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Thread: True Story

  1. #1
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    True Story

    I've just finished a short piece of writing, based on a true story, and I want to make it perfect before sharing with friends and family. I'm looking for your edits here.

    It's kind of long (3400 words), and since this forum only allows 1,000 words per post, I plan to post 4 segments. Is it the right thing to do?

    Thanks.

    BV



  2. #2
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    Yes, keep your posts to 1k or less, and be sure to place extra spaces between paragraphs. Otherwise, it's a disaster to read on the screen.

    I'm curious. Is this creative nonfiction or a short story (fiction)? A lot of good fiction is grounded in factual events, but if you are wedded to telling the exact truth in fiction, you can lose the structure of a short story. You risk writing "slice-of-life," a piece that has drama but no real conflict or resolution.

    Jeanne

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    Nam (1)

    We planned to reunite in Southern California on April 14, 2004, on the wedding date of our youngest sister, Hà. Over the phone I could feel my brother Nam’s excitement when he told me he’d been accepted to the Brooklyn Tech High School as a faculty member. His primary responsibility was to take care of the science lab. His wife, Chí, also told me that he’d just bought an expensive suit for the dance at Hà’s wedding.

    Then, one day he complained to me over the phone that his back had been bothering him, and he wasn’t sure if the pain had anything to do with years of hard labor and carrying heavy loads during the first few years in America.

    “Do you still carry heavy loads?” I asked.

    Nam replied that he had not. “My job at the school is very easy,” he said. “I only carry heavy stuff at home, if any. And I always wear back support belt when I carry heavy loads.”

    He suspected bone spurs, the same disease that our dad had experienced. When it got close to Ha’s wedding date, he told me that doctors recommended a surgery must be done since X-ray results were inconclusive. He was still hoping to make it to the wedding after the surgery, but his hope began to fade as time progressed. On the weekend before my departure to California, I called my sister-in-law and learned that Nam had gone through the surgery but was still hospitalized. She told me that a tumor had been found on his back and the surgeon had removed it.

    When I was at the wedding of Chữ and Hà, many friends and relatives inquired for Nam, then upon knowing what happened, they asked if it was a malicious or a benign tumor.

    “I want to know the answer to that question myself,” I told them. Everyone made an effort to forget about the incidence and tried to have a good time on the happy day of our youngest sister.

    After the wedding, the family gathered in the living room at my parents’ house to listen to my younger brother Lân, who broke the news that Nam was diagnosed with cancer. Lân was the only one who knew it in advance from Chí, who told him not to tell anyone until after the wedding.

    I was upset that my sister-in-law had not told me about it, then I figured that she must have had her reason as sometimes it would be wise to leave things untold. Chí knew how close I was to my older brother, and if I had known about the seriousness of the disease, I would have acted strangely at the wedding.

    I waited until I got back home in Florida to call him, then I learned that he got liver cancer, caused by Hepatitis B. In fact, Nam had known about the Hep B virus living in his body ten years earlier, and he had been seeing a family doctor, who was supposed to monitor his enzymes and keep an eye on the virus. However, we had no idea why the doctor had failed to alarm my brother about the spread of Hep B virus because it took quite some time for the virus to infect the liver, causing damage, cirrhosis, and cancer, let alone spreading to the spine.

    My brother endured two operations in such a short time – two weeks, and it really took a toll on him. His voice sounded weak over the phone as he told me that he was searching the Internet and learning about liver cancer.

    “When do you plan to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy?” I asked.

    “I haven’t thought about it,” replied Nam. “I’m so damn tired now. I’m going to leave it up to my wife.”

    I was surprised to hear that; it didn’t sound like the brother I knew. Nam had always been in control, and normally he would never let his wife make the decision when his life was on the line. Two weeks later, my parents told me that it didn’t seem to be promising at all, and Nam was taken to somewhere unknown to them. Chí called my parents, saying that Nam needed his mother by his side, and my mom had flown to New York.

    My mom told me over the phone that the night before, Nam had complained about an excruciating pain on his chest and they had taken him to the hospital. I realized that the situation had gotten worse much quicker than I’d anticipated, so I booked a ticket to New York the following day.

