Patchwork Portraiture

Show me a sunset and I’ll picture my mom. 

I see her mostly in the red-orange twilight, but I also see her below the blurred, colorless horizon.


She’s standing in the bathroom at our old Houston condo. Her face is just inches from the mirror, a small oval of fog clinging to where the warmth of her breath grazed the glass. She keeps her brown eyes wide and mouth gaping open as she swipes on mascara from the pink-and-green Great Lash bottle cradled between her fingers. The silver lash curler she just used lies open on the edge of the sink, losing its balance. After she coats her thin eyelashes noir, she reaches for her favorite Loreal bronzer that accentuates the freckles that speckle her cheekbones. The last step is dyeing her overlined lips a velvet berry, which she does with a lipstick brand unknown to me. I, seven years old, join in next to her with my bottle of strawberry Lip Smacker gloss. 

“Don’t eat the gloss,” she warns, but I’ve already sampled a blob of the chemical sweetness that had found its way into my mouth. 

She licks her finger to soften some of my rogue baby hairs, and I spot a couple specks of red on her teeth. Amidst the rosy notes from her makeup that fill the bathroom, a faint waft of shea butter remains.


She’s lounging on the living room couch, passing the time with an episode of Charmed while her hair steeps in a deep-auburn Garnier Nutrisse dye. I plop down on the couch next to her with two tubes of mini M&Ms in hand. The air conditioning hums on, rustling the plastic grocery bag atop her head. 

After downing one whole M&M tube, I scan the room for a nearby drink because lazy eight-year-old that I am, I don’t want to go fetch my own drink from the kitchen. My mom clunks a small glass down in the middle of the coffee table. The leftover condensation outlines where her fingers had touched. My mouth waters. 

“Mommy,” I say and point to the glass. “Can I have some of your water?” 

“Oh, it’s just Sprite,” she clarifies, swirling the drink before giving it to me. I wholeheartedly believe her, unaware of the lack of fizzing bubbles in her glass or the mischievous smirk on her face. In the midst of my hacking fit, she doubles over next to me, her laugh a hybrid of giggling and cackling. 

“Con ơi, that was wine.”  


Psychologists believe that loss can either be absolute or ambiguous. When it’s absolute, it’s easier to compartmentalize: the death of a loved one is permanent. They are no longer alive. They no longer exist physically or psychologically. 

Ambiguous loss obscures this distinction—it lies somewhere in between certainty and uncertainty, definitiveness and indeterminateness, absence and presence. The loved one lost is either gone physically but here psychologically or gone psychologically but here physically. With ambiguous loss that comes from psychological absence, the lost loved one is present in body but not in mind, whether that’s because of trauma to the brain, chronic mental illness, or, less extremely, preoccupation with work, school, or other stressors. Those affected by this kind of loss are unable to interact with the version of the person they once knew: the person who now exists solely within their memories. The lost loved one may continue to be psychologically absent, but their identity itself before the loss remains present in the minds of those who have to endure the unresolved, unclear, ambiguous grief. This incomplete loss is the driving force of the unreconcilable grief that frays the memory over time, leaving the person suffering such a loss to wander an endless limbo. 


The English phrase “I miss you” has always rung vague to my ears. Just a simple utterance 

of the phrase itself isn’t precise enough to encompass all of the histories, memories, and feelings that are tethered to it. Deeper, more introspective explanations are necessary to describe the longing for the person missed, the desire to do anything to see them again, the hollowness left behind because of their absence, the crushing loss of a sense of self because the person missed is no longer around.  I want to know how language can transform “I miss you” into something more immediate—something more visceral the moment those three words are spoken.

I want to know what pinpointed nuances lie beyond this inadequacy. 


In Spanish, “I miss you” can be translated as “te extraño,” but the phrase’s literal meaning carries associations with strangeness and unfamiliarity. The verb “extrañar” signifies that something is missing—that an absence has left a yearning in its wake—while “extraño” on its own denotes foreignness and peculiarity. “I miss you” becomes, “You’re missing; it’s strange,” which implies that the absence of the “you” is unfamiliar.


