My aunt died last night. This was Fourth Aunt on my mother's side, the aunt to whom I refer to as my "French aunt," because while most of my extended family made a bee-line for the US after fleeing Vietnam, Fourth Uncle and his family went instead to France. And while her death wasn't a complete surprise -- she had been treated for cancer in the last year -- it's suddenness still caught everyone by surprise.
Because of the distance, I'm not as familiar with my Fourth Aunt and Uncle, as I am with the rest of my mother's relations. In fact, I'd only met her three times, and each time, it was a navigation between three languages: English, French and Vietnamese. My French is poor, my Vietnamese even poorer, but during our last interaction, when she and my uncle came to visit the US, we managed to cobble together a conversation about French books and French authors. They gave Matthew and me a gift of a bottle of Sauternes (half drunk) and tins of foie gras (which we kept in our kitchen cabinet until they went bad and leaked oil).
I received the news by email last night, but I didn't learn about her death until this afternoon. Or, slightly rephrased, I received an email last night, but didn't understand it until today. When I first saw the email, I thought it was a piece of spam that had somehow found its way into my work account at school. The subject line read: Tata Loan, and my initial reaction was to ask, "What's this about a car loan?" Of course, I had thought "Tata" referred to the Indian car line, and since I had just spoken with my mother the night before about swapping cars, this is where my mind immediately went. I didn't know Tata had already introduced its line of cars into the US, I thought. But when I opened the email, it became apparent that the subject line referred to my aunt, Loan, and that I had missed the connection.
When people read, they oftentimes sub-vocalize. But for Vietnamese, I have to go all the way to full vocalization. As I attempt to read Vietnamese, I twist each word around on my tongue until to approaches something appropriate to the context. I practice the different modulations of vowels until the word matches something familiar. Thus, reading Vietnamese is a laborious process. From my conversation with my mother the other night (the same conversation in which we discussed cars), she told me that Tata (a familial Vietnamese word for "aunt") had developed complications, which made her coughing up blood. I thought this email was related to that conversation. I put it aside.
I've got a small collection of notes my mother has sent me. Handwritten notes, on scraps of translucent paper or long, oblong Post-Its featuring the mascot of the school my father used to teach out, Kunsmiller Middle School. She writes them in Vietnamese, and half the time, I try to parse them, and the other half, I don't even bother. I wonder if sometimes she mistakes me for my brother (as she sometimes does on the phone), who is more fluent than I am. But these notes are usually included with birthday or Christmas checks, or when I've forgotten to balance my checkbook and have overdrawn again.
But this afternoon, my cousin (from Sixth Aunt) called Matthew to tell him that Tata Loan had indeed died, and that was the content of the above email. An odd transmission route of information: I should have known earlier -- late last night, as a matter of fact -- but my inability to read meant that I had become the last person to know. Even Matthew knew before I did, if only by a few seconds. He had that stricken look, as if bad news intensifies geometrically as its passed from person to person.
A few minutes ago, I tried to read my mother's original email: Các con, Tata Loan mới mất cách đây chùng 2 tiếng đồng hồ tại Bordeaux.
Các con: All my children.
Tata Loan: now a proper name, rather than an offer.
mới mất cách đây: was just lost
chùng 2 tiếng đồng hồ tại Bordeaux: around 2 o'clock, in Bordeaux.
The letter contines, but I can't read it. Not because I can't, but because I can't.