    The plane landed at the JFK international airport near dusk. When I arrived at their apartment in Brooklyn, it was dark and already past the hours to visit the place where Nam was staying. That night, I had dinner with my mom and sister-in-law, and Bonnie was doing homework in the living room. Bonnie was Nam and Chí’s only child, born on April 30, 1991. My brother told me that his wife had sustained two serious diseases – lupus and diabetes – while carrying Bonnie, and the doctors had advised her to have an abortion, which they both rejected. Chí told me that when she gave birth to Bonnie at the New York Downtown Hospital in Manhattan, she’d pleaded the doctors to delay Bonnie’s birth by one day because she didn’t want her daughter born on the “black April 30”, when Saigon fell to the Communists. The doctors did not honor her request since their priority was the safety of the mother and child, and it would be too risky to wait till the following day to perform the Caesarean section. The childbirth went smoothly, and Bonnie turned out to be a pretty and smart kid. At the time, I was single and crazy about the first niece I’d ever had, so whenever I had the time, I would fly to New York from Alabama to visit my brother and his family.

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    Nam (2)

    That night, Chí sounded so optimistic, as if everything was still under control. However, one thing that bothered me was the fact that my brother had been staying in the nursing home, not a hospital where he would be undergoing serious treatments.

    “Doctors suggested we should leave him there,” Chí explained. “It’s only temporary. Once he gets better, we will proceed with aggressive treatments.”

    I found it hard to accept, but it was no use reasoning with my sister-in-law. While we were debating, my mom just sat there without any comments.

    The next morning I called Nam at the nursing home at very early hours. He sounded excited when he knew that I was in New York.

    “What time did you get here yesterday?” He asked.

    “I don’t remember,” I told him. “But when I got to the apartment, it was past visiting hours.”

    After some casual inquires, he suddenly broke down.

    “F***! I’m going to pass away, Long!” His voice cracked over the phone.

    I did not expect his mood to change so quickly. I knew I had to keep my composure and somehow find a word of consolation.

    “It cannot be that bad, Nam,” I comforted him. “Be optimistic, your wife and I will visit you shortly.”

    He gradually calmed down and became somewhat talkative as he changed subjects. I thought, perhaps in a moment, when he lost control, he’d said what he hadn’t meant to say. He sounded more monotonous and in control, as if everything had been normal. However, to me it wasn’t normal. After I hung up the phone, I stormed into the kitchen where my mom was sitting.

    “Why didn’t you tell me how depressed my brother had been?” I ask my mom, spitefully.

    “I - I don’t know anything.” My mom stammered.

    “What did he say?” said Chi, walking from her bedroom, hands on her hips. “Take it easy! Don’t be so rude to mom.”

    “He said he was dying.” I yelled at my sister-in-law, purposely leaving out the F word that Nam had used.

    “He must be tired and delusional!”

    We took the first bus and got to the nursing home very early. Nam had just finished breakfast when we arrived. Before arriving, I’d already seen the photo taken after his second surgery, still I was shocked to see him in the state he was in; his face was like a deflated balloon, making him look like a very old man.

    “Long, stay here,” said Chí. “I have to go to Bonnie’s school to take care of something.”

    Chí had studied accounting at a college in New York City, and had worked at the bank for a short time before she retired due to lupus and diabetes. Recently she felt healthy and decided to work at a nail salon. Since Nam got sick, she’d taken a permanent leave.

    After she left, I moved the long chair next to Nam’s bed and we started to talk all day long. We recalled stories of the past, in the early 1980’s, when we’d lived together, with me attending Oak Grove High School and him at West Valley College, how we’d shared an apartment on J Street before we moved to Mr. Turner’s apartment complex on 4th Street in downtown Davis.

