alive, even in her grave condition, she gave me courage to weather the storms in front of us. She showed me that I had so much to be grateful for.
ON MAY 12TH, the day after Mother’s Day, the doctor finally discontinued the drugs that kept Queena in a coma, but kept her breathing and feeding tubes operating. I was a nervous wreck. I sat by her bedside, waiting and hoping her eyes would open slowly. I imagined her sitting up and spreading her arms to give me a big hug. It didn’t happen that way at all, not even close.
Queena regained consciousness slowly and eventually opened her eyes. As she awoke, she began to have these terrible coughing fits that were so severe, the alarms sounded from the brain monitor. The breathing tube that was keeping her alive was also wreaking havoc on her throat. The doctor didn’t want the heavy coughing to increase her brain activity again, so he ordered a sedative to calm her. She stayed heavily medicated for days. Rather than the joyous reunion I hoped for, Queena fell back into a deep sleep.
By May 23rd, Queena’s cough was under control, and doctors took her off the heavy sedatives. In the days afterward, the doctor entered her room every morning at six o’clock to administer alertness tests.
“Queena, wake up!” he would say in a booming voice.
She would not respond. “Queena, wiggle your toes for me!?”
Again, no response.
After a few days, doctors concluded that Queena’s brain simply could not function. Their efforts to calm her brain activity and bring her back to me had failed. My daughter’s brain was badly damaged and too many cells had died as a result of her injuries. The news was almost unbearable after we had waited so long with my faith insisting the result would be the exact opposite. I didn’t really know what to think or feel. I watched staff replace temporary tubes that had kept Queena alive during the scheduled coma with permanent tubes to be used indefinitely. They took the temporary oxygen tube from her mouth and replaced it with a tracheostomy (trach) tube for the long-term. They took the feeding tube out of her nose and inserted a gastronomy tube, or G-tube, through her stomach. They gave up on her. Queena stayed just as silent and still through it all as she had during her coma, with the occasional flutter of her eyelids. My child. My baby. Incapacitated.