You Are Free At Last

It is with solemn heart and shattered dreams that I write this last letter to my Love, Hoang Vu Tran. I started writing last night with the intention to update you all, but I didn’t finish it. I woke up today with every intention of posting an update for everyone, especially because I felt the end was near. I was hoping to get prayers and love and hope for a last push to bring him home. The writ was to be filed this upcoming week. But it happened so fast. And while it hurts so much, I think of him, and he is no longer suffering. For me to wish he would hang on longer is only to serve me. I am relieved he is at peace. Thank you to everyone for all the love and support and hope and prayers and generosity and care. This journey is not over because I know he’s watching over us. He’ll be with me as I continue my life by doing exactly what he wanted me to do – to be happy, to love, to care, and to serve.

My Most Precious Vu,

Your pain and suffering are unbearable to me. The physical wreckage of aggressive cancer. The miserable isolation of incarceration. The anxiety of imminent mortality. Every night, I reach for you, yearning for a connection, a word, a sound, a look, a smile, anything at all, just to sense you. Did you sense me reaching out to you? Knowing that you must endure this alone left me with a sick heart and a fiery rage against the cruelty of the system. I wrote you every night despite knowing that you can’t understand my words because the cancer had spread to your brain. I sent you digital photos hoping they convey the words “I Love You, Vu” a thousand times to your heart. Did the words and photos pump any life into you, My Love? Because you needed it so badly. Your blood pressure was dangerously low, and so, your heart could stop, and so, you let me know, through a nurse’s call, “Miss Thao, Vu wanted me to call you and inform you that he signed a Do Not Resuscitate form. He said he wants to go peacefully.” I inhale deeply and exhale with the despair of knowing the end can come any day. I’ve been nothing but melancholy when I realized the end was near.

I look back at this journey with you and recall that in the span of 60 days, we’ve been granted 3 calls. Being deprived of contact, the 43 total minutes felt like I had won the lottery each time. My Love, you’ve never had a chance to do FaceTime before. I’ll always remember the way your eyes lit up when the first call on August 18 connected. I saw the smile in your eyes when that sweet voice of yours uttered these five romantic words, You look so beautiful, Sweetie. You are the ill one, but it is you who soothed me. I hope I soothed you, too. You had just finished your first chemo cycle. Although you were in a wheelchair, I felt so much hope from seeing the brightness in your eyes and the laughter and joy we shared. They said 10 minutes. They gave us 11. Eleven blissful minutes of a FaceTime that will be etched into my memories of us.

I’ll always sadly remember your second call, 18 days later, in the middle of the night, on a phone belonging to a stranger I won’t identify. Thank you, compassionate person, whoever you are, for the extended call. You gave us 19 minutes.

Baby, please help me. I need you to call them and please help me. You’re the only one who can help me.

You were scared because they could no longer help you with treatments. You were scared because they put you in a van to transport you to hospice and you fell. You were scared that no one would take care of you. You can’t walk. You can’t sit. You can’t eat. You are wasting away as the cancer takes over your pancreas, stomach, liver, adrenal glands, neck, and lymph nodes, having lost 40 lbs., 20% of your body weight, cachexia is what they call it. One third of cancer patients die from cachexia. Please don’t let this be the end of you. Baby I’m trying to eat but it hurts so bad. I need help using the restroom. I can’t do anything myself. I just lay here. I’m so sorry that you’re suffering so much, Babe. You still look so handsome to me. You break a small smile. I will start making calls first thing in the morning for you. I will do whatever I can, I promise. I love you.  

My Love, I hear you. I see you. You lay there alone, in a hospital bed, itchy from the cancer that had surfaced on your skin, doped up on narcotics to ease the ache from the cancer that had spread to your bones. My Love, I tried. I called all the numbers I had. I begged them to help. But they are robots, bound by bureaucratic strings that strangle the humanity out of them. I’m so sorry I could not save you. I’m so sorry they could not save you. There’s nothing any of us can do to save you. You’ll go to hospice soon.

I’ll always painfully remember our third call. Our last call. Five days ago. The corrections officer said we have 5 minutes. You asked her for more. She said she got work to do so she can’t. I know she heard every word between us. I know it was emotional for her. Because she couldn’t hang up. She let us say what we needed to say. I looked at the call log when it ended. Thirteen minutes.