    Nam had studied mechanical engineering, and after graduation he’d had a tough time finding a job, although he had a decent GPA at U.C. Davis. His first job had been co-op for IBM in San Jose and his supervisor had beenVietnamese. In most cases, co-op would be converted to a permanent hire, but it hadn’t been the case for Nam. We often wondered why the Vietnamese boss hadn’t called Nam back for at least an interview since he’d worked hard and completed all the assignments successfully. His first job after graduation was a carpenter, building customized closets for the rich who lived up in the mountains. He’d worked diligently, but had been exploited by his Russian boss. The guy had paid Nam minimum wage and implied that he would never give hard workers like Nam a raise, leaving him no choice but to quit. In 1988, a year after his graduation, Nam married Chí in New York. My family was still in Vietnam, so on his wedding day I was the only member from the groom’s family. At the same time, my parents traveled to Bạc Liêu, a remote town in the Southern part of Vietnam where the bride’s parents was residing, to arrange a marriage for their children. That must have been the strangest marriage ever, since on the wedding day the place had been full of guests but the groom and the bride hadn’t been present.

    After their marriage, Chí moved from New York to San Jose to live with Nam. I was back at U.C. Davis, trying to pursue my Master’s degree, and occasionally I came to visit them on the weekends. They leased a room from a house owned by a Vietnamese family. The room was confined, but they had their own entrance, own bathroom, and the kitchen was set up outdoors. If I stayed overnight, I would sleep on the carpet. I remember Nam and Chí would get up very early in the morning but wouldn’t get out of bed and played around like kids.

    “Please let me cuddle, just one more time!” said Chí, giggling.

    “No, you can’t. It drives me crazy.” Nam would reply in a cheerful tone.

    I glanced up and saw Chí lying on her husband’s belly and trying to tickle him. That was the most difficult, but happiest time of their lives.

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    Nam (3)

    Less than a year later, they moved to Schenectady, a small town in upstate New York and close to Albany, the state capitol. Nam worked as a technician in a small electronic firm owned by a Vietnamese, and Chí worked in the local bank. She told me her job was light but mentally challenged because she had to deal with numbers and would be in big trouble if she miscalculated something. At the time, I had accepted a job offer in Huntsville, AL and I thought the place where I lived was depressing, but Schenectady was even more boring. In 1990 they’d just moved to New York City when the party of seven in our family arrived in New York in an Orderly Departure Program. That was the most depressing time for Nam, being unemployed, having a pregnant wife about to give birth, and reuniting with parents and siblings; all crammed in a one-bedroom apartment on Avenue P in Brooklyn.

    A decade later, all family members that came from Vietnam to New York had settled down in California, and Nam’s family life also became stable. After working with minimum wage as a teacher aide for a long time, he finally passed the state certification exam to earn the teaching credentials and got accepted to the staff at the Brooklyn Tech High School. He told me that the lab at Brooklyn Tech was his own little world, where he grew plants and bred insects for the science and biology classes. Sadly, not long after he got the new job, he found out he had cancer.

    While spending time to confide with my brother in the nursing home, I also took advantage of his nap time to go make calls to doctors who had treated him. At first no one wanted to talk to me, and I had to ask my sister-in-law to verify and authorize before they could share with me Nam’s prognosis. These doctors played hot potato with me, but I was determined to get to the bottom of it, and I finally got to the doctor who’d operated on my brother the second time.

    “Your brother’s prognosis is hopeless,” said the doctor. “ There is nothing that we can do but to offer him hospice right now.”

    I felt like the sky had just collapsed. I knew exactly what “hospice” meant, and bluntly that was the comfort service for people waiting to die. I struggled to figure out why my sister-in-law had allowed it to happen; then I could only come up with two hypotheses: either she’d played dumb, or she hadn’t understood the doctors. I forced myself to believe with the latter.

    “I’m going to ask for second, third, and fourth opinion of other doctors.” I said to the doctor who’d last seen my brother.

    “You have the right to do so,” the doctor replied. “But, what you should consider is whether to give him a quality life before…”

    “I don’t want to hear it.” I interrupted before the doctor could finish his sentence. I was not ready for the kind of discussion he was leading to. I said bye and hung up quickly, refusing to listen to the doctor whom I considered impassionate to patients. Next, I frantically looked up in the phone book and called all the oncologists that I could find in NYC, trying to make an appointment for my brother. After three days in New York, I had to say goodbye to my brother since I had to return to my family and my job in Florida. I promised to be back soon after I finished arrangements at NASA where I was working full-time and Florida Institute of Technology where I was teaching part-time.