How long, then, until familiar=unknown? 

Until unknown=you? 

Until you=stranger? 

Until that absence becomes the only memory left of you?  


I flail out of the queen-sized bed my mom and I share at my grandmother’s house when my alarm fails to wake me up in time before the middle school bus comes. I fumble into a black polo and white Bermuda shorts then scurry to the bathroom to brush my teeth and toss my curly mess of hair into a loose ponytail. When I return to wake my mom up, she’s still in the same sleeping position: on her stomach, face sunken into the pillows. 

“Mommy, wake up. I need you to drive me to school,” I say, shaking her shoulders. 

No reaction. 

Sometimes she’s a hard sleeper, so I try again with more force in my shake. She shuffles slightly under the blankets, letting out a small groan. Her eyes remain shut as she grimaces from the loudness of my voice. 

“Mommy, can you drive me to school? I’m late,” I ask again. 

“Okay. I’m…up…now.” Her lips look like they’re sloping down the right side of her face; her right arm lies limp along her torso; her voice is low and slow. I figure this strange sight is just due to her being extra groggy today. 

On the way to school, my mom keeps swerving the right side of my grandfather’s old F150 into the curb. The thud-sputter-thudding of the tires against the concrete scares me and I beg her to slow down a bit. I look over at her; her back is off the seat, her hands in an 8-4 position on the steering wheel. The little bit of morning sun shining through the top of the windshield casts an orangey glow on her droopy side profile. 

“Mommy, is everything okay?” I ask. Although a delayed response, she nods her head and tells me she’s fine. 

I think nothing of her slurred speech for now. Surely, she’ll be fine later after she gets more rest. 


I often talk about my mom to others in the past tense. It’s easier this way. The version of her that I yearn for is someone I know from before the two strokes incapacitated her, an existence different from the physical body being kept alive by machines and caretakers at a nursing home in California. I’m most familiar with the her who was well-versed in Stevie Nicks, Queen, and the Depeche Mode; whose (self-proclaimed) lifelong crushes on Bon Jovi and Enrique Iglesias helped me see why she always gushed about my father’s long hair; whose culinary specialties included coconut-crusted butterflied shrimp, lemongrass chicken curry, and Sunny D-infused cottage cheese over canned peaches in plastic, dollar-store martini glasses; who danced with awkward, jerky movements that reminded me of a panicky chicken; who was a lime eater, an ice chewer, a mustard-in-her-ramen putter; who sprinkled salt on Granny Smith apples and preferred Pepsi over Coke; who was a perpetual victim to sneezes and would fight back after the third with the Vietnamese swear word đụ má; whose favorite colors were purple and pink.  


“At best, she might recover 70-80%,” the doctor at the UTMB in Galveston says. He’s a tall man with scruff like cotton and deep-set, wrinkly eyes. It’s now been a week since the night of my mom’s first major stroke and five days since Uncle D— and my maternal, twelve-years-older half-brother rushed into our room at my grandmother’s house to take my mom to the emergency room. When they heard my grandmother’s accounts of my mom faking slurred speech and weak movements, they knew something was wrong. 

“Is it because we waited too long to get her help?” I ask. 

The doctor scoots his chair closer to me and steadies my shoulders in a sympathetic grip. “Since the stroke happened overnight, the damage to her brain has already been done. Even if we had caught it earlier, the recovery would still be the same.” 

“There’s nothing we can do?” My voice nearly breaks as the tears I’m holding back weigh down on my throat. 

The doctor lets go of my shoulders and his face softens into a smile. “Be patient with her. She’ll have difficulty speaking and moving around, but she’ll get  better with time,” he says. 

Maybe he had wanted to avoid bestowing such volatile hope to an eleven-year-old, but I cling to that last word: time. I now know more for next time. I can get her help more quickly next time. 

I can catch the change next time. 


Ambivalent emotions are common with ambiguous loss. Rather than accept that a lost loved one may never wake up from a coma, show up alive again after having gone missing, outlast terminal illness, or recover who they once were before traumatic brain injury, it’s easier on the mind to cling to any other reality that negates any change to the way things have always been. They’re not really gone. They’ll come back in no time. Things will turn around soon. 

