I really don’t like asking for help. Looking inward, perhaps it’s because I’m afraid to look weak, incompetent, or needy. I want to be seen as independent, capable, and fierce, and sometimes, I think that if I ask for help, it blemishes that reputation. That kind of thinking is harmful, I know.
So, I’m going to ask for your help. But before I do, I’m going to be vulnerable with you and share the secrets of my heart and of my past to explain why I need your help. Let’s take a trip to 1992.
Do you remember your first love? Was it magical and reckless and passionate and wild and tender and agonizing? They say first love is bittersweet. Sweet because you always remember it well; bitter because when it’s over there won’t be another one like it. It holds innocence, youth, naivete, and a belief in ever after. It’s the first dance, a song’s serenade, a joyride to nowhere, and a night at the beach on the rocks of mile long jetty where the salty splashes of waves sprinkle on the honey scented taste of locked lips and a soft embrace.
My first love was all those things and more. Vu is his name. He was handsome, strong, and had an endearing smile that he wasn’t afraid to flash. He wore his heart on his sleeve, doing too much for others and never enough for himself. In the era of our youth, the vultures of Vietnamese gang culture preyed on guys like him. He was physically strong and emotionally vulnerable to those in need. He was the “do anything for your friends even at the cost of yourself” type. He learned Bro Code. Bravado. Honor. Through a series of unfortunate events and loyalty to a friend, he found himself facing a life sentence in prison. We had broken up by then, but I always had a soft spot for him.
His sentence was 60 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. This was 1997. Today, guys are getting 10 years for the same charge. His mother asked the judge if she could hug her son. She was escorted to his holding cell where she held her son and cried.
When he began his 60 year punishment, he wrote me:
Thao, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I don’t know how I’m going to pay you back. I know there’s a lot of things that came between us. I hope I didn’t cause you too much pain or anything for you to hold any grudges against me. I’m sorry if I did. I wish you well and best of luck in the future. I hope you find happiness wherever you may be. You deserve it. Please take care of yourself.
P.S. I’m glad our lives crossed each other. Smile for me.
And that was it for me and my first love. An occasional birthday or Christmas card would come to my parents’ house. But no letters. No phone calls. No prison visits. No maintaining of anything. Just some bittersweet memories of a first love that I had to move on from.
His family dealt with the pain of constant disappointments in appealing the case. Vu’s friend confessed to the family, “Yes, Vu is innocent. I’m the one who did it.” But it takes years for appeals and by the time the trial was set, his friend had started a family. That changes anyone’s life. He couldn’t honor Bro Code anymore. He was forced to choose, so he chose his family and left Vu to lose his last appeal. Vu and his family were devastated. They thought the confession would save him and he would be home soon. Instead, they cried with heartache that their brother, their son, would be locked away for life.
By then, I had made my way to earn a PhD and a career as a college professor. Through the years, I would think of him. I had loved again, even married, and planned to have children. But through my journey of self- growth and awareness, I adjusted my sails and chose a path that was true to myself and not what the world expected of me. It is a path of being childless and being unmarried. Two years ago, I was on sabbatical and started writing a memoir – a Vietnamese gang affiliated young woman who watched her friends fall one by one and then turned her life around to become a college professor who gives her all to those in need.
I remember my decision to leave that life behind. I had witnessed too many people close to me get steered toward sad endings – drugs, suicide, incarceration, even death. And then myself, getting shot in the middle of crossfire during a pool hall brawl. One after another, we were met with misery in the way life turns out when you’re lost and looking for somewhere to belong, for someone to feel like family, and what you find is a lifestyle that’s thrilling and dangerous and wrong but it feels like home so you think it’s safe. And then it catches up to you and now you’re paying the price for the stupid choices you made and can only understand why you made them after a lifetime of reflection.