    I made three more trips back to New York in the span of three months. On my second trip I helped move him from the nursing home to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, where patients were expected to undergo aggressive treatments. At that time, my older sister Thúy was also there with my mom. Thúy was married to a half Caucasian and half Japanese husband, and they had a young son of about 6 years old. She left her husband and son in Michigan so that she could take care of our brother. On my third trip, I visited him in Mt. Sinai and asked to take the job of the nurse, taking him to the radiation therapy located on the first floor every day. I later learned that Mt. Sinai would fulfill the wish of the patients and the family, no matter how desperate the situation might have been, and give them all the treatments that they desired to the end. I felt that I bore the great responsibility for taking my brother there and letting him fight to the end. Now, when I think about it, there are times when I feel remorseful as I am not sure if I did the right thing. I regretted that my brother had been in great pain until his last breath.

    “I’m going to pass away, Long!” That was the first outcry I’d heard from Nam, but it wasn’t the last. I was told that in another moment of delusion, as my sister-in-law had suggested, Nam had confided to Hà when she and all the members in the family flew from California to visit him in Mt Sinai.

    “You are a pharmacist,” He’d told our youngest sister. “Give me some poison and let me end it please!”

    Then, they both hugged in tears.

    The fourth and last time I came to New York since my brother fell sick was sometime in August of 2004. I came to see him buried. At the funeral home, I represented my family to read the eulogy. My voice was choked with emotion as I could not hold back the tears.

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    Nam (4 and final)

    After Nam passed on, I called Chí almost every weekend, trying to make her feel less lonely.

    “I now know what it means to be heart broken.” She told me.

    However, it wasn’t always melancholy when I spoke to her. There were times when she was happy as she boasted about Bonnie being accepted to the Brooklyn Tech High School, where her dad had worked. The fact that Bonnie did well academically made her feel more fortunate. She told me that she was still undergoing weekly dialysis and had been on the kidney transplant waiting list for three years; there were a couple of times she was called to the transplant but could not make it to the hospital on time. She was hoping that after the transplant she would be able to follow Bonnie to whatever university town in the future.

    On Independence Day of 2008, I received a phone call from my niece.

    “Uncle Long,” Bonnie sounded so excited over the phone. “My mom got a new kidney.”

    The good news was followed with horrible news, one after another. My sister-in-law received the transplant from one of the best hospitals in the U.S. specialized in kidney transplant – the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, but the kidney rejected and her health deteriorated rapidly. She passed away two days after the transplant, leaving behind a daughter who was 17 years old.

    When I received the news, I was in Monterey, CA, getting ready for my teaching assignment at the Naval Postgraduate School. I had to wait a month before I could take my niece to visit her mom’s grave, which was also where my brother’s grave rested, in the New Jersey Linden cemetery. When my brother had died four years earlier, Chí had told me to get a double occupancy just in case she would join him later. As I placed the incense that Bonnie had helped me light up between my palms, I prayed in silence and promised to my brother and sister that I would take good care of their daughter.

    Bonnie was a girl with strong will, just like her parents had been. After her mom died, at the age of seventeen, Bonnie professed that there were two necessities required to overcome the misfortune: strength and confidence. Since she felt that she already possessed what she needed, she would not rely on anyone but herself to rise up. And from an orphan who had lost both parents during her teens, Bonnie has matured to become a beautiful 21-year-old lady.

    She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental engineering at Drexel University while also working as a staff engineer co-op at All4 Inc. The future is full of questions for Bonnie, but I can clearly see in her, the aspiration that I had when I was at her age – the aspiration that had carried me through the tough times. Therefore, I have all the reasons to believe that my niece will have a very successful career.

  7. #7
    Senior Member John Oberon's Avatar
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    Alrighty...might have to wait a while for a critique. That's a chunk for these boards.

  8. #8
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    Sorry about that, John. I didn't mean to take the boards by the storm!
    Looking forward to your critique, which I'm sure will make the story perfect.

  9. #9
    Senior Member John Oberon's Avatar
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    Now this is a excerpt, right? Not a standalone short story, right?

  10. #10
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    John, right! It's an excerpt.

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