It’s all just a bad dream. 


I’m either six or seven, and the three of us are out on the Seawall in Galveston for a family beach day. My father is busy strolling the shoreline for seashells, cautious of swooping seagulls and incognito jellyfish tops while my mom is wading through the murky water, chasing after the translucent aqua sandal the tide stole from her left foot just moments ago. Her feet slap the water with each near-jump step she makes; small clumps of wet sand fling up into the air. She lunges for what she thinks is her missing sandal, but instead a stray flying fish squirms its way out of her hands, the sudden sliminess making her shriek. She yells at the fish with a Vietnamese curse word I’m too scared to ever repeat to her face. I try to warn her about an incoming  waist-high wave, but it still clobbers her and claims her other sandal. I keel over in the shallow water in a giggling fit, the wet sand beneath me swallowing up my hands; the receding tide threatens to drag my tiny body along with it. 

She clicks her tongue then starts chasing me around with small chunks of seaweed balled up in her hands. My giggling becomes so intense that I’m no longer sure if my eyes are wet from tears or the seawater. 


My new friend and I are lounging on her bed that’s lofted high enough for even a small child to open the window above it and climb out. Both of us are buried underneath her numerous teddy bears after an impromptu pillow fight. She’s seven, a year older than me, and we’ve been riding laps on our scooters together around the apartment complex pool. My mom doesn’t allow me to play outside beyond the pool when she’s not home because it’s right outside our apartment and if anything were to happen, at least the office workers are nearby. But I wanted to spend more time with this new friend I’ve made, so I let her convince me to sneak away to her room. My mom won’t know I ever left in the first place if I go back before she comes home from work.  

Amidst our second round of pillow fighting, I notice the sun’s amber glow filtering in through the window and panic. The small hand of the clock hanging on the wall is now on the six, which means my mom is most likely already home. 

“My mom! I have to go,” I say to my friend while clambering to tie my tennis shoes. 

“I’m sorry, I forgot about that.” She opens the window just enough for me to fit through it. “Let’s play together again.” 

I nod before dashing off towards my apartment building. My safest option is to circle around the playground at the edge of the complex and sneak back into our building without my mom seeing me. I’ll tell her that I saw a pretty butterfly and got lost trying to find my way back, that’s all. But I’m only a corner-turn away from making it back home-free when my mom turns the same corner and spots me. She doesn’t run or yell or raise her hand at me. She simply heaves a breath, grabs me by the wrist, and walks us back to our apartment. 

“Go turn the bathtub water on and wait for me,” my mom says once we’re inside. I hear her shuffling through random drawers because the bathroom is connected to my parents’ bedroom. Then I hear the clanking of a belt as my mom returns to my side. 

“Mommy, I—” 

“Take off your pants and turn around.” My body shakes. The water in the tub thrashes so loudly that I fear it drowning out my voice. My T-shirt and jean shorts weigh down on my fingertips. 

“But Mommy—” 

“No excuses. Turn. Around.” 

One whip. Two. Three. I soil the tub. Four. Maybe five. I can tell it’s one of my father’s thin, black leather belts. My screams harmonize with the running bathwater. 


The first time my mom shows me one of her family photo albums, I’m either nine or ten. We’re in the midst of rearranging the bedroom and cleaning out the closet at one of our old apartments in Houston because her idea of spring cleaning always involves interior re-decoration. The cover of the plastic album she pulls out has vintage artwork of a little girl and boy in mauve bucket hats giving each other cheek kisses. 

“Which one is your favorite, Mommy?” I ask. She flips through pictures of my grandmother’s birthday celebrations, two of my older cousins from when they were newborns, and her and my two aunts on the rooftop of the high school I’ll later attend before she stops on a picture of her and a young Uncle F—. 

They’re standing barefoot on the freshly mowed grass in front of my grandmother’s first and only house. My mom’s dark-brown hair is up in a high, round side-ponytail, most likely teased and hairsprayed. She’s wearing a sunflower-yellow polo shirt that’s tucked into high-waisted bellbottom jeans. She towers over Uncle F—, hugging him from behind. Her head rests on top of his as she flashes a beaming smile at the camera and he squints the daytime brightness out of his eyes. It had been the anniversary of when my grandmother first bought the house in the 70s after moving from Vietnam to Texas.

