BY WENDY TUCKER
If we are lucky enough in life, we meet someone who makes our lives better just by knowing them. This was the case for me when I met a very special person who became my best friend. My life was forever changed when I met Nga about twenty years ago at the gym, we both attended, which was called Women’s Wellness and Fitness Center at the time. We were instant friends or “sisters” as she would say. When a friend on Facebook asked how we met, Nga responded with this sweet message.
Over the years, Nga shared her story with me. Nga Pham Nguyen was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, formerly Saigon, on February 26, 1960. She was one of nine children. Nga explained that in Vietnam you are referred to by your number in the birth order. She had six older siblings and two younger ones. There were two boys and seven girls. Because they never use number one, Nga was known as number 8.
The number 8 is very important in the Asian culture. 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. It is amazing how perfect Nga’s number was for her. She was given a new life in America. She had the power and strength to learn a new language and culture, to earn professional success in business, and the strength to endure cancer for so many years. Those who knew her will remember and love her for infinity.
The word art picture I created for Nga’s memorial is filled with words her friends used to describe her.
Life was extremely hard when Nga was growing up. She was very poor, and the food she and her siblings had for a day was only enough rice to fill the palm of their hands. When Nga and her siblings came home from school, her mother would take them downtown where they would sell lottery tickets on a street corner until it was dark, then return home for a bath and to go to bed. The same routine was repeated daily. All the money they made selling lottery tickets went towards helping to feed the family.
During the Vietnam War she remembers running to bomb shelters with her family in the middle of the night. Sometimes the shelters would be full, and they would sit outside the shelter, often in the pouring rain, until it was safe to return home. Nga wished for a better life.
From 1975 – 1980 during the fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese were trying to escape. They wanted to go to the United States, Canada, Australia or Germany, any country that would allow refugees, but if they were caught, they lost the money they had paid for passage and were sent to jail. Nga had two siblings, number 6 and number 3, who had tried to escape, but were caught.
In 1979 Nga’s mother made the decision to send Nga to America. Nga was chosen because her older siblings had families and the younger siblings were too young. Nga, at nineteen, was the perfect age; she was old enough and strong enough to make the journey, but most importantly, young enough to be able to start a new life in America. Nga’s mother and Nga’s older sister (sister number 3) planned for Nga’s sister’s daughter to escape as well. Her niece was eight years old, and they decided that she would go with her Aunt Nga to America.
The women sold everything they could to pay for their daughter’s passages. They sewed money and jewelry into Nga’s clothing, so she could sell it for cash when she arrived in America. No one else in the family was aware of these plans, not even Nga’s father. The fewer people who knew, the less likely someone would find out. The authorities were always watching for any indication that someone was trying to escape.
One evening in 1979, after Nga finished a day’s work at the Coca Cola factory where she and her father both worked, Nga’s mother and father took her to the bus stop. This was the first part of the escape, and it was imperative that she and her mother showed no emotion because bus stops were heavily monitored. As the bus was pulling away, Nga recalled never taking her eyes off her mom until she was out of sight. She would always remember that her mom never looked back. Nga said she knew it was because her mother was afraid of crying and risking Nga being caught. The bus took Nga to her sister’s home in a distant district, and she stayed the night there.
The next morning, Nga’s sister took her and her niece to a dock to meet their cousin and her friend, who would accompany them. Their cousin could understand English, and their cousin’s friend had some connections in the United States. The four of them boarded an oil tanker bound for America. Nga was 19 and Kim was 8. Her niece would find out after the boat set sail that she was escaping Vietnam with her aunt. She did not get to say goodbye to her mother.
The boat was crowded with refugees and the four were placed in the bottom of the ship, packed like sardines, lying on their backs with their legs straight up on the wall. The boat sprang a leak and the passengers on the bottom level had to move up to the top. When they arrived at the top level, it was very chaotic. People were crying and men with machine guns were demanding that everyone hand over all their money and any valuables. The men with machine guns were pirates who had boarded the boat in Vietnam and proceeded to take over the vessel.
