Wendy joined Cleo on the Women’s Only Podcast back in May to talk about her greatest influence, Nga who had recently passed from cancer. When Nga asked Wendy to tell her story, she took it to heart. In September, Wendy turned this promise into reality. Nga’s story was published in Forsyth Woman.

Wendy met Nga at the gym 20 years earlier and they were fast friends. Nga would greet Wendy with a big smile exclaiming, “Hello, sister!” and have Wendy’s equipment all set up for class. That’s the thing about Nga. Despite all the hardships she endured throughout her life, she remained positive and continually put others first.

Nga and Wendy were friends for 15-20 years. Wendy says, “She was the most amazing person I’ve ever known. I’ve never had a friend who loved me so much or that I loved so much. I think we were meant to be friends. We called each other ‘sister’ and we were more than that.”

They laughed together and supported each other during the toughest of times. Nga was Wendy’s confidante and mentor. Wendy believes she was all those things to her in return. And hopefully a good caregiver when Nga was fighting cancer.

Lucky number 8

The word art picture Wendy created for Nga’s memorial is filled with words her friends used to describe Nga.

Nga was born in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She was the 7th of 9 children. In Vietnam, this is important because children are referred to as their birth order number, skipping the number one. So Nga was known as number 8.

Fun Fact: The number 8 is thought to be a lucky number in several Asian cultures. According to Wendy’s story in Forsyth Woman, It is a symbol of infinity and represents power and strength. The number 8 also corresponds to the New Testament and is a symbol for new life.

Eight is an important number in Vietnam. It is known as being very lucky. And in many ways, this fits Nga perfectly. When her mother was deciding which of her children to send to America, Nga was the perfect age with no roots keeping her in place.

Coming to America

Planning the journey was kept mostly secret. Only those necessary for the trip knew the details. In fact, Nga’s own father was kept in the dark. Secrecy was of the utmost importance, lest the journey be cut short. Along with Nga came her niece, daughter of her eldest sister, Kim.

The journey proved to be difficult. The conditions were unfavorable, at best. The duo and her cousin and friend were placed under the boat “lying on their backs with their legs straight up on the wall.” There was a leak and an armed boarding by pirates.

Needless to say, the trip was cut short and the pair ended up staying in Hong Kong for nearly a year. At that time Our Lady of Mercy church chose to sponsor the pair and they finally landed in Greensboro, NC on February 14, 1980.

Just the beginning

Nga led a rich and full life in America. She married and had a child of her own, Chris. She raised both Chris and Kim, working hard to make this new life she was gifted a success. Nga was able to bring several other family members over. She owned several businesses. With her past behind her, Nga focused on making her life the best it could be for herself and for those she loved.

When Wendy would accompany Nga to chemotherapy or sit with her in her home, she would share stories of what it was like growing up in Vietnam, her amazing journey to America, and what it was like once she arrived here. Wendy told her she should have a story written about her extraordinary life because many of her relatives who were born here have no idea the sacrifices, she made to make that possible.

Nga said, “you can write it, sister.” Wendy started taking her laptop with her when she was with Nga. The last several months of her life, she would say she didn’t feel like working on it, however. The story was definitely a labor of love and Wendy would get very emotional while writing it.

The long cancer battle

Nga with her doctor

Nga with her doctor. She trusted him completely.

The first time Nga was diagnosed with cancer was in 2006. It would return again in 2014, 2017, and finally 2019. Each time was harder than the previous. Each time, Nga maintained a positive outlook and was determined to beat it.

Her unbelievable strength and positivity were endless. She taught Wendy so much about what’s important in life. When Wendy spoke about her fingernails turning black from chemo in the story and how she said to her, “it’s ok, sister, it’s just a fingernail. What’s important is how I feel inside.” She taught Wendy to be thankful every day for her health.

Accompanying her to chemotherapy and hearing her stories was always humbling for Wendy. It taught her we have plenty to be thankful for. Looking around the room and seeing terminally ill cancer patients was always a reality check. Although Nga thought she was burdening Wendy when she would take her to her appointments, they were actually the most wonderful, memorable days with her sister.

Wendy & Nga

The blanket on Nga’s lap in the above photo is called a prayer quilt. It was given to Nga by a local church and for each knot in the quilt, a prayer was said for her. She had Wendy place this on her lap during every chemo session. Nga’s husband gave it to Wendy after she passed. Wendy sleeps with it every night and will cherish it forever.

Wendy will never forget when Nga was in remission and she thought her cancer may be back. She asked Wendy to take her to that appointment. She remembers never being so honored in all her life to be asked to accompany someone to something so profoundly important. Nga did find out in that visit that her cancer had returned. Wendy cried during the visit and she said, “It’s ok sister, I’ll be ok.”

In 2019, cancer came back, this time in her brain. At one point she was left unable to walk, but she refused to accept that fate. She worked hard and showed strong determination. Nga never took anything for granted. And she was able to walk again for a bit.

Nga pulled strength from her friends and family. She was always smiling and always thinking about others. She never wanted to be a burden. She fought so hard through so many different parts of her life. This was just another milestone in her rich life.

Cancer is a complex disease. Coupled with the ill-timed pandemic, Nga grew tired. She was no longer able to receive in-person visitors. Despite not ever once complaining, this weighed heavily on her. A few months before her death, she told Wendy that she was ready to go.

Even then, she refused to show anything but positivity. She lost her long battle on January 2, 2021.

Telling Nga’s story

After Nga passed away, Wendy contacted her niece in Chicago who immigrated with her. Wendy calls her Kim in the story because she wanted her personal information protected. Kim was 8 years old when she left Vietnam with Nga, so some things were hard to remember, but she was able to fill in the blanks that Wendy had and they spent many hours talking, crying, and reminiscing about Nga.

The loss of Nga was also very hard for her niece, Kim. Nga was a mother to her and her death was a huge loss. She was very busy after her aunt’s death preparing for the 40-day ritual that Buddhists observe. Kim also observed the 100 days of mourning; the 100-day ritual with the assistance of family members still in Vietnam. Wendy did her best to learn about these rituals as well, in honor of Nga. Wendy thinks their long conversations were very therapeutic for both Kim and her.

When asked when she knew the story was complete Wendy mused, “It was just a feeling that I had told her story well and left a legacy, which is what she wanted. I believe Nga would say, ‘Good job, sister, thank you.’ She would say it just like that in her sweet Vietnamese accent, very short and to the point, but I know she would be proud.”

Wendy was determined to honor Nga’s wish and to make sure her legacy lives on. She had her story printed on magazine quality paper and put it into a booklet to give to her husband, Chau for Christmas. When family members visit, the story will be there for them to read.

The responses from folks have been so wonderful for Wendy to read. The folks who didn’t know her story were amazed that they never knew how much she endured. Her family was very grateful and thought it was a beautiful tribute to Nga. Nga would have loved reading all the messages.

You can read the full story at Forsyth Woman. It’s a beautiful story, but be sure to grab some tissues.