Babe, they’re sending me to hospice. I’m in so much pain. I got like 8 cancers. Even brain cancer. I can’t think right. Can’t even read your letters. I don’t think I can do this no more. I tried for you, but I can’t live like this much longer. If I go, they ain’t gonna save me. I don’t want them to break my ribs. I signed the DNR. I’m sorry, Babe.

I see you wipe a tear from your eye. I see you scratching. I see you squeeze your temples and wince in pain. My Sweet Vu, will you remember my words to you as you looked at me so intensely?  

Listen to me, Babe. Do not say sorry. I need you to hear this. Can you hear me clearly? You nod. I love you so much. I have loved since the moment we laid eyes on each other 28 years ago in that dimly lit karaoke room. I will always love you as my future continues to unfold, and never without you, though, because you run through my veins and into my heart and throughout every fiber of my being. I can feel you, Babe. You are always with me. And because I love you more than I could ever convey in words, I want you to understand what my actions are saying when it comes to you.

My Love, I will be okay with whatever you feel is best for you. Please do what you must, even if that means you have to let go so you can have peace. I will stay strong and accept whatever happens, whenever it happens. Fight or go in peace, it’s okay with me. You have fought so hard already. You’ve hung on this long. Thank you for fighting. Thank you for being so brave. You are so handsome and such a beautiful person to me. When it is your time to let go and as you come into the light of a place that will bring you peace and healing, please remember these words as my last words to you here on Earth. Sweetheart, you best damn visit me in my dreams and let me feel your presence. I’ll take you in any form. Know that I’ll be there someday, too. Do you remember the lyrics of that country song you wrote me years ago about a person waiting for another? You nod. You wrote those lyrics because you always wanted to be romantic in your words to me. It was your way of asking me to wait for you. Well, it’s going to be your turn to wait for me now. I promise, when it’s my time, my soul will come search for yours. I’ll see you on the other side.

You smile. I want to cry so badly, but I hold back my tears. I never want you to see me cry because I know it’ll make you cry. I breathe in deeply and fight my heart’s agony. I need you to know, until it’s truly over, I’ll keep fighting for you out here. I still got the lawyers and we are still gonna try to bring you home.

Even in your condition, at the end stage of life, you can still throw your smart ass humor at me. You crack a smirk. Bring me home. Is home Heaven? Then you smile. Your smile makes me smile. Then you laugh. Your laugh makes me laugh. And I say to you, home is to mom and dad. But if you don’t make it there, Heaven is a beautiful home, too. It is a place of love, and peace, and no suffering.

Your eyes get that intense look. You pause, the way you always do before you say something that will usually make my heart swell with emotion. Babe, I just wish I was with you. You are my home. I’m sorry that I’m probably not gonna make it home to you. This shit sucks doesn’t it?  

No, don’t apologize, My Sweet Love. They say home is where the heart is. Wherever we are, since our hearts are with each other, we are home.

You right. You always right. I love you so much.

I thank the officer for the time, she turns the camera on her, a masked face with tears dripping from her eyes. She said, “No problem, sweetie. Y’all take care of yourselves.”

Babe, these are the lyrics you quoted from the song:

If you get there before I do, don’t give up on me.
I’ll meet you when my chores are through;
I don’t know how long I’ll be.|
But I’m not gonna let you down, darling wait and see.
And between now and then, ’til I see you again,
I’ll be loving you. Love, me.

You never asked me to wait for you to get out of prison. You told me to continue living my life the way I want. You didn’t know what you could ever offer me. But we both know, you offered me unconditional love. You taught me how to love myself first so that I can truly love and serve others.

Along with those lyrics, you wrote that it seems like one of us is always waiting on the other. When we were younger, we couldn’t communicate well to each other. So we always missed out on each other even if one was waiting on the other. We could never utter the words that would convey the message, “Come back to me. I’ve been waiting for you.” And now, as mature adults who are still crazy about each other, we have never had to explicitly communicate those words because it was an understanding between us, something we felt in our hearts and held in our minds, a conviction and commitment that we would vow to when the time would come. You always made clear to me that you understood one thing for sure… that I would always come running to you. But that road to you on this Earth is gone. Please wait for me, My Darling Vu. I’ll have to run to you in Heaven. It’s now my turn to send the lyrics to you.