In the writing process, I conjured the memories of my youth, and then, the deep emotions for Vu that I had buried began to resurface, brewing back to life the simmering feelings of young love. But young love is sometimes stupid love. Back then, I lost him because I was too immature to deal with hurt feelings, so I abruptly left him instead of having the kinds of conversations that could lead to forgiveness and continued nurturing. After a few months, I wanted him back, but my pride got in the way. He had his pride, too, so he didn’t wait for me to come around. When I eventually did, I told him I still loved him, but it was too late. He had already met someone else. But he always gave me signs that he still loved me. Like when he told me she got so upset that he was looking at our old pictures. Like when he asked me to go to his old apartment to retrieve a drawing of us that he had stashed in the a/c vent because he promised her that he would throw it away but he just couldn’t do it so he hid it. Like when he knew he was in trouble when the cops were looking for him so he called me and asked me to meet him because he needed someone to talk to. When I arrived at our rendezvous spot, I watched from my car as he was being arrested. That was the last day I saw him as a free man. It was always just a little too late for us. These are the kinds of moments that make you wonder, “What if? What if things had been different? What if we had made different choices?”
I sometimes wonder if we had stayed together, would he have been out with his friends that fateful night? I reimagined a different story for us. It could have been date night… maybe we were at the movies or having a late night meal at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant. Or maybe we would have been making out on the beach under the Texas moonlight, and he would not have ended up where he is. It hurt me to think this. I laid up at night crying over these thoughts.
After two decades of not contacting him, I reached out to him in a letter asking for forgiveness. He wrote back:
Your letter was very emotional to me to say the least. I have read it many, many times in the past few days. At the moment I am overwhelmed by the feelings and memories it has brought back of our time together. It made me smile and for some strange reason, it made me feel happy and content with my life.
Why would you think I would ever be upset with you for moving on and living your life? You seem to forget that I was once your friend first. I have always wanted what was best for you with or without me. I am so proud of you and the things you accomplished, through all the adversity it is amazing to me. By reading your letter now, I truly know the true meaning of the saying, “If you love something, set it free.”
And so, in the summer of 2018, a new journey presented itself. It led us to a renewed friendship and an opportunity to explore who we are as people today. We wrote letters every week.
As a professor who volunteers my time to mentor formerly incarcerated students, I’m dialed in to that area of work. When a media outlet had a call for essays from Asian American incarcerated voices, I encouraged him to do it. He didn’t want to, being scared that his 9th grade education meant he wasn’t smart enough. But he did it for me as a gift for my birthday, which is in October, and his is, too. As my gift, I wanted to fly to Texas to visit him.
He hesitated for a bit. I was a bit surprised, thinking that surely, he would want me to visit. He explained:
I do want the opportunity to see you, but at the same time, it scared me. Not that I think it’ll be awkward but because we’ll click and what it’ll do to me. Someone once famous said that love is devastating and for some reason those words always stuck with me. It describes love perfectly, don’t you think? But no matter what the cost is, it’ll be worth the chance to see you.
I really started this journey believing I can just be your friend, but who was I fooling? For some reason, we are connected too strongly. I do hate myself for feeling this way because reality is with every step you take going forward in your life you move further out of my reach. You told me to fight for what I believe in. As you say, we shall see how this all comes to be.
I’m happy to finally get a chance to see you. I can’t wait.
It might devastate me, but I’ll always be fine no matter what. I will continue to love you from afar as I always have for years. I honestly believe that we can still love each other without ever being together again. You might ask, how can I say that? I can say that because I loved you when you broke up with me, I loved you as I sat inside these cold concrete walls, and I love you now while you are in love with someone else.
Yes, I was seeing someone at the time. But it did not have depth. As I processed these emotions that I had for Vu, I started to wonder if I had shut myself off and not been open to being vulnerable with anyone else again. Had the pain of losing him cut so deep that I never wanted to be that deep in again? Was I protecting myself by always giving someone only a part of myself? I was honest with the guy I was seeing, and we talked about Vu. One night he said to me, “It seems that I have your body, and he has your soul.” I didn’t know how to respond, but I couldn’t refute it. Because the truth was, my feelings for Vu had depth. I was very much looking forward to seeing him again.