“But Mommy, I thought you hate standing in the grass. Why are you barefoot?” I say, tilting my head. She pauses for a moment then huffs out a small laugh, puts the album back in the storage bin she pulled it from, and walks out of the room without saying a word. 

“Mommy?” I call while peeking my head out of the bedroom door. 

“Come help finish laundry,” she answers. I imagine her hatred of bugs and grass formed not long after that picture was taken, and that maybe she was too embarrassed to admit it.    


Another expression for “I miss you” in Spanish is “me haces falta,” which is closer in meaning to “I need you,” “I am without you,” or “I am bereft of you.” The verb “falta” itself describes a lack, deficit, shortage, scarcity. What’s left is a want—a desire for the missed person to fill the empty space again. “I miss you” then becomes, “I am insufficient without you,” which implies that the “I” is incomplete—deficient—undone. 


I’m ten years old, and it’s a couple days after my first bad case of ringworm completely healed. The parasite-infected, black alley cat my father recently brought home had given me ringworm lesions that spread all over my body: the bottom of my chin, the skin near the outer corner of my right eye, my chest, the back of my neck, the back of my knees, both of my forearms. Today’s the day we’re getting rid of the cat for good while my father’s at work because my mom can’t stand to keep her in the apartment anymore. She instructs me to reassemble one of my old Build-A-Bear cardboard houses and cushion the inside with the pink plush blanket she had pulled out from the closet. 

“Why are we putting her in here?” I ask. The only reason I can think of for preparing the Build-A-Bear house like this is so that we have something to carry her in when we take her to the animal shelter and she at least has a source of comfort with the blanket. 

“Don’t question me. Just do what I ask,” my mom says, her tone flat. My stomach drops. I stay silent. 

After I’m done setting up the inside of the cardboard house, I plop the alley cat inside. Her tiny, pudgy body slinks out of my hands and sinks into the pink blanket. She sings chirpy purrs at me. 

“Hurry up and close it so she don’t escape,” my mom says as she kneels down and holds up the top flaps so I can put the handle together. The cat scratches at the inside of the little house; I reach a finger through one of the tiny cut-out windows to pet her, but she just sniffs and licks it a couple times instead. 

The car ride to wherever my mom had intended to take the cat ends sooner than I expect it to. We stop in front of the apartment complex’s rust-spotted dumpster. My mom nabs a large black trash bag from the trunk then opens my door. I hug the house close to me. 

“Give her to me,” she says, right arm outstretched and expression stern. I shake my head and wrap as much of my body around the house as possible, but it’s no use because my 10-year-old strength can’t match my mom’s. She pries the house from me, puts it in the black trash bag, and tosses the bag into the dumpster. The lid clangs shut. I cry. My mom tells me, “Someone will find her.” 

The cat’s shrill meows drown out the car’s engine as we drive away. 


The ricketiness of the Greyhound bus stirs me awake. My droopy eyes are met by the red, yellow, and orange squiggles of a small rectangular pillow cushioning my head from the cold window. We’re on our way to live with Aunt S— in California because my parents had another major fight about something a seven-year-old wouldn’t understand. 

The dim ambiance keeps me in my drowsy trance until the salty aroma of fried chicken makes my mouth water. Next to me, my mom is holding in her lap the bucket of KFC that we had picked up at the last stop. My stomach growls. I reach a lazy hand over to tap her arm while keeping my head on the pillow. She grabs one of the thigh pieces that I like and hands it to me wrapped in a couple napkins. I pick at the not-as-crispy skin first before tearing into the meat. She discards the bones in the plastic bag tied to her seat and goes over my greasy fingers herself with a clean set of napkins. Her touch is so gentle that my body lulls me back to sleep. As I’m dozing off, she ruffles my hair and puts her jacket over my back. 

“You and me, always,” she says. I snuggle more into her jacket. 


