“The Opportunities We Didn’t Have” is a creative piece of nonfiction by Darlena Chiem. The piece was born out of fear while processing the news of the Atlanta spa shootings that happened in March. Like so many others, the first thing that Chiem did was call her mother, searching and hoping.
Inspired by Ocean’s Vuong’s letter to his mother in the New York Times, this is for mẹ lives online as a borderless mailbox for Asian identified people to share stories rooted in mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues, and family.
I clutch my phone tightly and press the little glowing call button next to “Mom.” With every ring, I imagine invisible electronic waves pulsing through the air, trying to connect.
You answer, propping your phone against the basket full of mint and basil you’re preparing for phở that night.
“Mom is cooking, but I’m listening. What do you want to talk?”
Your hands work quickly, snapping leaves off of their stems.
Hands that hold memories, and the strength to shape one’s destiny.
I open my mouth, but the words catch in my throat
and begin to overflow at the corners of my eyes.
Stupid, I think. What good is being a writer if I can’t articulate anything when it’s actually important.
Maybe because growing up, your love language was
a home cooked dinner waiting for me every night after swim practice.
Sweetness in the form of freshly cut fruit as I did my homework at the dining table. But no matter how much I ate, I never felt full.
Waiting for words that would never come.
But I understand now.
It’s because you know how fleeting words can be.
After all, how much of this promised land was ever truly given to you?
“Did you see the news?” I ask.
I think of everything that I never told you.
Like my classmates who tugged at their eyes,
showing the narrow lens
through which they viewed me.
The prowling men who stalked me.
Reminders that what I didn’t offer freely,
they could always take.
Hurling their words like stones,
for their sins.
Love you long time.
I wonder how much you’ve never told me.
What we both know and have known,
but never talked about.
You look at me. I am there too.
The herbs are finished. It’s time for the next step.
“Just be careful,” you say, knife in hand.
Darlena Chiem is a Vietnamese-American visual artist based in Brooklyn. She hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, California and is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. Through filmmaking, illustrating, and writing, she hopes to better understand and connect with herself and the world. When she is not in a state of existential crisis, she enjoys training in Muay Thai and tending to her growing army of plants. “The Opportunities We Didn’t Have” was originally published on Project Yellow Dress.