• The Xylom

Linh Anh Cat: I'm Writing to Continue My Father's Legacy

Updated: May 5




The Death.

I had just finished a beach day with other graduate students in Southern California. When I got back to my car, I had a voicemail from my mom: “Call me back when you get this. Your dad is in the hospital.”


My dad was in a coma. He had collapsed at home eating dinner with my mom. The ambulance ride was at least 25 minutes long and his heart stopped along the way. At the end of the day, he had been internally bleeding and during the ambulance ride had not sustained enough oxygen to his brain.


I flew from California to Florida and arrived 24 hours after I got my mom’s call. My family started a rotation so that someone was always at his side. I took nights and read to my dad, in hopes he could hear my voice. When I wasn’t reading, I was researching what was happening in his brain and his body. The signs weren’t good. I saw him decline a day or two in a row.


At the end of the week, I told my mom we’d have to make the difficult decision to let him go. Even if he woke up, there was no chance he would be close to his former self.


It was Friday the 13th.




The Aftermath.

At that time, I was ending the fourth year in my Ph.D. program. Within a couple of weeks of his death, I flew home, completed my biannual committee meeting, moved out of my apartment to move in with my partner, and went to Washington, D.C. to start a two-month internship.


My mom had decided to postpone the funeral for another month.


The year after my dad’s death was bizarre. I went through weird situations where I wasn’t sure if a certain someone, someone who should have known, had remembered if my dad had died. I would find myself emotionally stoic and put together 95% of the time, but it was that last 5% that was totally unexpected and really embarrassing. Once, it was when my boss in D.C. asked me if I was doing okay in the office hallway. Another time, my partner brought up Interstellar over a restaurant dinner to make the case for why it’s not a sci-fi movie at heart, but rather a story about a father’s love for his daughter.


After the internship, I started the last year of finishing my Ph.D. Enough said. Somehow, I made it through. I honestly don’t have any tips for that time dealing with grief. Others have asked similar questions and I can’t say there’s a simple answer for those times. Just that you’ll get through it eventually.


I would find myself emotionally stoic and put together 95% of the time, but it was that last 5% that was totally unexpected and really embarrassing.

My mom didn’t fly out for my Ph.D. defense. She was still emotionally fragile and she video-conferenced in. Somehow I managed to hold it together during the traditionally sappy acknowledgments in my department. I really lost it attending my youngest sibling’s graduation though. Even though I was 25 when this happened, my youngest brother was just 21. I was pretty bummed out during commencement. My dad, the avid photographer, would have just loved taking as many photos as possible to commemorate the occasion.



Linh Anh and her dad in the 2010s. Photo credits: Linh Anh Cat.



The New Beginning.

One day, my sibling told me they had decided to take up photography to feel closer to our dad because it was one of his hobbies. As the oldest, I admitted that was a good idea. A new place to grow.


What hobby of my dad’s could I take up? I had never thought of myself as being good at writing, but it was something my dad had really enjoyed, and he had never called himself a writer. Even better, he had turned it into a hobby that also brought in some extra cash.


I decided to try writing, and I first decided on writing for an indie blog on books (I love reading). I targeted opportunities that would be paid, in order to practice valuing myself and my work. Many grad students never experience or practice “knowing our worth”.


Within a few months of that, I applied for an opportunity to be a science writer for Forbes.com. And I got it!


...only my dad would literally read every word in every article. It’s true; my dad was quietly supportive that way.

I had never formally trained in science writing, but I self-taught using books and other resources (including good friends who were also freelancing during grad school). I don’t consider myself an artful science writer, like Ed Yong, but I do my part in bringing microbes into the mainstream media. I write for people who are in a rush and want to learn something new relatively quickly. I don’t aim for beautiful, just effective.


I think the only person who would read every single one of my articles would be my dad. I think my partner has read almost all of them--I definitely pester him for feedback on titles, including the title to this piece--but only my dad would literally read every word in every article. It’s true; my dad was quietly supportive that way.




The Present.

Linh Anh and her dad in the 1990s. Unusual, since her dad usually took all the photos when they were younger and cell phones didn’t exist. Photo credits: Mrs. Cat

This month marks two years since my dad passed away.


I know my dad would be really proud of me if he were around. But the weird part is, I don’t think I would have started writing if he was.


I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up my science writing. I love it, and I think constantly writing is a good way to keep up my skills. In fact, I also ended up in the hospital for a week in the neurology ward less than six months ago. And writing my articles was one of my first tests to see if I was back to normal. (Thankfully, I am.)


But I think I would like to move onto other things I can put my mind to. At the end of the day, my dad would be proud of what I do, even if it’s not one of his hobbies.


Many things went right during these past two-plus years. I had a really supportive partner during these challenging times. It was our first year of dating and he had met my parents once before. I’m really grateful they got to meet and that my dad approved of him (the only boyfriend he did approve of, for the record). I didn’t have to worry too much about the financial implications of my dad, the primary earner, passing away, because my parents have always been financially prudent about saving. And finally, I could take time off work without worry to go home for a week when my dad was in the hospital.


So I have my dream job. I live with my dream partner. I have a better, healthier relationship with my mom. So many things are going right with my life, but it never feels totally right.


Maybe that’s why it’s a little bit easier for me to remember all the things I’m currently grateful for during this pandemic. Because I’ve already practiced being happy when I had all the reasons to be sad.









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