Family grieves the death of its patriarch

PLANADA -- Xing Xu Vang survived a land mine blast in Laos that killed two fellow Hmong soldiers and drove shrapnel into his thigh.

Decades later, he gathered the strength to bury his eldest daughter after her lifelong bout with lupus.

And he held himself together enough eight months ago to remove his wife's life support after cancer ravaged her uterus and crept into her lungs.

Now, Vang's eight children must channel the strength and perseverance of their 53-year-old father, who was killed New Year's Day when he drove his 1997 Acura in front of a big rig barreling down a fog-shrouded Highway 99.

The Vang children, ranging in age from 12 to 28, buried their father in an elaborate three-day funeral customary for Hmong that ended Jan. 21. Now they're taking the first steps of life without their parents.

"My mom and dad aren't here. Who do you turn to when you have a question?" 24-year-old daughter Hli Vang asked as tears coursed down her round cheeks. "Who do I turn to?"

Though they're determined to keep going, questions stack up quicker than they can figure out answers. Mourning competes with logistics.

How will they pay for the $30,000 funeral? So far, relatives have offered loans.

What will happen to the family's home in Planada? The banks may foreclose.

Who will raise 12-year-old Macy Vang and 17-year-old Shong Vang? It will probably to fall to Hli, the oldest daughter, who has adopted the maternal role long before she expected.

"I have to be strong for them and myself because my mom asked me to," she said. "I'd like to honor that."

The final journey

Xing Xu Vang awoke on the first day of 2008 eager to celebrate the Hmong new year with thousands of refugees like himself.

Vang was considered an orphan by Hmong standards because his father was arrested by Pathet Lao soldiers in 1965 and never seen again.

He fought for Gen. Vang Pao, hired by the CIA to attack the communists in Laos during the late 1970s.

After the United States pulled its support from the Secret Army there, Vang realized the communists would probably seek revenge on him. Along with two friends, he trekked through the jungles for three months, finally settling at the Ban Vinai refugee camp.

On the living room wall of his house hangs an aerial shot of the camp, next to the Long Cheng military base, the CIA's headquarters in Laos. On another wall, there's a recent group photo of Vang, the general and other Hmong soldiers.

As did many Hmong, Vang arrived as Laotian refugees in the United States with his wife in October 1979.

Though he spoke little to his family about his military career, Vang kept his medals in a briefcase and dreamed of returning to Laos -- all the while caring for his kids.

On New Year's Day, Vang was eager to see his girlfriend, a woman he planned to marry, though some of his children were upset he had begun dating so soon after their mother died.

In the dark, early hours, Vang buttoned up a spotless white shirt and a suit he bought for the festivities in Fresno. He was known to hand-wash his white shirts to keep them bright, and reveled in the color's purity, his daughter recalled.

Vang rustled his 21-year-old son Wayou Vang from slumber at about 7 a.m. to see if he wanted to drive with him down to the celebration. The son declined, and minutes later, Vang was gone.

As he crossed Highway 99's northbound lands of Plainsburg Road, a big rig driving at 45 mph hit the driver's side, killing Vang.

Hli Vang, who lives in Palo Alto, heard from her brothers that their father had been killed. She could barely believe that she'd be weeping above the casket of another family member so soon.

"It just feels like my big family is dwindling," she said. "I can't give up because I have to fight for what's left of my family."

The Americanized children admit they only know bits of their culture and relied on uncles to help in the burial preparation, including the animal sacrifice that would provide Vang food in the afterlife.

According to Hmong beliefs, a drumbeat on the funeral's last day guided Vang's soul backward through his life, beginning at the car crash and ending at the hut in Toua Phosath, where he was born in 1954.

After finding his placenta, typically buried in the middle of the hut, Vang would enter the other world.

A father's gift

Ever since his wife, Mai Xiong, died, he had become introspective and would break his informal meditations to dole out advice to his children, Hli Vang said.

"Be good and do the best with your lives," she recalled him preaching.

Two months before he died, Vang sat for hours in the garage of his Planada home whittling a plank of wood into a serving spoon that he proudly coated with varnish and offered to his children. He signed it, "Made by Xing Xu Vang October 2007."

"When I'm gone, you look at this," he told them, "and you can remember me."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.