It’s right after my first semester at college, sometime during the visit to southern California with my grandmother to see my mom for Christmas. Along with Aunt K— (who had flown in from Iowa), we’re lodging at Aunt S—‘s house. The three of us had gone to check on my mom at the nursing home this morning, and I’m now with Aunt S— at a small, local park while Aunt K— and my grandmother are back at the house resting. 

The park is hilled, with a metal enclosure tracing its perimeter. An oblong, rectangular concrete path lines the center of the park while veridian trees and shrubbery decorate the remaining space. Some people are out in the grass playing frisbee with their dogs and some are leisurely strolling the concrete path. Aunt S— and I are making our way around the park, talking about something to do with either the dessert we had at the shaved ice shop before coming here or the way I resemble my mom a little too much with my hair pulled back in a high ponytail when Aunt S— stops me mid-walk and grabs my shoulders. 

“Con gái,” she says. “I need to tell you something important.” 

“What is it, Aunt S—?” I fidget with my fingers in the brief pause she takes to gather her thoughts. 

“Your mom didn’t want to leave you,” she begins, her grip on my shoulders slightly looser, “but when she came here to California with your dad, she told me she didn’t have a choice.” 

“If she didn’t want to leave, she should’ve just stayed,” I say while shaking Aunt S—‘s hands off my shoulders. “She obviously had a choice, which turned out not to be her own child. She decided to leave.” 

Aunt S—‘s eyes now red with tears and voice shaky, she tells me what my mom said to her the day she got to California, a sentiment I’ve only ever heard in tragic movies: “’I’m sick, S—. If I stay, I’ll hold Frenci back. I don’t want that. She should live free.’” 


We’re eating bánh mì thịt nướng at Nobi’s, a small, popular Vietnamese sandwich shop in my hometown on the Texas coast. Today marks ten days since my mom arrived for my high school graduation. After moving out of my grandmother’s house at fifteen years old because of emotional abuse and neglect, I’m now living with Uncle D— and V—. My mom’s been living in California with my father for the past five years but wanted to surprise me for my big day. Before her 36-hour Greyhound trip back to California tomorrow afternoon, we decided to meet up for one last outing together. 

She’s sitting across the table from me; the way the sun hits her Thai tea drink makes the syrup coating the sides look like streams of lava. I pull out my phone and act like a photographer, tell her to give me her best bunny-teeth smile. Her wide grin stretches beyond the corners of her mouth to the ends of her eyes. I post the picture to Facebook with the caption, “Look at this gorgeous view.” She takes a swig of the Thai tea. 

“Mm! Very delicious. And…and…and sweet,” she says.  

“Are you going to finish all the tapioca pearls?” I ask, eyeing my already-empty hazelnut milk tea. She promises me I can have whatever’s leftover after she’s done. 

This is the last day I get to hear her singsong, raspy voice. 


It’s two months into my first semester at college; I’m headed back to campus in a university shuttle after a two-hour lab at the local observatory for my astronomy class. I check my phone for any missed notifications and see a voicemail from my father. I plug in earbuds for privacy. 

“Frenci, it’s your dad,” the message starts. “Your mom—she had another stroke. I’ll tell you more, so call me back when you get the chance, okay.” I hide my face where the dim interstate lights don’t reach and let the humming A/C drown out my sniffling. 

On the walk back to my dorm from the shuttle stop, my father tells me the full story: A few days ago, my mom had gotten dehydrated while outside smoking, so he ran to grab her a bottle of Dr. Pepper from the RV they live in. When he later went back out to offer her another drink, he found her collapsed on the gravel, unconscious. 

“I thought she just fainted because of the heat,” he says. “But they confirm it’s another stroke. She’s in nursing home now. I didn’t want to tell you until things settled down here.” 

Chunks of scattered concrete crunch under my feet as I walk past one of the freshmen dorms undergoing renovations. Mounds of dirt and brittle bricks protrude from the crooked chain-link fences that barricade the construction areas. My mom had just visited over the summer for my high school graduation—she gave me a bouquet of roses, told me how proud she was of me for graduating with honors, squeezed me in a tight hug that made me feel small again. 

