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The call

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My world was significantly diminished at 9:10 a.m. on Thursday, March 30.

Having just stepped off a cruise ship in Port Canaveral, Fla., I was retrieving cell phone messages when I heard the devastating news that my mother had been given last rites the previous day. A frantic phone call to my father confirmed my worst fear. I had not misheard. My mom passed away early that morning.

As my wife drove up I-95, our eyes filled with tears, and the only words I could find to comfort my 9-year-old daughter were, "Grandma loved you very much."

A flurry of calls brought more details to light. Within 48 hours of being admitted to the hospital for dehydration, my mother died, most probably from complications arising from a blocked intestine, which rapidly cascaded into internal bleeding, kidney failure and a possible heart attack.

She was 68 years young.

Canceling our plans to stop for the night in Myrtle Beach, we drove onward to Durham through 10 physically and emotionally exhausting hours. Billboards for good eats, cheap lodgings and roadside attractions seemed to mock me with their irrelevance.

Her life would make a poetic and moving novel.

One of nine children, she grew up amid political and martial strife in North Vietnam. Fleeing Communist oppression, her family stole away under cover of darkness in 1954 to freedom in the South. In 1961, she married her American pen-pal who had traveled halfway around the world to meet her.

Having relocated to Virginia in 1973 with her husband and three sons, my mother fought desperately to secure evacuation of her family from Saigon prior to the city's fall to the Viet Cong in 1975. Through the efforts of a family friend at the U.S. embassy, most of them escaped on one of the last flights out before artillery fire closed the airport.

With renewed vigor, mom volunteered with our school's English as a Second Language program, helping to ease scared Vietnamese refugees into their new life in America. When my dad's government job took us to South Korea, she interpreted for Vietnamese boat people rescued by Korean ships.

Mom's obituary in the Washington Post touched on her subsequent 20-plus-year career in the federal government, but made no mention of her devotion to numerous charitable causes such as hunger relief and care for Vietnam veterans. While in South Korea, she volunteered to accompany orphans on long airplane flights to their new homes and adoptive families in the West.

All of that selfless love and devotion was taken away from us so suddenly. At her funeral, seven speakers combined efforts to verbally compose a mosaic of her dignity, grace and beauty.

Following the service, my daughter asked me if Grandma was now a saint. Her name is Cecilia Minh-Hang Gillen, and she is my saint.

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