Sitting across each other, separated by thick glass and a rusty wired vent through which we talked, it felt like old times. We smiled and laughed. I was so happy at just the mere sight of him. We talked about what we could do to help him make the time go by faster to reach 2027, the year he would see parole. I said, “I can’t wait to kick it with you like good friends do.” To which he flashed that endearing smile and replied, “Oh no, we aren’t going to be friends.” Then he laughed. I kept saying to him and telling myself, “Only time will tell.” And as time went on, through more letters, more visits, then weekly phone calls that lasted for hours, things blossomed organically. I eventually left the man I was seeing for reasons outside of Vu. It was clear we were not a good fit, and he needed to work on himself.
Over time, Vu and I were bonding – we would write and talk for hours about great works of literature, poetry, philosophical quotes, and lessons learned over the course of our lives. We felt aligned. Could it be that I was falling in love again? I wrestled with this. I recalled a quote he had read to me from C.S. Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” I began to envision that perhaps it could be. There was a Texas bill in the pipeline that could give him a chance for parole immediately if it passed. It was a bill that would give inmates like him credit for working while incarcerated. Vu always had a job inside, but the Texas system pays him nothing for his labor. That is correct, $0.00 for his labor. This bill would give him “time served” credit for his labor. He had done 21 years, so if he earned time served, he would be at 31.5 years and would be immediately eligible for parole. I turned to my grassroots activism and got his family involved in speaking out to their legislative representatives to say yes to the bill. I wrote a testimonial letter to the Texas Inmates Family Association, and they wanted to include it in their testimony packet that they presented to the Texas House Committee. I poured my heart into it, but it failed to get out of committee. The bill died, and so did our hopes for his earned time credit.
I was heartbroken, devastated. And that’s my fault. I had expectations and when it didn’t come through, I couldn’t manage my emotions. This is something I’m working on and learning to undo. Expectations only lead to disappointment. I have to be grateful for whatever is in the moment without any expectations of the future. But at the time, I was not there yet. And so, I was cut deeply again. And through my selfish need to self-soothe through someone else instead of myself, I went to the place that would bring me comfort – into the arms of another man, an old friend who had been giving me a lot of attention lately. He was a good man. Not broken like the last guy. This guy had his life together, and he was on a journey of self-growth, which is what I needed. Again, I made it about me. And even though he wasn’t a good fit for other reasons, I made myself adapt to what could make us a good fit. In the course of this, Vu never wavered. He was torn, I’m sure, but he told me I had to live my life to the fullest. His voice, one of the sweetest sounds I know, was firm yet gentle, “You live your life the way you need to. And when that day comes that I’m out, I will never make you choose. You have to remember that whatever you do in life, you have to choose your happiness over anyone else’s. But I lost you once already, I’m not making that mistake again. So, I choose to love you and be in your life no matter what the circumstance unless you don’t want me.”
When I told the new guy about Vu, he was very caring. He cared about Vu and Vu’s situation, and he told me the same thing. “Thao, I would never make you choose. You have to do what is best for you. I’ll always support you.”
F*#+……… I was torn. And so, I carried on with both men in my life, buying myself some time to figure out how this would all work out in the end. I didn’t visit Vu for Christmas so I could spend time with the other person, even though he offered to drive me to visit Vu. Vu didn’t want us to spend our time together visiting him. I made it up to Vu by visiting him in January before school started. Then work started and I was a busy bee again. The one thing that was always a thorny issue with men in my life was how much time I spent with them. My new guy regularly had moments of unhappiness because I wasn’t giving him enough time or attention. For instance, in February of this year, I had an opportunity come up for a huge project. He wasn’t initially happy about it because he knew it would take up a lot of my time. That made me feel suffocated. Also, he has children. They’re really great kids. Well behaved, kind, and loving. But my aversion to being a mother made it difficult for me to want to fully engage. And their mother was not someone I felt a good energy with. This guy was giving me his all, but I couldn’t give my all in return. It didn’t look promising for us. And most of all, it wasn’t fair to him. I do love him, but it’s not the right kind of love that he deserves.
