When I saw Stan Heginbotham for the first time, we were standing in an elevator. It was January 2003 and I had just turned 22 years old.
My stomach was shaking and my hands were tight around the unhemmed sleeves of my very first suit jacket. There were others around me, young men and women in suits that suited them. Stan stood next to the button placket, an elderly man with white hair and shiny shoes.
I was in Los Angeles, on my way to the first of two interviews as a finalist for one of the largest graduate scholarships in the country to support students whose families are new to America. I soon had my college degree and wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure how to pay for a written graduate education.
Years earlier, I had seen a fellowship flyer and put it in a book because I thought I was, if anything, a new American. I came to the USA from Thai refugee camps at the age of six; my family was survivors of the secret US war in Laos.
In that lift, I tried to anticipate the interview questions while I was worried that the hem of my dress pants and sleeves would come off because they were too long and I had folded them up.
The elevator rang. People flocked in and out. The elevator rang again. It was my floor. On my way out of the elevator, I took a quick look at the faces of the other finalists. My eyes were on Stan’s face. He winked at me and smiled. I noticed his friendly eyes and how they sparkled. I couldn’t bring myself to smile when the doors closed.
I’m doing my best
Five minutes later, I sat across from a group of well-dressed professionals in the hotel conference room. I answered their questions about my background as a Hmong refugee, my journey through high school and college, and my dreams of becoming a writer. I hadn’t done anything really remarkable. I had only done my best at all times.
It took everything I could to sit there and answer their questions. My soft voice trembled despite my efforts to remain calm. I realized that while my hands were still, my feet swayed beneath me and were too short to touch the ground, even when I had heels.
Later in the afternoon, I was surprised to see the man sitting across from the elevator in the panel discussion for the second interview. His eyes sparkled as his hands made quick notes on his pad.
I remember the last question from the interview from a younger man in a black suit: “Why did you get certified in first aid and CPR?
I remember my honest answer: “I had to take care of my younger siblings when mom and dad were at work. I wanted to be as prepared as possible for an emergency.”
As I left the interview, I thought of the incredible young finalists for the scholarship. Many from Harvard and Stanford already studied medicine and law, and some studied both. People had started companies, some were running their own nonprofit organizations, and I was there just before graduating from college but couldn’t speak English in a whisper and only when absolutely necessary. I was a good student, but I was never linguistic, and others often understood my silence as an inability to think deeply or well.
Become a family
I didn’t know back then that I would get the grant; that Stan, a scholarship advisor, and the other panelists would make my dream of becoming a writer come true.
I didn’t know that this white man with sparkling eyes and his wife Connie would be important guides for me beyond the scholarship as I aspired to the life of a writer; that, more importantly, they would become family, honorary grandparents for me, in a world where none of mine stayed because of war and poverty, expulsion and illness.
Growing up in refugee enclaves, I had no close white friends, let alone someone who was more than 40 years older than me. Stan also had an educational and economic background that was alien to the life my family and I shared.
I was born in a refugee camp, the remnants of a war that most people in the world knew nothing about. I went to public school, grew up in low-income homes and in a household that practiced shamanism and believed in the power of our ancestors. Before we came to America, we knew little about higher education.
Stan was born to a white family and grew up in a Christian home. He had attended renowned universities for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and was as well-educated as a person could possibly be.
How could two people from such different backgrounds become friends? What could this friendship look like? I had no idea
The seeds of friendship had been sown in that elevator, but the friendship only blossomed after I received the scholarship. Stan and I started sending emails back and forth about graduate school opportunities. I chose a university in New York City, where Stan and Connie, who spend most of their year in Colorado, live in winter. They knew and loved the city and offered to share it with me.
As a 22-year-old graduate student in New York City, far away from my family in Minnesota for the first time, I wasn’t sure how to find my way around the maze of bodies and buildings. It was Stan and Connie who showed me the beauty of Manhattan and invited me to eat at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.
Along Broadway Avenue, on my way to Connie for dinner, I asked Stan, “So did you like Connie the first time you met her? “When I looked next to me, he was nowhere to be seen. He stood behind me, his mouth wide open, his hands open at his side, his eyes fixed on the sky. He called out to me: “I didn’t like them. I loved them.”
Years later, when I fell in love and wasn’t sure I could build a life with someone based on feelings alone, I visited Stan and Connie at their home in Colorado with him. At their candlelit table, with a small vase of wildflowers in the middle and the open window that let in the shadows of a distant mountain, they asked him good questions, listened carefully and later welcomed him into their lives with open arms and hearts.
Stan and Connie spoke at our wedding a year later in a park by a lake in Minnesota, where my future husband and I said vows to each other as we stood in a circle of family and friends.
When we had our children, they came to Minnesota — first for our daughter and then for our twin sons. Each time, they held the babies close, looked at their little faces and greeted them affectionately.
We visited her in Colorado and sat on her patio with blankets over her lap overlooking the distant peaks and enjoyed the hot orange of the setting sun while our little girl stood up in her living room, raised her hands in the air and took a walk for the first time.
The last time I saw Stan Heginbotham, he and Connie visited my family and I in a rental home in the Colorado town of Estes Park in June 2022. We were all there to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, a place that was introduced to me by Stan and Connie on my first visit to see.
It was summer 2006, and I was there to finish my first book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.
At the park ranger station, where Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in North America, ends, I knew that I wanted to show my parents and siblings how to climb the American mountains one day.
We had been relocated to the American Midwest. We knew his apartments. These mountains were something new and yet old. Although I hadn’t been there yet, it reminded me of Phou Bia Mountain in Laos, the land of my buried ancestors. It had taken me a decade and a half to dream, strategize, and save money, but we finally got there and invited Stan and Connie over for dinner.
I hadn’t seen Stan or Connie since their last visit to Minnesota in the summer of 2017 for my youngest children’s welcome ceremony. Even though they both moved more slowly, Stan’s eyes kept shimmering, and Connie, wearing her dark sunglasses, stayed as cool as ever.
Each time you meet them, memories of all the other visits come back, but this last time in Colorado, Stan swam through them, unraveling conversations, love and life, merging and immersion in the vast ocean of time.
Share stories about each other
Stan has been diagnosed with dementia since we last met. The man with the sparkling eyes floated freely between time and space and remembered who I had been and the time we had spent together. Across the room, he winked at me, just as he had done in that elevator a long time ago.
Like every time we’d met before, we marked the time that had passed in the stories about each other that we carried with us despite the distance. But this time I noticed not only the faltering movements, but also how slippery the memories had become for Stan. Connie’s hair was silvery and one of her hands was in a brace, but her eyes were as calm as ever.
The hours passed by. The sun set low in the Far Eastern sky and then disappeared below the peaks of the high mountains. We talked about meeting again, this time in Minnesota, this time because one of my books had been adapted as an opera. They would come to Minnesota to check it out. At the door, we all hugged each other, different arms around different bodies. Stan had brought his camera. He took pictures. We smiled in the space of our words.
In my head and heart, the shutters opened and closed, opened and closed, one picture at a time, a friendship over the years, an unlikely friendship between an older white couple and a young writer, a friendship between generations and cultures, a friendship that has served as a lighthouse over the years.