It is a grey dismal Cleveland Friday afternoon. We have returned a little early from the office. Time to rest for the weekend, I am thinking. We have a head start on the downtime. No more to do today.
Gia Hoa is scheduled to meet Laura Fruscella, a talented local artist. The two are headed for an art show while I will stay back and hack out more emails.
Laura calls. She will be late.
But then Gia Hoa gets an unexpected call from someone in the Vietnamese-American community. An elderly man in his seventies is dying in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Lakewood hospital. Before departing earth, he wants to get married to his childhood sweetheart. The two had been married some fifty years ago and then had five children. But in 1975 the war had torn them apart. She remained in Viet Nam while he came to America. They had divorced and gone their separate ways for some thirty years.
But now they were both single again. She had just come to America four months ago. They had renewed their onetime friendship. The lotus flower was still blooming.
But now he was dying and the two of them wanted to restart their marriage vows.
How to get married? Do not worry. Gia Hoa has a plan as always for any circumstances.
She must first get a judge to officiate. So she calls Judge Marilyn Cassidy who is Sister Number Five and a ½. (That mixed number is a story for another time.)
Can Sister Five and ½ help?
When Gia Hoa calls, Judge Cassidy is cleaning up and reshuffling her apartment.
Sure, I can come, promises the Judge. She will bring all the necessary documents with her.
The plan is for Judge Cassidy to drive to Gia Hoa's house.
Meanwhile we are still waiting. Where is Laura, Gia Hoa asks? Laura calls again and says she is still being delayed. Gia Hoa explains about the wedding and that the planned art gallery tour is off. What should I do? asks the bewildered Laura.
Get here as soon as you can, says Gia Hoa. You can be a witness for the ceremony.
What is my role in this wedding? I ask myself.
Bring your camera, directs Gia Hoa, thinking ahead faster than I can think. You can be the wedding photographer.
Laura arrives. We all go outside in the freezing cold and get into my faithful black car. We turn on the engine, turn up the heater, and wait the Judge. Sure enough, moments later she drives her Mercedes into the yard. We all join in my car and now we are off on our marital mission.
Laura controls the driver's seat since it is getting dark and my one eye does not perform well in the dark.
We drive to the hospital, struggle to find a place in the parking building and then cross over the street in the skywalk to the hospital. The hospital has changed a bit. It now has bright interior spaces, lots of subdued soothing colors, and comfortable sitting places. Several members of the Vietnamese family are there, including three of the wedding couple's children.
One of the adult children is a daughter. She introduces herself. I wonder about names again as always and quiz her. Her name is Houng, which means a nice sweet fragrance. Gia Hoa and she talk in Vietnamese. The elderly man had been in intensive care. He is now in the step-down section.
Is that a good sign, or not, my mind thinks. Does this mean he is getting better or they have given up hope for him?
The former and future wife comes out from the back hallways. She is small and petite, but still lively, with short darkish grey hair
Gia Hoa talks to the various family members. They have brought a bridal bouquet. Later the bride will show us a whole pack of pictures in their plastic wrapping of the family from long ago.
I take photos of everyone. No warning from Joseph, just shoot.
Then the Judge pronounces, Joseph, we should see about more flowers.
That's a good idea, Gia Hoa says, a hospital must have flowers.
I'll look for flowers but I doubt if I can find a wedding cake, I innocently volunteer.
I reluctantly rise up from my comfortable chair and hobble toward the elevators. After I get downstairs, an older woman at the central desk points me toward the hospital flower shop.
I enter. The lady's name is Kim. I need some flowers, I tell her. This is for a wedding. Can you help me pick out something appropriate?
Yes, she smiles and points to one huge glass vase with a large white bouquet. I like that one, says Kim. Fine, I announce, and then challenge her, Oh, where can I get a wedding cake?
There is a Giant Eagle with a bakery four blocks from here,
She knows too much.
I think, that will not work for Olympic runner Meissner. But then I spot small slices of cake on Kim's counter. That will have to do, I tell Kim, as I pick out a slice of yellow cake.
Then I return back to the growing group on the third floor. I take more photos including some group ones with the flowers in the center for the wedding album.
Now it is time to progress to the patient's room.
There are face masks sitting on a table to the hallway. We all must don these white paper masks when we enter. Nothing like killing off the groom with our germs, I am thinking.
So we tie the face masks behind our ears and cover our mouths.
Next we proceed through the doors like a wedding march and down and around the hall corridors. We pass the large nurses' desk.
We are here for a wedding, reports Gia Hoa to the busy nurses. You can join us if you like. Nothing like filling the church.
We enter the tiny hospital room. There is the groom, half sitting up, with a sheet over his legs and stomach and an oxygen tank giving him air. He actually is grinning.