If you get there before I do, don’t give up on me.
I’ll meet you when my chores are through;
I don’t know how long I’ll be.
But I’m not gonna let you down, darling wait and see.
And between now and then, ’til I see you again,
I’ll be loving you. Love, me.

In this journey of love and incarceration, terminal cancer feels like a cruel way to end our story. Distance, time, metal bars, and concrete walls couldn’t stop the love from happening, but cancer wrecked everything. Cancer tortured you physically and mentally. It tormented us knowing you are suffering. Cancer shoved you down a path of rapid deterioration and agonizing hurt. With each passing day, we watched you lose a bit of life. You had been hurting since June, and it wasn’t until July 17th that they finally sent you to the hospital to see a specialist. This is after you collapsed multiple times, were taken to the ER, and had lost 30 lbs. in one month. How much suffering must one endure before the prison system even looks your way?

My Love, when you took your last breath, my hope is that you knew that I am full of gratitude for the time I had on this Earth with you. May you feel the love between us that spanned almost three decades and brought us together now. I write these heavy words with tears flowing and lips quivering. These lips have longed to kiss you one last time and whisper gently to you, “I’m here, Vu. I love you.” But now it will not come to be.

I am angry at this journey you have had to trek. Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you, prison system.

I question in a philosophical way, “did cancer take your life, or did prison take it?” I would say both. Cancer took away the future. Prison took away the past. I remember your dad’s words when you were sent away for 60 years. “They’re burying my son alive.” That is true. But your extraordinary spirit found a way to live in the present. Be in the moment. You once wrote me:

Our time together when we were young was really too short but our feelings for each other are everlasting. In that short amount of time, you touched a very deep part of my heart that I’ll take with me to the grave. I read a philosopher named Schopenhauer who wrote “men spend their lives either reflecting on the past or anticipating the future. They therefore miss the moment.” But I think this saying reflects more on men who are incarcerated. Right now, I am living in a state he called, “ad interim” – in between – which means the moment is nothing. This statement would be very true if you hadn’t come back in my life. Even while incarcerated, I want to live in the moment with you through your work, your love, and your dreams of the future for us. Thao, I don’t want to miss anymore moments with you. I know we can’t foresee the future, but we can always hope for the outcome of what we want. For now, I want you to know I’m living in the moment and feeling alive because of you.

Our moments when we lived fully with each other are precious gifts I’ll hold with me always. Back then in 1992 through now and into the future… letters, phone calls, visits, songs, hugs, kisses. I will continue to live my life the way you always wanted me to… with happiness and joy and service to others. I will get there someday, but right now, my heart is heavy as I reflect on when you started dying.

You started dying from cancer as recent as June. Over the course of days, your pain increased. While you were in a state of immense pain, you limped your way out of your cell into the day room, stood in line with a swollen foot, and made sure you called me on July 16th, the anniversary of my first letter to you after being gone from your life for so many years. You made sure I got my favorite flowers, orchids, delivered to me on that day. They are so beautiful. Thank you for celebrating the anniversary of our reunion and always showing me how much you love and cherish what we have. You’ve always been a hopeless romantic. As tough as you were on the outside, I’ve always known the tenderness in you. Even as an incarcerated man, you always found a way to show me the romantic side of you. I would have never guessed that would be our last call from Beto Unit, the place they forced you to call “home” for the last 23 years.

You left for the prison hospital the next day. 4 days later, I received the news of your prognosis, and it broke us all down into shock and delirium. 9 days later, I received news that your prognosis was even worse than what was told to us before. 6 days later you began chemo treatment. 8 days later you spoke with the lawyer. He called me with a very disturbing update.

“Thao, he is not doing well. He’s in a wheelchair, needs assistance for the bathroom, his voice is very hoarse, he struggles to read your letters and struggles even more in writing, but he did write you a letter. He wants to make sure you got the letter.”

My Love, I saw the struggle in your writing, your once beautiful handwriting is now child-like print. I see you grappling to complete sentences.

August 10
Hi, Love. At the moment, I don’t understand a thing. All I understand is the pain and suffering. It’s very important that I talk to you. Please make it happen because you are the only one who can understand me. I need for things to get back to normal so at least I get back to my unit because if nothing else, at least use the phone and hear your voice. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t even able to read your letters or understand. When I did start to understand, all I did was cry. What is true cannot be denied. Every time I picked up the paper, I start crying all over once again.