“Why didn’t you give her water? Soda just makes dehydration worse!” I yell at my father. 

His only response is, “I know.”  


There’s a lucid dream about my mom that I’ll often revisit. In the dream, she’s hospitalized at a medical center in an unknown location. When I walk into the building, the floor is bustling with nurses scurrying to respond to a code blue. I check in at the nurses’ station to let them know I’ve brought a bouquet of roses for my mom, only to be met with the news that the code blue was for her. The bouquet falls from my hands; I run out of the building into a maelstrom of gusty winds. At some point, the winds stop around me and I go back inside, refusing to let this situation be true. The dream always ends with me meeting a different nurse from before who informs me they had mistaken the patient’s identity for my mom’s—she’s safe. 


A less common and popular translation of “I miss you” in Spanish is “te echo de menos.” On their own, “echo” references an ousting, a flinging/casting away, a subtraction, while “menos” signifies less than, fewer than, smaller than. The absence of the “you” is equated to an ejection from the “I,” leaving the “I” with a reality that is now inadequate. “I miss you” becomes, “Your subtraction has made things less than,” and instead of the “I” being incomplete, it is the world without the “you” that is.  


I’m with my grandmother visiting my mom at the nursing home. It’s either our fourth or fifth time here in the week and a half that we’ve already been in California. My mom’s gown puffs around her like ill-fitting bedsheets. I wait at the foot of the bed because my two aunts are wiping her face down with a washcloth and smoothing out her matted hair with a damp brush. 

“Con gái,” Aunt K— calls. “Come say hi to your mom. She miss you.” I move closer but stay near the foot of the bed. The thought of talking to her when she can’t return any words makes me feel awkward; all I’m able to muster is a quiet “Hi, Mom. I’m here.” 

“She recognize you, honey,” Aunt S— says. “You know what the doctor say. She can recognize us family.” 

“You ‘member us, Cindi?” my grandmother asks, taking my mom’s left hand in hers. 

“Chị Cindi, Mom’s calling you, see? Blink once if you understand.” Aunt S— is now stroking my mom’s head and Aunt K— is sitting on the bed holding her stiff right hand. My grandmother continues to urge my mom to speak if she can, move her body, respond in some way to their voices. 

With her eyes still unfocused, my mom closes them in a drawn-out blink. My grandmother, Aunt K—, and Aunt S— all screech that it’s a miracle, as if they’ve willfully forgotten all the brain damage she’s suffered already. 

“How can y’all believe in any of that?” I huff under my breath. 

The cold bars of the hospital bed anchor me to her reaction being just a coincidence, a simple reflex—only a physiological response to external stimuli. The steady beeping of the EKG echoes in my ears and muffles the false hope ringing from my family’s misplaced cries of joy. 


Every time I vocalize “ambiguous grief,” the guttural “g” sounds clog up my airways. A tugging ache lodges itself into my throat, followed by a wringing heaviness in my chest. My body reminds me that my grieving is perpetual because the mother I know only exists in my memory now. She’ll never call my name or squeeze my hand or smile at me ever again.


If I could continue the dream, I’d pick up the roses and rush past the nurses to my mom’s room. I’d stumble through the door out of breath, clutching the flowers to my chest, my eyes frantically searching the EKG for her vitals. She’d reach a hand towards my face, stroke my fluffed hair back into place, and call in an almost-whiny tone, “Frenci.” I’d slowly turn to her, hot tears prickling my eyes, and collapse into her arms as I wail my throat dry.

Her hospital gown would smell mostly of sanitary products, but a faint trace of shea butter would remain, and I’d know I was home.


Frenci Nguyen is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Ohio University who holds an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction degree from Miami University (Oxford, OH). They were runner-up for the 2021 Betty Jane Abrahams Poetry Prize and winner of the 2020 Jordan-Goodman Graduate Writing Award in Creative Nonfiction. Frenci’s work has appeared in Hive Avenue Literary Journal, GASHER, The Citron Review, Emerald City Literary Magazine, Bat City Review, Hippocampus, peculiar, and North Texas Review Online.