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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts


Sadylen Nguyen, center, is pictured with her son Phillip and daughter Etana in Disneyland. Phillip and Etana passed away in a tragic traffic car accident on April 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sadylen Nguyen)

Sadylen Nguyen, right, is pictured with her daughter Etana and son Phillip during Christmas. Phillip and Etana passed away in a tragic traffic car accident on April 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sadylen Nguyen)

From The Asian Reporter, V32, #6 (June 6, 2022), pages 6 & 14.

A mother’s grief

At 1:00pm on April 10, 2022, Sadylen Nguyen knew something was wrong. Her two children — Etana, 13, and Phillip, 19 — were with her ex-husband, Huy Nguyen, 46, and his mom, Vam Tran, 86. They were supposed to be home already, but she hadn’t heard anything from them. She texted each one of them several times — still nothing. An hour later, she headed to Vancouver to her ex-husband’s apartment. His car was gone. No one was home. She called the non-emergency number with an overwhelming feeling.

"I need to file a report," she said. "I know something happened." They gave her a case number but said it was not a crime for her children to be with her ex-husband. She called her mom, her boyfriend, and her friends. "They’re all dead," she said, not knowing where the thought came from. She went back to Portland and called Oregon’s non-emergency number. Then she waited.

At 4:00pm, she heard a knock on her door. She opened it to find two state troopers who were not smiling and said they had "news" for her. She fell to her knees sobbing. Her two beautiful children, her ex, and his mom were all killed in a head-on collision with a motorhome on Highway 18.

"I don’t know if he was taking them for a drive," Sadylen said. Highway 18 is "normally on the way to Spirit Mountain, but he didn’t tell me he was going far away."

When Sadylen watched the video taken of the collision, she gasped at the plume of smoke rising from the fire created by the accident. "It was unbelievable," she said. For two weeks, she couldn’t eat or sleep. But she was surrounded by her mom and boyfriend and many friends and co-workers who reached out to support her, including starting two GoFundMe donation pages.

As she struggled to get out of bed, she faced an empty house once alive with the sounds of Etana practicing her violin for BRAVO Youth Orchestras or Phillip doing his homework for his studies at Portland State University (PSU). She felt the immeasurable weight of grief with every step.

"People are praising me on how strong I am, but it was so intense, I wanted to stay in bed," Sadylen said. "I wouldn’t be able to do this without everyone’s support."

Sadylen is from a family line of medical care workers, including her mom, and became the first LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) in her family, landing a job as a medical surgical nurse at Emanuel Hospital. Her son Phillip, taking classes at PSU, said he wanted to follow in her footsteps. And Etana had mentioned only a few weeks earlier that her dream college was Linfield and she also wanted to be in the medical field.

While I was speaking with Sadylen, she emphasized the "resilience and determination" of both her children. A week before their deaths, Phillip had sprained his ankle playing basketball and opted not to take online classes, and instead went to campus on crutches. She spoke with pride about how he chose to limp to the bus stop. "It showed his character," she said.

Etana, who was involved with the BRAVO orchestras since kindergarten, had just been accepted as one of eight students in the prestigious YOLA National Festival this summer, which involved a 10-day paid trip to Los Angeles. "BRAVO was the center of her life," Sadylen said. "She channelled her stresses through music and scholarship."

Holidays are hard after losing a loved one. Mother’s Day last month couldn’t have been easy for Sadylen. "Every Mother’s Day, every Valentine’s Day," she said, "they gave me a card, always praising me for keeping them safe and keeping a roof over their heads." She’s amazed they realized that.

Currently on disability leave from work, Sadylen is taking it one day at a time. She’s found solace in visits by friends, family, and co-workers who continue to drop off meals. Even hugs from strangers she’s encountered who heard of her tragedy give her comfort.

"I was at a Cambodian restaurant with my friends from out of town," she said, "and a friend of a friend came up to me and started crying." Nguyen referred to it as motherly sympathy, an instinct. "I’ve never seen anything like this — tragic but beautiful how everybody comes together."

Sadylen feels her children’s presence at home, especially in the late afternoon when they would normally return from school. She says it’s the most painful part of the day.

"A mother’s grief is the worst grief," she said. "What more?" She’s drawn to photos of her son and daughter that show moments of joy they spent together, remembering the happy times forever captured through frozen images and memories she will hold onto for the rest of her life.

To read Sadylen Nguyen’s GoFundMe page, visit <https://www.gofundme.com/f/funeral-fund-2-children-2-family-members-lost?qid=71fe3f7aa3261f231d2c20e7d090a338>.

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