We Are America

Voices of the Nation's Future

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Photo ofKaily Khin

Early on the morning of February 28, 2020, I was awakened by my parents muttering to each other. “What do we do?” my mother asked. It was a normal weekend, so I didn’t think much of it as I proceeded to fall back asleep. An hour later I was awakened again, but this time by the phone ringing. I was surprised to hear my mom on the line, as I had thought she was still home. “It’s grandma, she might not make it, your Dad and I are at the hospital and you should come too.” 

Growing up my grandmother helped raise me. I called her “Yey.” She and I would cook traditional Cambodian dishes together like kathiew. We would play slots on her ipad and wake up early in the morning to bird watch. We were always so close. Her room was only a few feet away from mine.

As a kid I always asked her many questions about her life. My Yey was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the 1980’s, Pol Pot and his army took over the country, murdering the intellectuals to create an agricultural utopian society. While traveling through menacing dark army camps, my Yey would go nights without eating just to keep her five kids including my mom from starving. After several long months, she and her family escaped to Thailand, and later migrated to America seeking a better life. My Yey worked three jobs, one being a third shift. Although she never had access to schooling, she landed herself a job with the New York Times. 

That morning, after the call, my father rushed home to get me. I stood in the Lowell General Hospital ICU waiting room in shock, not being able to comprehend what was happening. The doctor explained that my grandmother had a stroke in her sleep. All I wanted was to go and see her, but we were told we needed to wait as the doctors tried to save her.  

Finally, a few hours had passed and we were able to go see her, but by then she was on life support. There she lay in a deep sleep, with a tube emerging from her throat helping her breathe. I remember the wheezing noise she made struggling to gasp for air. With tears rushing down my face, I gave her a kiss, “I love you Yey,” I told her. “From this day forward everything I do is for you.” Although she was unconscious I know she could feel all the love I was giving her.

After several months had passed, her absence hit me. I could use this loss as an excuse to continue being upset at the world but instead I decided to use this as motivation to grow into the better woman that she would’ve wanted me to become. In the last few months, I find myself doing better. I’ve joined new clubs I was scared of before. Her drive to succeed is now instilled into my daily lifestyle. I’ve learned to take opportunities head on and not look back. Her compassion to live for others is something I try to follow everyday, starting off by volunteering at soup kitchens and pet shelters. Seeing her struggle in her last few years of life, has made me want to pursue a career in the medical field. I enjoy helping others rise from their lowest points of life and seeing them work their way up just like I tried to with my grandmother. I find myself implementing more of my Yey’s characteristics while I’m working. Most importantly, her instinctive independent nature is what I strived for and started becoming. She was a fighter, she always pulled through and lived life to her fullest potential. My Yey is what makes me want to wake up and be the best version of myself everyday and so, I do.

© Kaily Khin . All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person’s teacher.