Buckle in, folks. This will be a lengthier obituary. I tried to be concise, but you try summarizing the love of your life in 400 words or less. It’s a cruel task. So, I invite you to read on to get a glimpse into Son’s life and personality.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, on March 19, 1972, Son Hai Nguyen was the first-born son to Lan and Thang Nguyen. He was later joined by a sister, Trang, and a brother, Phong. As the Vietnam War was coming to its bitter end, the selfless decision was made to send Son to America in the hopes of a better life. At the age of three, Son made his way to America via a two-month stay in a refugee camp in Guam before eventually being given entry to the U.S. at Camp Pendleton with his Aunt Thoa and his uncles Phuong and Long. As a 3-year-old entering America, Son’s first memory is that of a soldier handing him a lollipop, while elder family members surely carry the burdens of much heavier memories.
Son lived the immigrant’s American Dream with all the complexities that iconic path entails. He spoke fondly of his time living with his aunt and uncles before settling in with his Aunt Thoa and Uncle Rob, who eventually added a daughter, Christine, to the family. He felt a strong bond with his aunt and uncles over their shared struggle of coming to America. Like many immigrant children, Son struggled with the requirement to assimilate. He spoke Vietnamese only rarely and not publicly. He shared little of his past and only reluctantly. He used humor to deflect complex feelings. It took me many years to piece together that he was, in fact, a war refugee.
He bore the burden that comes with being assigned the label of model minority. While admired by everyone he knew, he was often passed over for opportunities and we were occasionally the targets of prejudice for being in an interracial relationship. Son refused to become embittered. He accepted the unfairness of life and chose instead to focus on the good in life and the goodness in so many people around us.
Perhaps being born in the midst of the chaos and trauma of a major war catalyzed Son’s lifelong peaceful nature. If you ask anyone who knew him, Son is known for his reliability, patience, kindness, compassion, and generosity. This is all true, 100% true. I hear it from everyone who has ever met him or worked with him. But he was also so much more. I’d like to share with you just a few of those other dimensions to Son’s life and personality that he often didn’t share with the public.
Son was an amazing basketball player back in the day. To my horror, he and his friends used to mountain bike at night in NC, where inevitably someone would come home bruised and battered, having predictably flipped their bike over a tree root. He was mesmerized by the ocean and always wanted to be near water. He really loved hiking in the mountains of North Carolina and was not afraid of heights. Son grew up heavily influenced by early rap and hip-hop. He was musically gifted but untrained. He could proficiently identify samplings of old music in new songs.
Son was a born performer. He loved to ham it up in front of crowds, excelling working for an entertainment company where his job was to flirt and dance with old rich folks at corporate parties. He was a really great hip-hop dancer and instructor, winning many awards at dance competitions with his all-male dance crew. He even worked as a backup dancer for a Miami rapper.
For years, Son and his friends were heavy into Jeep-ing. He deeply loved that old Jeep of his that could reliably be counted on to break down at the most inconvenient times. He dragged me on more than one Jeep Jamboree adventure. It always amazed me that he could somehow fit in with a crowd of self-proclaimed “rednecks” with confederate bumper stickers. But he did.
Son was raised with the kind of imagination that comes from feasting on fantasy and sci-fi books. He re-read these novels until nearly memorized, and lured me into these fantastical worlds with him, for which I am eternally grateful. Naturally, he loved playing D&D and video games as an extension of that imagination. He was tech-savvy and found his niche at Rollins College, where he could be a part of the noble institution of higher education while working with tech and working closely with people. He enjoyed interacting daily with staff and faculty.
After two decades of separation, Son was reunited with his parents and siblings who finally made it to the U.S. He relished this reunion. Though we didn’t get to visit them in California as often as we liked, whenever we did, his whole family treated Son and I like royalty, even going so far as to throw us a (second) Vietnamese wedding. There was a strong bond there, regardless of language and geographical barriers.
This family reunion reignited his desire to understand his roots. He began watching YouTube videos of Saigon and Vietnamese cooking channels. As he matured, the compulsion to fit in at all costs—the high price paid for assimilation—began to loosen, and he would occasionally fiercely advocate when he felt someone was mistreated or a policy was problematic. Given his easy-going nature, these rare outbursts from Son proved to be a very effective tool as those around him often capitulated, stunned to hear him use a firm tone and take such a strong stance. He began to stand up more and more against social injustices. And he quietly shared his pride of his Vietnamese heritage with those around him. One student worker wrote him when he was sick to share what a difference his pride in his heritage made to her as she navigated college as a Vietnamese outsider. In his final weeks, Son continuously watched videos of Vietnam. Though he only lived there for the first few years of his life, the place, the food, and family provided him comfort in the end.
It always seemed to me that Son saved my life. I was a very shy 14-year-old when a 17-year-old Son swept me off my feet with his over-the-top romantic gestures and swagger. He would fill jumbo cards with undying proclamations of love and buy me shell rings and trinkets with his meager paychecks. We acted as foolish teens in love do—obsessed and sneaking off to be with one another any chance we could, likely causing my parents and his aunt and uncle worry. Ultimately, we spent 31 years together, 21 of those married. We changed immensely over the years—thank goodness—but we chose each other again and again as we evolved. He moved not once, but twice, for my career. I couldn’t have found a more supportive partner in life. I miss Son terribly and still can’t imagine a world in which I don’t get to be with him every day to share my life. Before he died, Son reminded me to focus on how fortunate we were to have met so young so that we could still have had decades of memories together. Bittersweet.
Son had a natural rapport with children. First, with his niece Christine and later with our friends’ children Charlie, Sawyer, Wyatt, and Lucas. In particular, he had a very special bond with Charlie. One Halloween, Son and I decided to surprise Charlie by dressing up as unicorns, as she was. The look on her face when she saw us emerge from the bedroom in full costume is one of my most cherished memories, as is my recollection of Son proudly strutting down Park Avenue, in costume, holding Charlie’s hand tight even as we ran into multiple co-workers.
When Son was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we were in the midst of the process of adopting a baby. My biggest regret in losing Son is that I will not get to see him experience fatherhood and that a child has lost out on that special connection that surely would have enriched their life. His heart was open to adoption, and he would have been an involved and empathetic dad.
All of us who knew and loved Son are saddened to see a life of potential and goodness cut short. It is deeply unfair. I still expect him to walk through the front door. He leaves behind so many grieving family members and friends. But in the end, Son felt the love of everyone who reached out. We were buttressed by all the meals, cards, flowers, phone calls, gifts, visits, and the deep generosity of Rollins College where we both worked. He knew he was loved and that in his relatively short life he had made an impact on so many. I appreciate all of you for this lovely communal parting gift.
I hope this obituary gives you a glimpse into Son’s life. Due to COVID restrictions, we will be postponing a memorial service for a later date. I cannot imagine a service where anyone who wants to attend cannot and where we cannot hug one another. Once a memorial service date is set—perhaps the end of summer or the beginning of fall—I will share that information. In the meantime, please keep sharing with me and each other any stories you have of Son to keep him alive for all of us. And if any of you would like to share a few words about Son at this future service, either spoken or through writings, please let me know. In lieu of flowers, please hug tightly the person you love most in this world and let them know how much you love them—something Son and I did every single day together.