Throughout our years together, we have bonded over our letters to each other. I had always hoped the last line of your last letter from prison to me would be dated some time in 2027: Babe, I’m coming home to you!

But instead, it is dated August 24, 2020: I don’t really know how long I can live like this, but for now I’ll keep trying for you. I love you very much.

Today, September 12, 2020, marks the end of our road together here on Earth. I am grateful you got a call with your whole family on August 27. You got to say I love you to everyone, and everyone got to say I love you to you. And lucky me, I got to ask you to marry me. With tears in your eyes, you nodded yes. Our family cheered in an uproar of joy. “Congratulations Thao & Vu!” I’m sure you didn’t want things to go down that way. You told your niece Tasi you’d call me wife one day. I think you would have wanted to ask me. You were old school like that. But you once wrote me, I’m very intrigued by this new you. A strong, independent, and bold woman. If I didn’t know you, I would be very intimidated. Good thing we have history. So you know damn well I’m not afraid to ask for what I want. Thank you for saying yes. For a short period of our time together, we had an intention to marry. I don’t regret anything. I know I gave you my all. And I know you for damn sure gave me your all. You always ended your letters telling me to take care of myself. I promise you that I will. Because there is still so much to be done in your name and in your honor. I thank you for being my guiding light here on Earth. I’ll see you in the light on the other side, Babe. No more darkness. No more pain. No more suffering. You are free now. Free at last. May you rest in Radiant Peace.

18 thoughts on “You Are Free At Last”

  1. Thao,

    There are no words to eloquently convey my deepest condolences and love to you and Vu. I am so incredibly sorry about everything Vu has endured. His story is bittersweet in that he is no longer suffering, but the history and love between the two of you is so beautiful and I know you were with him in his last moments. I am here for you now and going forward for anything you will ever need, just call me. All my love and support, for you and the entire family, always.

    M

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  2. Dear Thao,

    I am but a stranger on the other side of the globe, but your story has touched me because it carried the message of true love. The most powerful force in the realm of humanity. It can move mountains and effect everlasting change. That is a gift you carry within you always now. I am sending you my heartfelt condolences and I am but one other person in the social and health field willing to support fighting the injustice of the systems underlying Vu‘s and your story. I added you on Linkedin. Please reach out if you ever need an ally down under. Blessings and condolences to your whole family.

    Respectfully,

    Thy

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  3. I am so sorry for your loss. My heart aches for you, aches for Vu. My sister told me the news today. I ask how he is doing every time i talk with Cindy. I hated to hear how much pain he was in. We l wanted him home to be with the family. We hoped for more time and a chance for remission. I prayed every night for him and even asked God to take 10 years of my life to exchange for a few happy years for him to experience. I sit here in tears reading this last letter. I hope and pray that you will be able to help bring him home for the last visit to say good bye.
    Again, i am so sorry for your loss. I know that he is truly free now and hope he is at peace. I will continue to pray that he is being guided back home to Jesus. Thank you for all your hard work and dedication towards his life. the family really do appreciate you.

    My condolences and prayers for you as well. May God wrap his arms around you and give you lots of love and comfort ❤

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  4. Dear chị Thảo!
    I read, I cry, and I speechless!
    My condolences and prayers to you and anh Vu’s family. Thank you for sharing your story, your love and your endless fighting for anh Vu. You tried your best and you did more than any ordinary human can do. I have faith that you will carry on with lots of love and sweet memories of him.
    May anh Vu Rest In Peace!
    Respect,
    – N

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  5. I sit here with tears streaming down my face as I read your update. That you are able to write so eloquently, with love, fore, passion and vulnerability as you face this tremendous loss is a testament to your love. Thank you for sharing your heart and the love you shared with Vu. I hold you in my heart as you grieve. I lost my father on September 12th, 2017, after along, painful cancer struggle. As I remember my father each year, I will remember Vu and say prayers for him and you as well. With love and gratitude, and setting intentions for comfort and peace to come,