At the same time, what was promising was Vu’s writing journey. The essay he wrote for my birthday, “My Name is Chino” published in February. You can read it here. We felt aligned again – both of us presented with great achievements and opportunities at the same time. We celebrated with a marathon phone call that lasted 8.5 hours. It was like being young and together again when we talked on the phone all night into the next morning and neither person wanted to hang up. But the topics are mature now. One of our life goals was a writing project. We wanted to change the world one story at a time. Vu’s essay was featured in a national literature festival. He had also inspired and mentored several guys in his prison unit to write their stories. They were incredible essays. I had my students read the essays, and they learned about prison life from the eyes of prisoners themselves. They said it was one of their most favorite assignments ever in their college experience. These guys wrote me and told me the experience changed their lives, too. Vu and I made a good team. I had begun to see a vision of love in my future unravel before my eyes.
I had been working a lot on my inner self. Loving myself truly. Only then can I love others in an authentic way. I was making great progress, learning that I could not truly be happy with this man who has children. It was hard to let him go, but it was the right thing to do for me. I was ready to be alone and not rely on someone to physically soothe my emotional voids; voids that could only be filled by me loving me.
And then COVID hit. It gave me a lot of time for my own self and my inner reflections and growth. But prison is a scary place during this pandemic, and I was very worried about Vu. His unit was a COVID epicenter, and all prisons went on lock down. No calls, no visits. Only letters. But even that took a long time because the US Postal Service is being screwed with. I’m not here to get political. I’m just stating the facts. Mail is very delayed.
In our brief moments of contact, we felt confident we could make it through this treacherous time. We adjusted, like everyone around us, as the whole world and as our country traverses through this unprecedented event in history. We had hope and knew in our hearts what we needed to do. He needed to survive. I needed to thrive. I wrote about my worry for him in an essay titled, “Prison Life in the Time of Coronavirus.” It was requested for publication, affirming that when I pour my heart into writing, others value the story. That is how I thrive, by living with my heart and taking care of myself. What this COVID quarantine has done is help me realize that I can be alone. I don’t need to be in search of love because love is always there. It has always been there. It is within me. I just never looked there. I have thoroughly gained a deep perspective of love from this time alone. And having Vu in my life is not something I need. It’s something I want.
Finally, I want someone. Looking back, I was with men for what I thought I needed. A good husband to provide me stability, a family, and a place in the norms of society for acceptance. Vu doesn’t fit any of those. He’s an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But he is my family because he makes me feel like home. I don’t need acceptance from anyone because I accept myself, and I accept him just as he is. I lost him once to our break-up. I lost him a second time to incarceration. I don’t want to lose him again. Third time is the charm, they say.
COVID helped clarify the vision of my life. I can just be me. Help others in need. Share love and joy and happiness. Stand up and speak out for the rights and dignity of others. Teach others not what to think but how to think. I can see myself living this way until my last breath on Earth. Vu will be out someday, and he’ll be by my side.
And just as the shining light of love had paved our way towards freedom, potential, and possibilities, the door of our future slammed shut. It is so dark, my friends. So very dark. And I am drowning in an abyss of tears and heartache.
On July 21, a prison hospital doctor called and gave me the worst news of my life and surely, of his. Vu has stage IV pancreatic cancer. When the call ended, I slumped to the ground and cried with the feeling of a gaping hole in my heart, like someone was taking away the very essence of me, ripping at my spirit and tearing me down, turning me into a little girl lying on the floor with a crushed soul. I was back in those dismal places where I had lost him before and ached, but this anguish is different. We are not young and foolish anymore. We have grown into loving, caring, understanding, and wholesome people. When you see someone young die, you think it’s sad because they had so much potential. We are not young, but we have so much potential.
