Every year around April 26th, the anniversary of my mother's death, I naturally feel pretty emotional. I spend time thinking about how I've grown as a person and what my mother was like at my age. This year, I decided to acknowledge and reflect on her loss in a different way.
One of my closest friends, Danny, mentioned how he attended his grandparents' dam gio — the Vietnamese death anniversary celebration. It's a festive occasion, during which family members spend an entire day cooking in order to welcome the deceased loved one back home for dinner.
Danny knew that the theme of loss had been ever-present in my life this year, and he insisted we host a dam gio for my mother. I had actually never even considered doing anything like this for her in the past since it wasn't a tradition we had acknowledged growing up.
He took photos from his grandparents' dam gio to give us an idea how to create an altar with flowers, fruit and a photo of the deceased family member, as well as a few table settings with small bowls filled with food.
Although I'm used to hosting regular events at my place, I must say that this one felt different. I've never actually thrown a party where I was expecting spirits to attend.
Another one of our Vietnamese friends, who was more familiar with the tradition, told us that we should have six bowls: one for the deceased person and the others for any friends the deceased person wanted to bring.
When I asked why we needed so many bowls, my friend responded, "Don't you want your mom to bring friends to the party?"
I knew that I needed to have a few photos of my mother for the altar. Trying to select the image also took some time. (Thankfully, my cousin's wife recently uploaded albums full of images of my mother and her family during their time in Cambodia and Vietnam.) I wanted the pictures to show my mother happy and vibrant, reflecting the spirited person that I remember her to be.
My intention behind this evening was to honor my mother and to pay tribute to her, and I could truly feel her presence with me that evening.
At the beginning of the event, we burned the incense. Then, I was told to bow to the altar and invite my mother to join us. Every guest who attended, all very dear friends of mine, also had the opportunity to burn incense and say something to my mother. None of my friends in the room had ever actually met my mom. However, a few of them mentioned that they could also feel her presence there.
One of my best friends, Thach-Giao, said to me that once she saw the image of my mother; she could feel her presence. Her father had passed away when she was in college, and she felt that her father was there with us as well. She believed that perhaps they were the ones that brought us together here in San Francisco, since they knew we would likely be great friends and could support each other.
Before coming to the event, she said she had to stop by near a bookstore. After walking in, she saw In the Company of Women, a book by Design Sponge founder, Grace Bonney. It's a collection of inspirational stories from female makers, artists and entrepreneurs. In that moment, she just knew she had to buy the book for me. She said she felt it was a gift from my mom, a message of encouragement that the creative path is the one meant for me, regardless of how difficult it might be in certain moments.
It was truly a beautiful and magical evening. Those who might not believe in a spiritual world felt the otherworldly presence that night. It was also a night of gratitude. I felt so blessed to welcome my mother to my home in San Francisco.
While a friend was at the altar, he received a clear message of just three simple, yet powerful words: warm, happy family. That was what she must've wanted for me. And that, I believe, is what my mother felt in the room that evening.