The passengers were forced to disembark off the coast of China onto an island called Hainan. They would spend nearly three months living on the beach waiting for the boat to be repaired. They used large leaves to make a tarp to shelter from the rain. They were fed watery soup with very little rice added. The only water they had to drink was mixed with oil from the tanker.
When the boat was repaired and the passengers were allowed to board again, the pirates told them they would be taken to Hong Kong, not America. They spent nearly a year in Hong Kong in a refugee camp. Nga worked in a factory all day while Kim, because she could speak Cantonese as well as Vietnamese, stayed in the refugee camp and helped translate. After nearly a year, Our Lady of Mercy church sponsored them, and they were able to come to America.
Nga and Kim landed at the airport in Greensboro, NC, on February 14, 1980, just days before Nga’s twentieth birthday. Neither Nga nor her niece spoke English. Nga told her sponsor she wanted to take English classes and she began attending Winston-Salem State University.
She met another Vietnamese refugee in her class named Chau Nguyen. In the above article from the Winston-Salem Journal dated May 27, 1981, Chau’s photograph is on the upper right and Nga is sitting at her desk. Nga and Chau became friends, began dating, and married on October 8, 1982. They had a son named Chris.
Nga and her husband worked long hours and multiple jobs to support themselves, niece Kim and son Chris. She and Chau struggled to pay for an apartment and food, but no one could have worked harder or more hours than they did. In 1986, when the embargo was lifted, Nga returned to Vietnam to see her family. Nga’s parents were never able to come to America to visit.
Nga has had such an impact on so many lives. She worked endless hours to not only send money back to Vietnam to help her family members still living there, but she was the reason many were able to come to America, including sister #7 and her family of three, brother #10 and his family of three and two nieces. They were even able to send Kim and Chris to college and in 1989, they had finally saved enough money to put a down payment on a house.
Nga’s first job in America was at the Royal Cake Co. Chau’s first job was cleaning windows and toilets at a fast-food restaurant. But together she and Chau would, over time, come to own their own businesses, which included a Baskin Robbins, two nail salons and a frame shop.
In 2006 Nga was diagnosed with breast cancer and after six chemotherapy and thirty three radiation treatments, she was declared cancer free.
In 2014 her breast cancer returned. The same month she received the news that her cancer was back, her mother and two of her sisters died. Nga was unable to go to Vietnam due to surgery and chemotherapy. She finally went into remission again, but not for long. Her cancer would come back in 2017, this time in her lungs. Each time the fight was longer and harder, but after many treatments she was doing well. Again, it did not last long and in 2019 they discovered cancer in her brain.
I was honored to be asked to be her chemotherapy partner along with a few other friends. We alternated taking her to doctor’s appointments. It was during these appointments that Nga would share stories of her life and then asked me if I would write about it. I am no writer, and my hope is that I can tell her story beautifully and that her legacy will live on.
Nga would ask a nurse to take our picture after every chemo appointment. Nga’s team of caregivers looked forward to seeing her because she brightened everyone’s day. Her doctor would always ask, “Who do you have with you today, Nga?’ And she would say, “This my sister, can’t you see it in our eyes? or “This my sister, she look like mama, and I look like daddy.”
Nga was extremely prompt and preferred to be early for everything. She would call me the night before her appointment and say, “My appointment is at 9:30. What time will you be picking me up?” I would respond, “I’ll be there at 9:00.” She would say, “You be here at 8:30. Okay, sister? Goodbye.”
I never heard Nga complain nor saw her shed a tear because of her cancer. She said cancer was nothing compared to all she had experienced in life. Each time she told me about her cancer returning or worsening, she would say, “It’s ok, sister. I’ll be ok” because she was more worried about upsetting me. When her fingernails turned black and were coming off, she said in her sweet Vietnamese accent, “It’s ok sister, it’s just fingernail.”