For days, I stayed in this sorrowful place, paralyzed by disbelief, numbed by the shock, and drained of tears. To make matters worse, he is not able to make phone calls. And because of COVID, his family cannot visit. He is in a prison hospital with no way to connect to any of us as he faces the reality of less than a year to live. When his mother learned of the news, she collapsed, and when she came to, she choked on her tears. His mother, once again, crying for her son, but this time, not able to hold him.
I have never asked why. I don’t care why. I just know what is. I grappled with this while stuck in the quicksand of anguish. But in my love for him, I felt like I could not stay here. I am not the one with a terminal illness. This man who I love so much and cherish as a best friend is alone. I have to turn my pain into action on behalf of this man for whatever is left of his time on Earth.
Having spent days in paralysis, I finally decided to move. I am prepared to move mountains for Vu. I spent the last two weeks researching medical information on the illness and legal options that might be available to him. Things don’t look good, but there’s always a way to find a glimmer of hope. That’s who I am, an eternal optimist looking for ways to find love and support and encouragement in the bleakest of times.
This is why I need your help. His family and I found an option for a medical furlough through a process called writ of habeas corpus based on his medical condition. It’s rarely used because it’s rarely granted. But we have a team of attorneys who specialize in this, and they think we have a chance. I go by my gut but also by the facts. Based on both, I believe there’s a chance, too. I’m hoping the judge will have compassion for a man who is dying from an aggressive cancer and undergoing chemotherapy in prison also makes him very at risk if he contracts COVID-19. His unit is a documented epicenter of the virus. It is our argument for a medical furlough.
This medical request through legal compassion will cost $40,000 to prepare and file the writ. There are additional costs of investigators, transcripts, scientific tests, travel for the attorneys, and an expert witness who specializes in pancreatic cancer to review his file and affirm the state of his condition. I do not want him to die, but the truth is this cancer is a killer. There is no way out of this prognosis. I accept that. But we have to try this legal writ because I do not want him to die alone in prison. Until there is no way left, I cannot accept it just yet.
This will probably be my last act of Love for him. We are going up against a system that has torn his life apart, torn his family’s hearts apart, and torn us down to the seam, but I am hanging on to even the last single thread because it is what I have to do for someone I love.
Will you help me in this journey? Will you be part of this act of Love for a man who has shown me what Love truly is? A man who has taught me how to love and accept myself. A man who has been beaten by the system but has never let his beautiful spirit succumb to its horror. A man who has overcome his own inner darkness to provide light for others.
With the support and blessing of the family, I have signed the legal services agreement with the attorneys. The process will take 90-120 days, hopefully. If we can bring him home, even for a few months, so he can live out his days with his loved ones instead of dying in prison, that would be a priceless gift. And if it doesn’t get approved, if the judge denies the request, then I will accept that outcome. If that is the eventual outcome, at least this attempt provides a him a sense of dignity and humanity. An inmate facing an aggressive terminal illness should not have to feel alone and unsupported. I hope you’ll be able to support him. You can support in these ways:
His full name is Hoang Vu Tran. Keep him in your thoughts, prayers, and meditations. Positive and healing energies are a powerful collective force when we truly express them.
If you would like to write him messages of compassion, of love, of care, of goodwill, please leave it in the comments and we’ll pass them on to him.
Support us financially for his legal and medical journey. You can donate through:
Zelle @firstname.lastname@example.org (if you get an unregistered message, try my cell 760-580-5904, thank you 🙏)
If you would like to keep up with our journey, please subscribe to the blog. Click the “Follow+” at the bottom right corner of this page. I’ll be sharing updates here as we go alongside Vu in his legal and medical journey.
Any funds left after he is gone will be donated to http://www.pancan.org
On behalf of his family, I thank you for reading. I thank you for caring. I thank you for any support you can provide. Most of all, I thank you for loving. Love is all there is and all we can hope for when we close our eyes and say good-bye. My wish for him is to feel in his heart that he is loved. Because that is what he has done for me. In his essay, he writes about leaving prison someday, “To be honest, anywhere is better than to live without hope and the feel of sunshine on my face.” And to that, I’ll end with a quote because Vu loves famous quotes, “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides” – D. Viscott.