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  6. Dear Thao,

    I don’t know you and Vu personally, but your story and transcending powerful love truly touched my heart and broke it open. Thank you for sharing your heart and bearing your soul. You and Vu are truly soulmates, and your love is infinite. He will be with you in soul and spirit until your reunion again. I am deeply sorry that that union could not happen in the flesh and physical form here in Earth. It is a test of your enduring and powerful love beyond the physical, and deeply in the spiritual. In my grief of my beloved son’s death, there is a book that helped comforted me. It is called “Healing Grief: Reclaiming Life After Loss” by James Van Praagh. Perhaps there will be a chapter or some lines in it that might be able to comfort you as well. It talks about the spiritual soul’s journey, how death teaches us and completes a cycle, the afterlife, reincarnation, and how our loved ones are always close to us in spirit. I send you so much love, prayers, comfort and care. The prison system is very broken and I am so sorry your love had to endure it without relief. May he be held in your arms and hold you again someday in a other lifetime, another place. Your letter is so very powerful and touching, and that song is so perfect. Your Vu sounds like a wonderful soul with a romantic tender heart. May he live on through your love and always remain close in spirit. You are a very special and strong woman, a gift to him and this world.

    My deepest condolences and care,
    Ly Hoàng-Schmidt

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  7. Dear Thao,

    I’m so sorry for your loss and pray for your patience on this sad and difficult journey.

    Here’s a prayer for dear Vu:

    O my God! O Thou forgiver of sins, bestower of gifts, dispeller of afflictions!

    Verily, I beseech thee to forgive the sins of such as have abandoned the physical garment and have ascended to the spiritual world.

    O my Lord! Purify them from trespasses, dispel their sorrows, and change their darkness into light. Cause them to enter the garden of happiness, cleanse them with the most pure water, and grant them to behold Thy splendors on the loftiest mount.

    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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  8. I’m so sorry. This is sad. Thank you for sharing yalls story with us. May Vu Rest In Peace and you find it here for the time being. Thank you, again, for just being you. You two are wonderful people. Prayers to your and his family. I hope to see Vu one day in heaven as well. I’m just a stranger but I’d like to tell him that he was a wonderful person with admirable strength and love.

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  9. Dear Dr Ha,

    I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your voice with the world. Your story of love is very heart-warming. What you and your beloved husband-to-be and soulmate shared is so rare. Some people go through their entire life searching for this kind of true love and not all are blessed with finding it.

    Grief is incredibly lonely. I hope you find a bit of strength in the memories, hopes and dreams that you and your beloved had for one another.

    Warmly,

    Lily Thi

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  10. I cried reading this. Thank you for sharing this story courageously, even though it hurts so much. This story motivates me to work harder to care for our Vietnamese people. Vu was handed bad cards in life and he did not deserve any of it. Following this story on your blog changed my life. Sending you thanks, condolences, and hugs.

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  11. I am so sorry for your loss, Thao.

    Gale Gibbons Pronouns: she/her Associate Faculty – Other Non Credit MiraCosta College

    ________________________________

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  12. Tôi ngưỡng mộ tình yêu của chị. Chị thật là một người phụ nữ mà mọi người đàn ông đều tìm kiếm. Một người phụ nữ đáng được trân trọng. Anh ấy đã rất may mắn vì đã có được tình yêu của chị.

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  13. Dear professor Thao Ha,

    Thank you for sharing your most incredible story with us. As I read through this, I just wanted you to know that I am always thinking about you. I keep you and your family in my prayers every other night, and I dream to live out the life that you have taught me in our sociology classes. No matter how many classes I take at UCLA or other colleges, I don’t feel the same integrity, true love, and passion like I experienced in your class. That is why I cannot forget you. And to watch someone I truly admire be in pain really hurts and down hearts me. I am burdened to see that you’re going through a lot. I’m so sorry. I just wish I could give you a super tight hug. I will try my best to hold my tears. Please know that I am still remembering your presence and that you’re truly loved. Many things you do are out of sincerity and you mean the world and hope to some people like me. Please stay strong, little one! You’ve got the biggest heart. You also have beautiful brown eyes. I will continuously keep in you in my prayer, Dr. Thao Ha. I believe in truth and that your love will continue to see over you and protect you. Please continue to fight for justice, love, and peace – you shine so beautifully when you’re YOU! I love you so much. xx

    Eternity is written in our hearts……… ❤

    Ain K.

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  14. I am so very sorry..thou I just came across your blog today. I will Pray for your loss and your familys loss. I do not know your story except from this entry,but my heart goes out to you…such a beautiful story of love. He will be waiting for you.❤
    God Bless you and all your memories of him.🙏

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