Nga was so selfless. When I accompanied her to chemotherapy, she would pack a bag of snacks for me and ask repeatedly if I was ok, did I need a blanket, a snack or drink. I would have to remind her that I was there for her, not the other way around. Every time we returned to her home after her appointment, she would tell me how thankful and lucky she was to have such wonderful friends and family. She always considered herself the lucky one despite her sufferings. I told her on many occasions that I was definitely the lucky one. She would send me messages thanking me for taking her to her appointments.
Nga was the hardest working person I have ever known. When she owned a Baskin Robbins, she wouldn’t get home sometimes until midnight, and she would still make sure she made dinner for her family. After chemotherapy appointments, she would go straight to the nail salon and work the rest of the day. She did this for years until her cancer progressed and she was unable to physically work.
Nga had several brain radiation treatments, which rendered her completely unable to walk. She worked very hard to get out of her wheelchair and be mobile again and she accomplished it.
This is my favorite picture of Nga taken after climbing the steps in her home without assistance. She asked me to post it on Facebook and said that everyone would be so proud.
In spite of her accomplishments, within a few months, she fell in her kitchen and was unable to get back up. She also began having seizures and experiencing paralysis on her right side. The doctors said this was a result of necrosis (scar tissue caused by the radiation) on her brain. They scheduled Nga for brain surgery in March 2020.
Nga loved my daughter Tatum; she referred to her as her niece and Tatum referred to her as Aunt Nga.
This photo is of Nga with her doctor. He was so kind to her, and she trusted him completely. She would say, “I love you, Dr. Neijstrom,” at the end of her appointments.
Nga was so optimistic before every surgery; she would say this will be the one that gets rid of this “stupid cancer” and she would fight so hard to be back in the gym working out with me and all her friends at Women’s Wellness.
My daughter Tatum and I visited Nga after brain surgery in March. I always called her Superwoman and the first thing she said to me at our visit was, “Look at my scar, sister, it’s an S for Superwoman.”
She was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and then moved to a rehabilitation facility where she would undergo intense physical therapy for several weeks. During this time the pandemic hit hard, and visitors were not allowed to come in. I would try to speak to her daily and her family would Facetime her, but it was very hard for her,
Nga’s greatest joy in life was being a grandmother or Ba Noi in Vietnamese. She was so very proud of her two grandchildren and would say, “I have to keep fighting this cancer, so I can be here for my grandchildren.” She would also say she couldn’t let her friends down because they were praying for her. She worried constantly about how hard it was on her husband, who was such a wonderful caregiver. She didn’t want to be a burden. When her doctor would ask if anything was bothering her, she would say everything was ok. He would then look to me or whoever was with her that day for confirmation and we would have to encourage her to say that she was experiencing dizziness or whatever the symptom was at the time.
I posted updates about Nga on my Facebook, and I would show her all the messages folks would send. She was so grateful for every prayer.
When she was no longer able to see her grandchildren or her friends due to the pandemic, it was devastating for her, but she did not complain. A few months before she died, she told me she was ready to go. She was worn out from so many years of fighting this disease and doing so with such positivity and grace.
Nga with her grandchildren, Max and Amelia
In spite of her brain surgery and rehab, Nga never regained movement on her right side and never walked again.
Nga thought of her family and friends first. She didn’t want her husband to call Kim and tell her how bad things had gotten because she didn’t want to worry her. When the doctor informed the family that Nga did not have much time left, she was called. She lives out of state and immediately flew to Winston. Her plane was delayed, and Nga passed away moments before she arrived. I think Nga would have wanted it that way. She didn’t want anyone to see her suffer.
On January 2, 2021, after a long courageous battle, Nga Pham Nguyen passed away at Forsyth Memorial Hospital with her husband and son by her side.
Nga has four siblings still alive. Number 5 and 9 still live in Vietnam and number 7 and 10 live in North Carolina. Nga’s other niece owns the nail salon now. Chau still owns The Frame Shop in Clemmons, NC.
I will forever miss her. She was more than a best friend, she was my mentor, my confidante and most importantly, my sister. Even though my heart is broken, I feel so fortunate to have known her. This quote by Alan Alexander Milne describes my feelings beautifully. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
Nga with her beautiful family.