Now the judge takes over. She positions the bride to stand next to the groom. Her hands hold a sheaf of documents and the all-important certificate.
Gia Hoa instructs everybody to stand around the bed. Laura and Gia Hoa will be the necessary witnesses. I as official photographer am clicking away. One of the relatives holds up his cell phone camera and also snaps away.
Gia Hoa will interpret.
The Judge begins and first explains the ceremony, piece by piece, so Gia Hoa can translate. The Judge then officially starts.
Do you, Tran Nguyen, take this woman to be your bride, to have and to cherish
The Judge stops after every phrase while Gia Hoa translates.
At the end, the man says, Yes.
Then it is the bride's turn. She also responds, Yes.
So by the power vested in me, continues the Judge, I now pronounce you husband and wife.
Did they kiss? I do not remember. I still can see, however, the big bouquet of pure white flowers.
Everyone now chatters away. Gia Hoa again directs everyone into place for the usual wedding photos. First it is the happy couple. Then the Judge with the couple. Then all the relatives around the two of them. Even I get invited to be in the wedding party photo.
We present the yellow pound cake sliver. Did we each take a bite? Again my memory fails.
But we do clap, laugh, and congratulate. Different ones give their wedding blessing and good cheer.
I am asked to give my blessings.
Mot cham nam hanh phuc, I say in my best Vietnamese. May you have a hundred years of happiness.
And then my usual second blessing which I give at every wedding. Anh va em, Co muoi hai con gia va con giai, sau cong gai va sau con giai. In English, this means May you have twelve children, six boys and six girls.
Actually, I think with five sons and daughters they have a great start on their twelve.
The groom is very happy and he even chuckles at my double wishes.
Soon it is time to go. But where? Gia Hoa has an idea. We will go to Siam Cafe for the wedding merrymaking. No argument. That decision is made.
All of us make our driving plans.
One of the sons, a talkative man with a huge smile, will act as the main host. There are twelve of us who arrive at Siam Cafe, which is the leading Asian restaurant in Cleveland, catering various Asian cuisines.
The owner is Henry Luu who always can greet any ethnic group and make them feel perfectly at home. You can tell how well appreciated is Siam Cafe's food because it has equally as many Asian guests as non-Asian for every meal.
We are seated at a large round table with the Lazy Susan in the center. All the dishes will be placed on the rotating platform and we can take our choices as the platform circles by.
I am in the Caucasian section sitting right next to Laura and Judge Cassidy
To our right is Gia Hoa and next the happy bride and then the various family members orbiting around to a small child and his mother next to the Judge.
Why are they here? He asks about us. The others explain that we are all gathered together to rejoice on this happy occasion.
The son has the restaurant start with various appetizers, including the usual shark fin soup. We will taste cut-up pieces of duck, vegetable specialties, chopped pieces of succulent lobster, special stuffed shrimp, various kinds of rice and noodles, and fried slices of steak sitting on beds of onions and vegetables.
What a feast, says Judge Cassidy.
I am already filled; remarks Laura, as we barely pass the half way mark in the feast.
Gia Hoa keeps up her usual wonderful flow of table conversation. Our mature bride then pulls out of her purse a tightly wrapped packet of old photos. Here she is long ago as a beautiful young girl. There are her family members of years ago, in Sunday best clothes, posing by garden statutes in Viet Nam. I devour all the pictures and explain to the Judge and Laura how much photos mean to Vietnamese families.
Henry Luu in his nice suit and tie comes by the table. Welcome everyone, he begins, This is a wedding feast? Right?
We all murmur, Yes.
Henry leaves and a few minute later returns as one of his waiters on Henry's orders brings by a special wedge of cake, filled with deep chocolates and white icing. He and we urge her to eat the wedding cake. Finally she relents and takes a forkful and I snap a photo. She then eats more.
Henry congratulates her and all the rest of us on this happy time. (Hopefully the groom is celebrating even now this happy occasion at the hospital.
Gia Hoa then begins the traditional round of greetings. Each of us in turn has the opportunity to say something.
The Judge declares: We wish this couple a happy future.
Let then enjoy a hundred years, I repeat the traditional greeting. Cups of tea are passed around while some of us get cokes.
At the conclusion Gia Hoa has some final congratulations. We join her. The old lady bows and bows and thanks everyone. Gia Hoa orders a last desert of che, Vietnamese tapioca pudding, warmed up and served in small cups.
One last task which they had promised the Judge and Laura earlier who said they had never drunk bubble tea. They have bought Laura and the Judge special glasses of bubble tea with its nuggets of gelatin in a thick delicious liquid. It is the final thank you.
Later we shall all drive back past Cleveland's Public Square and marvel at the day's adventures.
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