Making Grandpa Proud
By Samantha HoangLong, Youth Frontiers’ 2016 Character Award Winner
I was only 16 years old. Yet I was down on my knees, changing the diaper of an 89-year-old Vietnamese man.
Every day when I approached him, holding a clean diaper in my hand, I hoped that the dirty one was “light.” Sometimes he’d pee too much and soak the diaper, making everything around him wet. I would have to wipe him down and change his clothes.
At 16, I should have been hanging out with friends and staying up late watching Netflix. But I realized how this old man must feel — incapable of doing a simple task. A young woman had to change his diaper for him.
Although my parents emigrated from Vietnam, I was born in the United States, so speaking Vietnamese was not my strong suit. There were times when I didn’t know how to communicate with him.
That man was my grandpa, Philipil Hoang, and caring for him in the four months before his death helped me learn the true value of family, sacrifice and commitment.
My grandpa moved in with my family about a month after his wife died suddenly. It was very difficult for him during these first weeks. He was weak, lonely and grieving the love of his life. They were married for 68 years.
This wasn’t the most challenging time of his life, though. His family (and mine) had experienced the struggles of war and migration. They were some of the many boat people who fled from the communist regime after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
In 1983, my grandpa built a boat on which more than 80 people, including my father, escaped from Vietnam. After six dangerous days at sea, the boat arrived in Indonesia. My family finally made it to Minnesota in 1985. Learning about the hardships they endured made me much more grateful for all of the opportunities I have here. That has shaped me into the dedicated, optimistic person I am today.
After my grandpa moved in with us, my life revolved around caring for him. I fed him his soup before I could even touch my dinner. I did homework sitting next to him, just to make sure he was okay. I learned that it was more important to spend time with him than with my friends.
My favorite part of caring for him was the chance to develop a close relationship with a grandpa I’d never really known. Over the last couple months of his life, I got to know a person who not only had lived an amazing life, but who, despite his hardships and losses, kept a positive spirit every day.
I became committed to my grandpa. It didn’t feel like a chore to cook him dinner or tuck him into bed. Our relationship grew when we tried to communicate, sometimes without success; when we greeted each other every morning with a firm handshake and hello; and when he would make me do something funny, like stroking his nonexistent beard.
My grandpa helped me realize how much I enjoy making someone happy and helping them through their struggles.
In the four months I spent with him, I learned values such as empathy, compassion and the importance of service— especially helping those with the greatest needs. I hope to work with international voluntary organizations to improve the lives of desperately poor people around the world.
I want to make my grandpa proud.
This story originally appeared on ThreeSixty on September 1, 2016. Youth Frontiers reposted it with permission from the author, Samantha HoangLong. In December 2016, HoangLong received the 2016 Youth Frontiers Minnesota Character Award at the 2016 Minnesota Ethical Leadership Luncheon. Last spring, she was selected as ThreeSixty’s 2017 Scholar. She is currently studying Communication and Journalism at the University of St. Thomas.