Before I became a mother, I imagined my child’s first Thanksgiving would be a joyful celebration with our closest relatives. It was an idealized family I envisioned, with none of the messiness of real family history.
But last year, when that first Thanksgiving came around for my son, it was clear that the family gathering I’d hoped for wouldn’t happen. I did not feel welcome at Thanksgiving with my relatives, because my great aunt was upset I had not baptized my son. And my mother-in-law couldn’t get to Los Angeles because of her work schedule.
That’s when Mary Hien Bui stepped in, offering — for the second time — exactly what I needed to fix my broken heart.
The first time it was literal.
I have tetralogy of Fallot, a severe congenital heart defect. My first open-heart surgery was in 1988, when I was 2. In 2010, I needed a second surgery to replace my pulmonary valve with an artificial one. If I hadn’t had that surgery, I might not be alive today, and I certainly couldn’t have risked having a child.
In 2015, I became curious about the valve that saved my life, so I called the company that manufactured it, Edwards Lifesciences, to ask for information. What I thought would be a brief phone conversation ended with an invitation to meet the following day with the people responsible for saving my life, a group of highly skilled women who stitch together artificial heart valves using microscopes.
Two months later, I brought my mom to Edwards for a patient’s day, because she wanted to thank the women herself. But our meeting was so brief that I asked Edwards if my mom and I could come back another day and bring lunch to the women. The following summer, we did, bringing Chinese Indonesian dishes to share with four women, including Mary, who told me during our lunch that I should have a child because it would fill my heart with joy.
A few weeks later, Mary called up my mom to chat, and around the Lunar New Year that winter she invited us to her home, where she introduced us to her family and cooked us red sticky rice and fried shrimp rolls.
Mary is a boat person. She fled to the United States from Vietnam in 1978, leaving after dark on Christmas Eve on a rickety wooden boat jammed with 145 people, including Mary, her husband and their four children. They stayed below deck, and she and her husband each held two of their babies on their laps for the treacherous, four-night journey. The engine failed after the first day, and when the surf rose with huge waves, the people on board expected to die. But they made it to Indonesia, where Mary and her family spent six months in a refugee camp before being permanently resettled in the United States. Eventually, they settled near the Asian Garden Mall in Orange County’s Little Saigon. During my childhood, my mom and I sometimes ventured to that mall on weekends.
Last fall, for a book I’d started writing, I asked Edwards if I could tour the actual room where my valve was made. I had been volunteering for the American Heart Assn., and I wanted other people with heart-valve disease to know about this roomful of women making tiny stitches to save their lives.
It had been almost two years since I’d last seen Mary, and in that time I had become a mother. I wanted her to know, so I asked if on the tour we could stop by her work station.
It took a minute for Mary to recognize me when my guide tapped her shoulder. We were both wearing surgical scrubs, masks, shower caps and gloves. But Mary knew my eyes. Wrinkles of joy gathered around hers when I told her about my baby. Before she turned back to her task, Mary invited me to her house. For Thanksgiving.
It was the perfect solution to my Thanksgiving dilemma. By the time we arrived on Thanksgiving Day last year, Mary’s home was already packed with about 40 of her friends and relatives, with children everywhere.
While her eldest son got my husband a cold beer, my baby reached for Mary. She held him as she walked me to her garage to show us the feast she had prepared. On two rectangular folding tables she’d laid out 12 aluminum foil catering trays of fried noodles, spring rolls and sticky red rice. On a restaurant-grade stovetop, pho broth simmered in a commercial stock pot. My son was curious and ready for his first Thanksgiving feast.
Mary seated us next to a family who had recently arrived from Vietnam. The couple had a daughter two years older than my son. She wore a frilly pink organza dress, and she and my son stared at each other with wonder and shyness. Watching them interact filled my heart with gratitude for the woman who made space in her home for us all.
It was the perfect first Thanksgiving; the sort I couldn’t have imagined for my son in advance. We had much to be thankful for, including the generous and warm-hearted woman who helped ensure I was alive to celebrate the day.
Jen Hyde is a writer who divides her time between Los Angeles and Brooklyn, N.Y.